You Must Bring a Hat

Simon and Schuster. First Published 2016

Simon Philip and Kate Hindley

ISBN: 978-1-4711-1732-9 (PB)

As the owner of hundreds of picture books, it’s rare for a newly-released illustrated text to grab my attention enough to warrant blogging about it.

But I doff my titfer to “You Must Bring a Hat” and wholeheartedly recommend this as THE best picture book release of 2016 to date.

It was an immediate hit with my son (myself and my husband) as a huge smile-inducing, gloriously-surreal tale of a boy’s attempts to attend a birthday party.

There is one stipulation on the invitation – “You MUST bring a hat.”

And so begins an ever-spiralling list of demands when the boy, who the invite says can bring as many guests as he likes, arrives at the party with a hat-wearing monkey in tow, only to be refused entry by the doorman.

“Sorry Sir, but we’re under strict instructions NOT to let in any hat-wearing monkeys…UNLESS they are also wearing a monocle.”

The absurdity continues when the boy sources a monocle from a Penny Farthing-riding badger who lends it to the monkey on the condition that he, too, can attend the party.

But is the boy permitted entry?

Of course not!

The demands grow to include piano playing, elephants, tutus and penguins carrying cheese.

The stipulation that the suitcase-holding, cheese-carrying penguin must have SLICED cheese, is a demand too many for the boy who finally breaks.

“Look, these are the silliest rules I’ve ever heard. Nigel clearly stated on his invitation that I could bring anyone I wanted so long as a I brought a hat, and I brought a monkey in a hat so technically I brought a hat and…”

(Page turn)

“Nigel?” said the doorman. “Who’s Nigel?

This is Felicity’s party.”

It is at his point the reader suddenly recognises all the clues illustrator Hindley (Oliver and Patch, Worst in Show) has so deftly left along the way, which point to the party next door.

The reader is so caught up hoping the boy will fulfil the off-the-wall demands that Hindley’s balloons next door, bunting, birthday cake-bearing mole and hat-wearing, present-bearing guests slip by unnoticed.

It’s a stroke of genius!

Here is one picture book where the strength of the story and the fantastically-detailed, humorous illustrations by talented Hindley mesh to create a marriage made in heaven.

Picture books don’t get much better than this.

Verdict: Hats off to this book. It’s a gift.

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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!

On a Tall, Tall Cliff

Harper Collins Children’s Books. First published 2004

Andrew Murray and Alan Snow

ISBN-13: 978-0-00-780971-4

In 2009, I picked this book up in a downmarket bookshop selling titles at greatly reduced prices, but it has proved to be a winner I would happily have paid full price for.

Both my sons have adored the story, not to mention the wonderfully detailed and wiry illustrations by Alan Snow, perhaps better known for his book ‘Here Be Monsters’ which was made into the feature length animation ‘The Boxtrolls’.

It comes in at 591 words and is an endearing tale of friendship between two neighbours, Busby and Puffle, who live on the edge of a tall cliff.

It’s a simple narrative of one neighbour, Busby, asking to borrow more and more of the contents of his next door neighbour, Puffle’s house.

Puffle agrees, happily, at the start but becomes concerned Busby is making a fool of him when he requests not only the contents of the property, but the property itself.

“Busby is making a fool of me,” grumbled Puffle, as he trudged home. But he did everything that his friend had asked. He collected…his roof, his walls and the mice behind them, his rafters and the nails in them, his bricks and the mortar between them, his floorboards and the secrets beneath them. Then, huffing and puffing, sweating and straining, groaning and grumbling, he carried his WHOLE HOUSE to Busby.”

 When the cliff where Puffle’s house once stood suddenly crashes “down…down…down…down…to the deep, dark rocks far below,” it becomes evident Busby has been trying to save his friend’s home without worrying him.

“Puffle,” smiled Busby, “I have been studying our cliff. All these papers and charts told me that the ground where your house stood would crumble and fall. My dear friend, you’ve really, really helped me to help you!”

The text is delightfully repetitious throughout as the names of the objects Puffle has been asked to fetch are repeated as he is shown manoeuvring them next door.

The story is brought to a satisfying conclusion when the ending comes full circle and harks back to the beginning and the same use of language at the start.

