The Dragon and the Nibblesome Knight

Macmillan Children’s Books. First Published 2016

Elli Woollard and Benji Davies

ISBN: 978-1-4472-5481-2

I would be lying if I said I didn’t think there were overtones of Julia Donaldson’s “Zog” in Woollard’s “The Dragon and the Nibblesome Knight”, but I would be doing the author a huge disservice if that deterred one person from buying this charming book, which is strong enough to stand on its own four paws.

True, there’s a child which rescues an injured dragon and acts as a doctor to patch it up.

True, there’s a dragon which is learning its craft.

And true, the pair become friends and realise that fighting isn’t the solution… but that is as far as the similarities go.

Woollard’s dragon offering is based on a premise of mistaken identity, and is rhymed beautifully with lots of repetition as Dram, the baby dragon, goes hunting for “dribblesome, nibblesome, knobble-kneed knights.”

There’s a splattering of onomatopoeia, with CRASH-es and SPLASH-es and FLAPs and CLAPs which add to the dynamism of the 604-word text.

But the real strength of the book lies in the warmth of the text, superbly married with Benji Davies’s illustrations (The Storm Whale, Grandad’s Island).

In short, the story centres around a baby dragon, Dram, who has been sent off solo to hunt for a “nibblesome” knight to eat.

But he becomes injured on his journey into the big wide world and lands bedraggled in a lake.

Cue knight-in-training James, who takes off his armour and wades in to rescue the poor, injured ‘duck.’

James makes a sling for his paw, fetches honey for his sore throat and the pair enjoy fruit from an orchard together.

The following day, after Dram has had a good night’s sleep and feels strong enough to hunt a knight, he sets off to say goodbye and thank you to James.

So he strode down the road and he stomped through the field…

…and there was young James with a sword and a shield.

 “You’re a knight?” shouted Dram. “You’re not simply a lad?”

“You’re a dragon?” yelled James. “You’re all beastly and bad?”

 “Yes,” muttered Dram. “I suppose I should bite.”

“Oh!” mumbled James. “Then I guess I should fight…

…it must be all over. The finish. The end!”

Then they both said at once, “But I can’t, YOU’RE MY FRIEND!”

 Children get their traditional ‘happily ever after’ but the final page turn will have parents and children giggling when Dram’s dragon family sometimes forget their table manners.

“Nibble at knights? Why, of course we do not!” Though every so often, they sort of…

(page turn)

…forgot.

Verdict: A book which deserves to fly off the shelves.

The Silver Serpent Cup

Fast and Furry Racers – The Silver Serpent Cup

Oxford University Press. First Published 2015

Jonathan Emmett and Ed Eaves

ISBN: 978-0-19-273862-2

“Today the town of Furryville’s a very noisy place, crammed with crowds of creatures getting ready for a race. The air is filled with honking horns and engines revving up, as racers take their places for the Silver Serpent Cup.”

And so begins a high-octane, adrenaline-fuelled romp of a rhyming book as animals of all shapes and sizes take their places in an assortment of vehicles eager to race 1,000 miles to the town of Featherport to claim the winner’s prize.

The plot is simple but engaging and reminiscent of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series ‘Wacky Races.’

Ed Eaves’s illustrations are superb. They are bright, bold and leap out the page for 3-5 year-olds, eagerly studying each animal and the vehicles they are driving – many of which are reflective of the characters’ personalities.

The rhyme is pacy and whizzes along with the thrilling illustrations as creatures take to the roads, sky and underwater in their bid to clinch the cup.

Author Emmett’s character names raise a smile with racers including Ollie Octolinni (octopus), Ella Egghart (eagle) and Roderick Von Rooster (rooster) driving his Hot Rod rocket car.

No picture book would be complete without a problem of sorts and when Ella Egghart’s aeroplane looks like it will win, disaster strikes in the shape of cheating crocodile Al McNasty.

