‘There’s a Bear on my Chair’ by Ross Collins

I’m a sucker for a book with rhyming couplets.

Rhyme offers so much opportunity to explore the written word in children’s books – archaic and dated words fit right into the flow of text, alongside nonsense terms and odd turns of phrase. In short, anything goes. Get the rhythm right and the rest will follow, children are sure to love a book that rhymes.

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This book caught my eye in WHSmiths during one of my regular lunchtime strolls at work, and I decided to give it a read, sucked in by the triple rhyme in the title, and the furious mouse on the cover image. What’s his story?

It’s a simple book – but the simplicity is what makes it so excellent. Collins writes in rhyming couplets using only ‘Air’ words, and the result is quite delightful.

The story has a childish humour running through it that adults and children alike are bound to enjoy. A poor little mouse discovers a selfish polar bear sitting in his favourite chair, which simply is too small to share. The poor little mouse attempts all sorts of amusing tactics to shoo the bear (to make him go back to his lair), he gives him quite a nasty glare, he tries to tempt him with a pear, he jumps out in his underwear, but nothing works. The bear just simply does not care. You get the picture.

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In the end, the mouse gives up, being driven to the end of his tiny mouse tether by this big troublesome bear. He leaves his house, distraught and beaten, to find a new place to rest.

Once the mouse has gone, the bear, of course, gets up and walks home.

Here we find the delightful twist in the tail.

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I confess, I laughed. I laughed loud, and insisted that my colleagues give the book a read. Waiting patiently for the satisfied chuckle I knew was coming once they reached the end of the book.

It’s simple, but clever, and I really didn’t see it coming.

This book would be perfect for sharing with children, to help foster a love of reading from a young age. It’s no ‘Cat in the Hat’, or ‘Green Eggs and Ham’, but it does have a vaguely Dr Seuss-esque feel to it, in style, substance, and illustration – a winning combination that truly represents the power of the written word.

 

‘Visions of Numberland’ by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss

 

‘Visions of Numberland’ by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss takes the reader on a mystical journey through the mysteries and of mathematics in a fun twist on the bewildering adult colouring book market. Who said colouring needs to be relaxing?

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The adult colouring book market is a strange one. Early last year, five of the top ten books listed on retail giant Amazon’s bestseller list were adult colouring books. This poses the question: what on earth are people doing with their lives? When you’ve spent a long hard day at the office it can be all too easy to take feelings of stress home with you, but does the answer really lie in resorting to simpler, more childish times?

Some behaviourists and more than a few adult-colouring book fanatics seem to think so, but I am unconvinced. I’ve tried out a few of these books, and they can be quite fun, but are hardly the perfect solution to an overworked millennial. Firstly, you need to try and actually find the time to sit down and colour. I don’t know about you, but between the all important glass of red and my commitment to vegetating in front of The Walking Dead with my significant other, my evening schedule is pretty tight…

Still, I took some time out this week to try out a new adult colouring book that has graced Amazon’s ever-growing bookshelves. ‘Visions In Numberland’ by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss promises the would-be colourer a “colouring journey through the mysteries of maths”, but is it really any different from the bewildering array of adult colouring books already on offer?

Short answer: yes, if not we wouldn’t really be featuring it in and engineering and technology publication, would we?

This book is different from the rest. It is so very, very different. Where traditional adult colouring books offer freedom and relaxation to work through inner stress, this book serves as a tour of some of the most fundamental discoveries in the field of mathematics, in which the reader is invited to explore them through colour and imagery.

Ultimately though, there is no freedom, and there is certainly no relaxation.

On my first visit to Numberland I visited the ‘Curve of Pursuit’ – that is, a path taken by a point that is always moving towards another point. The authors create the image of four dogs standing in each corner of a square room, if each dog races towards the dog that is anticlockwise from it, so that each dog is running at the same speed and at all times running towards its quarry along a straight line, the dogs will follow a logarithmic spiral.

