Once Upon An Alphabet Book Review

Once upon an alphabet by Oliver Jeffers

I like alphabets. When expecting my daughter in 1992, I made a Winnie The Pooh alphabet cross stitch to while away the last few weeks. I recall my mother telling me about an alphabet banner that was on ‘Matron’s wall’ in the 1930s! Even now, 80 years later, she can recite the whole thing! “A is for Alfred who angled at Ayr, B is for Bernard who …”

Some of its language is a bit outdated now, but it’s incredible that she can still recall it all. So I was delighted when I came across Once Upon an Alphabet in my favourite independent bookstore in Bristol.
I am definitely a fan of Oliver Jeffers. His quirky style came into my world with Lost and Found and, with every new publication, he continues to show his incredible talent and amazing creativity. Once Upon An Alphabet is quite simply superb. Here are 5 Reasons why you should Read it.

For this article, I’m going to take a slightly different stance by using 5 of the 26 letters, and their stories, to give my 5 reasons.

M – The mad and magnificent “Made of Matter”

Alliteration abounds! This story contains no less than 15 words starting with the letter M. Alliteration, where words next to each other start with the same sound, is a literary device, and all the stories here contain them. Understanding alliteration will help your child recognise sounds, a technique called phonological awareness, which is a vital component of learning to read. And once your child is writing, using alliteration will help them create wonderful poetry and stunning stories.

W – “The Whiraffe”

I’ll be honest. This one is quite unsettling. However it is very important that children explore darker themes, and they can do that in the safety of their own homes, with their special adults close by. You can use this story to discuss ethics and talk about whether the inventor should have done what he did.

O – “Onwards”

The owl and the octopus appear in several stories. As well as being amusing, this interweaving of characters will help prepare your child for more complex texts. Your child will learn how multiple characters are linked and learn how to remember more characters. This story also provides us with intertextuality, where different books are linked to one another. Look closely and you’ll spot two of Oliver Jeffers’ creations from another book Lost and Found.

Y – “A Yeti, a Yak and a Yo-yo”

Limericks are less well known these days, probably because they have often contained inappropriate language. However they are fun and children enjoy the rhythm and rhyme. Maybe you could help come up with some appropriate ones. Rhythm and rhyme help children learn the natural rhythms of spoken language. It will also help them say and read words with more than one syllable.

Q – “The Missing Question”

Oliver Jeffer’s is more than an illustrator. His pictures provide additional information for the reader. In terms of printed text, this story is the shortest, with only three sentences. But the pictures give us more. This is teaching your child that stories, good stories, go beyond the literal. Helping your child to learn how to infer.

Once Upon An Alphabet has 26 short stories that intertwine with one another in a humorous and occasionally unexpected way. Each story will give you and your child something to think about. And when you get to the end you can, and will, find yourself back at the beginning again.

 Additional Learning Opportunities

The vocabulary is glorious. A child’s book with the word enigma can’t be sniffed at. Use it to develop your child’s language. Don’t assume they understand the words, explain them to them by giving a definition and then using them in other sentences. As well as wonderful words, there are expressions too. ‘Building bridges’ and ‘laughing in the face of death’.

Talk about Bob and Bernard. What might they do next?
Could an astronaut have a fear of heights? You could talk about fears and what can be done to avoid them having an impact on your life.

Book Review for It’s A Book

It’s a Book by Lane Smith

Nettie texted me a few weeks ago and asked me if I’d read It’s a Book by Lane Smith. It rang a bell although I couldn’t recall from where, so I did what we all do when this happens and googled it. When I found out that Lane Smith was the illustrator of two excellent books, as yet to be written about here (watch this space), The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, I immediately bought it. And I’m very pleased I did, it’s very funny!

It’s about a monkey, a jackass and a little mouse that has a small but important part to play too. The monkey is reading a book whilst the jackass is on his laptop.  Clearly, the jackass has never come across a book and wonders how it could possibly be as interesting as a laptop. It can’t scroll down, it can’t blog or text or tweet. The monkey patiently replies, to start with at least.  As usual for this site, I won’t spoil the ending, but as a book lover myself, I like the ending. A lot!