The illustrations are quirky and detailed and children will love spending time studying the pictures which include mice helping with every aspect of removals, from transporting chandeliers and the kitchen sink, to seagulls lowering a lavatory into place.

The book is written with warmth and illustrated with humour. Its gentle simplicity and tale of friendship is timeless and will have children and parents dipping into it with regularity.

All in all, a smashing read for 3-5 year-olds.

Cats Ahoy!

Macmillan Children’s Books. First published 2011

Peter Bently and Jim Field

ISBN: 978-0-330-51880-2

At first glance “Cats Ahoy!” appears rather unprepossessing on bookshop shelves compared to hundreds of other competing picture books, many of them much brighter, bolder and eye catching.

Its size doesn’t help, being narrower and smaller than the likes of those by rhyme writers Donaldson, Corderoy, Hart and Emmett, so it’s easy for this book to get lost amongst larger, brighter offerings.

The fact the plot is predominantly set at night means the book, while wonderfully atmospheric, has a dark front cover which doesn’t instantly leap out at children yelling: “Look at me!”

The internal text can, again, make the book more inaccessible than it needs to be with dark writing on dark pages, which doesn’t make reading as easy as it could be – but these are design issues and not criticisms of the author and illustrator.

Nitpicking aside, this picture book, about a cunning cat named Alfonso and his mob of haddock-stealing pirate plunderers, is an absolute treasure.

It won the The Roald Dahl Funny Prize back in 2011 and richly deserves the recognition bestowed.

Told in rhyme, in 609 words, author Bently spins a good swashbuckling yarn involving a crew of pirate moggies who steal an aptly named three-masted clipper “The Kipper.”

Intent on thieving the biggest haul of fish ever from smug trawler-boat skipper Trelawney P. Craddock, the cats set sail from a town which looks remarkably Devonian or Cornish in style with cobbled stones, narrow alleys and harbour cottages.

Their flag is a cat skull and crossed fish bones and, of course, once the thieving felines have taken to sea, they hoodwink Craddock into abandoning ship, believing he is under attack by a ghost pirate ship.

Alfonso and his crew are left to seize the booty and party in a nearby cove.

One by one, furry faces popped up with great glee,

“Hey, checkout that Haddock!”

“Fishtastic!”

“Yowee!”

 “And now,” said Alfonso,

“To Smgglers’ Bay

For a great fishy feast!”

And the cats cried,

“Hooray!”

(page turn)

In a small sheltered cove out of sight of the land

The sea-mogs scoffed haddock and danced on the sand.

As the bright rays of dawn were beginning to gleam

They sang,

“Yo-Ho-Ho and a Carton of Cream!”

As with the verses above, the book is humour-filled, not only in the written telling, but the illustrations too.

Little touches like a sign on a fishing boat warning opportunistic cats: “No scallops left on this boat overnight” and an image of Craddock’s trouser-less cook rowing for his life in giant cooking pot, ladle in hand, add to the fun.

To my mind, some of the humour in “Cats Ahoy!” is a little sophisticated for very young children which is why I think it sits more happily in the Key Stage One bracket for 5-7 year-olds.

I don’t doubt many older 4-year-olds will enjoy the pictures and tale but, like an episode of The Simpsons, they will only half appreciate the humour.

The story ends with a wonderful pun as the town’s innocent looking moggies return home a week later, looking innocent but much, MUCH fatter.

Alfonso is depicted struggling to climb through his cat flap due to his significant weight gain.

They were gone for a week – a whole week without dinner,

But when they came back they were fatter, not thinner.

Some townsfolk began to add up two and two.

And questioned their cats, “Were you there?” “Was it you?”

 But the cats had all taken a most solemn vow

Jus to look up all sweetly and answer,

 “ME? HOW?”

And whatever their crimes, the folk find to this day

When they question their moggies, that’s all they will say.

My six-year-old son adores this charming book with its lovable rogue characters, great story, moody illustrations and appealing endpapers. The front endpapers are filled with fish. The rear endpapers are filled with fish bones.

For a clever, fun read which adults and children alike will enjoy, “Cats Ahoy!” is PURR-fect.