The image seen below is my attempt to colour in a collage of several of the so-called ‘canine chases’. Beautiful isn’t it? I’d have loved to have finished it, I’m sure the result would have been quite spectacular, but this was as much as I could possibly complete in one go without passing out. By the time I put my pencil down to take a, quite well-deserved, break I was seeing spots.

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Perhaps it was the perfectionist in me, but there was no way I could colour in the image in anything other than logical steps and colours, which sort of blew the ‘relaxing’ aspect of colouring right out of the water. It felt more like a mission I needed to complete. Seeing the image emerge was pretty satisfying though, once I got past the stress of falling into a mathematical borehole.

I enlisted some help from one of the other editorial members of E&T, who also found the whole experience a little stressful. They did actually manage to finish theirs though, and so we have below an elegantly coloured pattern of 14 pointed stars placed on a grid made up from two varieties of rhombus and entitled ‘Diamonds in the Sky’.

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Travelling though the book reveals firm mathematical darlings like arithmetic and geometry, as well as more abstract modern examples including graph theory and dynamical systems, and gives the reader the opportunity to colour in existing patterns, as well as create their own using relatively easy-to-follow guidelines. My personal favourite is a task in which a series of concentric pentagons are arranged in a convex spiral serving to create a hall-of-mirrors-esque illustrated algorithm – a strikingly simple step-by-step guide to one of the most complex mathematical systems.

I would include a picture, but as I said, the guidelines are only ‘relatively’ easy to follow.

Stress and wonderment aside, there was one thing I found slightly troubling but ultimately endearing about this book. A mistake. How humbling that a colouring book which shows the universe through the eyes of the world’s greatest mathematicians falls prey to one of the most human characteristics. I do hope this wasn’t put there as a test, but if it was I spotted it. The rogue number 12882 highlighted in the image below has no place in that rectangle on Pascal’s triangle, and should of course be 8326 like its partner in the seventh hexagon across – and yes, ladies and gents, I did discover this by colouring in all the numbers with a ‘6’  using the same colour and noticing a discrepancy.

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My personal feelings towards ‘Visions of Numberland’ are mixed. It’s a fun approach to some really fascinating theories which can be approached without any prior knowledge to mathematical systems and the images are nothing short of spectacular, but some of the tasks take a lot of commitment to complete and could well leave your mind buzzing. I’m inclined to want to read the book, and learn more about the mathematical patterns, but without actually doing any more colouring in.

This could be one for the maths-lover in your life, or someone who has outgrown standard adult colouring books, and wants to take on something a little more challenging. Whatever you do, though, don’t buy this book thinking it will help you to unwind; if you do you could set yourself on track for a full-on nervous breakdown.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

Redwall – Brian Jacques

Yet another book I wish I had known about when I was a child. I’m absolutely thrilled to know there are more in the series – I just need to find the time to read them!

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This is the first in a series of wonderful children’s books about a peaceful community of field mice who live within the quiet confines of Redwall Abbey. The brotherhood slumbers quietly on the edge of the Moss Wood, providing a place of humble solitude and unquestioned refuge for any who seek it. They live a simple wholesome life enjoying the good things nature has to offer – like goat’s milk, honey and nut brown ale. I feel warm inside just thinking about it.

Of course, it takes conflict to make a story, and so be prepared, once you open this book, for the lives of the Redwall mice to be thrown into turmoil. Not a day is given over to the lives within the Abbey before Cluny the Scourge, a vicious, one-eyed rodent, whose nightmarish existence is the stuff of legends, rolls in from the wild woods beyond the horizon. The noisome creature sets his sights on Redwall Abbey, determined to turn the warm stone walls into a fetid nesting ground for himself and his band of vile vagabonds. This is the beginning of an epic battle, the likes of which the peaceful brotherhood of Redwall has not seen for hundreds of years.

