Abracazebra

Alison Green Books. First published 2015.

An imprint of Scholastic Children’s Books

Helen Docherty and Thomas Docherty

ISBN: 978-1-407145-38-9

Jealousy, mistrust and xenophobia don’t rush to the forefront of one’s mind when thinking about picture book purchases.

Yet “Abracazebra” touches these themes with a deftness of touch that is almost imperceptible to its young audience, but not totally.

When I asked my six-year-old what he thought the book was about, he replied: “It’s about being kind to one another.”

And yes, that is exactly the subtle message this wonderful book imparts.

With a feel reminiscent of Joanne Harris’s “Chocolat” where townsfolk are wary of exotic strangers, “Abracazebra” proceeds in a similar vein.

The story centres around the sleepy old village of “Yawnalot” where life proceeds in the same way, day after day.

The anthropomorphic farm animal children have nothing to do except watch Goat patching up his fishing boat.

But, one evening, in rides a stranger on a bike – Abracazebra – pulling a travelling stage show, ready to perform some magic for the inhabitants.

The animals gasped in sheer delight.

Their village had never shone so bright.

Abracazebra bowed down low.

“Please sit back and enjoy the show!”

 And everyone cheered, except for Goat,

Who stomped away to mend his boat.

“They think she’s clever, with all her tricks,

But I’ve got important things to fix!”

Beautifully told in rhyme and illustrated gently with a pastel hue, the story tells of Goat’s jealousy and how he sets the previously-accepting inhabitants up to start questioning the sense of inviting a stranger to stay.

So he started to whisper in people’s ears,

Conjuring up their darkest fears:

Abracazebra? I smell a rat.

You can’t trust an animal with stripes like that!

 You don’t see stripes on a pig or cow…

…So why should we welcome stripes here now?

And, one by one, they all agreed

That she was an extra mouth to feed.

When signs start popping up around the town reading “No Stripes Allowed,” Abracazebra packs up her show and heads out of town.

But when the townsfolk begin to miss her and Goat overhears the smallest Kid in town crying over her loss, he begins to question whether he has done the right thing.

As you’d expect in a picture book, all ends happily ever after when Goat realises the error of his ways and enlists the help of the animals to get her back.

The final pages read:

Now Yawnalot is a happier place

Where they welcome any kind of face.

There’s a goat, I’m told, who serves up tea

Under the shade of the sycamore tree.

 And Abracazebra?

Well, if you go…

(final page turn)

You might just catch her magic show!

The last double page spread is a riot of colour and happiness, with Abracazebra performing her magic to excited onlookers.

At 727 words, “Abracazebra” comes from the same Alison Green Books stable which produced the husband and wife team’s earlier superb offering: “Snatchabook.”

“Abracazebra” is a little bit of magic!

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The Duck With No Luck

First published by Oxford University Press in 2009.

Originally published as “The Duck that had no Luck” by The Bodley Head Children’s Books 1996.

Jonathan Long and Korky Paul

ISBN: 978-0-19-272899-9

“The Duck with no Luck” is one of a series of humorous books by Jonathan Long involving over-the-top animal antics, which will have three to six-year-olds and their parents grinning from ear to ear.

Long’s other two equally exuberant rhyming books, written in similar madcap style, are: “The Dog Who Could Dig” and “A Cat Called Scratch.” Both are firm favourites in our house.

At 680 words, “The Duck with No Luck” has enchanted my children with its simple tale of a hapless duck who misses the journey south with his fellow ducks, only to attempt a solo journey.

But Dizzy, the reader soon discovers, has a bird-brained sense of direction and ends up in all sorts of weird and wonderful scrapes.

He gets lost in the city, a jungle and a desert where he falls down a drainpipe, is sent spinning into a crocodile-infested swamp and hurtling into space to escape a ravenous vulture.

Finally, Dizzy ends up at the North Pole where he parties with a gang of polar bears who welcome him with open arms.

So they sledged on the slopes and skidded on skis,

Built snow-bears and snow-ducks, and swam in the seas…

 …Played snowballs with seagulls who made lots of squawks,

Then roasted fresh fish on the ends of long forks.

When Dizzy finally leaves, he has had so much fun with the polar bears and seagulls he decides he will always fly NORTH at the first sign of winter.

The story is magnificently rhymed and is illustrated with the energy, enthusiasm and hilarious anarchy that only Korky Paul can deliver in spades.