The Princess and the Presents

 

Nosy Crow Ltd. First published 2014

Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton

ISBN: 978-0-85763-302-6

Move over Varuca Salt (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and Violet Elizabeth (Just William) – you have been superseded by a monstrous princess, more spoiled than the pair of you put together.

Varuca and Violet have nothing on Princess Ruby, a beastly and utterly spoiled princess who screams and bawls when she can’t get her way.

And in Hart’s rhyming tale: “The Princess and the Presents”, the little ‘darling’ is doing a lot of screaming and foot stamping to ensure she receives all the presents she wants for her looming birthday.

“I WANT a giant tree house AND a parrot that can talk.

I WANT a pair of fancy shoes that light up when I walk.

I NEED a new tiara, to wear each day to school.

AND a pony AND some roller skate and LOADS and LOADS of jewels.

I WANT a massive birthday feast with sweets and posh ice cream…

Or I’ll lie down on the palace floor and scream and scream and…

SCREAM!”

While most children are told ‘I WANT, DOESN’T GET’, vile Princess Ruby does get, since her kindly, but cowed, Father the King will stop at nothing to give his precious daughter the birthday she has been dreaming (oops, screaming) about.

On the day of her birthday, Ruby pushes past the King who has come to wake her.

Upon dashing to view her birthday haul, the ungrateful child is furious with the meagre selection she is initially presented with.

“BUT WHERE’S MY GIANT TREE HOUSE?”

Bawled the greedy little tyke.

“You promised me a mobile phone,

THREE puppies AND a bike!”

Her Father proceeds to pander to her demands and has the servants usher in pile after pile of gifts – so many in fact that the palace cannot take the strain.

When cracks begin appearing in the walls and ceiling, Ruby’s Father senses disaster and instructs his daughter to escape outside.

“But what about my brand-new stuff?” the selfish princess whined.

“Go and save it NOW. And don’t leave ANYTHING behind!”

It is the total collapse of the palace, with her Father in it, which is the catalyst for a dramatic change in Ruby’s demeanour.

Fearing for his wellbeing, the tiny tyrant experiences an epiphany, recognising it is her greed which has wrought disaster.

“What HAVE I done?” sobbed Ruby.

“The best thing I ever had

Is buried in a pile of bricks.

PLEASE! Help me save…

(page turn)

…my DAD!

Those gifts are less important than the person I ADORE!

I’d give up ALL these presents just to see my dad once more.”

And therein lies the message of the story about the shallowness and superficiality of greed and materialism.

Being a children’s picture book, the King doesn’t expire, but is dug out from the rubble of the palace where he and his repentant daughter are happily reunited.

The final page shows Princess Ruby, wearing a practical dungaree dress, and her Father, wearing a casual jumper, living a simpler life in her tree house.

Gone are Ruby’s flouncy, frilly dresses and gone are her Father’s formal suits as they live happily ever after in a humble home.

Despite, perhaps, being perceived as a girl’s book, my five-year-old son thoroughly enjoyed it and would request repeat readings.

Maybe the predominantly yellow front cover colour helped since he was adamant he didn’t want me to read Hart’s first Nosy Crow princess offering, “The Princess and the Peas” which is wall to wall pink?

“That’s a girl’s book!” he declared indignantly.

When I did read it to him, he loved it, but I’m not sure, as a parent, I support the marketing strategy of colour co-ordinating books pink for girls and blue for boys.

If storylines and characterisation is strong, as in Hart’s books, they deserve to be accessed equally by boys and girls, not subliminally dictated to by marketing executives.

While it is pleasing to note the publishing world is slowly veering away from labelling books “Stories for Boys” and “Stories for Girls”, it seems they may have a way to go on their colour choices, which can profoundly influence children’s decision making.

I’m delighted my son loved “The Princess and the Presents.” Dozens of readings and regular discussions about Ruby’s spoiled personality bore testament to this.

“I’d tell her off,” he would say banging his finger crossly on the pages of the book.

But calm would always be restored when Ruby learns the error of her ways and changes for the better.

With delightful characterisation and humorous illustrations from Sarah Warbuton, the pictures enhance the beautifully written comic cautionary tale.

An absolute gift!