Alte Zachen/Old Things by Ziggy Hanaor & Benjamin Phillips

It is often said that books can be windows or mirrors, a means to see ourselves or have the opportunity to view the lives of others. Alte Zachen/Old Things is a fantastic example of this depending on who you are. For me, it was a window into an experience and a faith.

Bubbe Rosa is like many women in my family – fierce and more than happy to speak her mind. Benji, like many good grandchildren, has to aid her in keeping her well worn routine intact. So his Friday is spent trawling around Brooklyn and Manhattan with his Bubbe while she seeks out the ingredients for the Friday Night dinner.

Flashbacks of life in Germany come flooding back as Bubbe goes about her day with purpose. She left her homeland for one reason alone – she is Jewish and at that time Germany was a deeply unpleasant place to be for her and her loved ones.

This is a story of change. The dramatic type that comes through conflict that is sudden and awful. And the other dramatic type that creeps along day by day while the years roll by and then suddenly you look around and the world has changed on you without you even noticing. Both cause fear and unease, both are very different indeed and so well presented in the story.

The creators share the Jewish culture in range of ways, with Yiddish spoken and traditional aspects of life explained while not distracting from the story’s flow. The contrast of black, white and grey images for the present and the colourful past make for an interesting choice and reminds me very much of Harry Miller’s Run. Along with some extraordinary pages that show the history that drives the story – a sea of Jewish concentration tattoos, photos of the countries they lived in before settling in Brooklyn and arrival in New York alongside many others hoping to start of a new life – shows this to be the art of story telling.

Now for the teacher bit. Books like Alte Zachen are excellent at threading history and lived experiences together for children to understand. In Primary, we often learn about WWII from a wholly UK viewpoint and with little regard to what came after. Much like The House by the Lake, it extends beyond the conflict and shows that life does indeed go on and experiences are to be held as just as important.

A window into a life less explored is a window worth looking through.

Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett & Matthew Myers

When books push the boundaries of their limits, you have to sit back and just applaud. Battle Bunny is a schizophrenic book of fabulous proportions, and although Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett and Matthew Myers all do great work, it is Alex who deserves ALL the praise.

This is one of those rare occasions when the story takes second place to a bold and entertaining idea. Alex receives the gift of the perfectly lovely Birthday Bunny and proceeds to scribble throughout to create a completely different story – Battle Bunny. Be it boredom, ungratefulness, or genius, Alex creates a bonkers, aggressive tale of a violent bunny and his war on the other woodland creatures.

The defacing of the original book starts off small and descends into chaos. The type of chaos that children adore.

I’ve always been a fan of traditional looking picture books and what Matthew Myers does so well is create a book I could fully imagine finding on the shelf of a charity shop, often overlooked by most as it was published in the 1960s. You could say it was almost wholesome.

Now for the teacher bit. It is the perfect tool to teach the trickiest of writing objectives – editing. Children tend to try their best and then we, as the teachers, ask them to edit their own work. What Battle Bunny does is provide a brilliant tool to teach this elusive skill. The fact that there is a PDF of the ‘non-edited’ book, Birthday Bunny, adds to why this is a must for children to explore. They can be exposed to Battle Bunny and Birthday Bunny and then create their own version with whatever twist they wish.

Clever, witty and inventive – what children’s books should aim to be.

Kodi by Jared Cullum

Stories that touch us most are those of friendship, and overcoming adversity. Think Toy Story and you will know what I mean, and it is safe to say that Kodi tugs on the heartstrings just as hard as the tales of Woody, Buzz and the gang.

Kodi is the standard tale – girl has no friends, girl encounters massive bear, girl befriends bear, girl moves away, bear becomes huge TV star in the hope of finding his lost friend. You know how this turns out!

Seriously, what an amazing graphic novel Jared Cullum has produced. The watercolours are sublime and each character is perfectly formed; from the motorcycling Grandma to Landlord who isn’t as mean as he seems. However, Katya steals this show! Insecure about her sticky-out ears and not quite understanding how awesome she is, Katya is a brilliant hero to carry the tale.

Now for the teacher bit. As a tool for writing, there are some fantastic wordless sequences throughout and as Jared Callum has a great ability to tell a story within those panels, it would provide the base for some amazing narrative pieces. Add to that the wholesome messages throughout, and it is fair to say Kodi is a Primary School winner.