5 Reasons to Read
1 It’s a Book

I had to put this down as a reason, I couldn’t resist using the title. The modern world is filled with all singing and dancing electronics. And we can be pummelled by the bright flashing lights and the non-stop noise.  We have sensory overload. Where better to escape the madness than in the pages of a book? I know of no better place I’d rather be at the end of a long day. All books provide us with new experiences and new knowledge and some books go beyond this. They give us opportunities to think. It’s A Book gives us just that.

Illustration of a monkey reading a book and a jackass on a laptop
2 It’s a book about a book

The monkey is reading. After endless questions he shows the jackass the book he is reading: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.  At first the jackass is critical and says it has too many letters. But he soon settles down and is completely absorbed in the tale. What a great way for children to see the power of a book. It also demonstrates a literary device, intertextuality, when authors mention or refer to other books. Encourage your child to see if they can find these mentions or references when they read.

Page in It's a Book showing a page in Treasure Island

3 It provides an opportunity to learn about non-verbal communication

Good picture books do this in spades. The monkey’s facial expressions in It’s a Book are brilliant! What I particularly love is that the eyes are so subtle that you could miss it completely, so I recommend re-reading it and pointing them out to your child. Children love making faces. They could pretend to be the monkey. Help them use voice intonation as well as eye movements to match those of the monkey’s.

Illustration of a monkey looking irritated

4 Great vocabulary

The book in It’s a Book is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. One double page spread is used to show the page the monkey is reading and on this page we have unsheathed, broad, cutlass, maniacal and petrified. What great words for your child to add to their vocabulary.

Picture of the jackass pointing at a book

5 Learn a literary technique

Authors often use word play for effect. In It’s a Book there is a lovely moment when the jackass asks “Where’s your mouse?” and the monkey offers a simple response of looking up. The jackass follows the monkey’s eyes to see his mouse. It’s just a lovely moment and one you could explain to your child. Lane Smith has used the fact that the word mouse is a homonym and has two meanings, but is spelt and sounds the same. Can your child think of any others?

I hope this book will make you and your child smile, as it did for us. Perhaps it is more apt for older readers, like me, who grew up when computers were being developed but required whole rooms and even whole buildings to house all the hardware. This book gives you an opportunity to talk about that and how quickly technology has become a natural part of our lives.

Additional learning opportunities
  • The clocks show the passage of time. What times are they telling?
    Look at the text. How does the author show who is talking? (Hint: the colour of the text)
  • This book is akin to a playscript, but there is one page that is different. Can your child see the difference? (Hint: find the speech marks)
  • How do you know the mouse is shouting on the last page?
  • Just like the monkey, you could go to your local library.
  • Are you up for the challenge of reading Treasure Island to your child? Maybe not yet, but have a copy ready for the right time and you’ll see that it’s a classic for a reason.

I Can Read with My Eyes Shut Book Review

I have always loved Dr Seuss books and I Can Read with My Eyes Shut is no exception. I love the wacky, out of the box, out of this world stories and illustrations. They’re so creative and can be both very clever and just right for children. What’s also brilliant is that they’ve been cleverly made to help children read, using techniques like rhyming words and repetition to get kids learning to read faster. As well as enjoying some truly fantastic books.

I Can Read With My Eyes Shut is a very simple book, more like a poem really. Like many Dr Seuss books it joins the Cat (as seen in Cat in The Hat) telling little cat that he can read with his eyes shut but that it’s more fun if you open them. And takes you on a journey of all the things you could read about if you don’t read with your eyes shut.

1 The rhyming words

Not only do the rhyming words make the story fun to read but it also makes it easier to read. Children will pick up the words faster as they know how they should sound. It also helps them to see that words can sound similar while looking quite different. Like “stuff” and “enough”. This helps them to learn different ways of spelling the same sounds and then knowing which ones go with which words by seeing them on the page.

