Children’s books: a round-up of the best
Struggling with maths? Need to relax? Or just want adventure? These books cater for all
The Sasquatches in Ellen Potter’s Big Foot and Little Foot (Amulet, £9.99, 6+) hold an annual ritual to scare away the winter and welcome the spring. At the Frog Moon Festival, they wear grotesque masks and commit acts of bravery, in the hopes the frost will be too frightened to ice the trees any more. It is a ritual we might well learn from, as winter drags its heels for departure. However, there is another lesson at the core of this charming adventure story: not to believe too readily in the myths that people spin about the unknown.
Turning the tables on the traditional coming-of-age tale, Potter gives us a Big Foot as hero. Hugo Rattleshins is a Squidge (a school-age Sasquatch) who is desperate for adventure. Despite everything he has been told about Snoot Nosed Gints and Ogopogos and, worst of all, humans, he ventures into the Big Wide World, where no Sasquatches have ever gone for fear of the dangerous beings who live there.
When Hugo meets Boone, a boy who has been taught to fear Big Foot, both younglings are forced to confront their fears and an unlikely friendship is formed.
This is a terrific chapter book for reading aloud during the tricky transition to independent reading, while more confident readers will fly through the chapters wondering what will happen to Hugo next.
Helpful wild numbers
Squidges learning to write, meanwhile, will find the tracing discs in Bella Gomez’s Wild Numbers (Words and Pictures, £9.99, 1+) extremely helpful. The pre-writing exercises, however, are not the chief attraction of this sturdy board book. Short, alliterative poems bring the numbered animals’ habitats richly to life, and you have to look carefully to find the animals camouflaged against Gomez’s stylish repeating patterns.
Even chubby fingers far too young for learning numeracy skills will have great fun thumbing the pages and manipulating the discs. This is a bright and visually stimulating introduction for toddlers starting to explore numbers in verbal and material form.
Be mindful of the alphabet
The alphabet is given new meaning in Christiane Engel’s ABC Mindful Me (Walter Foster Junior, £10.99, all ages). The 26 letter structure offers 26 discrete scenarios and characters, making the book visually stimulating too. From Awareness to Zen, it encourages appreciation of the present moment and the natural world, as well as giving ideas and aids for relaxation and positivity. The Mindfully Me series (Lilliput Press, €8, all ages) suggests more concrete tools for exploring similar territory. Louise Shanagher’s rhyming text sets specific emotional challenges in an accessible context, which is complemented by Rose Finerty’s lively figures. Book-ended by themed activities, this is a practical, as well as an enjoyable, series that would work equally well at home or in a classroom situation.
Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Pajimminy-Crimminy Unusual Adventure (Walker, £8.99, 10+) is the second book in a series from AL Kennedy, who is best known for her literary short stories for an adult audience. In her children’s debut, published last year, Badger Bill was rescued from a pair of nasty sisters by the eccentric Uncle Shawn. In the follow-up, Uncle Shawn has fallen foul of Dr P’Klawz – an evil killjoy who is determined to squish all the unusualness out of the world – so Badger Bill must return the favour. Kennedy employs her trademark literary style to vividly bring her characters to life, while the improbably sunny Scottish setting, punning word play and unusual adjectives add an extra edge to this comic caper, whose plot acts as a rich metaphor for the corruption of joyful innocence by serious grown-up-ness.
Helping the Queen with her maths
In How Billy Brown Saved the Queen (Little Island, £6.99, 8+), the most grown-up of grown-ups needs a child’s help. Queen Alicia may be in charge of a kingdom but she just doesn’t understand the fundamental mathematical principles that keep her kingdom under control. That’s where nine-year-old Billy Brown steps in. Billy isn’t good at anything except maths, so when the Queen makes a royal address about her problem, Billy’s mum sees it as great opportunity to boost his confidence.
Alison Healy, an Irish Times journalist, plays with Billy’s numerical obsession throughout the book, providing repeated moments of comedy as random collections of objects and incidents are quantified. The characterisation of the Queen and her royal entourage, meanwhile, is also very funny: “Even the Queen’s little fluffy dogs barked in a posh way. A ‘yup, yup’ instead of a ‘yap, yap’.” At just over 100 pages long, this is a story that confident readers struggling with their self-esteem elsewhere will find particularly satisfying.
From the opening lines of Max Champion and the Great Race Car Robbery by Alexander McCall Smith (Bloomsbury, £9.99, 8+) we know that Max is “by nature and by deed a hero”. He may live in a humble house, he may have to mow lawns so that the family have enough money, but he has courage when it counts and he will do anything to protect his family. When Max learns that his grandfather, Gus, a former race car engineer, was swindled out of his best ideas by the nefarious Mr Grabber, he is determined to get justice. Max pits his wits against Mr Grabber and his son, Pablo, who is “every bit as nasty as his father”. The drama that follows, however, is secondary to the relationships that the scenario allows McCall Smith to explore, in particular Max’s relationship with his grandfather. As Max sits with his grandfather in the front of one of his old cars, flicking through an old photo album , McCall Smith conjures an intergenerational intimacy that any family would aspire to.