Review:Thunder Boy Junior by Sherman Alexie

First published in The Star on 11th November, 2016


Sherman Alexie, the author of the hilarious and heart-wrenching award-winning young adult fiction novel The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian, has published his first picture book.

Illustrated by Yuyi Morales, Thunder Boy Jr tells the story of a young boy struggling to come to terms with his name. Thunder Boy has been named after his dad who is known as “Big Thunder”. Unfortunately, this makes the little boy “Little Thunder”, a nickname that he thinks sounds like a “burp or a fart”.Read More »

Book Review: Magic Beach by Crockett Johnson

Crockett & KraussFirst published on 28th April, 2013 in The Star

IF you’re a fan of children’s books, you would think Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson’s marriage made in heaven. Both were writers of literature for young readers, and Johnson was also an illustrator.

In fact, he drew the pictures for Krauss’ best-known work, The Carrot Seed. Krauss also wrote one of my favourite illustrated books of all time, A Hole is to Dig, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. And Johnson was of course the creator of those wonderful books about a little boy Harold and the adventures he has with his purple crayon.

The Harold books are pure genius in their simplicity. They portray the truth, without embellishment: children draw with all their heart and soul and mind. They enter their creations, live them, imagine them into reality. That is what Harold does. His purple crayon is not magic, his imagination is. This is why you can give a child pencil and paper, or an empty cardboard box, and she will play happily for hours … that is if her imagination hasn’t already been deadened by an iPad or excessive TV-viewing.

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Book Review: The Hole by Øyvind Torseter

holeFirst published on 1st December, 2013 in The Star

A HOLE is whole with something missing, and not just the letter “w”. When my best friend leaves after a long, food-filled visit, she leaves a Jenny-shaped hole in my life. When I left my desk-bound job I felt, acutely, a desk-shaped hole in my life, the desk-shape representing a regular routine, a steady job, financial security.

We see holes as empty spaces needing to be filled. Our initial reaction to them tends to be negative. Better to be whole than to have a hole, right? Who wants to be empty, to be missing something or someone, a purpose or a plan?

There is a hole in Øyvind Torseter’s book. Literally. It’s die-cut right through, from the front cover to the back. You can peep through it and, no matter how sophisticated you think you are, you will find it hard to resist playing peek-a-boo. Read More »

Book Review: Open This Little Book by Jesse Klausmeier, with illustrations by Suzy Lee

open this little bookFirst published on 24th October, 2013 in The Star

I LOVE matryoshka dolls, those Russian dolls of decreasing size that fit one inside the other; Chinese boxes, and any nested containers, including those colourful plastic ones that are a staple of most modern playrooms. The concept appeals to me because it’s practical and neat. Everything fitting together is artful yet ingenuous, and there’s something very cosy and safe about the nesting concept. However, there is also that suggestion of complexity, of layers, of stories told from different points of view, of narratives within narratives.Read More »

Book Reviews: The Day the Crayons Quit & If You Want to See a Whale

First published on 23nd September, 2013 in The Star

THIS week, two picture books published this year that are my favourites so far and seem unlikely to be beaten by any late contenders (it’s already September after all, and I rarely like Christmas books). The first is laugh-out-loud funny and plain adorable. The second is a quiet, gentle story that’s perfect for bedtime. Both are, partly, about a child’s capacity to imagine and dream.Read More »

Book Review: Popville, In the Forest, and Under the Ocean by Anouck Boisrobert and Louis Rigaud

First published on 14th July, 2013 in The Star


I THINK it’s come to the point where 3D versions of movies are being produced just because. It’s like a matter of course, just like filming in colour. I don’t get it though. I mean, 3D effects are not necessary for all movies. I can understand why a superhero/action film might benefit from being 3D (Spider-Man leaping into your lap is, I believe, the sole content of some people’s sexual fantasies), but The Great Gatsby? Really? I fail to see the point, and I don’t intend to find out whether there’s one. (I wait, with dread, for a 3D Casablanca.)

