Every month our panel of reviewers reads a selection of children’s books and tells us what they think. Our Review Panel includes teachers, librarians, education consultants, headteachers, teaching assistants and education lecturers. Themes of nature, the environment, caring for others and managing emotions abound in this month’s selection of recently published picture books and poetry that have caught the panel’s attention over the summer
by Wendy Shuretty & Paddy Donnelly
Reviewer: Lisa Davies
The Treeple lived up high in the trees. They liked to build houses of sticks, climb with lemurs and make papaya pies.
But most of all, the Treeple loved to make things.
The Seaple lived deep down in the ocean. They liked to build houses out of shells, swim with the fishes and bake seaweed pie.
But most of all, the Seaple loved to watch nature.
The Treeples aren’t bad but they are thoughtless. They continue to make things without thinking about whether or not they need them and when they run out of space on the land, they decide a good place to put it would be in the ocean. This is when the problems start for the Seaple.
This is a lovely book to use as an introduction to caring for the environment and why we need to make sure that we don’t drop plastic and litter. The Seaple go on to reuse and recycle items that the Treeple had discarded. This would be a great conversation starter and would encourage children to think about everyday items that could be reused and how we can recycle products and what could be made from them.
The illustrations by Paddy Donnelly are beautiful and really add to the mood of the story. The worlds of the Treeple and Seaple come alive and the characters are very engaging. A section at the back of the book gives ideas on how everyone can help to be an ocean hero and keep the seas and beaches clean. A donation of 3% of the cover price goes to the Marine Conservation Society.
Publisher: Storyhouse Publishing
Publication date: September 2021
By Monika Singh Gangotra & Michaela Dias-Hayes
Reviewer: Gabby McConalogue
Sunflower Sisters is a charming and positive picture book, which explores the friendship of two girls of different races, with different types of families.
The story centres on Amrita, a girl from a South Asian family and her neighbour, Kiki, from a Nigerian family. The girls are both about to celebrate weddings in their families. The story demonstrates the similarities, differences and traditions between these two celebrations and communities.
Sunflower Sister particularly focuses on the theme of colourism – not just between the girls but within their own families. It highlights that those with dark skin are often pressured to make their skin look lighter linked to class perceptions. The girls, and therefore the reader, is guided through these ideas. There is a clear explanation of colourism at the end of the book as well as advice on how to change it.
The tone of the book is positive and uplifting as it shows how these two young girls are nurtured and empowered by their mothers to become strong independent young women who embrace and celebrate the colour of their skin, encouraging others to do so as well. It sets out to remind children they are amazing just the way they are and that our differences make our world all the more exciting to be in!
The stunning illustrations in this book embrace the vibrant colours highlighted in the story. The girls in my family spent some time discussing which page (and outfit) was their favourite! This is a vibrant and uplifting story with a positive message – I would recommend a copy for every school!
Publisher: Owlet Press
Publication date: July 2021
by Francesca Sanna
Reviewer: Kirsty A
Move, Mr Mountain by Francesca Sanna is a beautiful picture book with a simple narrative about friendship at its heart. Francesca Sanna carefully weaves an engaging friendship between a little girl and a mountain with a subtle tale of consideration for others and a final layer of understanding and appreciating the ever-changing world and nature around us.
Francesca Sanna is well known in schools for her debut picturebook The Journey. True to style, the illustrations in Move, Mr Mountain appear simple at first, but as you look deeper you will see details and hidden images that help to build up the storyline. As well, recurring objects and creatures appear throughout the book to further enhance the themes in the story.
Initially, the story begins with a young girl called Lily and her insistence in wanting to see what is on the other side of the mountain much to Mr Mountain’s annoyance – a useful introduction for younger readers on how to develop a friendship. As the story develops, older readers can begin to make connections between feelings within friendships, the effect on others and how sharing can develop and secure a friendship.
Another fantastic book from Francesca Sanna, recommended for children aged 6-10 years and teachers of KS1 and Lower KS2.
Publication date: June 2021
By: Moira Butterfield & Vivian Mineker
What a lovely, thoughtful book The Secret Life of Bees is. Beautifully illustrated all the way through, Buzzwing the Honey Bee takes us gently through the life cycle of bees, their bodies, different varieties and environments and how hives work, all interspersed with bee myths, stories and superstitions from around the world.
The Secret Life of Bees will appeal to all ages across primary level as a book that can be read to little ones or available in a classroom library for older children to pore over. For the youngest children, there’s something to spot on every page – a mouse, a bird, a butterfly – firmly anchoring bees into the world around us as an important part of our ecology. There are plenty of facts and figures for the non-fiction inclined, and wonderful stories from far-flung times and places such as Greece, India, Thailand and Australia which could easily be incorporated into story-time for younger children, or writing and poetry challenges for older children. There is an environmental message, of course, but it’s done with a very light, positive touch and I think most children would be interested in planting for bees wherever they live, particularly since there’s a good section on city bees, planting in pots and so on.
