Max and the Lost Note

Jazz is an area of music that seems resolutely impervious to childhood, performed as it is almost exclusively in venues that require proof of age prior to entry.

And yet children are not impervious to jazz. The instruments are intriguing, the tunes are engaging, the solos are an exotic adventure in performance possibilities, what’s not for a kid to like?

Piano teachers (from all kinds of places on this planet) will tell you that students come to lessons wanting to ‘play jazz’ even though they aren’t quite certain exactly what jazz is.

And this is where my latest children’s book discovery comes in: a story book that is an almost faultless introduction to the world of jazz, jazz musicians, listening and jamming, Graham Marsh’s wonderful Max and the Lost Note, published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books in 2009.

Max is a jazz cat who plays piano and makes up his own tunes, but on this particular day he’s unable to finish his tune: he’s lost the last note. And so Max visits all his jazz cat friends to see if his lost note is lurking in one of their performances. (Max also happens to be a very well-dressed cat, and he travels by scooter).

Max visits a four-part girl band (singers all), The Felines, as well as Long Tall Dexter (saxophone), Miles, Charlie and Oliver (trumpet, guitar and drums), Sam (double bass), and his neighbour Rita (flute), but his lost note isn’t in any of the tunes they play for him.

This children’s story is beautifully written, with illustrations that draw the reader in, fleshing out the simply told plot into an inviting world of musicianship and friendship.

My only quibble is that when the lost note is finally found it is illustrated as a pair of beamed-together quavers, so strictly speaking Max was on the hunt for two lost notes, not one.

This continuity grizzle aside, it’s an absolutely wonderful book, and I’d recommend it for children from the age of four (although a precocious three-year-old might gain much pleasure from it also) with no maximum age limit. The illustrations are so sophisticated that adolescents will feel no deep discomfort being seen flicking through its pages, and adults will chuckle in appreciation.

Piano teachers: I recommend you get a copy for your teaching studio immediately! Parents: a wonderful read to experience with your preschool and early primary school age children.

Tip Tap Went the Crab

So I’ve been impatiently waiting for the follow-up to Wow, Said the Owl because I am honestly totally in love with that book (see review from last year).  How could Tim Hopgood manage anything so wonderful ever again?  Excitedly I opened Tip Tap Went the Crab anticipating the same amazing surprises I had when first reading through Wow, Said the Owl.  And while it was beautiful, both in illustration and text, I did feel a little sense of, well it’s not quite as fabulous is it?

The idea of the book is that a crab decides she’s sick of her rock pool, so she wanders into the ocean and in the process counts to 9 (one noisy seagull, two sleepy sea lions, through to a shoal of eight fish and nine silent sharks) and then on her return to her very own rockpool we get to count to ten (this is a cute plot development) and then it’s over, bar a final page which lists all the numbers, and you get to count to ten in a look-and-find illustration. Cool, but to me this book didn’t quite have the magic of the colours that the little owl discovers as the sun dawns and the day proceeds.

But it was still very fabulous, so home it came, and it was that night’s story book. And here’s the important moment in this review: three-year-old Tom (he’s almost exactly three years old) was transfixed from the first page to the last.  And just at the point where I had felt a sense of let-down (there’s nothing conceptually new about the final page) Tom’s face lit up as bright as day: “All the numbers!!!”, he exclaimed, busily setting about naming every one, and then looking for the ten gold coins, just as the author enjoins us to do.

And then the next night he wanted to read it again.

And then the next night he wanted to read it again.

I could continue to repeat this sentence for a few more paragraphs, because ever since we first read Tip Tap, Went the Crab, it has been the only book Tom has wanted to read as his bedtime story. He has sat with it by himself, poring over each number on each page, and tsking to himself when a page is without a number (sometimes the plot develops without needing to count anything on that page!), and of course, exclaiming exultantly every time we get to that final “all the numbers” page.

I think I’d forgotten the joy that orderliness brings to children (all the numbers unfolding one after the other) and the joy that recognising numbers brings to toddlers (think Sesame St number of the day). Tim Hopgood knows his readership: Tip Tap, Went the Crab is a very worthy successor to the stunning debut last year of Wow, Said the Owl, and now, of course, I’m on tenterhooks all over again*.

*expect an update sometime in 2011.

Happy I’m a Hippo

I can’t believe it’s been nearly three months since I last wrote about a children’s book.  Children’s books are a major preoccupation of mine, and I certainly have a backlog of great books to discuss.

