The best picture books (in our house)

If you have small children, you will read the same books again and again until your eyes bleed. Having enjoyed (survived?) 6 years of bedtime reading, here are my tips for staying just the right side of insanity at story time.

First Hippo on the Moon (David Walliams).
I Took the Moon for a Walk (Carolyn Curtis and Alison Jay). ‘We raced for the swings, where I kicked my feet high And imagined the Moon had just asked me to fly, Hand holding hand through the starry night sky when I tool the Moon for a walk.’ I reviewed this here.
Goodnight Moon (Margaret Wise Brown, Clement Hurd). A classic first bedtime book.
Do you speak English, Moon? (Francesca Simon and Ben Cort).
Many Moons (James Thurber).
Moon Zoo by Carol Ann Duffy would fit this category, but actually her related book, Underwater Farmyard, is far superior.
Zoe and Beans, Pants On The Moon (Chloe And Mick Inkpen).
Moon Rabbit (Natalie Russell). This is not really a moon book, more of an odd couple friendship book about a city rabbit falling for a country rabbit.

The Princess and the Peas (Caryl Hart, Sarah Warburton). Lily-Rose May can’t eat peas, so she must be a princess. She moves to the palace but it’s not as much fun as she expected.
I Don’t Want to be a Pea (Ann Bonwill, Simon Rickerty). Hugo the hippo wants to go to the party as the princess and her pea, Bella the bird is not keen.

Ahoyty Toyty (Helen Stephens) Why it’s no fun to be a snobby dog (I also like Poochie Poo with the same characters).
Zoom (Tim Wynne-Jones, Eric Beddows).
The Lighthouse-Keeper’s Lunch (Ronda Armitage, David Armitage). Every day he rows to the lighthouse and his wife prepares an amazing lunch and sends it to him by rope over the waves. But the pesky seagulls notice the lobster roll and peach surprise. 

Daddy’s sandwich (Pip Jones and Laura Hughes). Daddy, shall I make you a sandwich with all your favorite things? It’s obvious that Daddy’s favorite things include not only smelly cheese and jelly beans, but also his phone, his bike the paddling pool and…
The Disgusting Sandwich (Gareth Edwards and Hannah Shaw).
The Giant Jam Sandwich (John Vernon Lord, Janet Burroway). One from my childhood. Wasps take over a small town and the plan is to trap them in an enormous jam sandwich.

I find all pirate books a bit tedious, with the exception of The Princess and The Sleep Stealer (Elissa Elwick). If you must continue the pirate theme, then The Night Pirates is well done and The Troll by Julia Donaldson is not her finest but still excellent.

Bear (Mick Inkpen). Joyful. A bear falls into a storybook, will they be allowed to keep him?Wibbly Pig’s Silly Big Bear (Mick Inkpen). Spoons mean nothing to him, but he is enthusiastic! In fact he’s rather like a toddler.
It’s a Bear’s Life (Anna Wilson, Suzanna Diederen). Parker is fed up of being taken for granted by his boy, so he runs off to the bear’s hotel for a break.

The Day the Crayons Quit (Drew Daywalt, Oliver Jeffers). ‘Hey Duncan. It’s me, RED CRAYON. We NEED to talk.’ Genius.
The Pencil (Allan Ahlberg, Bruce Ingman). The pencil drew a boy. The boy asked for dog… (also, their other one, The Runaway Dinner).

Use Your Imagination (Nicola O’Byrne).
Beware of the Storybook Wolves and Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book? (Lauren Child).

As with pirate books, this is mostly a painful genre. However, if you must indulge, let Mick Inkpen be your guide (Kipper’s Christmas Eve, Tickly Christmas Wibbly Pig etc.). Or Raymond Briggs, of course (The Snowman, Father Chrsitmas). Notable mentions to How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Dr Seuss), Angelina’s Christmas (Katherine Holabird) and Zoe and Beans – Zoe’s Christmas List (Mick and Chloe Inkpen).

Z Is For Moose (Kelly Bingham, Paul O. Zelinsky). Zebra pushes Moose out of his alphabet pageant and Moose gets disruptive.
Once Upon An Alphabet (Oliver Jeffers).
Operation Alphabet (Al MacCuish, Jim Bletsas). The Ministry of Letters comes to the rescue when Charlie Foxtrot is in trouble with an alphabet test.