Our unlikely hero is a small, clumsy field mouse named Matthias, a new addition to the Abbey, who has a lot to learn about the complex history of his new home as he fights to defend its boundaries from Cluny’s deadly crew. It will take more than just the mice to defend the Abbey, but enlisting help from their neighbours is not as easy as just asking for it. The Moss Woods are rife with historical conflicts, and the mice, though peaceful, have a rather unsettling past. Beyond tribal feuds, though, are two evils more sinister than the sins of every benign entity combined, and only communal action can ensure that these dark presences do not forever disrupt the quiet equilibrium of the forest.

This book has a lot to offer to different readers. On one level it provides a fantastic amount of action for children’s literature – I was inadvertently clenching my teeth while reading about the battle between the mice and Cluny, and was filled with genuine terror at the idea of ‘old poison teeth’. On a personal level, though, I could have happily read all about the mice of Redwall without there being any kind of altercation. Redwall is the kind of community that one feeds on hearing about. Like the woodland animals in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe – specifically Mr and Mrs Badger – or any one of Beatrix Potter’s books. I am in love with the life that the mice live – it is so wholesome and wonderful; a simple, healthy life full of good things. The Abbey stands as a natural organ of the forest and the mice and the other creature that live within the walls keep it running like a well oiled bicycle – what more could I ask for in a book? A quiet life makes for content reading.

I was really taken by the complexity of Jacques’ characters. My personal favourite is Basil Stag Hare, whose ghost-like reflexes, mildly misquoted malapropisms and insatiable appetite are nothing short of genius. When it comes to characters that are also hares, Basil Stag is easily one of the most excellent I have ever come across*. He is joined by a whole host of unforgettable faces, Ambrose Spike the greedy hedgehog, Constance the formidable badger, and Warbeak, a sparrow who is much too big for her tiny, tiny boots.

Overall, I really enjoyed my first dip into the realms of Redwall Abbey. Jacques has crammed so much into this first book, and I have no doubt the rest will not disappoint. I would strongly recommend giving Redwall a try if you are a fan of young adult literature, tales of idyllic livelihoods interrupted, or anything containing anthropomorphic mice.

*This may sound oddly specific, but as a lifelong fan of Harriet’s Hare it is no mean feat

The Return of the Young Prince – A.G. Roemmers

A few months ago I came into work to see a news story left on my desk. It was inconspicuous, a small sheet of thin paper roughly torn out of a little pamphlet, and it told me they The Little Prince was coming back. The little golden-haired boy whose story opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking had touched another author enough to be brought back to life.

Then, one evening this October as the weather was just starting to turn, I was walking out from South Kensington tube station when I passed small, independent book shop, lit up against the coming dark with the most wonderful display of hardback books – he had arrived.

28957290Those of you who have read my blog a lot might know of my love affair with The Little Prince. I love French translations, and this one was so wonderfully magical and childish that it took me back to innocent place in the very far reaches on my memory. The golden-haired boy of Exupery’s tale holds a firm spot in my heart, and the idea of seeing him again filled me with so much joy.

I approached the book with a certain amount of caution, aware that it could so easily fall short of my rather high expectations – The Little Prince is a rather hard act to follow. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t have a few reservations while I was reading the book – there were the invariable comparisons to the original – but while I found it difficult at first after some time I realised that the book needed to be different. After all the original book is not just the story of The Little Prince himself, it is the story of the Aviator – that is, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – and how his life was touched by The Little Prince. In the same way, The Return of the Young Prince is a tale of how The Little Prince touched A.G. Roemmers.

“I think this planet would be a lovely place if everyone on it greeted each other with a smile when they met”

In The Return of the Young Prince, a solo driver, setting out on an expedition across the mystical land of Patagonia, finds a young, starving teenager asleep at the side of the road – none other than The Little Prince, now grown, who has returned to earth in search of his friend the Aviator. The pair embark upon a journey of a lifetime, the man with a destination in mind, and The Young Prince, as he is now known, hoping that along the way he will find what he is looking for. The Young Prince and the driver speak, they are philosophical, quizzical, educational and at times humorous, the conversations passing between the pair serving to highlight, as in the original, the wonderful difference between the adult and juvenile brain, and that there are things in life that you cannot put a price on.