It’s a farcical romp around the world, with riotous pictures and pacy text.

A lucky find indeed.

Whatever Next!

Macmillan Children’s Books. First published 1980.

Jill Murphy

ISBN: 978-0-230-01547-0

Picture books come and go in the world of publishing but “Whatever Next!” deserves its place as a children’s classic.

It’s written and illustrated with such warmth that it stands repeated readings, unlike a plethora of less well-crafted picture books today.

There’s nothing worse for a parent than to inwardly groan about a picture book on its umpteenth reading.

But “Whatever Next” has such heart and tenderness, it’s hard to imagine any parent not enjoying this magical book which is perfectly pitched for three-year-olds.

It’s an ideal bedtime read since it ends with a tired Baby Bear ready for bed.

The illustrations are simple, bright and beautiful and complement the story about a young bear’s imaginative flight of fancy into space before bathtime.

When Baby Bear asks if he can go to the moon (peering out of the downstairs curtains with Mrs Bear), he is told he can’t.

“It’s bathtime. Anyway, you’d have to find a rocket first,” replies Mrs Bear.

“Baby Bear found a rocket in the cupboard under the stairs.” (cardboard box)

“He found a space helmet on the draining board in the kitchen, (colander) and a pair of space boots on the mat by the front door.” (wellies)

“He packed his teddy and some food for the journey and took off up the chimney…

WHOOSH! out into the night.”

What Murphy has captured so well in this book is the ability of the text and pictures to say different things.

While parents read the text, children are busy scanning the pictures, which read differently.

What is uncommon these days is to find full colour illustrations sitting gloriously on right hand pages while text and black and white pictures sit on left hand pages.

Yet this device serves to strengthen the weight of the full colour images.

The book is a short read at 316 words but a sheer delight.

My own children particularly loved the picture where Baby Bear, who is on his skyward journey to the moon, waves to passengers in a plane.

The text reads: “Some of the passengers waved back.”

My boys pored over the plane picture working out which passengers were returning a wave or just reading a newspaper.

The book ends when Baby Bear feels some drizzle through his helmet (probably Mum standing over him with wet hands, though this is never shown or intimated) and returns home, down the chimney where Mrs Bear is waiting to give him a bath.

“Look at the state of you!” gasps Mrs Bear to a filthy, soot covered Baby Bear. “Why, you look as if you’ve been up the chimney.”

“As a matter of fact,” replies Baby Bear, “I have been up the chimney.

I found a rocket and went to the moon.”

Mrs Bear laughs. “You and your stories. Whatever next?”

An enchanting classic which deserves to remain in print.

Six Dinner Sid

Hodder Children’s Books. First published 1990.

Inga Moore

ISBN: 978-0-340-89411-8

An indictment about urban living and non-communication in society doesn’t sound like a theme which would have three to five-year-olds demanding repeat readings of “Six Dinner Sid.”

Yet this priceless book, by author/illustrator Inga Moore, does exactly that because the message is so subtle, the story so charming and the illustrations so extraordinarily detailed and expressive.

I must have read this book hundreds of times since buying it for my first son, approximately 17 years after it was first published.

Although some of the clothes look a tad dated today (1980s fashion), the book still delights because the illustrations of Sid the cat, around whom the story centres, are magnificent.

Moore captures the mannerisms and posture of Sid so well, the reader instinctively knows this artist either has, or has had, a cat of her own.

It tells of a streetwise and calculating black cat, Sid, who leads a contended life, munching his way through six dinners a day, from six different neighbours in Aristotle Street. Each neighbour thinks Sid is their cat.

Because none of the neighbours speak to each other, they don’t know that Sid is Bob in one house, Satan in another, Scaramouche, Sally, Sooty and Schwartz in others.

But, in true picture book fashion, Sid is going to come a cropper when he develops a cough and is taken to the vets six times by his six different ‘owners.’

“Now, one black cat does look much like another, but nobody, not even a busy vet, could see the same cat six times without becoming suspicious. Sure enough, when he checked in his appointments book, the vet found six cats with a cough – all living in Aristotle Street! So he rang the owners at once…”

Sid is rumbled when the neighbours discover he’s been using them to his feline advantage and they conspire to give him just one meal a day.

But, since Sid is a six-dinner-a-day cat, he leaves Aristotle Street and takes up residence in neighbouring Pythagoras Place.

And it is here that the message of the story about the need to communicate with each other is revealed.