He launches his missiles from his underwater armoured aqua-car, bringing down Ella and her close rivals who parachute to safety but not glory.

“This ruthless, rotten reptile has a smug look on his face. With all the other vehicles gone, he’s bound to take first place.”

Of course, picture books can’t let cheaters prosper so when awful Al McNasty has his sights on victory, dark horse Max O’Moley trumps him by erupting out of the ground in his tunnelling machine to take first place.

“Max comes up through the finish line to thunderous applause, and swiftly snatches victory from Al’s astonished jaws. Of all the ways to win the race, Al’s had to be the worst, so everyone’s delighted that Max has come in first!”

At 515 words, “Fast and Furry Racers” is a riot of colour and rhyming exuberance, guaranteed to thrill. Definitely one to ‘pick up’.

Burglar Bill

Puffin Books. First published by William Heinemann 1977

Janet and Allan Ahlberg

ISBN-13: 978-0-14050-301-2

If you are a little po-faced and believe all storybook robbers need to be taught a lesson, don’t bother with this superb children’s classic. It won’t suit you.

If, on the other hand, you are blessed with a sense of humour and relish whimsy, you should be thinking ‘I’ll have that,’ before you ‘alf-inch’ it (cockney rhyming slang for ‘pinch’) and stuff it in your swag bag.

I stumbled across this book during my teacher training degree course in 1990 and fell in love with it.

As the years passed and I had my own children, they loved it too but more so than I could ever have imagined when I first read it as an adult.

On some nights my children would be rolling in their beds, helplessly laughing at Bill’s antics and his cockney turn of phrase.

The comedic moments when Bill tries to teach a baby to repeat his name ‘Burglar Bill’ (Boglaboll says the baby) and yell ‘Run For It’ (Runfrit), always elicited huge giggles and cries of “Read it again, Mummy.” My eldest son would be writhing in his bed with tears of laughter streaming down his face.

In short, “Burglar Bill” is a gleefully subversive book about a loveable burgling rogue, Bill, who eventually mends his ways. He isn’t punished for his misdeeds but grows to learn it’s wrong to steal.

He’s introduced to the reader as a character who sleeps all day and thieves all night.

“Burglar Bill lives by himself in a tall house full of stolen property. Every night he has stolen fish and chips and a cup of stolen tea for supper. Then he swings a big stolen sack over his shoulder and goes off to work, stealing things. Every morning Burglar Bill comes home from work and has stolen toast and marmalade and a cup of stolen coffee for breakfast. Then he goes upstairs and sleeps all day in a comfortable stolen bed.”

One evening, Burglar Bill steals a nice-looking brown box with his familiar cry ‘I’ll have that!’ only to discover he’s stolen a baby.

But, in a reversal of fortunes when he catches another robber trying to steal from his house at midnight, he finally discovers who the baby belongs to…Burglar Betty.

Widow Betty is reunited with her stolen baby and both Bill and Betty realise their error of their criminal ways.

“You know, Betty,” he says, “getting burgled like that give me a fright.”

“I know what you mean,” says Burglar Betty. “Losing my baby like that gave ME a fright.”

“I can see the error of my ways,” says Burglar Bill. “I’ve been a bad man.”

“Me too,” says Burglar Betty. “I’ve been a bad woman – I’ve been a TERRIBLE woman!”

Both characters fall in love, reform and return all their stolen goods before marrying and leading honest lives. Bill becomes a baker and soon teaches the baby to say ‘Bakery Bill.’

At 1, 570 words “Burglar Bill” deserves its place as a children’s classic for 4-7-year-olds and is, in my opinion, the perfect length for Key Stage One pupils.

Unlike some of the shorter 500 word picture books which publishers seem fashionably intent on producing today, “Burglar Bill” is produced over 15 page double spreads, not the usual 12, and provides a feel-good bedtime read for parents who can happily read one story, rather than three or four short ones.

