Picture books for children – reviews

Imogen Carter
·3 min read

Picture books that can bring tears to the eyes even after repeated reads are few and far between. John Burningham mastered the skill with Granpa, as did Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb with The Paper Dolls. But it’s particularly impressive that debut author Lauren Ace and illustrator Jenny Løvlie achieved the feat while fresh to the game with The Girls, about four schoolgirls whose friendship and lives blossom under an old apple tree. The tale won the illustrated book category of the 2019 Waterstones children’s book prize, and the pair have since received messages from readers worldwide thanking them for reflecting their own friendships and inspiring the next generation.

Ace agonised over whether a male-focused follow-up was appropriate, feeling that the lives of boys are so well documented in children’s literature. Thankfully she persisted. The Boys (Little Tiger) centres again on four children of different races and family backgrounds – Rey, Nattie, Bobby and Tam – but here the seaside replaces the tree, becoming both the setting and a symbol of uncontrollable emotions.

With echoes of Helen Oxenbury’s illustration style, Løvlie’s characters glow, while her detailed, textured depictions of the seashore feel really alive. Thematically, The Girls foregrounded the interests and, later, careers of its quartet, but here the focus is the characteristics of the boys and how they relate to others. Ace researched toxic masculinity while writing, and though her poignant book wears that research lightly, it gently asserts the value of boys talking about their feelings.

“Life’s too short not to be a weirdo,” declares Weirdo (Puffin), the debut children’s book from celebrated authors and real-life partners Zadie Smith and Nick Laird, with pictures by Magenta Fox. The book stars a judo-loving guinea pig given to Kit for her birthday. Sadly, Kit’s three other pets initially don’t take to the new arrival, so the guinea pig finds herself trying to become more like them. When disaster looms, she’s saved by an eccentric neighbour with leopard print leggings and a penchant for coconut macaroons who, like the book itself, joyously reclaims the word weirdo. As cockle-warming as a cuddle from a favourite pet, Weirdo ought to be a smash hit.

Another eagerly awaited celebration of difference, The Pirate Mums (OUP, 3 June) is the rollicking story of Billy’s two mums, who save the day on a school trip to the seaside, thus convincing Billy to stop longing to have a normal family. Written by new author Jodie Lancet-Grant, after she and her wife struggled to find LGBTQ+ tales for their twins, it’s a rainbow-hued riot of sea shanties and pirate banter animated by Lydia Corry’s drawings, with their lively, just-crayoned look.

The writer and illustrator Jon Klassen has become something of a star following the trilogy that started with I Want My Hat Back, his spare, dry style offering a darkly different take on life for young readers while inspiring internet memes and even tattoos for the oldies. All will surely love his latest, The Rock from the Sky (Walker), a picture book in five vignettes with a distinct, absurdist flavour and Klassen’s trademark muted palette. Three shifty-looking animals in hats contemplate falling rocks, the need for naps and whether the future holds terrifying one-eyed hexapods intent on destruction.

Yet more fun comes in the form of Mammoth, by Anna Kemp and Adam Beer (Simon & Schuster, 27 May), a fish-out-of-water tale about a woolly mammoth who, having overslept somewhat, finds himself in New York mistaking cars for beetles, skyscrapers for trees and some furry boots for his missing herd.

Meanwhile, top talent Nadia Shireen really understands what makes little children tick, and Barbara Throws a Wobbler (Puffin) gently nudges them to explore their tricky emotions. Barbara wants to ditch her pals, as she’s in a massive mood – it’s “gloopy and heavy, like an angry jelly”. If only real-life tantrums were equally hilarious.

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