“Unlike Aristotle Street, the people who lived in Pythagoras Place talked to their neighbours. So, right from the start, everyone knew about Sid’s six dinners.

(Final page turn)

“And because everyone knew, nobody minded.”

Long may this book continue to be published!

It’s Snow Day

Puffin Books. First published 2014.

Richard Curtis and Rebecca Cobb

ISBN: 978-0-723-28892-3

“It’s Snow Day” is an enchanting tale about the thawing relationship between a frosty old teacher and his nemesis pupil on a snowy day at school.

Just one pupil, Danny Higgins, and one teacher, Mr Higgins, turn up for school on the snowiest day of the year.

Early on readers are informed the pair are “ENEMIES.”

“Mr Trapper was the strictest teacher in the school. And Danny was the WORST student in the country. Well, maybe not the actual worst. But very near the bottom of the bottom of the list.”

Despite their initial misgivings about having to spend the day in one another’s company, slowly the pair begin to have fun, starting when Mr Trapper gives Danny a sage tip about snowman building.

The illustrations enhance the timeless charm of the prose with an innocence and joie de vivre that will keep readers coming back for more.

During games, Danny and Trapper are seen ice-skating on books “with the help of Roald Dahl, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.”

Later, they are seen launching themselves off the classroom roof using “Mrs Chattington’s incredibly useful one metre rulers” which they use as skis.

At 1,087 words, “It’s Snow Day” is a heart-warming tale, ideally suited to five and six-year-olds due to its length, which is slightly longer than most picture books.

Curtis (Four Weddings, Notting Hill, Love Actually) can really write, unlike some celebrities who capitalise on their fame to sell mediocre, lack-lustre books (David Walliams excepted!)

The story tackles the theme of loneliness, as it transpires “Danny’s Dad was a really busy man – and hardly ever played with him or asked him any questions at all. Mr Trapper’s Dad had been exactly the same, and Mr Trapper never had any kids of his own.

“So when the end of the day came and they set off home, they both knew it had actually been one of the best days of their lives. Though, of course, they didn’t tell each other that.”

My six-year-old, husband and I all enjoyed this gentle book, which ends with a fantastic double page igloo spread of Higgins and Trapper having fun the following year at school on Snow Day 2, when no one attends, apart from them.

It’s a sure-fire winner in our household and has ‘classic-of-the-future’ written all over it.

On Writing (Fri 29 Jan, 2016)

More Amendments Needed

The day before yesterday, my agent sent through her suggested amendments for the funny rhyming story I had naturally assumed was perfect. (There’s no harm in having strong self-esteem when you’re attempting to write children’s books).

I made myself tea and toast before opening her attachment with multi-coloured marks all over it.

As a work of art it was very pretty – blacks, greens, reds, lines crossed through my text – yep, a veritable palette of revisionary colour.

Perhaps, if I didn’t feel so passionately about this story, I would have sighed and lost heart.

Instead, I set about reading her comments, which largely re-iterated the conversation she’d had with me about it, in the storm-hit Bournemouth beachfront café two days earlier.

So, yesterday was a fingers to the keyboard day as I attempted to absorb her comments and translate them into my style of rhyme writing.

I didn’t make all the amendments she had requested. I know mentioning tea is peculiarly British but I decided to leave the reference in.

Tea or Coffee?

My agent had said the mention of tea in my story might not be swallowed so well in The States where everyone drinks coffee.

Since I’d already used the word cookies instead of the British word ‘biscuits,’ I thought I’d already compromised some of my ‘British-ness.’

In true, ‘I’ll half listen to you’ fashion, I changed one of my lines from:

‘Perhaps you’d like a calming cup of fragrant Earl Grey Tea?’ to:

‘Perhaps you’d like a soothing cup of English Breakfast Tea?’

My thinking was: maybe the coffee-drinking Americans who haven’t heard of Earl Grey Tea will have heard of English Breakfast Tea which is, perhaps, more widely recognised?

Whether this will be accepted or not, only time will tell. It may come winging back to my in-box with even more cheerful red colour.

If this is the case, I will probably have to change the reference and the next few verses too because there are only a certain number of words which rhyme with ‘me’ in the preceding line.

And there’s the rub with writing in rhyme. It’s great when it works. When it doesn’t, it can be much harder to fix than prose.

To Blog or Not to Blog?

If you are reading this on my blog, I will have plucked up the courage, today, to try and download the material I have written so far.