“I can tell you with certainty that your friend gave you the loveliest sheep in the world – the one that you imagined in your fantasy, the only one you could look after and that could go with you to your little planet. Didn’t you enjoy his company as you watched the sunsets? Didn’t you go to him in the night so that he wouldn’t feel alone and that you too wouldn’t feel so alone? Didn’t you think that he belong to you because you had tames him and that you belonged to him? There’s no doubt that he was more real, more alive, than the one you saw in the photograph, because that one was just a sheep, whereas the one inside the box was your sheep.”

There is so much I could say about this book, so many anecdotes I would love to pick apart and ponder over the hidden metaphors and morals. There are so many messages one could take from the story, though, that it would be unfair of me to do so and to taint your own experience of the book. Assuming of course that you are willing to give the book the time of day – I thoroughly recommend it.

It’s important to approach the book with an open mind. Do I prefer it to the original? Of course not. It’s a very different book, but while it changes some of the themes of the original, it does not detract from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s work. This is a book which speaks of how The Little Prince touched the life of the author, a man who has dedicated years of his life into researching and studying Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The book does not try to pick up where Antoine de Saint-Exupéry left off. Rather, just like The Little Prince, it serves as a tale told by a man whose life was changed by his encounter with the golden-haired child of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s past.

 

The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots – Beatrix Potter

It’s today! It’s today!

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I was unbelievably excited to wake up this morning to an email informing me that The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots would be waiting for me when I returned from work. Obviously I would have preferred to wait by the front door for the postman, but somehow I managed to get through the day at work. I then tore home, dived into the book and had it finished before supper time.

I’ve always been a huge Beatrix Potter fan. My childhood box set was always a prized possession of mine and was subject to more than one show-and-tell session back in primary school. The Tailor of Gloucester was always my favourite and I still love to pull the book out and watch the BBC adaption around Christmas time. If there is anything more magical than animals behaving like humans it is animals behaving like humans in the snow. Simpkins in his snow boots is one of my favourite images of all time.

When I heard there was a new book by Beatrix Potter being published I was over the moon. To think that the manuscript remained hidden for over 100 years, only to emerge to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s death – it is almost as though she had planned it. I couldn’t wait to see what this story, written ten years after all her other much-loved tales, had in store for me.

The newest addition to the collection tells the tale of a very serious, well-behaved black cat by the name Catherine St. Quintin who likes nothing more than to sneak out at night and poach animals with her air gun. Like all of Beatrix Potter’s tales it is filled with funny escapades with the characters falling into one or two unfortunate scrapes, before ultimately learning a rather valuable lesson. Diehard fans of Beatrix Potter will be delighted to encounter a ‘stout buck rabbit in a blue coat’, who bares more than a striking resemblance to a mischievous young bunny once seen stealing radishes from Mr Macgregor’s garden – it looks like Mrs McGregor never did get her winter coat – as well as one or two other familiar faces and more than a few news ones.

Of course, half of the delight in a children’s book is in the illustrations and while I will admit I was slightly surprised when I saw that Quentin Blake was illustrating the book,  I think the result is absolutely stunning. Who better to illustrate a book by one of Britain’s most-loved children’s authors than one of Britain’s most loved children’s book illustrators? His drawings are nothing like Beatrix Potter’s, but I wouldn’t have liked to read a book where Beatrix Potter’s style was mimicked. Blake doesn’t attempt to fill Beatrix Potter’s shoes, he merely pays homage to her work, and does a remarkable job of it. The illustrations are perfect, wonderfully encapsulating the action and humour in Beatrix Potter’s latest tale.

