When We Were Alone – David A. Robertson (author), Julie Flett (illustrator)

When We Were Alone CoverFirst Published: 1st March, 2017
Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A young girl helps her kókom (grandmother) in the garden. She asks her kókom questions, and the answers go back to the time when her kókom was sent away to school.

This book deals with the history of residential schools for Native American children. The focus is on the attempts to stop the children from practising their culture. They weren’t allowed to have long hair or speak Cree at the school. Everything they were not allowed to do was to make them like everyone else (in other words, like white people), but the children fought back in small ways by doing the forbidden things when they were alone.

The story of the school is told through the young girl asking questions, such as asking why her kókom has long hair, and being told about the school cutting the children’s hair. This makes it a generally positive book, as her kókom survived and is able to live as she wants. However, there are also hints that it’s not all in the past. The girl doesn’t face being taken away from her family and community, but she lives in a world where most people in the media will be white, and someone like her kókom is seen as different. There’s that unspoken implication to the questions of the pressure still being there, because those questions wouldn’t be raised if the girl’s family was considered to be like everybody else.

The pictures look like collages, with additional painting and drawing for detail and texture. It creates a bold and colourful feel, which works well with the theme of the girl’s kókom dressing brightly and not being afraid to show her culture. My favourite page is the flying bird with the Cree text around it (the words repeated from the main story), as it feels like a celebration. Despite all of the attempts, the girl and her kókom are free to speak as they want to speak.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quiet and subtle handling of the topic. The art and story are a good match. It is perhaps a little too subtle for readers who don’t already know the history of the residential schools. For example, the text doesn’t make it clear who made the children go to the school. This could be something to discuss with readers after finishing the book.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Ladybird Book of the Zombie Apocalypse – Jason Hazeley, Joel Morris

Zombie Apocalypse CoverSeries: Ladybirds for Grown-Ups
First Published: 20th October, 2016
Genre: Humour / Fictional Non-Fiction
Available: Amazon UK

The old Ladybird books covered a wide range of subjects for children. They were small books with hard covers, with the general layout of a page of text opposite a full page picture. People grew up with these books, which led to the adult realisation that there were some unintentionally funny things about them. Ladybird decided to get in on the action, by producing their own satirical versions for adults. This one tells grown-ups all about the zombie apocalypse.

My reference book for this review was Life of the Honey-bee, one of the genuine old Ladybird books for children. Funnily enough, one of the bee pictures is included in The Zombie Apocalypse. The pictures all look like they’re from the original books, but with new text to put them into an apocalyptic context.

The text is in the classic cheerful tone of the books. Some pages are more general, but many focus on a character and what they say or do. The language is simple, with a few short paragraphs on each page. Ladybird books did vary in how they were written (my bee book is a little more wordy and doesn’t focus on characters), but this is a reasonable reproduction of how the books were put together.

I liked the book’s opening statement that there are still interesting things to do after the zombie apocalypse. Also, that the police may be very busy. There’s a polite optimism about the end of times, as well as educational discussions about the nature of zombies. My favourite potential zombie cause was: “It could even be a fungal infection like athlete’s foot, but one that explodes mushrooms through your face and makes you eat everybody.”

There are some other nice touches when it comes to making this look like one of the old books. There were little series within the series, which were given a number. The bee book is part of Series 651, which had four books. This information was listed on the back. The zombie book has copied this, putting itself in Series 999 with five other pretend titles. Though if they really published The Martian Invasion or Giant Underground Worms, I’d be there.

Inclusion in the art is the same as the old Ladybird books. That means it’s mostly nice middle class white families. Everyone is dressed very neatly and they’re usually smiling (or looking horrified in an over-the-top way, which was not originally because the images were intended to be people thinking about zombies). There’s usually a father, mother, one son and one daughter. Boys often have dark hair and the girls are blonde. There is one black family and also some construction workers on one page, because that was as far as diversity went in the Ladybird era. Everyone else fits into a stereotype of the perfect British family, in the sort of way where you might wonder when someone was about to get murdered in the village. Ladybird books and cozy mysteries are really the only place this family exists.

It’s also notable that the few pictures rebranded as zombies, where there are people who are either shot or attackers, have darker skin. One shows tipi frames in the background and another looks like the zombies are wearing buckskin clothing. I’d assume they were originally intended as scenes of Native Americans, which is pretty messed up considering their skin is darkened in a way that looks distinctly unnatural. They’re not brown, but more of a greyish-black. They really do look more like zombies.

As someone who grew up reading these books, I appreciated the humour. I also think there’s something here to appeal to those who’ve never read a Ladybird book, as the satire works as a general poke at the way children’s books (and the apocalypse) are presented. However, it does make me reflect on how Ladybird books were very much products of their time in a bad way. The perfect stereotype family contrasted with everyone else was a common theme of the books. The racism in the imagery went largely without comment when I was younger. This is something that works as satire for adults, but it’s something I hope we leave behind for children.

