Review: The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield

A musical, magical ode to imagination.

Publication date: 3rd September 2015
Publisher: Frances Lincoln Children’s

The Bear and the Piano is a wonderful picture book about perseverance, and discovering the important things in life. From the striking front cover – making it impossible not to pick it up – to the very last page, every aspect of it is carefully thought through and successfully executed. It’s no wonder it was the winner of Waterstones Children’s Book Prize: Best Illustrated Book 2016. 

Litchfield’s story is a often-told one: the main character is a prodigy in something, they leave everything they know behind to pursue their dreams but realise that there’s no place like home. However, it is retold in such an imaginative way, with such a charming, curious protagonist, that it transcends its origins. It’s a story about unconditional love, just as much as it is a story about learning to create and succeed – whilst remaining a story about a bear who learns to play piano and makes it to ‘the big city’.

The illustrations are fantastic. They’ve got a surreal, atmospheric quality; the colours and shapes a perfect combination for the fantasia of the story. The sharp lines give the magical nature of the text a solidity to work against. They add so much to the book, making the biggest impact at the end, when Bear is welcomed back into the forest.

I recommend this book to anyone who has ever needed to leave their family behind in order to pursue their desires. And for anyone who loves interesting illustration techniques and stories about the importance of creativity, The Bear and the Piano is an unmissable book.

Review: Kings of the Castle by Victoria Turnbull

Fantastically atmospheric book about friendship through imagination.

Publication date: 5th May 2016
Publisher: Templar Publishing

Kings of the Castle  is an absolutely stunning book. I fell in love with it the moment I saw it, and the story reflects the marine setting as it flows and then is reined in. The characters are creative and the result is a balanced, beautiful book.

George, Boris and Nepo’s story unfolds (including literally!) as George tries to use the night to create the best sandcastle. Despite little to no ability to communicate, he sets to work with the stranger from beneath the waves to create a night-time kingdom. The book demonstrates that friendship and common ground, can go beyond what can only be put across with words.

The illustrations make the book by far. There is something so peaceful yet intriguing about the moonlit seaside. Much like Turnbull’s Sea Tiger, the creatures are beautifully rendered and seem to embody the silent life of the seabed. All this is not to say the the story is any less then great. Turnbull is a master of the picture book form, as the illustrations and words slip into each other perfectly.

I recommend Kings of the Castle to any fan of good picture books. Children are captivated by it and adults are awed by it. Turnbull is swiftly becoming one of my favourite author-illustrators.

Review: Pax by Sara Pennypacker

Story about a boy and his fox, with a serious look at war and its costs.

Publication date: 25th February 2016
Publisher: HarperCollins

Pax is a truly inspiring book, focusing on loss both personal and universal. It is especially topical at the moment when victims of war are in the news, presented through so many different lenses. The novel carefully avoids commenting on the positives and negatives of war, but highlights its implications.

Although arguably not much ‘happens’ in the book, I’m having a hard time reviewing it without feeling like I would be spoiling it for future readers with everything I reveal. Everything about this book was so well-written and intriguing, that I can only urge you to pick it up for yourselves.

I really enjoyed Pennypacker’s writing. Looking through the eyes of the fox was written eloquently; as far from a gimmick as possible. Her interest in the animal – as noted in the epilogue – is evident. The characters are beautifully constructed, and Pax’s is a fascinating portrayal, which avoids anthropomorphism whilst simultaneously exploring his personality.

I recommend Pax unconditionally. It’s wonderfully written and a captivating story for all ages. This is a masterful novel from Pennypacker, which touches on identity, regret and family. I look forward to reading her next book.

Review: The Search for the Homestead Treasure by Ann Treacy

Excellent historical fiction about a little-known Minnesota community.

Publication date: 19th May 2016
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

The Search for the Homestead Treasure spans two generations of Swedish immigrants to the US. Combining the carefully researched history of this community with that of the Romani Gypsies in the area – all under the auspices of a mystery story, the novel is ambitious and it pays off.

Treacy is evidently psychologically astute, tuned in to the actions and fears of a young girl from centuries ago. The extensive explanatory epilogue is a perfect conclusion to the book, as the reader is able to delve deeper into the reality of the characters. Treacy admits to autobiographical elements – which arguably give the work its distinct air of authenticity – as well as the extent of her poetic licence.

The Gunnarsson family are also sensitively presented, as they deal with the grief of losing a son and brother. The theme which underpins the reader’s growing relationship with the protagonist, Martin, is subtly expounded and fascinating to follow. It blends beautifully with the discoveries he makes about the family’s past, and its intertwined destiny with the eponymous Homestead.

I recommend this novel as a first foray into historical fiction. Especially interesting as a glimpse into rural life in the early 20th century, as well as as a mystery. The social issues raised by the depiction of family are also worth taking into consideration.