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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Billy’s Tenth Birthday – James Minter

 “If you’re horrible to me, I’m going to write a song about it, and you won’t like it. That’s how I operate.” ― Taylor Swift

21685402-256-k269886Billy’s Tenth Birthday is the first volume in James Minter’s new Life Learning Series. The story follows Billy, a young boy who turns ten on the tenth October – 10, 10, 10 – a once in a lifetime occasion. Billy’s excitement at his ‘big’ birthday perfectly encapsulates that of a child who is bordering on adolescence – each birthday seems so much more important than the last, and the move from single to double figures is one of the greatest of all.

On Billy’s birthday he is over the moon to be given a £20 note by his granddad. No more silly children’s toys, he can finally buy what he wants. At the age of ten this must seem like a huge amount of money – possibly more than Billy has ever owned. The options available to him seem countless. But things take an unpleasant turn when the local bully hears about Billy’s birthday present, and forces him to give it up – or else. Billy, like many other children his ages, agrees to the bully’s demands.

Billy is devastated to have lost his special birthday present, but he attempts to keep the situation a secret from his mum and granddad. He has nothing to be ashamed of but has convinced himself that the adults in his life will be cross if they find out what has happened. Like many bullied children he feels he cannot turn to anyone for help. Fortunately, luck is on Billy’s side, and a little bird finds out about the Bully and tells Billy’s granddad. Together they are able to hatch a plan to get the note back and to ensure the bully gets what’s coming to him!

Billy’s Tenth Birthday is a wonderful example of a story that young children can enjoy reading together with their parents. The book carries Minter’s trademark wit, and is well written and accessible, but it also deals with a serious issue that will affect many children as they grow up. Bullying can be a difficult subject for children to talk about, many may feel frightened or embarrassed if they fall victim to bullying. Minter’s book acts as the perfect icebreaker for adults and children to begin discussing these issues.

The message in Minter’s book is clear – you can’t rid the world of bullies but you can do something about how you deal with them.

I’m having another … Wordless Wednesday

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“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” ― C. S. Lewis

May bank holiday – I like books that tell a story

A long weekend is the perfect excuse for a leisurely Saturday. Today we headed into town for a spot of lunch and a wander around market, and I just couldn’t resist slipping into the Oxfam bookshop on Sidney Street.

After treating myself to a few new books last week, I promised myself I wouldn’t buy anything. I reasoned that I would only go in for a look, just to be around the books for a bit and soak up that great used-book smell. After spending a few idle moments perusing the classic texts I stumbled upon the collectables – truth be told, I was looking for the children’s section, but it seems they’ve rearranged the place since my last visit.

Nestled in amongst some dusty hardbacks by authors whose names I’d never heard, and ancient cook books the likes of which might have graced my Grandfather’s kitchen shelves, I found a well-loved volume of children’s stories.

Children’s Stories From Japanese Fairy Tales and Legends

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I love old children’s books. Our sitting room contains a bookshelf dedicated to children’s literature, where all the old fables and fairytales I was given as a child sit amongst Sebastian’s French Tin Tin comics and several tatty picture books by Hungarian photographer Ylla.

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I knew I wanted to add this one to my collection before I had even taken it off the shelf. I’ve never read a Japanese fairy tale, and was interested to see how they would compare to my childhood favourites by Hans Christian Andersen. A quick glimpse inside the book let me know I was making the right choice.

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I’ve never managed to pick up an old book with an inscription without buying it. There is something so beautiful about an inscription, as though it gives the book a story of its very own. Questions about the previous owner immediately started entering my mind. Were they a little boy, or a little girl? Why was Daddy gifting the book alone? Are they the only previous owner?

After trying, and failing, to strike up a conversation with the gentleman behind the till by informing him, somewhat excitedly, that there was an inscription in the book, I wandered home with my loot.

I spent the afternoon sat out sunshine getting to know my new friend, running my fingers lovingly over the pages to feel the indentations left by the old printing presses, and reading the first tale ‘The Daughter of the Moon’ – a charming story about a bamboo cutter who adopts a beautiful fairy.

As much as I liked the first tale, the thing that got me really excited about this book was the illustrations. There is the occasional printed colour plate often found in children’s books from the early 20th century, but there are also images included in the text that have been coloured in by hand.