I think this is a book children will want to linger with; it would suit both library and classroom and be a useful part of any topic box dealing with life cycles or the environment. With the current trend for outdoor education, too, it would be a real asset in a collection used by nurture groups, gardening groups or in an outdoor classroom because it has such broad appeal across all abilities and will suit children of varying maturity. It really is the sweetest of books.
Publisher: Words & Pictures
Publication date: April 2021
By Christina Balit
Reviewer: Louisa Farrow
In Ancient Athens, a young slave is known only as ‘The Corinthian Girl’ in a reference to where she had been found, left by her father who couldn’t afford to keep her. She grows up learning to serve her new Athenian family by fetching, carrying, cleaning and scrubbing. Girls were unimportant; slave girls even less so. Very occasionally, she is able to play with the youngest son and her athletic talents are noticed by the master of the house, himself a famous athlete. He forms an ambitious plan for her – will it succeed?
This inspiring short story is based on the Heraean Games, a real event held every four years in honour of Hera and only open to female athletes. It is accompanied by gorgeously subtle but graphic watercolour illustrations that suit the subject matter perfectly both in style and colour palette. Readers who have enjoyed Escape from Pompeii – which has been used in classrooms for years alongside the Romans topics – will immediately recognise Christina Balit’s distinctive style.
I was pleased to see this lesser-known Greek games brought to light to counterbalance the male perspective which dominates the study of Ancient Greece. Although as a story it is plausible rather than likely, it’s stirring, and the factual pages at the back address potential misconceptions by explaining the context and introducing the small number of key sources. Much has to be imagined because of the limited evidence for the lives of women in Ancient Athens. The book would also provide a good starting point from which to discuss differing attitudes to women in different parts of ancient Greece and today’s world and the importance of names as part of our identity.
I would recommend this picturebook to share alongside study of Ancient Greece and the Olympics. It offers a fresh look at the subject matter in a way that is appropriate and appealing in today’s context.
Publisher: Otter-Barry Books
Publication date: Jun 2021
By Kate Wakeling & Elina Braslina
Reviewer: Lisa Davies
This is a book packed to the brim with funny and imaginative poems. Quieter poems sit alongside riotously funny ones and readers are encouraged to look more closely at clouds, water, dust and trees, and to reflect on the knottier areas of life.
I laughed out loud at a number of these poems and I imagine that my class would love some of the more ridiculous poems such as The Goblins with its reference to them ‘scratching their goblin buttocks’ and The Absolutely Worst Food in the World where the reader can insert their own worst food (sprouts for me). But there are also a number of very thought-provoking poems with my favourites being To the Last Dinosaur Standing – a salute to the last dinosaur who must have seen the meteor hit, Tree which is about the wonder of nature and the bittersweet Grandma and the Sea which talks about those that we loved that aren’t here anymore and how we remember them.
The illustrations were lovely and added to the beauty of this collection.
If teachers are looking for a book of poems to just read and enjoy with a class, this would be on the top of my list but this book can easily be used to teach children about how to create their own poems and it gives some prompts at the end which could be used as KS2 poetry lesson starters.
I highly recommend this book!
Publisher: The Emma Press
Publication date: July 2021
By Sophy Henn
Reviewer: Suzanne Booth
This beautifully stylish picture book by Sophy Henn tells the story of a little boy Arthur who is having the WORST DAY EVER! I’m sure these words resonate with many parents, who can hear the phrase screamed in their minds as they read them! The ketchup being put on the wrong place on the plate, the trousers being the wrong colour – yep, parents across the land can tell you a story where the smallest of things have created the almightiest of tantrums. And although we may not know exactly what Arthur is so cross about, for him it is simply the worst day ever, so he decides to run away – almost to the end of the garden! But then as his anger begins to subside, exhausted he thinks that he should probably go back home. But his journey back brings an array of unexpected surprises, as he meets new friends that represent his stomping, huffing and roaring, showing him how his frustrations can be turned into happier expressions of emotion. Arthur soon comes to realise that perhaps this is not the worst day ever after all.
This story has a wonderfully sensitive yet fun approach to showing how we can cope with intense emotions, intertwined with a charming sense of humour that I loved. Added to this, Sopy Henn’s clever choice of colour palette perfectly portrays the ambience of the plot, becoming brighter as the mood lifts. The quirky illustrations that have become customary in Henn’s books add intriguing and ingenious small details that bring a smile to your face. When I noticed the clock as Arthur sits down for tea, I grinned from ear to ear with the realisation this dreadful day had been all of 20 minutes!