2 It has a great rhythm

It’s got a very upbeat rhythm keeping you going til the end. Unlike some books that might make you think you’re reading a novel, I Can Read with my Eyes Shut  doesn’t drag or get boring. A bonus as this is, it also makes it easier to read and remember words making this a very good book for children who’ve just started to read. In a similar way that song lyrics are easier to remember than other text, your child will pick up the words and remember them better than with other books. This helps them gain confidence and encourages them to go and read more.

The more that the you read, the more things you know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go
3 The story is about why it is wonderful to read

The main character is literally telling you that reading is amazing, while you’re reading. That is brilliantly meta! I love the idea that you are reading a book that’s showing you why you’ll love reading books. What’s more it’s saying it like a friend, with so much enthusiasm and love you can’t help but go along with it. It also opens your eyes (pun intended) to what we can read about. There are things far beyond our imaginations out there to read. Encouraging children to go out there and find it.

4 It sets your imagination a-light

Who is Foo Foo? Why is Jake the Pillow Snake? What problems would you have with an owl on your nose? All these questions you’ll be asking as you read the book, and the answers are endless. Each time you could come up with something different. Or elaborate on the answers you’ve already thought up. Great for creating inquisitive minds.

Little cat playing a Hut Zhut

5 It’s fun

There are so many opportunities in this book to have fun with your child. Whether you’re trying to read upside down or trying to read with your eyes shut (which I can guarantee you will after reading this book), there are so many places you can have fun and enjoy reading with your child.

I hope you enjoy this book just as much as I do and together with your children see that even if you can read with your eyes shut, it is much better to read with them open.

Learning Opportunities
  1. Say all the things you could read about, real or made up, the more the better
  2. Draw a new musical instrument as creative as the Hut Zhut
  3. Discuss what you think the problems would be of having an owl on your nose
  4. Discuss with your child what they think  Foo Foo could be or where they could find Jake the Pillow Snake
  5. Let them create a creature, like the ones found in the book, that they could read about.

Percy the Park Keeper Book Review

Percy the Park Keeper Stories by Nick Butterworth

  • One Snowy Night
  • After the Storm
  • The Rescue Party
  • The Secret Path
  • The Treasure Hunt
  • Percy’s Bumpy Ride

This article is about not just one book, but six books, all about a kindly Park Keeper, Percy.  The first one was published in 1989, but it was the fourth that first came to my attention when it was given to my daughter as a birthday present and became a firm favourite. It is a charming story with a fold out page at the end to enjoy. The books became so popular that they were turned into television programmes, which all my children watched avidly. They are all appealing owing to the gentle pace, charming illustrations and a surprise fold out page.

Each book features Percy and his woodland friends. In One Snowy Night, Percy helps the animals come in from the cold while in After the Storm, Percy assists them in a relocation. The Rescue Party deals with a trapped rabbit and The Secret Path has the tables being turned on the animals. In The Treasure Hunt the animals find out that treasure can mean different things and in Percy’s Bumpy Ride a flock of sheep save the day.

1 See that a simple act of kindness goes a long long way

In three of the books, Percy helps the animals either find somewhere warm to spend the night, find a new home or find safety. However, he doesn’t always do it all on his own, the animals all help too.  What a great way for young children to have it demonstrated that by pulling together the outcome is better for everyone.

Illustration of a rabbit stuck down a well

2  These stories can help your child learn resilience

Bad things happen. Wrapping children up in cotton wool may seem the best response but in the long term it means your child will not be equipped to deal with difficult circumstances. It is important for children to build resilience by experiencing difficulties and overcoming them. These stories demonstrate that difficulties can be surmounted.

3 See the beauty of the seasons

In these books we get to enjoy the beauty of all the seasons. The daffodils in Spring, warm Summer days with wildflowers and butterflies. The exquisite colours of Autumn and the cold snow of Winter. The pictures are beautifully drawn, down to the last detail of Percy’s breath condensing in the cold Winter’s air. You can enjoy the pictures and talk about the seasons with your child. Explore which is their favourite and why.