But one of the books that I’m being asked to read on a daily basis at the moment is the delightful Happy I’m A Hippo written by Richard Edwards with illustrations by Carol Liddiment, and published by Alison Green Books.

While my now nearly 35 month old son has mostly been taken by books with one or two lines of text per page, this book has been a huge hit even with its copious text, detailed plot developments and pauses in the story for the hippo to sing.

This is the story of a hippo who doesn’t want to be a hippo, so she tries her best to be a monkey, an eagle and a meerkat (each attempt is a notable failure) before a young wildebeest convinces her that being a hippo is a wonderful thing to be. Great moral (stop looking at the impressive things other people can do and focus on your own strengths instead), but that hasn’t gotten in the way of this book telling a rollicking tale of adventure, ambition, and acceptance.

Both beautifully written and sumptuously illustrated, even after many readings you will find new details to talk about in the pictures, and new ways to enjoy the very cleverly composed text.  An example of the layers in the text is the choice of words for each animal the hippo wishes to become: the eagle asks if the hippo can ‘glide’ and ‘wheel’ and so forth, and each word carries a sense of soaring powerfully and effortlessly through the wind; the meerkat asks if the hippo can ‘scamper’ and ‘scurry’ and a sequence of other words that demand the reader hurry them along in a darting fashion. Multiple readings give the adult a chance to really master and perform the spoken possibilities of the text!

And I’m delighted to report that my son adores reciting the little song the hippo sings every couple of pages, adores saying the word ‘plunged’ (in the dramatic manner demanded of it in the context of the story), and he adores reading the book to himself (from memory) poring over each page in great detail as he narrates the events matching the illustrations. You can see that this book will be one of his precious childhood treasures (I’d better buy a second copy).

Little Bo Peep’s Troublesome Sheep

Little Bo Peep can’t find her sheep (a common complaint), and sets off to find them. Little Boy Blue suggests there might be a book in the library that could help her strategise a means of locating her lost flock, so Little Bo Peep heads straight for her local library.  A local library which boasts Mother Goose as the head librarian.  A local library where books are browsed (and one would presume borrowed) by the Big Bad Wolf, the Queen of Hearts, the Three Bears (of Goldilocks fame), and Little Red Riding Hood.

So, the perfect local library for the likes of Little Bo Peep.

She’s unsure of where to look for the kind of book that might offer some guidance to finding sheep, and her hunt for exactly the right kind of book about sheep is where the real delight of this children’s book lies; for as Little Bo Peep wanders from section to section of the library, we get to read the books on the shelves that she is passing by.

Yes, that’s right.  We get to pull miniature books out of pockets in the illustration and do some browsing of our own, flicking through the eight-page cookery book that the Big Bad Wolf is perusing, and the similarly-sized crime novel “Who Stole the Tarts?” being read through by the Queen of Hearts.

These are real little paperbacks, with text, illustrations, IBN bar codes and copyright declarations. And they sit between other equally fascinating titles in their respective sections of the library.  The crime section, for instance, also features the detective mystery “Who Killed Cock Robin?” while the cookery section features “Cooking with Fat” by Mrs. A. Sprat.

Little Bo Peep finds the volume she is looking for in the natural history section, takes it to be stamped by the librarian and returns home to read exactly how she might find her sheep.

And it works.

This book is so filled with attention to detail that you will read it through with your toddler many, many times before you have absorbed all the thought that has been put into each illustration, and each word play that features in the library’s book titles!

My son was completely disinterested in this book when he was 28 months old, but four months later this is certainly his favourite book (this week, anyway), and the pull-out books are a big reason why.

This book, by Cressida Cowell, was first published in 1999, but has only just been released in a paperback version this year, 2009.  I have the paperback, and it is very sturdy, even with the little pull-out books going in and out several times a day.

With so much humour in the story and so much energy and wit in the illustrations, this is a book you will be very glad to have sitting on your own book shelf at home.

Mr Pusskins: Best in Show

My two-and-a-half year-old son is completely obsessed with this latest addition to his library.  We have not previously discovered Mr Pusskins, so this is our introduction to Sam Lloyd’s ‘books with cattitude’.

The latest book in the series has Mr Pusskins entered into a pet show by Emily, the little girl with whom he lives. Mr Pusskins finds the whole thing a yawn until he realises that he is competing for ‘the most fabulous thing he has ever seen’ – a trophy.

