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.

The Tea Party in the Woods – Akiko Miyakoshi

Tea Party CoverFirst Published: 1st August, 2015
Genre: Children’s Fantasy / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Kikko is taking a pie to Grandma, after her father forgets to take it. She ends up lost in the snow, but stumbles across an unusual tea party.

This is a whimsical adventure, about finding animals wearing clothes who are having a tea party. There are some creepier moments, such as Kikko getting lost in the woods, and the uncertainty of how the animals will react when they first see her. However, the overall tone is one of warmth and strangers helping each other out.

The artwork is charcoal and pencil on textured paper. Most pages have some splashes of yellow and red ink, such as Kikko’s yellow hair and red clothing. The tea party scenes are especially good, as they have a lot of detail. There’s more to find on subsequent reads of the book.

I enjoyed the theme of magic as part of the world. It’s easy to imagine it’s waiting there in the woods, if only you go the right way. This book was written after The Storm, but was the first one translated into English. Being a later book shows, as the story is much better paced. Kikko is off on her adventure within a couple of pages, and plenty of time is spent hanging out with the animals.

It’s a great book, and is sure to capture the imagination. It would also link in well to activities like teddy bears’ picnics.

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

The Storm – Akiko Miyakoshi

The Storm CoverFirst Published: 5th April, 2016
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A boy plans to go to the beach with his parents the next day, but a storm is approaching. As he sleeps through the storm, he dreams of a giant airship blowing it away… but will the storm still be there when he wakes up?

The art is what makes this book. It has detailed charcoal pictures filling the pages. Most of the art is black and white, apart from a hint of blue near the end. The feeling of the characters is captured perfectly. I especially liked the boy’s cat, who appears in many of the scenes (including joining him in his airship dream).

In terms of story, it’s a very simple one. I felt the balance wasn’t quite there, as a lot of time is spent on storm preparations. The airship dream is the standout part, but it feels like it’s over before it really gets going.

This is a gentle story about the power of imagination, and aspects like the airship and the cat are appealing. I’m not convinced about how well it’ll hold interest after a first read, but it’s certainly a very beautiful book.

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

Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi – Cindy Neuschwander (author), Wayne Geehan (illustrator)

Dragon of Pi CoverSeries: Sir Cumference Series, #2
First Published: 1st February, 1999
Genre: Children’s Fantasy / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Charlesbridge

Radius accidently turns his father, Sir Cumference, into a dragon. As the other knights get ready to vanquish the dragon, Radius needs to solve a mathematical riddle to figure out how to de-dragon Sir Cumference.

This is part of a series of maths adventures, intended to introduce mathematical concepts to children. In this case, it’s all about pi (and dragons).

The book does a good job of making maths more interesting. Radius learns about circles and pi through practical things, such as seeing spokes on a wheel, decorating pies, and measuring round everyday objects. It makes it clear how pi is relevant to real things, as well as reinforcing what it is and how it’s calculated.

I appreciated the geometry puns (other characters include Lady Di of Ameter, and brothers Geo and Sym of Metry), though the medieval fantasy theme is the real lure for the target audience. It means the story can be fun for children who don’t really understand the maths. In terms of reading level, it requires being able to handle short paragraphs, though would also be a good one for adults to read aloud.

For those who do understand the maths, there are some problems they can solve themselves and a recap of what pi is at the end. My main issue with it is that pi as a decimal is only introduced as a very brief mention in the end summary. It’s described as three and about one seventh throughout the main story. This could create the impression that pi is exactly three and one seventh, as well as not being clear that the part after the decimal point continues on.

The artwork is an old-fashioned painting style. This works with the general medieval theme. There’s a little black cat in a lot of the images, which gives something else to find. It’s a decent book for introducing pi to young fantasy lovers. It can also be a bit of fun on pi day, as it ends with a pi celebration.

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