What’s more Blake’s illustrator’s note, where he hopes that Beatrix potter would have approved of his work and speaks of his pride at being given the opportunity to illustrate such a book, is so sweet and endearing. I truly think he has done wonders with the text and brought the book to life in a way that none other than Beatrix Potter herself could have. My one slight disappointment is that the few drawings that Beatrix Potter did create to accompany the story could not be included in the publication.

Overall, however, I think this book is a real delight to read, filled with Beatrix Potter’s classical charm, but with slightly more adult escapades than the previous publications. There is also a subtle, perhaps satirical ribbon running through it which suggests that what is natural does not always come naturally.

There is no doubt that it was written by the Beatrix potter we all know and love, but the style is  different to her earlier works. Not worse, just different. Of course, we can’t know whether there was a deliberate attempt on the part of the author to change her writing style, or if the book was left in a somewhat unfinished state. Whatever the case may be, it is a truly charming read and I will happily place it alongside my other Beatrix Potter books, and no doubt look on it time and time again.

I know the publication is a couple of months too late, but happy birthday Beatrix, may you continue to delight us, and future generations for many, many years to come.

 

The Mouse and His Child – Russell Hoban

“A clockwork heart can’t replace the real thing.” ― Dru Pagliassotti

I received this book in my August Prudence and the Crow box, the book selection was a fantastic bit of luck, as I’d been really craving classic children’s literature – between you and me I’m becoming more and more convinced that Prudence and the Crow are able to read my mind. From the a quick look at the front cover and the name alone – I know, I know, never judge a book by its cover, right? – I was expecting story about a mouse that fell in love with a windup mouseling. I’m sure you get the idea, something similar to Pinocchio, but English – so, perhaps with afternoons spent playing in dolls’ houses pretending to drink tea. I could not have been more mistaken, but, far from being disappointed, I absolutely loved it.

The Mouse and His Child – Russell Hoban

“Where are we?” the mouse child asked his father. His voice was tiny in the stillness of the night.
“I don’t know” the father replied.
What are we, Papa?”
“I don’t know. We must wait and see.” 

the-mouse-and-his-childOn a cold winter’s evening a tin father and son emerge from a box to stand on display in a toy shop window. Outside the cold wind blows and tramp passes by, momentarily taken by the sight of the toys. Brand new, and confused, the mouse and his child struggle to comprehend what it means to be windup toys and the thought of the life that lays before them makes the poor child cry.

It is not long before they are swept away, bought by a family, destined for a life spent dancing beneath the Christmas tree – the life of a windup. It is a simple life, spent quietly fulfilling their duties; until they break the ancient clock-work rules and must face the consequences.

Discarded in the snow the mouse and his child begin a wholly different journey than the one written for them. They are rescued, repaired by a tramp, and chased by a terrible force that would see all windup toys turned to slaves. Through all that they endure the mouse and the child wish for only one thing, a place to call their own – a magnificent house, a mother, and a sister.

I wish I could say that I had read this book as a child. This is definitely a tale that will take on an entirely different meaning, and gain resonance as a person grows older. I spoke about the book with a colleague when I had just started reading it, and he said that he loved it as a child, but upon revisiting it as an adult realised, quite simply ‘wow, this is really deep stuff’. I could try and say it more eloquently, but that is the bare bones of it. The Mouse and his Child is an incredible tale of quest and determination for children, and when viewed with an adult’s mind it is absolutely brimming with philosophical thoughts, lessons, analogies, and big, gaping questions about life.

“All roads, whether long or short, are hard,” said Frog. “Come, you have begun your journey, and all else necessarily follows from that act. Be of good cheer. The sun is bright. The sky is blue. The world lies before you.” 