A thing of sheer beauty – graphic novels are art too!

Birdsong by Katya Balen & Richard Johnson

Some books are enjoyed, some are learned from, and the best find a little crack in your mind and live there longer than you think. Birdsong is such a book. Days after reading it, I kept coming back to the themes and prose. Katya Balen is a master craftsperson when it comes to scribing stories.

Annie has songs in her heart that shine out for all to hear, until one day…the day she found herself in a tangled mess of metal and broken glass. The day her hand was hurt and her dream of playing her flute died. Anger is all that fills her heart now, an anger that seems to have no end.

Katya Balen tells the story of how a life turned upside down can sour, how hope can be lost and internal walls built within ourselves. The manner in which she does this is outstanding, with not a single word wasted. And as we meet Noah alongside Annie, learning about his caring nature and how he protects the blackbirds near where they live, we get to marvel at the writing that shows Annie making her way towards the light, towards happier times. A sheer masterclass.

Another joy is the illustrations and I’d like to see more from Richard Johnson as his subtle style flows nicely alongside Katya Balen’s words.

Now for the teacher bit. In the race to teach aspects of SPAG in Primary schools, we can forget to teach the craft of writing. For me, this isn’t a checklist of sentence types or punctuation, but an ability to make a text flow in a way that the reader is fully engaged. With concise writing like in Birdsong, in which a rare word is wasted, it is important to highlight how an author draws you in and paints the picture. If I was going to point out one tool that Katya Balen uses to great effect, it is her use of the repeated phrase or structure.

Cars hooting.

Children screaming.

Tyres turning.

Drills whirring.

Brakes squealing.

Above is an example of what I mean. Such a powerful manner in which to describe the accident that has caused Annie such pain. Share this, highlight it and aid children to become true authors.

Simply a wonderful story – please read it.

No Such Thing by Ella Bailey

I’m a huge fan of spooky picture books and a massive FlyingEye fan, so when I got my hands on No Such Thing it was clear that I could not miss out on this trick and was in for a right treat…

It is October and Ella finds herself a frustrated little girl. Everything in her home keeps being moved about and it seems everyone is in on the act – the dog, her cat, her brother. No way could it be ghosts as there is No Such Thing.

The illustrations are the star of the show as Ella Bailey is a fabulous artist. Her style is great with each scene perfectly dovetailing with the next. For some reason I picture the Moomins at times, possibly because of the pale faces and interactions between Ella and anyone close enough to cop the blame. As a reader, I loved searching each page to spot the ghost lurking about and causing mayhem.

Now for the teacher bit. Promoting reading is a must for schools, so I’m going to take the opportunity to explain about ‘bedtime story’ events. This is when the school invite pupils and carers back into school to listen to stories. There are a host of ways to make each one feel different – coming back in pyjamas and having hot chocolate or a teddy bears’ picnic are some of the examples I’ve seen done well in the past. Another way is to have a spooky-story-fest at Halloween for the children to enjoy great books, from Funnybones for younger children to The Watchtower for the oldest. This is how I would use No Such Thing as it is a perfect story to share with a group of children to inspire them to just enjoy a cracking picturebook.

A bad book from Flying Eye? No Such Thing.

The Clockwork Queen by Peter Bunzl & Lia Visirin

Chess is the game of kings and queens, and they don’t come much better than the Clockwork Queen herself. Pitted in a game that is life or death, Peter Bunzl draws the reader into the world of this Russian marvel.

Sophie Peshka learned from the best – her father. His prowess at the black and white board was legendary across Russia, until one day the ultimate compliment came. By royal degree, Empress Catherine the Great requested that Sophie’s Papa teach her son, Paul, how to play this grand game. Filled with pride, her father accepts and leaves Sophie and her mother behind.

Peter Bunzl does a fantastic job at striping away Sophie’s comforts after her Papa displeases Empress Catherine which results in him being imprisoned. Desperate do desperate things, so Sophie tries to eek out an existence playing people for food and a few coins. This leads her to be challenged by the mysterious Clockwork Queen – a robot grandmaster that draws huge crowds. The Clockwork Queen could be the key to saving her father, or dooming everyone with defeat!