Anyway, what I think about 3D movies is what I’ve recently started to think about pop-up books … which are, really, 3D books, or books with 3D illustrations. Suddenly, it’s like every title needs to pop, and, because of the very nature of pop-up books (their production is time-consuming and labour-intensive), the pop-ups are the main event, not the story – at least not when classics are turned into paper art. There’s no way the unabridged The Wizard of Oz could be made into a pop-up book (imagine the price tag!). Instead, massively abridged versions of these books are produced. Sometimes, only key scenes make it into the book as is the case with Robert Sabuda’s The Chronicles of Narnia.Read More »

Interview: Emily Gravett

First published on 23 April, 2010 in Star2

emily 1

EMILY GRAVETT must be the most prolific picture book creator in existence. In five years, the 37-year-old Brighton-native has produced 10 books – nine wholly by her, the 10th, a collaboration with Julia Donaldson (author of The Gruffalo and many other much-beloved picture books).

But when I speak to her on the phone, Gravett frets about being unproductive: ‘I don’t think I’ve published that many books,’ she said from Singapore, the final leg of her recent Asian tour to promote Cave Baby, her collaboration with Donaldson. ‘I could be publishing more – I feel a little uneasy whenever I’m between books.’

Gravett is inspired by everyday situations, conversations on the radio, things she overhears in shops and on the bus. She claims to work in a ‘very chaotic’ way.

‘I have a sketch book and I mess about with ideas. A book usually comes together in a bit of a mess. There’s a lot of reorganisation and sorting things out.’

Gravett’s books are either deceptively simple (like Orange Pear Apple Bear, The Odd Egg or Blue Chameleon) or extremely complex, full of subtle jokes, witty asides, and visual gags.

Emily 2

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Book Review: Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

rules of summerA version of this piece was first published on 22nd December, 2013 in my column, Tots to Teens in The Sunday Star

Author & Illustrator: Shaun Tan
Publisher: Lothian Children’s Books, 48 pages

NEVER BREAK the rules. Especially if you don’t understand them.’ That’s on the back-cover of Rules of Summer, Shaun Tan’s latest picture book. One might also say, ‘Never discount a Shaun Tan picture book. Especially if you don’t understand it.’

I hardly ever understand Tan’s picture books. Or rather they usually leave me feeling perplexed and with many questions. I once remarked to a fellow-Shaun Tan fan that his art is so beautiful that it doesn’t matter that his stories don’t quite work or make sense. At that point, I believed that Tan would not be a published author if he wasn’t such an outstanding artist. However, I’m starting to change my mind about that. Now I think that when Tan makes a whole book, providing words and pictures, you can’t have one aspect without the other. The words may be cryptic, they may not make up the usual story pattern – conflict, climax, resolution – but they offer the reader a starting point to create that structure for herself. They set the wheels of the imagination in motion, and that’s also what his art does.Read More »

Interview: Shaun Tan

A shorter version of this interview was first published on 27th September, 2009 in The Star.Shaun_Tan_portrait300px

MOST PEOPLE tend to associate picture books with simple stories, illustrated with simple, brightly coloured pictures. Of course, those with a more intimate knowledge of this medium of storytelling know that there is more to picture books than just pretty pictures that simply offer a visual description of a straightforward, basic text.

Picture books may deal with complex and difficult themes and subject matter, and this may be reflected in either the text or the art, or both.

Shaun Tan is a picture book artist whose work is definitely more complex than what the average person might expect to find in a alphabet or counting book. I know people who started collecting picture books after they read one of Tan’s. The Melbourne-based 35-year-old started his career drawing for science fiction and horror novels. His art appears in picture books written by John Marsden (The Rabbits) and Gary Crew (The Viewer and Memorial) and he also illustrates his own books (The Red Tree, The Arrival, The Lost Thing, Tales from Outer Suburbia).


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Book Review: A World of Wonders by J. Patrick Lewis

First published on 13th July, 2008 in The Star

world of wonders

I NEVER enjoyed geography lessons when I was in school. All those names! All those terms! They didn’t seem to have anything to do with my life. If only I’d had J. Patrick Lewis’s A World of Wonders: Geographic Travels in Verse and Rhyme to bewitch and encourage me!

What an excellent resource for those who wish to introduce children to geography. Hmm … how dubious that sounds! Would any child be interested in the ‘study of the earth and its features and of the distribution of life on the earth, including human life and the effects of human activity’ ( Put that way, probably not.Read More »