Orlando, the Marmalade Cat (Kathleen Hale). A classic, with several in the series.
365 Penguins (Jean Luc Fromental, Joelle Jolivet). On 1st January, the doorbell rings. A penguin has been delivered. On 2nd January, same again. By March, the problem is where to put them. 


Julia Donaldson is ubiquitous but never tedious. We have 20 of her books, and she is a genius. See her ‘day in the life’ poem. My personal JD top ten:

  1. The Snail and the Whale
  2. Tiddler
  3. Cave Baby
  4. Zog
  5. What the Ladybird Heard
  6. Paper Dolls
  7. Tyrannosaurus Drip
  8. Monkey Puzzle
  9. The Further Adventures of the Owl and the Pussycat
  10. The Magic Paintbrush
  11. Room on the Broom (I know that’s more than ten, but she really is great).

Peely Wally (Kali Stileman)
Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear and Monkey and Me (Emily Gravett)
Where is the Green Sheep? (Mem Fox)
The Hairy Maclary oeuvre (Lynley Dodd)
Socks / Pants / More Pants (Giles Andreae, Nick Sharratt)

And finally, my other top top favourites, the ones I always pick off the shelf when I’m allowed to choose:

  1. Rhinos Don’t Eat Pancakes (Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie).
  2. That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown (Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton).
  3. Oi Frog (Kes Gray and Jim Field) An uptight cat needs frog to sit on a log, not on a chair, or a mat. And only pumas sit on satsumas.
  4. I Want My Hat Back (Jon Klassen).
  5. Click, Clack, Moo – Cows that type (Doreen Cronin, Betsy Lewin). “Dear Farmer Brown, The barn is very cold at night. We’d like some electric blankets. Sincerely, The Cows”.
  6. The Bog Baby (Jeanne Willis, Gwen Millward).
  7. Dogs Don’t Do Ballet (Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie).
  8. Anything by Oliver Jeffers or Mick Inkpen.
  9. The Alfie books (Shirley Hughes).
  10. Great Day for Up (Dr Seuss and Quentin Blake).
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They went to the moooun!

The most pure form of aloneness ever experienced: flying solo on the dark side of the moon, no communication possible, almost every other human 250,000 miles away, apart from the two men who walk on the other side of the moon below you. The vastness of space suddenly fills with previously-invisible stars, as you pass into the moon’s shadow. Michael Collins did not resent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin leaving him behind in the command module. He experienced a wonder that only a few people will ever witness.

Some of the later men did felt frustration at travelling a quarter of a million miles, and orbiting just 69 miles from the lunar surface, without landing. It was worse for the astronauts who trained for years and never even went into space. And what of the wives who were told, ‘you worry about the custard, I’ll worry about the flying’?

The wives are rarely part of the story. Nor the 400,000 pilots, scientists, technicians, managers, medics and engineers who made the Apollo programme happen. The moon landings were extraordinary then and seem, if anything, even more extraordinary now. It took just eight years from Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to land a man on the moon, and bring him back safely, for it to happen. And within four years it was all over. The collective knowledge dissipated. It may never happen again. The future is not what it was.

With Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon: the voyages of the Apollo astronauts, the project has got the book it deserves. I adored the details of the flights – the burn, the wobbling on lift-off, the daunting control panels, the rush of re-entry – after failure after pretend failure in the simulator during training. The competition for a seat on a flight, the camaraderie or toleration during the long flights. The thrills of the geologists that so many moon rocks were coming into their hands, the frustration that there was never enough time to collect more. The drive to do it not because it was easy but because it was hard.

Chaikin is good on the personalities involved, and has interviewed all but one of the men who went to the moon, and many of the wives and support team. For the most part, the astronauts are arrogant and driven loners. There’s no over-achieving like going to the moon. Would you want to be the first man on the moon or, rather, the last? Neil Armstrong spent less than 24 hours on the moon, and his moonwalk lasted just two and a half hours. Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt spent seven days there, and had three moonwalks lasting over 22 hours in total. They were utterly exhausted.

The pacing of the tale of each mission is so perfect that I caught my breath when Neil Armstrong was flying Eagle in the last stages of flight – the lunar module was not where it was supposed to be, the boulders were too big, there were only 60 seconds of fuel remaining. Would they make it?

