Magical birds, number-crunching and a wall game - book reviews

Asha & the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
Asha & the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
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Head off to the mighty Himalayas, climb new heights with a young knight, learn how to manage your anger, celebrate the joy of reading, and enjoy an interactive introduction to counting as February brings a host of sparkling new children’s books.

Age 9 plus:

Asha & the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan

Immerse yourself in a lush world of spirit birds, mango trees, snow leopards and majestic mountains in a sumptuous and sizzling debut novel from Jasbinder Bilan.

Born on the family farm close to the Himalayas in India, Bilan grew up listening to the stories of her uncles and grandma (her nanijee) and Asha & the Spirit Bird, which won The Times Chickenhouse Fiction Prize, harnesses all the mystery and magic of those childhood tales.

Asha lives on the family farm with her mother in the foothills of the Himalayas. Money is tight and she misses her papa who works away in the city. When he suddenly stops sending his wages, Meena, a ruthless moneylender, arrives and ransacks their home.

The moneylender is determined to seize the property, and the treasure rumoured to be hidden on the land, and her mother talks of leaving the farm. From her den in the mango tree, Asha makes a pact with her best friend, Jeevan, to find her father and save her home.

Guided by a majestic bird which Asha believes to be the spirit of her grandmother, she and Jeevan embark on a dangerous journey to the city. They must cross the world’s highest mountains and face hunger, tiredness, and even snow leopards.

Asha & the Spirit Bird is a wildly imaginative and exciting adventure brimming with fascinating Indian folklore and starring a feisty heroine unafraid to stand up and fight against her enemies, whoever and wherever they might be.

Throughout Asha’s amazing journey, Bilan opens our eyes to a world in which mysticism and magic are the bedrock of cultural beliefs, but she also alerts her readers to the harsh truths of real life.

Friendship, loyalty and faith all play a part in this vibrant, original and colourful story which is guaranteed to win the hearts and minds of middle grade readers.

(Chicken House, paperback, £6.99)

Age 3 plus:

The Wall in the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee

Do walls keep us safe… or simply keep us apart?

That is the topical conundrum in one of the first books to be published by a new children’s book company which is aiming to bring entertaining and memorable books to a worldwide audience.

London-based Scallywag Press was founded last year by Sarah Pakenham who says she loves distinctive, amusing and quirky art, and is eager to publish work by talented newcomers as well as classic titles and the work of favourite authors and illustrators with established reputations.

And hot off the presses is the irresistible picture book, The Wall in the Middle of the Book, written and illustrated by American Jon Agee, a master of visual storytelling and deadpan humour, whose books have won starred reviews and medals galore in his native country.

There’s a wall in the middle of the book, and our hero – a young knight – is sure that the wall protects his side of the book from the dangers of the book’s other side… like an angry tiger, a giant rhino, a prowling ape and, worst of all, an ogre who would gobble him up in a second!

But our little knight doesn’t seem to notice the crocodile and a growing sea of water that are emerging on his side. And when the sea is almost over his head and he’s calling for help, who will come to his rescue? Could it be someone from the other side of the book who turns out to be not half as dangerous as he had been led to believe?

Agee uses uncluttered illustrations with a wealth of small but rich detail as youngsters turn the pages and enjoy watching the funny, cautionary tale unfold with Agee’s lively sense of fun and seductive visual storytelling.

This is a tale, brimming with fun, entertainment and positive messages about freedom of movement, and one that children will want to return to time and time again.

(Scallywag Press, hardback, £12.99)

Age one plus:

Hat Tricks by Satoshi Kitamura

Also from the new Scallywag Press stable is a delightful picture book from the award-winning illustrator Satoshi Kitamura who truly pulls surprises out of the hat in his adorable tale of Hattie the Magician.

Hattie may be little but she is a born performer. She can conjure an amazing succession of animals out of her hat, from a cat and a squirrel to an octopus, a moose and a great big elephant. And for an amazing grand finale, Hattie produces a wonderful jungle where they can all live and make new friends!

Kitamura, who has created over 20 of his own picture books, has a wonderful sense of colour and design, filling the pages with bold, quirky animal characters accompanied by a simple text that adds humour and mystery to the story.

Before each page turn is a visual clue as to who will pop out of the hat next, providing lots of interaction opportunities and making reading the book an adventure for both little ones and their parents.

(Scallywag Press, hardback, £11.99)

Age 5 plus:

Wishing for a Dragon by Becky Cameron

Be swept away to the land of nod with a daring trio of adventurous children!

Becky Cameron, the extraordinary new talent who illustrated the NSPCC Paddington Bear picture book to accompany the 2017 M&S Christmas advert, follows in the footsteps of Peter Pan and his pals in this enchanting debut picture book.

Adventure is the key word as a world of pirates, unicorns, pixies and friendly dragons open up in this visual and verbal flight of imagination which is guaranteed to send little ones to sleep with the sweetest of soaraway dreams.

The sun has almost set, but Olive, Barney and Ella are wide awake and ready for adventure. Ella wants to go to the jungle, Barney hankers to be a pirate, but Ella has a secret wish… to see a dragon! When they clamber into a hot-air balloon floating past the window, they are whisked away to a host of magical lands. They see pirate teddy bears and unicorns and tigers, but will they ever see a dragon?