The characterisation is deftly written and Bill’s lack of grammatical prowess and kindly nature looking after ‘a orphan’- including changing its nappy and making a new one from a towel – add to the charm and whimsy of this light-hearted story.

The late Janet Ahlberg’s illustrations have a timeless charm in subtle pastel hues and the humorous pictures support the tongue-in-cheek tale of robbers who ‘come good’ in the end.

Trust me when I say ‘This book’s a steal!

A Plea for Longer Picture Books

Making Stories Count: A Plea for Longer Picture Books

Sunday 1 May, 2016

I do not know if it is the UK in isolation or a global phenomenon, but there appears a reluctance by the publishing industry to produce picture books which go beyond 500 words.

Whilst publishers say picture books should not exceed 1,000 words many, in reality, plump for half this amount. The proof is seen on the shelves of stores like Waterstones and Foyles.

As a Mum of two boys, it is my opinion that some publishers are missing a trick.

From the ages of four upwards, children are able to concentrate for longer periods and their vocabularies have expanded enormously.

While they may be learning to read at this age, most parents still read them bedtime stories.

So, although two stories usually suffice at the age of three, it is not uncommon for parents to be reading three or, in my family’s case, four picture books a night when children turn four.

And this is the age where longer picture books come into their own.

Books like Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s “Burglar Bill” (Puffin, 1, 570 words), Jonathan Emmett and Steve Cox’s “Pigs Might Fly!” (Puffin, 1,114 words), Giles Andreae and Korky Paul’s “Sir Scallywag and the Battle of Stinky Bottom” (Puffin, 980 words), Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton’s “The Princess and the Giant” (Nosy Crow, 1, 299 words), Richard Curtis and Rebecca Cobb’s “It’s Snow Day” (Puffin, 1,087 words) and Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton’s “That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown” (Orchard, 924 words) enable families to read one picture book per night and sometimes a short 500 word book to round things off.

Harder to Find

Illustrated books pushing and exceeding 1,000 words, like those cited above, do exist but they are much harder to find in UK shops.

And if these books are not easily accessible, parents feel forced to move to the chapter book sections of stores, where books are text heavy with predominantly black and white illustrations.

I appreciate schools try to ease the transition with early readers in colour, but UK bookstores only appear to cater for full colour early readers in a limited capacity.

The few they sell are buried in the chapter book section of shops, not in the picture book section which is where I believe they belong.

In addition, they rarely hold the appeal of picture books in the truest sense because the language used in early readers has to be simplified to take account of the child reading the book on their own.

Is it any wonder that the enthusiasm for reading starts to wane when youngsters hit five and six?

While there are valid reasons why picture books are shorter – you do not need to describe what a character is wearing or their setting when images perform the task – to my mind some 500 words books are easily forgotten.

Story Integrity Compromised

The pictures may be bright, bold and colourful but the depth and integrity of a really good story can be lost when authors are forced to slash their words to accommodate fashion.

This isn’t an excuse for repetition or puffery but a plea to the publishing industry to recognise that four and five-year-olds are capable of sustained concentration.

Besides, when picture books are very short, the beautiful artwork of illustrators can be missed when adults turn the pages quickly due to the brevity of the story.

With a longer, more captivating story, youngsters have the opportunity to spend more time studying the illustrations.

Parents and children deserve longer picture books and 1,000 word illustrated books in 12 double page spreads cost no more to produce than picture books with only a few hundred words.

Longer Length Classics

When my children were reception class pupils (4-5 years), I read them the classic Ladybird picture book stories of “Jack and the Beanstalk” (1,778 words), “Rapunzel” (1,431 words), “Rumpelstiltskin” (1,261 words) and “The Elves and the Shoemaker” (1,260 words).

Never once did they bemoan the length of these stories. Quite the reverse, in fact.

They were engrossed in the narratives and the mind-bogglingly superb period illustrations.

So come on publishers…please re-think the narrow constraints of a 500 word picture book limitation.

One thousand words shouldn’t be out for the count, but up for the fight.

DING DING.