Chaikin, rightly, is very interested in the what-it-is-like-ness of being on the moon. Some astronauts wrote poetry afterwards. Some turned to God, some turned to drink. I listened to this as an audiobook. It made it easy to absorb the atmosphere, let the details wash over me. Another brilliant feature of this audiobook is Bronson Pinchot’s hypnotic pronunciation of the word ‘Moon’. Mooooun. Sample sentence: ‘How was he supposed to sleep now he’d landed on the MOOOOUN!?’ He says it a lot. Moooun.

The crew of Apollo 8 – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders – were the first three men to leave Earth’s orbit. They travelled for three days to reach the moon, orbited it ten times, on Christmas Eve 1968, and flew back. No one had ever been that far from home. During their mission they took the famous photo of Earthrise. Whilst the moon was spectacular, all the returning moon voyagers were particularly struck by our own planet: the magnificent, fragile and unlikely ‘blue marble’ in the vast blackness of space.

Chaikin ends with a heartfelt lament for the collective ambition, boldness, daring ingenuity, determination and personalities that made it happen, and that, given that it may not happen again, have been let down.

I look up at the moon and think: people went there! To the Moooun. When it’s a full moon on earth, they see a crescent earth on the moon. Did you know, I say, since I landed on the moon (vicariously), that morning on the moon lasts 7 days? Did you know that 24 men went to the moon, and 12 walked on it? Did you know they only see Earth rise when they orbit the moon, not when they stand on it? If you would read this book, I could shut up about the moon. Except I don’t want to shut up about the moon.

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I took the Moon for a walk – Carolyn Curtis and Alison Jay

An eccentric boy takes the Moon for a late evening stroll. (That’s the Moon, not any old moon). The Moon is an uncommunicative but loyal companion. I love Alison Jay’s old fashioned cracked-glaze illustrations: round-bellied animals and buildings with faces. The china is always Spode. Her attention to detail is flawless: a small moment in one scene (a dancing dog on a dish) might be the star of the next page.
Evie (23 months) and I are also big fans of her ‘Welcome to the Zoo’, ‘Christmas Time’ and, especially, ‘Alphabet’. But I always push for ‘I took the Moon for a walk’ at bedtime. It’s better than ‘Alphabet’ at such moments, because it has actual words to read: otherwise the tired parent has to work hard and make conversation about the drawings. Luckily it’s never very difficult to find something to say when an Alison Jay book.
The rhythm of this Moon poem is so calm and satisfying that I’ve not yet minded reading it over and over. My husband even claims that a line borders on Waitsian (as in Tom): ‘while the neighbourhood dogs made a train-whistle choir’. This might be overdoing it, but you take your bedtime story pleasures where you can (or which more, or rather less, below).
My favourite verse:

We danced ‘cross the bridge where the smooth waters flow.
The Moon was above and the Moon was below,
And bright in between them I echoed their glow
When I took the Moon for a walk.

Like all good bedtime stories, it ends with most of the characters asleep, during which the Moon ‘thanked me by sharing its sweet sleepy light’. The quiet ending is another reason for choosing it over Jay’s ‘Alphabet’ which ends with two people and several other animals riding a large zebra’.

Close to the other end of the ‘please choose this one’ bedtime reading scale is anything featuring Maisy. Maisy must be the most subversive character for tiny children. She’s clearly a toddler, and enjoys doing the same things as they do: dressing up, riding her tricycle, playing with toys. And yet she lives ALONE in an enormous house. She even cleans the kitchen floor.
She goes on holiday with no one but Cyril the Squirrel for company, yet when they get to their hotel she takes her toy panda to bed with her. And then she writes postcards home?!? Her best friends include a crocodile and an elephant, but she has a pet cat. Again: what?!?
The oddest Maisy story is one about bathtime. Tallulah (a duck) arrives, hoping to play tennis. Maisy can’t because it’s time for her bath. Just as she’s climbing in, Talullah turns up again. Hasn’t she got the message? Yes, she has: without a word, she rips off her clothes and joins Maisy in the bath. Maisy has a very good social life indeed.
These books are alchemy for little ones. They can’t get enough of her freaky home-alone toddler-householder lifestyle. Good for Lucy Cousins, problematic for the rest of us.