Young explorers will be captivated by this gloriously imaginative story with its dream-like atmosphere and a gallery of illustrations that transport us to the high seas, the heat of the jungle, a stormy sky, a land of strange creatures and safely home again.

The perfect bedtime wind-down for sleepy tots…

(Hodder Children’s Books, paperback, £6.99)

Age one plus:

Nibbles Numbers by Emma Yarlett

Nibbles, the adorable yellow monster who stole our hearts with his munching antics in Emma Yarlett’s bestselling The Book Monster series, is on the countdown to some number-crunching madness!

Multi-talented author and illustrator Yarlett goes into her special brand of imaginative overdrive again as naughty Nibbles chomps and gnaws his way through a cleverly interactive introduction to counting.

This ingenious new Nibbles book is ideal for little children who will enjoy the thrill of the chase in a chunky board book full of flaps, fun and poke-through holes as they follow the monster on a madcap journey from one to ten.

Perfect for exploring with little hands, Nibbles Numbers is brimming with the kind of multi-coloured, lively illustrations that children love, and with this cheeky monster as your guide, you can expect the unexpected right up to the mischievous last page.

With plenty to explore on every page, the numbers one to ten presented both as words and numerals, and tactile holes to add to all the nibblesome chaos, this is the perfect book to make learning numbers a fun-filled treat.

(Little Tiger Press, board book, £7.99)

Age 3 plus:

The Big Angry Roar by Jonny Lambert

Get ready to have your heartstrings tugged as author and illustrator Jonny Lambert brings us a playful lesson in how to manage your anger.

A little lion cub with big feelings is the adorable star of a beautifully imaginative picture book brimming with fun, humour and emotional intelligence as the ever-inventive Lambert gently teaches youngsters how to control those all too familiar tantrums.

Lion cub is quarrelling with his little sister and when he is told to behave, he angrily stomps off. His animal friends tell him to let his anger out but smashing and roaring, tramping and stamping only makes him feel worse. Finally, a clever old baboon gives cub the best advice… and it starts with taking a deep, deep breath!

The Big Angry Roar – filled with Lambert’s distinctive and superbly stylish illustrations – is tailor-made for little ones learning to cope with complex feelings of frustration and anger. The warm and wise tale teaches patience and thoughtfulness through gentle comedy and sensitive but recognisable experiences.

Picture book magic with a heartwarming message!

(Little Tiger Press, hardback, £11.99)

Age 3 plus:

Shhh! I’m Reading by John Kelly and Elina Ellis

Quiet please! Bella is reading and doesn’t want to be disturbed…

Author John Kelly and illustrator Elina Ellis celebrate the joy of reading in this big, busy and beautiful picture book which captures the hilarious chaos of a little girl’s quiet reading session when it is rudely interrupted by her imaginary friends.

It’s a wet and windy Sunday afternoon but Bella doesn’t care. She is busy reading the best book ever. And the story had just reached the amazing bit, right near the end where… Oh no, her playmates have come calling! Captain Bluebottom and his Windy Pirates, Maurice Penguin and his dancers, and madcap Emperor Flabulon the Wobbulous can’t understand why she doesn’t want to join in the fun. They will just have to come back when she has finished this utterly amazing and totally incredible book!

Shhh! I’m Reading might be a tale about the sedentary pleasures of reading but this a book full of life, colour and action as the cast of tap-dancing flapper penguins, adventure-seeking pirates, and Earth-defending aliens strut their stuff across the pages.

Kelly’s clever story underlines the pleasure of books as a means of escape and quiet pleasure but also pays tribute to their power to stimulate inspire a child’s imagination, while Ellis’s illustrations put the words into colourful action.

(Little Tiger Press, hardback, £11.99)

Age 3 plus:

Follow Me, Little Fox by Camila Correa and Sean Julian

The power of nature to transform lives is the message that speaks loud and clear in an inspirational picture book from Camila Correa and Sean Julian.

Follow Me, Little Fox is a colourful, breathtaking journey back to nature with a little fox seeking to look beyond his home in the big, brash, noisy city and discover the joys of the wild countryside.

Little Fox loved his city home, but sometimes it could be a little too fast, a bit too busy, and a tad too noisy. Maybe it’s time to go back to nature, says Mummy Fox. Nature is the place where the city ends and the wild begins, where greys and silvers turn to green and blue, where magpies sing and flowers bloom.

With gentle guidance and wisdom from his mother, Little Fox discovers the sounds, sights, smells and other sensory wonders of the great outdoors. And together, with a little work and a lot of patience, they find a way to bring a little bit of the great countryside a lot closer to home.

Correa’s lyrical storytelling adds a delightful layer of playfulness and wonder as she invites young readers to share Little Fox’s experiences in a world very different to the one he has become familiar with, while Julian’s warm and gentle illustrations plunge us into nature’s colours, warm light and wide vistas.

Follow Me, Little Fox is a gorgeous book, engaging children with the natural world and reminding all those who live in busy built-up areas that there are so many more experiences to enjoy beyond the confines of the big city.

A picture perfect celebration of the great outdoors.

(Little Tiger Press, hardback, £11.99)