I am currently looking at WordPress.com with the fear and anxiety that four and five-year-olds must experience when starting school.

To the tech-savvy out there, I urge patience and understanding.

I was brought up in an age before the internet, computers, I-pads, I-phones, kindles, tablets and even video recorders.

When I was a child, TVs had a mere three channels, which didn’t broadcast 24/7. Remote controls didn’t exist so if you wanted to change a channel, you had to stand up, walk to the TV and press a button.

I even remember my parents taking delivery of our first colour TV. Black and white was quite standard ‘in the old days.’

With the march of technology, life has transformed almost beyond recognition.

I would like to think I’m not a dinosaur and am trying to embrace change, but change is often scary.

Despite this, I use the internet daily for research. I have an I-phone, bank on-line, shop on-line, use Twitter and Facebook.

If you are reading this blog, I will have taken another monumental leap forward to embrace the technological and digital age.

It might not be a big deal for the fresh-faced youngsters out there who juggle technology like I juggle school runs, but I will be delighted that I am marching into the 21st century boldly (timidly, if truth be told).

Looking positively, I’m on the move.

On Writing (Wed 27 Jan, 2016)

I Finally Meet My Agent

 The bad news upon waking was that it was blowing a gale and rain was falling from the sky by the bucket load.

The good news was that, having decided to randomly empty my handbag, for no other reason than to pretend I am an organised person, I discovered £50 in an envelope at the bottom.

The cash had come from my Mother who had reimbursed me for my youngest son’s Christmas present.

Being the ‘organised’ type that I am, I had completely forgotten about her payment the month before.

But, hey, what a stroke of luck to have £50 land in my lap when I least expected it. An auspicious sign, perhaps?

Wrong Venue

I met my agent later than planned because, being the ‘organised’ individual I am, I went to the WRONG beachside café.

Luckily she was late!

However, in walking the 400 steps from the café/restaurant I’d initially thought I should meet in, to the one I was ACTUALLY supposed to attend, I became soaked.

I’d had the foresight to take an umbrella but, for all its goodwill and dedication to duty, it couldn’t compete with the gale that was blowing up from the beach.

It blew inside out at least five times and I arrived at the beachfront venue drenched, with my shoes and tights covered in wet sand.

Call me fussy but, after the flattering haircut I’d paid for the day before, drowned rat was not the look I’d been aiming for!

With my dress hitched up under the hand dryer in the ladies’ loo, desperately trying to dry myself out, who should walk in, but…

…MY AGENT!

Of all the first impressions I have given in my life, this is probably the most bizarre.

It was certainly an ice-breaker as I fell about laughing. Since my agent was similarly drowned, she could see the funny side.

She laughed wildly, we hugged and I trotted off to order two pots of tea while she attempted to dry herself under the hand dryer too.

Loo Meeting

So, I finally met my agent in a ladies loo, looking wet and dishevelled.

It wasn’t the first encounter I had imagined or hoped for, but it WAS an episode I shan’t forget.

The lunch itself went smoothly as we got to know a little more about one another. The good news was that the story she had asked me to amend to a counting story had gone down well with her.

She informed me she would be meeting publishers in London the following week and would pitch it to them.

I politely forgot to mention she’d said she would virtually guarantee to sell it, if I made the changes she had suggested.

A wise move, I considered, as it’s a mere four weeks’ notice on either side should she wish to discontinue our working relationship!

More Amendments

The bad news was that another rhyming story I had thought was virtually perfect, still required work.

Her explanations were cogent, well meaning and supportive. Her fresh eyes helped me see areas where I could improve the story flow over page turns and increase the humour still further.

I didn’t get a sinking feeling, but rather a desire to re-work and address the issues, spurred on by her obvious enthusiasm for this story.

“I’m really excited by this story,” she had told me during lunch.

How fabulous she could see the same potential and comic humour that I could.

Humour is SO subjective that if someone ‘gets’ your work and loves it, that’s a massive lift for any would-be children’s author.

Our meeting lasted nearly four hours, with lots of humour and anecdotes, and, by the time we came to leave, the gale had subsided a little.

I strolled back to my car with a better-behaved umbrella in hand and spring in my step.

Even the Bournemouth traffic warden who had slapped a £50 penalty notice on my windscreen for over-running my parking stay by 40 minutes, didn’t irritate me.

After all, I had fortuitously discovered an unexpected £50 note earlier that morning.

Despite the abysmal weather, I left the seaside feeling the meeting was auspicious.