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The joy of ‘doorstop fiction’ on the Kindle

Reading a Stephen King: this an unexpected result of getting a Kindle. I’ve heard that eReaders have boosted the sales of romance novels: people can read them on public transport without being exposed by those tell-tale covers. The other unlikely material I’ve read on the Kindle is the first two volumes from the George R.R. Martin Song of Ice and Fire series (A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings). Just typing the titles makes me confused: why am I reading books with dragons and medieval battles?

Because they’re good reads. In the context of the Kindle, not page turners but button-pressers. (As an online comment in the Guardian noted, in response to negative posts about Stephen King’s latest: I love it when people say that writers who make bajillions in sales are doing something wrong.) Seeing John Lanchester –whose pieces in the London Review of Books I always turn to first – list it as a ‘guilty pleasure’ in his books of the year, makes my pleasure far less guilty.

The Kindle is very suited for long, linear stories – not so good for anything where you’d want to refer back to a previous chapter, or a map. It makes 11.22.63, which clocks in at 700 pages, cosy rather than daunting. You simply press the page-turn button and watch as the scale at the bottom of the screen counts up from 1% to 99% read. More importantly, you don’t have to carry struggle to hold them up in bed or squeeze them into your hand luggage.

I’m not actually daunted by long books, though I do hate carrying them around. I was distraught when I reached the end of A Suitable Boy: I’d have happily spent another 200 pages with its characters. (But I also know someone who sliced their copy in half to make it manageable. Yes, she does now use a Kindle.) When I got into the Patrick O’Brien Aubrey-Maturin novels, it was a relief to know there were 19 of them. I could devour them at two sittings without worrying that I’d come to the end too soon.

I recently met Vikram Seth who told me he was writing a sequel, to be called A Suitable Girl, about finding a wife for Latha’s grandson. I don’t know if this is true – he’d been enjoying free champagne at a book launch – but I do hope so. I was equally thrilled to hear that the putative sequel to Wolf Hall is in fact going to be two sequels. I love Mantel’s writing, and this book in particular. Incidentally, I also know someone who read Wolf Hall on his iPhone – not Kindle, not even an iPad He must have a good memory because most people I know consulted the character list every few pages. A testimony to the relentless power of this book, as much as his determination.

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11.22.63 – Stephen King

A surprising one for me to be reading – and enjoying. I have never read a Stephen King novel, and never thought I would. Horror either puts me off or gives me nightmares. (His brilliant primer, On Writing, is another matter).
I was swayed to read it by the rave review that Mark Lawson gave it in The Guardian. From which we also learn that it’s his 54th work of fiction. The mind boggles.

Everyman Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, is persuaded to use the ‘rabbit-hole’ to 1958 that the local diner owner, Al, has discovered in his storeroom. Al passes on to Jake, as a dying man’s request, his mission to live in the past for 5 years until he is able to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating JFK.

I’m a sucker for some time-travel puzzling and King has some enjoyable details about the mechanics of the business. Jake can take things from the present to the past, so Al has saved him some useful 1950s dollars. Every trip through the rabbit hole, whether two hours or two years, lasts only two minutes in the present. Whenever Jake enters the rabbit-hole, the past is reset. This means that if he were to kill a putative murderer (not necessarily Oswald – there are others) while visiting the past then return to the 2011 diner, the man would be back to his living state is Jake were to step into 1958. So, if the job was worth doing, it will need to be done again.

King uses a common, successful device in fiction – the alien visitor. Jake has to learn how to dress, talk and behave in a world that is familiar but distinctively unlike his own. He must to assume a new identity, and buy appropriate clothes. There is widespread racism and non-stop cigarette smoking, but better food and – apart from the murderers he feels a responsibility to stop – people are generally nicer to each other.

The book is compelling, miss-your-bus-stop stuff. And of course you want to know whether he will manage to stop Oswald killing Kennedy – and if, indeed, he’ll find out whether it was definitely Oswald who shot him, thus disprove reams of conspiracy theories. And, if Kennedy will survive, how will King re-imagine the future when (and if) Jake returns to 2011?

It definitely falls on the ‘readability’ end of the debate activated by the latest Booker prize jury. But Stephen King doesn’t let words get in the way of a good story. Which is sometimes just what you need.

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