Zoe Greaves is a children's author and bookseller. She is also children's editor of Five Books.
Zoe Greaves is a children's author and bookseller. She is also children's editor of Five Books.
This is your list of the best picture books of 2017—how did you set about choosing them?
With quite a lot of difficulty. There’s an awful lot out there of a very, very high standard. In some areas, publishers are not taking many risks, but there seems to be a bit of a loosening of the reins in children’s books. Last year, Coralie Bickford-Smith won the Waterstones book of the year with her book The Fox and the Star. It’s really quite a sophisticated concept book. It’s an art book. It’s not just aimed at children, but it is absolutely a children’s book.
The books I’ve chosen are slightly niche. Not every child is going to enjoy them all, but there’s an element of excellence about them that I think is wholly appropriate, that children should be exposed to. Finding excellence is not something that’s a huge problem in literature but generally, as a mother, finding opportunities to expose my children to excellence in the face of overwhelming lumps of plastic is something that’s very satisfying indeed.
So number one on your list is The Lost Words by Rob Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. For people who haven’t seen it, do you want to say what it’s about?
It’s very big and heavy, to start off with. It’s not a standard children’s picture book by any stretch of the imagination. Robert Macfarlane wrote a book called Landmarks for adults. He mostly writes books about nature but there is, in his work, a specific focus on language. In Landmarks he spoke about endangered words, words that are used to describe the landscape but are falling out of usage. I think the word ‘cygnet’ is being dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary and replaced with words like ‘browser.’ He’s trying to protect these words in his books, and keep a record of them.
All these nature words that are being replaced by technology-related words.
Yes, because it’s a small dictionary, so there’s not that much space. For somebody poetic like Robert Macfarlane, that’s a very sad thing.
This is a book of poems about nature for children. Each poem describes an individual animal, creature or plant and contains words that are going out of usage. It’s very playful and compelling. The illustrations are utterly breathtaking. Jackie Morris is an illustrator that I just find astonishing—she’s got to be one of the most brilliant artists working in children’s books at the moment.
Now, sometimes with these books, they’re so sophisticated that you wonder quite how children are going to access them. This is a book that my children eat up. Last week, early in the morning, I found that my 8-year old daughter had snuck downstairs to leaf through it. She was reading the sounds out loud and rolling them around in her mouth. And my son, who is four-and-a-half, loves it as well.
The poems are reminiscent of Ted Hughes’s poetry for children, but not as difficult. They’re much lighter, more playful. You can feel the enjoyment of language coming off the page and children respond to that.
There’s a poem about an adder.
Yes, my children noticed that the first letter of each line—or sometimes it’s the stanza—spells out adder, or whichever creature or plant the poem is dedicated to.
Dandelion is another really good example. There are so many old names for the dandelion—the tiny time machine, the dent-de-lion, the lion’s tooth, wind flow, milk witch, evening glow, parachute. It’s my son’s favourite flower, he loves the dandelion. Who doesn’t? They’re great. But he didn’t realise they had so many different names. It’s playful, but there’s a seriousness underlying the book.
Yes, because we are not talking about obscure words here.
It’s a big loss–so it’s wonderful to have them collected together in this way. I think it’s a very special book, something to treasure.
Are there puzzles in it?
There are clues in the preview—which are the big double spreads before each new poem—as to what’s coming next. The book design is interesting. The pace of the book is dictated by careful use of these double spreads. I particularly enjoy the pacing as it provides time to let the poem you’ve just read settle down in your head before you turn your attention to the next.
Let’s go on to the second book on your list, Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers.
Oliver Jeffers is an exceptionally brilliant artist and children’s author and illustrator. He has a lovely, playful streak. He is funny and very witty in a soft, gentle kind of way. He can explore quite profound themes, like loneliness, and he’ll play with them and make them less frightening. He uses laughter as a kind of foil to worrying thoughts so he is very comforting to read. I love his artwork and his use of colour—it’s distinctive. I always look out for a new book of his.
I get the feeling this is quite a personal book for him. I think he’s just had a baby, and this is his book for his child.
The subtitle is: ‘Notes for Living on Planet Earth.’
If I just describe it, it’s going to sound a bit heavy, but it’s not, because he has this light touch. It’s not a story in the sense of a beginning, middle and end. It’s more a list of of facts about the planet(s). It begins in space, and then we travel towards our planet. The facts he gives are broad and simple – Planet Earth is made up of two parts, the watery bit (the sea), and the rock and dirt bit (the land). My son really enjoyed that level of clarity.
He also explains parts of the body.
Yes, he lists important basic things for people (and children) to remember—to eat, drink and stay warm.
It’s absolutely charming. Reading the book together inspired a rush of questions from my son, the most difficult being, ‘Why are animals all different shapes and sizes?’ Which is actually a very difficult question to answer because then you’re into evolution.It is a book that generates curiosity in its readers. It’s a springboard for ideas and creativity.