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Towards the front of the book the pictures have been filled in delicately, with something resembling watercolour paints (above left). I had a look at other editions of the books online, and the images were definitely in no more than black ink when the book was first published. They must have been coloured in by one of the previous owners – was it the child who first received the book from ‘Daddy’ in 1930?

As I got further into the book I noticed that the images were no longer coloured with paint, but instead with coloured pencils, and the signature scratch of a much younger child (above right).

Without knowing anything about the previous owners, I can’t know for sure who coloured the pictures in, but this makes it all the more exciting. This book has its own mystery; a secret story told only in marks left behind by the ghosts of the past. If the first owner of the book did contribute to the coloured in images, and I like to think that they did, I do hope ‘Daddy’ wasn’t too cross.

Charlotte’s Web named best children’s book of all time!

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” ― C. S. Lewis

I was over the moon today to learn that Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White had been voted the best children’s book of all time.

The 1952 tale, about a lovable pig named Wilbur who is saved from the slaughter thanks to his unlikely friendship with a resourceful spider named Charlotte, was named number one in a list of 151 books chosen by critics in a poll by BBC Culture.

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The initial selection was whittled down to a list of the 21 top books in children’s literature, a diverse selection of books which provides a charming glimpse into children’s literature of the past two centuries.

1. Charlotte’s Web – E. B. White
2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C. S. Lewis
3. Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak
4. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
5. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
6. The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
7. Winnie-the-Pooh – A. A. Milne
8. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
9. A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin
10. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle
11. The Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder
12. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
13. From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler – E. L. Koenigsburg
14. The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster
15. His Dark Materials trilogy – Philip Pullman
16. Matilda – Roald Dahl
17. Harriet the Spy – Louise Fitzhugh
18. Pippi Longstocking – Astrid Lindgren
19. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
20. Goodnight Moon – Margaret Wise Brown and Pat Hancock
21. The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien

There are many books on the list I would have happily seen voted number one, but I think the most deserving book won. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Little Women are all firm favourites of mine, but they are books I came to love later on in life, whereas Charlotte’s Web was one of the first books I read on my own.

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I loved Charlotte’s Web as a child, and I find it just as enjoyable now as I did twenty years ago. So I am over the moon at it’s number one spot. Books which tell a story from the point of view of animals have always been popular among children, and E. B. White took this classic theme and created something truly wonderful.

I’d love to know what your thoughts are on this. Did your favourite children’s book make in onto the list? Do you think something else is more deserving of the number one spot? Let me know! 

Children’s book review tour! Color Therapy: An Anti-Stress Coloring Book

“My world was the size of a crayon box, and it took every colour to draw her” ― Sarah Kay

If yesterday’s review wasn’t out of the ordinary enough for you I hope today will not disappoint.

I recently bought an adult colouring books for one of my friends. She had been under a lot of stress, and I thought it would give her an excuse to do something relaxing and creative to unwind at the end of the day.

Adult colouring books have only really been a ‘thing’ for the last year or so, but if sales are anything to go by they certainly seem to be proving popular. There is no shortage of them on the marketplace, just type the words into Amazon and you will be well and truly spoilt for choice.

I was a little envious of the book I had bought my friend, so I set out to secure one for myself – for review purposes of course.

I was lucky enough to be sent this one for free by Michael O’Mara Books Ltd.

Color Therapy: An Anti-Stress Coloring Book – Cindy Wilde, Laura-Kate Chapman and Richard Merritt

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My first feeling upon opening the package was one of great satisfaction – the book itself is lovely. There is none of the horrid flimsiness you often get with traditional children’s colouring books, not a single sheet of sugar paper in sight. It’s nice and weighty, with a hard cover and thick, good quality pages.

I spent a few minutes leafing through the pages and was impressed by the effort and attention to detail which so clearly went into the making of the book. A children’s colouring book would normally include a selection of crudely drawn outlines of trees, houses, tractors and smiling faces –  perfect for a child to scribble outside of the lines. Color Therapy, however, shows the sophistication that divides grown-up colouring books from their traditional counterparts. The pages are stunning, an eye watering mix of outlines, patterns, blank pages and illustrations on which to colour, doodle and sketch to your heart’s content.