4 Take a trip to your local park

Children learn so much from being outside.  These books are great to stimulate them to look into the beauty of the Natural World. I have a particular fondness of garden birds and Nick Butterworth includes robins, blackbirds, thrushes and sparrows as well as woodpigeons, coots and seagulls.  As well as wildlife, the books shares information about trees and plants. Go outside and see if you can spot birds and trees or bushes, and then go home and try to find out what they are called.

5 Enriches your child’s vocabulary

Books are wonderful at providing your child with words that they don’t come across on a day to day basis. These stories will introduce your child words like to cocoa, snuggled, shivering, chuckle, damage, tangly, wrecked, handkerchief, shrubbery, and handiwork and expressions such as “Good gracious!”, “pricked up his ears”, “a great storm was raging”, and “drifting downstream”. As your child’s vocabulary grows the more they’ll enjoy increasingly complex books, which in turn gives them more words. It’s a never ending expanding spiral.

Percy with his arm around a sad fox with badger and the squirrels

These are lovely books that you will enjoy just as much as your child. This is the fourth article I have written for the blog and it was as a result of a personal request, from my brother-in-law, to write about the books he loved reading to my nieces and nephew 20 years ago. I hope he feels I’ve done the books justice. If you have a personal favourite, please let us know, and we can share with the rest of the world. Good books are worth sharing!

Additional Learning Opportunities
  1. These books are great for discussing animals and habitats.
  2. Can your child sort the animals from the smallest to the tallest?
  3. Maybe your child could plan a treasure hunt for you and write signs or clues?
  4. Could your child design a flying machine and where would they like to fly to?
  5. Go to the park and enjoy doing observational drawings of flowers or trees.

Peace At Last Book Review

In my opinion,  Peace at Last is one of Jill Murphy’s  finest. First published in 1980, it received a commendation for the Kate Greenaway award.  My first daughter was born in 1993 and this book was a firm favourite. We read it over and over and over again, so much so, I can still recite most of it off by heart, 20 years later!!  It is a charming tale about the Bear family and poor Mr Bear who cannot get to sleep.  She loved joining in with me as I made the noises; Baby Bear’s nyaaowing, the ticking and cuckooing of the clock, the humming of the fridge, the snuffling of the hedgehogs, the tweeting of the birds and the alarm clock waking the family up.

The story starts with the Bear family going to bed, but poor old Mr Bear can’t get to sleep owing to Mrs Bear’s snoring.  He wanders around the house, trying to find some peace.  In the end he finds “peace at last” but …. you’ll have to read the story to find out!

1 Peace at Last is a perfect bedtime story

Bedtimes are truly precious times and stories about bedtimes are particularly charming.  My fondness for bedtime stories crosses 2 generations. I can still visualise my mother, sitting on my bunkbed, over 40 years ago reading Dr Seuss to me. And 30 years after I was repeating the experience but this time in the mother role, and I can’t wait to be able to do the same as a Grandparent (though my children are currently not so keen!)  A story about bedtime reinforces to children that all families go to bed and, in this day and age, traditional illustrations, with no computers, laptops, tablets or phones is a good way to reinforce that bedtimes are not places for electronic devices.

2 An opportunity to show off your vocal talents

In this book, you can SNORE, NYAAOW, TICK-TOCK and much much more! By reading with expression you are making the story more interesting and thus your child will be more involved, engaged and may well join in with you.  Especially if you point to the words as you go along, which is a great way to show your child that the written word in English goes from left to right and top to bottom. Your child will soon see that some words in the book are all capitals which is a clue from the author to read these words with emphasis. Unleash the actor inside and let rip!

3 The pictures are delightfully detailed

From Mrs Bear’s curlers and hairnet to the increasing bags under Mr Bear’s eyes; every page shows lovely detail. Your child is growing up in a modern world and this book is set in an era where there are no mobile phones or even digital clocks, so you can use the illustrations to develop your child’s vocabulary.  Explore their knowledge of knitting, grandfather and cuckoo clocks, hairnets, salt cellars and pepper pots.  The black and white pictures are also worth exploring; there’s an old fashioned telephone with a dial to talk about and compare with our modern day phones.