Now for the teacher bit. Lets be honest, most curriculums don’t have a lot of history units about the Russian Empire, nor is chess as popular as it once was. Yet, the understanding gathered of the wider history beyond the limits we, as school, set out is always a bonus. However, the main reason to share this book with your children is to allow it to be a gateway to other books by Peter Bunzl. This is what Barrington Stoke do best – get great authors to write shorter, possibly more accessible stories for children to be hooked as readers.

Pacey, engaging and littered with history, one to try.

A Bare Bear by Caz Hildebrand & Ashlee O’Neill

As we all know, the English language is incredibly tricky and is certainly not helped by homophones and homonyms. Caz Hildebrand and Ashlee O’Neill have a great deal of fun with this confusing aspect of the UK primary curriculum.

Although the phrases shared in this book are one per double page, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t an entertaining read. With an art style that has minimal detail and prose that matches it, this book is all about getting it right in the simplest of ways. For me, this is perfect because as adults we forget that young readers will find the puns mind-blowing.

Now for the teacher bit. This is a great book for exploring such a complex component of reading as it has fun with it while introducing children to why context is important. It also, due to the very nature of the homophones, builds on the phonics teaching that occurs in a classroom as well as enabling the children to encounter challenging vocabulary – ‘The sad whale is having a wail.’ is a great example of this.

Now go off and read it to them, tell your friends you read it…

I Can’t Sleep by Gracia Iglesias & Ximo Abadia

I always wonder which cultural quirks cross borders and thanks to this Spanish duo, I now know that counting sheep to aid slumber isn’t just a British thing. The irony of writing this review in the early hours of a school holiday due to not being able to commit to the lie in isn’t lost on me…

Spoiler alert: this is a book about counting sheep to get to sleep! I know folk love to live life on the edge and not know what is ahead for them, but I can’t mislead you otherwise my reviews become even more worthless. Yet the inventive nature of each page and the personality of the different sheep shine through. Even the font gets in on the action!

What I really love about this is the artwork. The bold colours and simple shapes perfectly compliment the surrealness of the dream-like nonsense that an over tired mind can appreciate.

Now for the teacher bit. As any teacher of younger children will tell you, the kids are great at spotting their learning in books. Been doing a certain sound – ‘Miss, Miss, I can see the ‘ee’ sound in my book’. The same applies to numbers which is why sharing and having books like this on display for constant access is important. It may sound simple, but surrounding the children with numbers and maths in books will help them to become better at maths.

You can count on the kids loving this book!

Me and my Fear by Francesca Sanna

I’m very much a fan of Francesca Sanna and Me and my Fear extends the admiration I have for her work. This tale is of a girl who learns to live with her fear, not fear it.

Learning to live with your own fears, to know they can grow or shrink, is a vital lesson in life and this story explores it so well. Each page is fascinating on its own, then when combined with the words works on an whole other level. The way the Fear changes size depending on how the girl feels is brilliant.

I adore the simplistic style of artwork that is clever with its use of shape and colour choices. It very much reminds me of animation of years gone by. For the eagle-eyed amongst you, you will notice that this is the same girl from The Journey.

Now for the teacher bit. Picture books are perfect for exploring PHSE with a class, and this one is no exception. When dealing with emotions, it is always good to explain that even negative ones such as fear can be ’good’. The fact that it sheds light on how it feels to be new to a country makes it even more worthy of sharing. The Fear is at its largest when the girl is in school and this should prompt all teachers to reflect on the experiences of EAL children in front of us.

Have no fear – this book is amazing!

The Baker by the Sea by Paula White

As a son, I can say that I didn’t appreciate my father’s trade as a young child. I understood little of what he did, and only knew that it meant he couldn’t do things with me. Paula White captures this relationship between child and parent – the unknown about a person despite being aware of their job in name alone.

The way the community is built up for the reader through the images and text is a joy. A coastal village presented with all its layers through the eyes of a young boy. He can see clearly the toil of the fishing industry that is the backbone of his community, but struggles to value his father, the baker.

Paula White uses muted tones to paint a picture of natural beauty, simpler times and the weariness of a hard working community. She does this in such a way that the book has a calming effect on the reader. At times it feels like zooming in on a Lowry.

Now for the teacher bit. It feels wrong suggesting this book of real beauty be used to develop an awareness of careers, but this is an area a lot of schools are trying to build capacity in. The list of the different occupations that combine to create a single industry is so well illustrated here. Oh, and for a book about a baker, there is a great recipe at the back to try out.

A gorgeous tale about how everyone can be valued for their hard work.