Here’s a little taster of some of the pages I am most looking forward to:

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Even the layout of the book pretty sophisticated – despite the introduction stating that there are no rules ‘pick up a pen or pencil and get creating…’ – it is split into seven sections, each of which focus on a different palette, fiery reds, happy yellows, majestic greens and icy blues.

IMG_20150322_101539172I’ve spent the last few weeks taking half an hour or at the end of the day to use Color Therapy, and I have to say I have really enjoyed it. Although I should confess that so far I have only focused on the first section, Red, as it seems the perfectionist in me is unwilling to complete the book in anything other than chronological order.

Colouring in is incredibly soothing, I suppose it is a bit like curling up into the foetal position, there is something comforting about retreating back to more innocent times. I’ve been suffering from headaches a lot recently, and I’ve noticed that using Color Therapy in the evenings has helped to ease the pressure a bit, and as a result I have been sleeping better.

I’ve also found that while colouring in my mind begins to wander, it gives me time to think, but not about the stresses of everyday life. Rather, I find myself thinking about my writing. Since I’ve started using this book I have found it easier to sit down and start on the writing projects I have planned.

The following are a few of my creations – I particularly enjoyed colouring the flamenco dancer!

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Adult colouring books will not be for everyone. I’ve read somewhere that the trend is, somewhat unsurprisingly, far more popular among women. That said, I would definitely recommend Color Therapy. I have thoroughly enjoyed my adult colouring book so far, and I am planning to continue using it. If colouring appeals to your arty, creative side, or if you just want an easy going hobby to unwind with, I think you could benefit having a book like this in your desk drawer.

Children’s book review tour! Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad – Henry Cole

“Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves” ― Abraham Lincoln

Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad – Henry Cole

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Another children’s classic, the picture book. It is unusual for me to try and review a book with no words at all, but a challenge I accepted and enjoyed to the last.

What would you do
if you had the chance
to help a person
find freedom.

This is the question presented to a young girl, in Henry Cole’s haunting tale of a young slave’s journey to freedom.

Unspoken is a beautiful example of a children’s picture book with illustrations that are filled with emotion and can, on their own, tell a strong and provocative tale. Cole has taken something which is often associated with children’s literature, a picture book, a wordless story, and created something beautiful. That is not to say that picture books can’t appeal to adults. Children’s classic such as The Snowman, and Father Christmas are stunning and offer equal entertainment for adults as they do for children.  Indeed, the tale told in Unspoken can speak more toward an adult audience as the innocent child is unlikely to grasp the full extent of sadness that underlies the beautiful artwork. To the child the book may appear as nothing more than a story of young girl with a secret friend.

unspoken-9780545399975-pages-16-17-1-final-rightWithout words, the young girl who lives within the illustrations of Cole’s work is almost a stranger to us; we do not know her name, or very much about her life. However, from her actions it seems as though she is from a less than well off family. Cole draws her working on a farm in tattered clothes, leading cattle and feeding chickens. It is while carrying out chores that the child sees men on horseback riding through her family’s farm, they are searching for something, and she is soon to discover the whereabouts of their quarry. Sent to the barn to gather supplies she is startle by a sound coming from a pile of corn – there is someone there.

If we knew little about the young girl, even more mysterious is the identity of the runaway. We see only their eye peeking through the ears of corn, and later, their thankful hands, reaching out to receive food encased within the young girl’s handkerchief. In my mind I have given the runaway a female identity, although each reader will have their own feelings on this matter.

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The worry etched on the young girls face as she hides this secret says far more than any words could express. Her concern seeps from the pages, a combined anxiety for the creature in the corn, and that she will be discovered harbouring a fugitive.  She watches with clear disdain as men on horseback visit her father once again, offering a reward for the return of an escaped slave. You can see that the family live a simple life, likely a reward would be very gratefully received, and yet the young girl looks on, in silence.

Our heroine, beautiful in her innocence, seems only to think of the safety of the figure in the corn. She follows her heart, as the runaway follows the North Star, away from the South, to freedom. When she returns to the barn and finds the runaway gone, leaving behind a small token of thanks, she knows she has made the right choice.

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Without a single word Cole’s book speaks mountains. There is no colour, no creed, no judgement, just a person, helping another person.

In his author’s note Cole writes that he hopes that those who read the book will use his pictures as a starting point to create their own story – filling in all that has been left unspoken.