Picture books for children – reviews

Imogen Carter
·4 min read

As winter looms and the pandemic drags on, children’s publishers are bringing out their big players to keep spirits lifted, from Julia Donaldson and Lauren Child to Benji Davies and Rob Biddulph. In Just One of Those Days (Macmillan), there’s even the welcome return of Jill Murphy’s lovable Bear family, 40 years since Mr Bear yawned his way through the classic Peace at Last.

Deceptively simple, this tender new tale finds the three bears tackling a tricky day after a rotten night’s sleep. Mum breaks her glasses, Dad spills coffee over his work, and everything is unsettling at nursery for poor Baby Bear. “‘How was work?’ asked Mr Bear… ‘Not brilliant,’ said Mrs Bear.” But, returning home, they all get cosy on the sofa with pizza. Murphy is terrific at observing daily life and gently reflecting on the healing power of familial love. It’s all very relatable – right down to the cover image of the three bears uncomfortably asleep on the parents’ bed, baby spreadeagled, adults squashed and grimacing.

Both Julia Donaldson and Rob Biddulph trust in dogs to spread joy this season. In the follow-up to their 2016 bestseller The Detective Dog, Donaldson and illustrator Sara Ogilvie introduce Dot the dalmatian who helps snuffle and cuddle children better in The Hospital Dog (Macmillan). The verse skips along as cheerfully as Dot on her way round Wallaby Ward accompanied by owner Rose (who has “rings on her fingers and specs on her nose”) until Dot gets injured coming to the rescue of a child on the way home and herself becomes the patient.

Just as colourful and charming is Dog Gone (HarperCollins) from Rob Biddulph. Told from the perspective of Teddy the pug, readers are introduced to his favourite toys and then “Dave, my pet human. I keep him upstairs.” Biddulph wittily describes the day Teddy’s pet human goes missing at the park and his characters, both furry and human, are full of life with their shiny, conker-like eyes.

A staple in many party-loving households, Kitchen Disco by Clare Foges and Al Murphy has a new dancing companion in the form of their latest, Veg Patch Party (Faber). Billed as “Glastonbury with veg”, it’s wonderfully silly and energetic. While the rest of the farmyard is sleeping, up pops the veg ready for a big old blowout. There’s DJ Brussel Sprout on the decks, rocking radishes and an Elvis-inspired potato with his backing band, the Chips. Definitely one for nostalgic adults as well as their mini ravers.

At the end of 2018 Julian Is a Mermaid sashayed on to many best-books-of-the-year lists, including mine, and Jessica Love’s young Afro-Latin New Yorker is back to once again spread a message of love and inclusivity. This time Julian’s going to a wedding dressed in his finery alongside his cousin Marisol. With the same minimal text and painterly illustrations as Love’s debut, Julian at the Wedding (Walker) finds our hero fashioning magical alternative outfits for himself and Marisol after she gets her frock covered in mud. All three generations depicted in this tale – the kids, their glamorous granny chaperones and the women getting married – are a visual celebration of being true to who you are. It’s a book brimful of detail, as divine-looking as the cake the grannies natter over at the end – a lace veil catches in the wind, wispy afro hairs curl round a face, fluttering autumnal leaves frame each page.

Beloved children’s broadcaster Floella Benjamin has, aged 71, turned her 1995 Windrush generation memoir into a picture book with vivid artwork by Diane Ewen. Coming to England (Macmillan) leaps off the page full of hope and personality, much like Benjamin herself, while lightly touching on the distressing aspects of her family’s relocation from Trinidad to London and the challenge of integrating at school. The scenes of home life are particularly moving and, while totally different in style to Jill Murphy’s latest addition to her timeless evocations of domestic life, they capture the same atmosphere of family warmth, connection and just a little bit of chaos.

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