The story is energetically realised, both in the telling and the illustrating, and I suspect that all toddlers going through potty-training will be thrilled with a pivotal moment in the plot which features a toilet. Each page has plenty of text, but it is written in a way that ensures we make it to the conclusion of the book every time.

For my 31-month-old son this story has immediately become a favourite, with him asking for Mr Pusskins: Best in Show every day since we first read it through, and I can see that we’ll need to take ourselves down to the bookshop in a few weeks to purchase the other two Mr Pusskins titles, Mr Pusskins and Mr Pusskins and Little Whiskers, all published by Orchard Books.

Song of Middle C

Ever since I started my piano teaching career at the age of 14, I’ve  attempted to provide appropriate ‘waiting room’ materials for my piano students, things that are engaging enough to promote quiet waiting behaviour for the the 2 or 3 minutes (hopefully no more than that) that might pass between the student’s arrival and the start of their lesson proper.

Good and well, but finding books or activities that fit the bill is actually quite a bit more difficult than it seems.  One solution, Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-sections series, seemed ideal – lots to look at, an educational element, all the kinds of things that one looks for in this circumstance. But one day the students started giggling as they looked through, and giggled loudly enough that it was distracting to the student whose lesson was just concluding. Turns out Mr Biesty has incredibly included somewhere tucked away on every page of his cross-sections one poor soul caught in the act of using the toilet. Once the secret was out (and it soon was) this book was banished from the waiting area on the grounds of being so amusing as to be disruptive.

This year I’m discovering a range of children’s books that are absolutely ideal for this waiting room purpose, the first of which is the utterly wonderful Song of Middle C, written by Alison McGhee and illustrated by Scott Menchin.

This is the story not just of middle C, but of a little girl who is practicing the piece “Dance of the Wood Elves” for her first ever piano recital.  Her teacher, Miss Kari, tells her that it is important to play with imagination, and this book brings the little girl’s imaginative practice to life both through the text and the images.  When it comes time to perform “Dance of the Wood Elves” at the piano recital, however, things don’t quite go according to plan (or the way the girl had practiced).

This book from Candlewick Press delivers a rollicking tale while at the same time reassuring young pianists that performance is about an awful lot more than playing the right notes, and this makes it not only great piano-teacher-waiting-room material, but an excellent gift for any young pianist preparing for their first recital experiences.

I would say it is an appropriate story for children between four and nine, with the story being simple enough for very young piano students to still relate to, but with quite robust illustrations that mean older beginners will feel in no way patronised.

Not only that, but the moral of the story is one that many a parent could do to be reminded of!

Big Bear Little Bear

This book came into our library as a gift a year ago, and to my way of thinking was far too advanced for our then 18-month old.  But it quickly became a favourite, and has remained so ever since.

This is a tale about a little (toddler) polar bear who is keen to be as big and run as fast as his mother.  Each page is illustrated with the mother and child bears playing together, either wrestling in the snow, diving into the water, or stretching up to the sky.  And each charming illustration of the two bears is further enhanced by a velvet feely-touchy sensation wherever they have fur.

It’s a simple story of how a child yearns to have mastered all the skills required for adult life, and how the parent is there to guide and teach. And to cuddle!

I love a lot about this book, and the aspect I love the most is the depiction of great parenting in the character of the mother bear.  Sometimes children’s books depict parents being too busy, too frazzled or too absent for the interaction children long for – and this is probably a very realistic aspect of contemporary childhood.  But this book shows a mother bear who structures some fantastic learning experiences for her child bear, all the time taking him seriously, treating his dreams and ambitions with complete respect while reassuring him that she loves him as he is.

But the illustrations are an on-going joy as well, with the restricted colour palette of the Arctic (whites, blues and greens) being beautifully explored and nuanced as the bears’ day proceeds.  With such a limited field of colour one would expect a toddler might quickly tire of the illustrations, but in fact the reverse seems to be the case, with my son eager to point out little differences that he notices as the activities of the bears change.

Written by David Bedford and illustrated by Jane Chapman, Big Bear Little Bear was first published in 2001, and reissued in 2006 (all by Little Tiger Press http://www.littletigerpress.com).  Highly recommended for any toddler, and I’m sure this book would still be charming well into the early school years.

Jasper’s Beanstalk

There are books that demand one’s attention on the shelves of the children’s section in the bookshops of the world, and then there are the books that, out of the blue, one notices already sitting on one’s bookshelf, a gift probably, maybe given in anticipation of the child’s changing tastes in reading material, so unread at the time of receipt, but now ripe for exploration.