4 It contains beautifully poetic story language

Simply put, story language is language that is more often found written down rather than delivered in day to day conversation. The story starts with ‘The hour was late.’ Have you ever come across an hour and one that is late?  More commonly, we would say “It is late”. This is one of the many reasons that children brought up on books do better in their academic education because they can use these phrases in their own writing and hence get higher marks.

Illustration of mrs bear and mr bear asleep in bed

5 It is onomatopoeic-tastic!

Poetry is filled with onomatopoeia, words that sound like the noise they are describing, and this book is too.  Snore, Nyaaow, Tick-Tock, Cuckoo …. I could go on but I don’t want to spoil it for you. In school your child will learn about them as a literary device and use their own creations to write poetry; this book is giving them a head-start!

This book could give you and your child a warm fuzzy feeling, like it does for me or it could be used to help your child with telling the time, writing poetry, thinking about how animals adapt and considering what it would be like without electronic devices.  I leave it up to you. Enjoy!

Additional Learning Opportunities
  1. You can help your child write Mr Bear’s diary entry of his night
  2. Discuss with your child what might happen the next day, your child could draw a picture or write a continuation of the story
  3. Rather than using your vocal talents, your child could use a variety of musical instruments to create a soundscape for the story. What sound or instrument might they use for SHINE, SHINE?
  4. There are many clocks illustrated throughout, help your child use them to tell the time and even work out how much time is passing during the night.
  5. Discuss nocturnal animals.

Green Lizards vs Red Rectangles Review

Written by Tanya Alevropoulos

I came across Green Lizards vs Red Rectangles due to my obsession with the Kate Greenaway award. It has been nominated for the 2017 award, due to be announced in June 2017. I take great pleasure in reading all the nominated titles. Then trying to guess which will be selected for the longlist, the shortlist, and finally receive the award. I found it a few weeks ago in Foyles book shop in Waterloo and devoured it.

The story starts by stating that the green lizards and red rectangles were at war.  The red rectangles were smart but the green lizards were strong and thus neither could defeat the other. The fighting continued until they gathered for a truce. Could they find a way to make peace?  I don’t want to spoil it for you, so you’ll just have to read it!

Illustrated page of a book filled with green lizards looking at the top right hand corner

1 It has been nominated for the prestigious Kate Greenaway medal

If a book is nominated for a medal, I always think it’s worth taking a look. It is telling me that other people rate it as well.  Previous winners include personal favourites such as Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are and Anthony Browne’s Gorilla. Which would put this book into very good company indeed!

A red rectangle covers over half the page squishing the green lizards, which don't look very happy

2 The endpapers set the scene and !!!spoiler alert!!! illustrates the ending…

For those not in the know, the endpapers of a book are basically the first and last pages of the book after the front and back covers. These days many picture books have endpapers worthy of study; they relate to some aspect of the story (often in an amusing fashion).

For Green Lizards and Red Rectangles the front endpaper (see photo) shows a heaving mass of lizards, and they don’t look happy! Why might that be? You can talk about this with your child. The back endpaper, for those who like to read the last page of a book in advance (personally I never do), gives you your ending.

Mix of green lizards standing, crawling and fighting some red rectangles

3 It is a very clever story of war and peace

The pictures and printed text combine to demonstrate the absurdity of war and conflict in a way that small children can understand.

A mixture of different sized red rectangles on top of one another

4 The ending is inspired

I was hugely delighted with the ending. It really is very, very clever!

Book illustration with a crowd of green lizards, some standing on each others heads, to get a view of something happening of the paper on the right hand side

5 It should be a compulsory PSHE text

The Guardian review says it all “This book offers an easy, safe means to talk about the idea of war”. PSHE should, in my opinion, be a compulsory subject, but the New Curriculum does not agree. So now many schools are now only paying it lip service. By reading this book with your child you are giving them vital skills to consider the repercussions of conflict and the crucial ability to find resolution.

Page of a book saying the Green Lizards and the Red Rectangles were at war

Steve Antony’s genius is to have created illustrated characters as diametrically opposite as you can get.  Since the lizards are living, green, curvy and squishy, whereas the rectangles are inanimate, red, angular and hard. The history of mankind demonstrates that difference in race, creed or opinions, which has resulted in, and still results in, conflicts. Ones in which millions of lives have been lost.