The Day I Became a Bird – Ingrid Chabbert (author), Guridi (illustrator)

The Day I Became a Bird CoverFirst Published: 6th September, 2016
Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A boy falls in love with Sylvia, a girl who loves birds. He decides the obvious solution is to dress up as a bird.

The premise of this intrigued me, though I also wondered how well it would handle it. Early childhood love is often handled very badly. Boys are encouraged to treat girls poorly to get their attention, and when girls report it, it’s dismissed with, “He’s only doing that because he likes you.” That’s a pretty terrible message to put across, that it doesn’t matter if someone hits you, or destroys your stuff, as long as they like you.

Refreshingly, this book doesn’t go there. The boy is instead a quiet and sensitive child, who wants to appeal to Sylvia’s interests. At no point is it suggested that Sylvia should stop being so interested in birds. The boy wants to be part of that, rather than trying to change her. He also doesn’t feel he’s entitled to attention for dressing up as a bird. He’s hoping she’ll like it, but he waits to see if she reacts rather than pressing the issue.

I also liked that he doesn’t need to be a bird in the end. There was the potential for suggesting that the only way to find love is changing yourself, but it doesn’t really go there. It’s clear to all involved that he’s wearing a costume for a short time, rather than this being a permanent attempt to be someone else.

Pencil sketches make up the majority of the artwork. These act as a simple and expressive way of telling the story. The bird costume itself is huge, and looks both carefully made and uncomfortable to wear. I liked how it slowly begins to fall apart, as being worn for normal school activities takes its toll. Some additional bird art, such as a scientific diagram of a bird, and bird identification pictures, are included as part of showing Sylvia’s interests.

This is a gentle story, that encourages taking an interest in someone else’s passions. The bird focus is likely to appeal to young bird lovers, and it could be tied in with dressing up activities.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Yitzi and the Giant Menorah – Richard Ungar

yitziFirst Published: 6th September, 2016
Genre: Children’s Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

The people of Chelm receive a giant menorah as a gift from the mayor of Lublin. As each night of Hanukkah passes, they try to think of ways to thank the mayor.

The story is based on the Jewish tales of the people of Chelm, which often focus on their comedic antics. This sets the scene for the sort of things they attempt to do as gifts for the mayor. There are funny moments, such as trying to give snow as a gift. It’s also paced well, by limiting the number of failed gift attempts (I did wonder if there’d be one for every night, which would have been a little heavy).

I’d have liked a little more focus on Yitzi, as he’s the character providing a child’s perspective. He does eventually get to solve the problem, but most of the story happens around him rather than including him. I don’t really know what he thought about it all, other than wanting to sing songs and not being able to until the mayor had been thanked.

The illustrations are watercolour monoprints. They have vibrant colours and patterns, which really capture the feel of the menorah lights in the darkness. Each of the villagers is a unique person, rather than having generic crowds. There’s a lot of detail to explore on each page.

The language level is for more advanced picture book readers, or to be read aloud, as there are several paragraphs of text per page. The book includes “The Story of Chanukah” from PJ Library (Harold Grinspoon Foundation). This is a page with a retelling of the origin of Hanukkah/Chanukah, for those who need a bit of background.

Though I wanted more of Yitzi, I did like the book. The illustrations are great, with a post-impressionistic feel. It’s a sweet story about how to thank someone for their kindness.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Flower – John Light (author), Lisa Evans (illustrator)

The Flower CoverFirst Published: 1st April, 2006
Genre: Children’s Dystopian / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Child’s Play

Brigg is a child living in a grey city. He works at the library, where he finds a book he isn’t supposed to read. It’s filled with pictures of flowers, which he hasn’t seen before. If only he could find a flower in the city.

Dystopian futures are tricky to condense for picture books, as there’s not a lot of space to explain what’s going on, and early readers may not be familiar with the tropes of the genre. This book does a good job of tackling that issue. There are many small details, like Brigg having a job and living alone rather than with parents. Brigg has never seen flowers before, and doesn’t recognise a seed packet or understand how plants grow.

It focuses on a personal act of revolution, rather than trying to overthrow the system. Brigg can’t change how the city runs, but he can try to grow a flower. The theme of finding a point of happiness when the world seems bleak will resonate with children going through tough times.

There’s also a suggestion of post-apocalyptic themes, with the environment changing so there aren’t any plants in the city. It takes something pretty major to kill off all the weeds.

The art reinforces the story, by showing the city as a dull grey place. Brigg is shown walking the other way to everyone else, or sitting apart from other children, highlighting how out-of-place he feels. His room is very plain, with few personal items. Once the flower appears, it’s a point of colour and life in an otherwise dull environment.

I wasn’t sure whether Brigg was intended to be mixed race. The art style has everyone with very lightly shaded skin, making it rather ambiguous. He also has somewhat European facial features. But his hair texture suggests black ancestry. So, I personally saw him as mixed race when I read it, whether or not that was intended.

This is an enjoyable book that packs a lot into very few words. It touches on things like feeling alone, environmental issues and book censorship. It’s an accessible introduction to dystopian fiction for younger children, with darkly whimsical artwork.