The story shows children how we can learn to overcome our emotions by putting things into perspective and recognising that we can all have terrible days. What is important is understanding how to deal with it. Equally, although others may perceive our dramas as ‘a fuss over nothing’, the story shows us that those around us also have a role to play in supporting us to learn to cope when days feel like the worst day ever. Offering understanding and support, allowing us to feel safe and loved.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: May 2021
By Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow, Laura Mucha & Victoria Jane Wheeler
Reviewer: Carol Carter
‘Being Me: Poems about Thoughts, Worries and Feelings’ is a fantastic new collection capturing and reflecting upon the range of emotions and experiences young people (and all of us) have to deal with: sadness, anger, anxiety, loneliness, racism, divorce, grief.
There are almost too many to mention but, for me, stand out poems included Thought Machine (a great introduction to how we can change the messages our brain sends us from negative to positive), The Land of Blue (on how sadness is something we all sometimes live with), I’m an Orchestra (showing we all encompass many ways of being) and Consequences (about being a spectator to bullying). I also found Michael hugely affecting in it’s exploration of the reasons why some children may get ‘special treatment’ (food from the dinner lady, time with the teacher) and whether this actually makes them ‘lucky’ or not.
This collection is a fantastic resource for KS2 children to explore independently, but there are also many individual poems that teachers could share and discuss with KS1 children. All of the poems are short, often only a few lines or verses, and would be an excellent way to introduce difficult topics for class discussions. To aid with this, there is a list of ‘group discussion’ questions at the end of the book, as well as links to agencies etc for further support. A useful addition would have been an index of themes, to assist in selecting a poem linked to the classroom needs.
The range of poem styles and formats, as well as the many shape poems and atmospheric illustrations by Victoria Jane Wheeler, means the collection is also a fantastic stimulus for writing.
‘Being Me: Poems about Thoughts, Worries and Feelings’ is a stand-out collection that explores many difficult ideas with empathy, understanding and openness – just as we want to develop those same qualities in the children we support.
Publisher: Otter-Barry Books
Publication date: May 2021
By Claire Vowell & Jo Joof
Reviewer: Caroline Waldron
Nurdle is a bright, colourful picture book all about the life of a nurdle. But what is a nurdle I hear you ask? Nurdles are tiny, lentil-sized microplastics that are unfortunately becoming an all too common find on beaches around the world. The book starts by explaining what a nurdle is (from a nurdle’s point of view), how they come to be formed and how they end up in the sea (a place they were never meant to be). It goes on to talk about their effect on sealife and the environment, ending with how everyone can help the fight against single-use plastics.
Nurdle is told fully in rhyme and is beautifully illustrated in both watercolour and collage, with the illustrator using plastics that have been found on beach cleans, illustrating the wide variety of plastics which get left on our beaches (from old toys to lids off bottles). In Beach School sessions at the school I work at we have done sieving for nurdles on the beach and the children are always shocked by how many they find.
This book provides a starting point for explaining to younger children how nurdles come to be on the beach and how we can all play a part in reducing their numbers. Ideal for Key Stage 1 (or lower) but also potentially useful for Key Stage 2 as a way of introducing the subject of the environmental impact of plastics. This book would be useful for anyone studying the environment, plastic usage or a rivers and seas topic. There are also school resources and teacher notes available on the author’s website.
Publisher: Peahen Publishing
Publication date: August 2020
By James Carter & Neil Layton
Reviewer: Jane Carter
James Carter has created a perfect mix of poetry for any primary school class. It is the sort of poetry that could entice the most reluctant of readers into engaging with and enjoying poetry. He does this in a number of ways including: the range of poetry topics (from the weird to the wonderful as the title suggests); the range of writing styles and formats, including some wonderful shape and also the range of emotions the poems evoke.
The sentiments of some of the poetry rings so true – the poem, The Really Really Really Truly True Truth about …Teddy Bears reveals that ‘Everybody has a teddy’ from the footballer to the kings and queens and how we all need the ‘snuggle’ with the ‘fuzzy bundle’ whatever our age or status. This poem is so reassuring in our current Covid-19 times, letting us all know that everyone needs that familiar ‘sniff’ of their teddy sometimes.
The list poem made into the shape of a football, What can you do with a football? Is a fabulous introduction to this poetry form, with its rhythm and rhyme created from such a simple list of ideas. This sort of poetry makes poetry accessible and opens up writing possibilities for children.
The opportunity for performance jumps from the page when reading the poem about Vikings. The simple use of two-word ‘lines’ builds the poem’s rhythm that brings its own menace and atmosphere to this shape poem. The use of colour, space and punctuation (and the @ symbol) invite the reader to use a multi-sensory approach to appreciating this poem.
There is a seriousness to the poems about our planet and the natural world and a real pathos to the poem Gorilla Gazing. In the same way the poems It’s kindness’ and Angelness touch the reader, providing warmth and food for thought. This is a really super poetry collection and one I would recommend to all children (and teachers) who say they are reluctant readers of poetry as well as to those already hooked on the form.
Publisher: Otter-Barry Books
Publication date: January 2021
Thank you to the publishers of these titles for sending us copies of these books and to our Review Panelists for reading and reviewing.
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