The humanity of Hoban’s characters is truly incredible. The authors has taken windup toys and elevated them to the next level. Each toy, however minor their role in the tale, has its own unique drive and personality: the once-proud elephant, now plushless, and with the missing ear and eye patch; the tin seal, long separated from her colourful ball; the sweet child, forever asking questions, always looking, and understanding; and even the donkey – the poor, poor, donkey – who once dared to complain. These creatures may be made of clockwork, but they are no less human than you and I. They are exhausted, frightened, frustrated, despondent, sentimental, joyous, hopeful, and forever working towards their goals. Life throws its hurdles, and each one is tackled, even if it does take a short lifetime. Can you imagine what it would be like to spends years at the bottom on a pond? Through all this, they grow stronger, never losing sight of their aims, growing, learning and interacting with all whom cross their path. Just one more step, they will get there in the end.

The mouse and his child, who had learned so much and had prevailed against such overwhelming odds, never could be persuaded to teach a success course… The whole secret of the thing, they insisted, was simply and at all costs to move steadily ahead, and that, they said, could not be taught. 

The Mouse and his Child is a truly phenomenal children’s book, which has just as much, if not more, to offer to adult readers. I feel really thankful to have discovered this book, and look forward, truthfully, to a time when I can share it with the children in my life.

A fairytale weekend

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” ― G.K. Chesterton

After being treated to these beautiful books by a good friend I spent an otherwise dismal weekend holed up in my new reading room indulging my inner child.

The Sleeper and the Spindle – Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Chris Riddel

23301545The Sleeper and the Spindle is a great example of a children’s book made for an adult audience. Think Snow White meets Sleeping Beauty, with some dark magic thrown in. I love modern twists on traditional fairy tales, almost as much as I love traditional fairy tales, so this book was always going to go down well.

High in a tower in a kingdom far, far away a beautiful princess lies enchanted in her bed. Lately, the spell which keeps her slumbering has begun to spread, and the people of neighbouring villages have fallen victim to the sickness. Many brave souls have tried to reach the tower in the hopes of breaking the enchantment only to lose their lives, impaled on an impenetrable fortress of rose thorns. On what is to be the eve of her wedding, a young queen decides to set aside her matrimonial plans to rescue the sleeping princess. Accompanied by a team of crass dwarves, the queen takes up her sword and chain mail and travels deep into the mountains to reach the sleeping kingdom.

The Sleeper and the Spindle combines the traditional themes we all know and love with an exciting modern twist, to create an enchanting, yet ominous tale – as delicately unsettling as it is deliciously captivating.

Oh and the illustrations are nothing short of spectacular.

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Russian Fairy Tales – Alexander Afanasyev, with illustrations by Ivan Bilibin

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If you saw my post about Children’s Stories from Japanese Fairy Tales and Legends you’ll no doubt be familiar with my fascination with foreign fairy tales. In fact, this interest does not apply just to fairy tales – myths, legends and ghost stories are also high up my list of interests. I find it really interesting to see how stories from different nations compare to those I grew up with and know so well.

This collection of tales was written, or rather, recorded by renowned Russian folklorist Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev in the mid-19th century. The book contains some of the best-known Russian folktales, including: Vasilisa the BeautifulThe Feather of Finist the Falcon; The Frog-Tsarevna; and Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf.

Of all the characters I came across in this volume, and there are a few who feature in more than one tale, I was particularly taken by Baba Yaga.

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Baba Yaga is a cannibalistic witch who lives in a small wooden hut at the edge of the forest. Now, this description may not seem so different from a lot of other witches in children’s stories, but Baba Yaga has so many fantastic quirks, the likes of which I would never have imagined.  Her hut stands on hen’s legs, and will only lower itself to permit entry when in receipt of a certain rhyme. It is also surrounded by a picket fence adorned with the skulls of Baba Yaga’s victims, the eye sockets of which glow in the night.  Instead of a broomstick, Baba Yaga travels through the forest in a giant mortar, driving herself forward with a pestle in her right hand, while sweeping the forest floor with a broom in her left hand. Oh and she is also often followed by spirits.

I love her.

Having no familiarity with Russian folklore prior to this, I feel the collection gave a good introduction to some of the most famous characters in Russian folk literature. It’s a beautiful volume, and some of the illustrations are so elaborate I feel I could have spent hours studying them.

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