Jasper’s Beanstalk was one of these less noisy books that was given to my son when he was still much too young to appreciate or enjoy its charms. But one day, quite unintentionally, Jasper’s Beanstalk was pulled from the shelves, and we began to read.

We read about a cat, Jasper, who found a bean and decided to help it grow.  Each day Jasper tries some new gardening technique to encourage the bean to sprout, until he despairs of ever seeing a beanstalk…

The trick with any picture book is, of course, to have a payoff at the end that makes all the previous pages seem all that much more magical than they seemed at first glance, and Jasper’s Beanstalk does this to perfection.  Add to this the simple, joyful and inviting illustrations, and any toddler-gardener will be enraptured by this tale of a cat who seeks to plant a bean.

The text on each page is enormous – much, much larger than the average picture book, and the sentences are simple and short (as in as few as 5 words, short!).  This creates a reading experience that is tremendously approachable to young children, who can easily memorise the exact wording of the story, and then ‘read’ the book through to themselves at their leisure.

This reading treasure by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen (yep, that’s the name of the illustrator) was first published in 1992, but was released in a new edition just last year, so your local bookshop should either have it in stock, or easily be able to order a copy in.

Why I am such a fan of “That’s Not My…”

I’m almost a bit self-conscious about how much of a fan I am of the Usborne series “That’s Not My…”.  Learning that a new title has been released has me in a state of complete excitement, and I don’t know how much time I’ve spent poring over the series, figuring out which books will make the perfect customised collection for my son.

If you’ve not heard of them before: “That’s Not My….” is a series of what they call feely-touchy books; the illustrations in these board books have textured inserts that are ‘rough’, ‘slimy’, ‘velvety’, ‘and so on. So in “That’s Not My Lion” (the first book I bought for my son) “its paws are too rough”, and in “That’s Not My Dragon” (the second book I bought, out of respect for my husband’s St George rugby league fixation) “its claws are too knobbly”, while in “That’s Not My Monkey” (a much more recent acquisition) “its feet are too smooth”, and in “That’s Not My Reindeer” (a seasonal purchase) “its bells are too sparkly”.

We added “That’s Not My Tractor” when visiting my grandfather, whose backyard always housed a variety of tractors during my childhood.  We added “That’s Not My Pony” when we visited a farm where racehorses were kept.  “That’s Not My Plane” joined the collection a few weeks before a family trip to New Zealand, and I’ve been trying to find a good excuse to buy “That’s Not My Frog” ever since it came out a few months ago.

At first these were just the perfect books to read with a very young baby, with strong illustrations and a variety of textures to pass the baby’s fingertips over while reading the descriptive text for each page.  But as time passed these became perfect books for reading with an older baby who can then manage the pace of the reading by turning the board pages themselves, pausing at the pages of more interest (to the eye or the touch).

To my surprise, these continued to be the perfect books for a very young toddler to enjoy alone, and I have it on good authority that these books are just wonderful when children begin to read.

Earlier this year Usborne ran a UK-only competition celebrating ten years of the series, asking “That’s Not My….” readers to suggest new titles.  Being based in Australia I could not join in, but if I had my chance I’d be pleading with Usborne to create “That’s Not My” Kangaroo, Tricycle, Zebra, Playground, Cupcake, Vacuum Cleaner, Kookaburra, Babycino, Watering Can, Trumpet…..

The imagination boggles at the textures and sensations each of these animals or objects could illustrate in a book in this series – and maybe that’s what makes each of these books so magical for readers with babies of any age.

WOW, said the Owl

Sumptuous illustrations and energetic (but not complicated) text are the order of the day when looking for great books to read with 2 year-olds, and WOW, said the Owl meets the brief to perfection.

Subtitled A BOOK ABOUT COLOURS, this brand new book from Tim Hopgood could not be simpler – a little owl is curious about what the world looks like in the daytime.  And it is astonishingly beautiful, with each new moment in the day bringing the little owl a new perspective on what it is like to see the world (including ‘her’ tree) in colour.

Each illustration has so much to explore that a patient parent or caregiver can happily spend twenty minutes with a toddler reading the story, while the text is equally well suited to a quick couple of minutes just before bed.

Tim Hopgood has recently won an ‘emerging’ illustrator award in the UK, and the inference I (excitedly) make from this is that Tim will be producing many, many more wonderful books in the future.