This book could help your child consider these horrible but real consequences in the safety of a warm, comfortable familiar room. And just maybe, maybe, could make a difference to their life and to the lives of others. I think that’s worth £6.99, and 15 minutes of your time, don’t you?

Additional Learning Opportunities

Rather than listing them all, quite simply this book provides an excellent vehicle to talk about war. As an extra, you could ask your child to think of a different animal and alliterative shape who could be at war and let them create their own drawings, for example Grey Elephants vs Turquoise Triangles, and see how they manage to find peace.

This Is Not My Hat Book Review

A few years ago, while I was looking at the newest selection of picture books in my local Waterstones, my eyes were drawn to This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen. Then an unknown author/illustrator. The black matt cover stood out against the other books with their brightly printed gloss covers.

On opening, I knew from the endpapers that the pictures in the book were going to be more than just simple illustrations. And by the last page I was hooked. The two short punchy sentences, opposite a picture of a little fish swimming away, looking behind towards its unseen pursuer, made me see that this was no ordinary picture book.

The main story follows a small fish who is racing to safety after he steals a hat. He is completely honest about the crime and he believes he will succeed.  The reader, however, is entitled to an additional viewpoint, that of the hat’s owner, a much bigger fish.  The big fish first becomes aware of the theft, and thereafter seeks to retrieve his hat. I believe all children should have the opportunity to read this book for five reasons.
Illustration of a little orange fish wearing a blue bowler hat

1.It introduces the idea of right and wrong

Through the story you see that the little fish commits a crime by keeping a hat that doesn’t belong to him. This is great premise in a book for young children as it helps children understand about right and wrong at a young age. This allows them to make more moral decisions as they get older. And is especially so if you discuss the little fish’s choice with your child/children. As well as talking to them about the consequences of what he does (and says).

Photograph of Front Cover of This Is Not My Hat shows a little fish wearing a bowler hat swimming away on a black background

2. It has learning opportunities for all ages

The book really is accessible to readers of all ages. From very young children who can enjoy the pictures, to more mature children (and adults) who can discuss and ponder as to what might have happened to the fish. It really is a great book when you can see something new each time you read it. Especially if you end up reading it every night.

3. The eyes have it! They’re teaching non-verbal signals

Klassen’s brilliant illustrations, from tiny changes in the position of the pupils to changes in the eye shape tell you what the characters are thinking. It’s sheer genius!  Non-verbal signals are key to human interaction. So by picking up these changes in facial features your child helps to learn key communication skills that are used daily.

4.The pictures are not only fab, they’re helping your child to read between the lines too

Not only are the pictures wonderful to look at, but they tell us the story from the big fish’s point of view.  When he realises his hat is missing, we can tell how he feels by Klassen’s very clever drawings. He is clearly not happy! And who can blame him?

Using pictures to help understand stories will help your child learn to read between the lines, an inference tool that is needed when studying more complex texts at a more advanced stage of their education.

5. It’s not just me who thinks it’s brilliant, other people do too!

It won two of the most highly regarded awards in the world of picture books, the Kate Greenaway award in 2014 and the Caldecott medal in 2013. This is the first time one book has received both awards, making picture book history and proving that This Is Not My Hat truly is a brilliant book! Resulting in it being a global phenomenon!

So there you have it, I welcome you into the delightful world of mischievous fish. May you never lose your hat.


Learning Opportunities:

Here are questions we believe you should ask in order to get the most out of reading This Is Not My Hat.

After reading the book you can discuss:

  • What you think happens at the end?
  • What might have happened to the little fish?
  • Is it ok to take someone’s hat?
  • Why do you think the author chose a hat?
  • Could the little fish have taken something else? If so, what?

Additional Learning

  • You can look at other books with hats in
  • You can compare This Is Not My Hat with Jon Klassen’s other book about a hat, I found a hat
  • Which one do you like more? Why?