It is also taking a bit of a risk–it doesn’t quite conform to the standard illustrated picture book. It is refreshing to see these rules challenged so skilfully.
It is quite a poignant book. It says that sometimes you have to “move slowly here on Earth. More often, though, things move quickly, so use your time well. It’ll be gone before you know it.” It’s enough to bring a lump to your throat, but there’s a beauty to that, and a nice, simple honesty. I found it very impressive.
It’s a lovely little manual for life.
Yes, but it’s not heavy-handed. It’s just led to so many delightful conversations between me and my 4½-year-old. For that, I’m very grateful.
Goodnight Everyone by Chris Haughton is the next book on your list.
I have a real weakness for bedtime stories that include an opportunity to yawn. Nothing gets my children to sleep faster and more efficiently than yawning. This is the ultimate yawn book.
I had relied on a book called Good Night, Gorilla which is a near-perfect picture book, an utter classic. It’s got some lovely yawn opportunities in it, as well as being a delight. But my son was getting a little bit wise to the ruse and now this one is out.
I’m a sucker for colour and this book is just glorious in terms of colour. Look at those glowing colours! My chidren woke up in the morning and immediately got out the brightest pens they possibly could. It’s playful. There are cut-out pages, which we love. It’s just a joy.
The mouse is sleepy, yawn, everyone yawns. Then you’ve got the little bear who isn’t sleepy. There’s nothing new here. We know this story structure, we know as parents what’s going to happen, but the pacing is gorgeous. My son was asleep within two minutes of it finishing, which is a very pleasant bonus for a parent.
The illustrations are quite simple.
Yes, sometimes the illustrations in children’s books are very detailed, very exquisite. They’re very beautiful, but my daughter says, ‘Oh, I could never do that.’ Whereas these give her a feeling of, ‘Yes, I can have a go at that. I just need loads of bright colours!’ There’s an argument for both.
It totally charmed me. I just have a weakness for a yawny book. They’re very funny.
Next up: The Lumberjack’s Beard. There’s a strong nature bias in your choices.
Yes, there is. I chose this one because it’s just so incredibly funny. The language in it just gets me every time. I don’t know how many times we’ve read this for bedtime since it came out, but it’s a joy, and just beautifully silly. Some words just make me laugh, like a ‘bristly’ beard.
It’s about a lumberjack who lives in a forest in a little log cabin. Every morning, he limbers up. My kids now also limber up every morning.
It’s very important to limber up if you’re a lumberjack.
Yes, and have a massive breakfast of pancakes. I always like food in a children’s book. Food is very important to children.
It’s just a joy to read out loud. “‘Choppity chop,’ went Jim’s axe, echoing through the valley as he fells tree after tree after tree, and we all shout, ‘Timber.’” It gently increases in silliness. You see lovely words: whacking, cleaving, hacking. It’s fun, it’s playful.
Now he’s chopped down so much of the forest that various creatures in the forest have nowhere to live. Here we go with the environmental theme. But it has a lovely, playful, joyous ending, and a lovely message to take away from it.
The animals come and live in his beard. It’s that perfect silliness. My kids ask for it night after night after night, and I enjoy reading it night after night after night.
While alerting them to the dangers of deforestation.
You can’t lose with that kind of combo.
Last on your list is One Christmas Wish, by Katherine Rundell.
I just adore her as a writer. There are a few names that come up in the world of children’s books. It almost feels like a golden age. Katherine Rundell is right up there. I can read her and read her and read her. She has this mastery of language, this light touch—and she’s so funny when she puts her mind to it. It’s just beautiful.
She’s got an acrobatic mind, and it’s intoxicating to share use of language like that with your children…
What do you mean by acrobatic?
I’m trying to find an example. I’ve got a couple of quotes from One Christmas Wish which I hope demonstrate what I mean. One is, “I don’t know how to explain singing. It’s just something that happens, like dancing, or farting.” You know exactly what she means, and it’s slightly unexpected. And funny.
Here’s another quote: “She smiled a smile so large, it ruffled the hair around her ears.” I just love that. I don’t know how she does, but she does it with every page. You’re drawn in and in and in.
What’s the story about?
It’s a thoroughly modern Christmas story. It reminded me of The Nutcracker. Christmas decorations come to life and help this little boy who’s a bit lonely, and whose parents are very distracted. They’re always busy, and they’re not sure if they’re going to be back from the office in time to help him. It reminded me a little bit of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales – but much funnier.
The illustrations are charming; I think they’re designed to be reminiscent of a 1950s children’s book. My aunt’s got tons of books that look like this lying around her house, from her childhood. It has this nostalgic feel, which is perfect for modern-day references that are very nicely filled in. It’s really moving. I had a massive lump in my throat towards the end.
It’s longer than the average illustrated picture book. I love books that we can all share. So often with an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old someone gets frustrated or feels left out at bedtime. In this book there is plenty to amuse us all—so it’s ideal for reading together as a family.
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