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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Imogen Carter

Picture books for children – reviews

‘Joyous approach’: My Bindi by Gita Varadarajan
‘Joyous approach’: My Bindi by Gita Varadarajan. Illustration: Archana Sreenivasan

With all its strange noises and amazing skills, the human body is endlessly fascinating to children. Jane Wilsher’s new book feeds that interest with a format that’s almost as colourful and curious as human anatomy itself. Marvellous Body (What on Earth) comes with a magic lens, a sort of red magnifying glass that you pluck from the heart of the front cover, to view the inner workings of eyeballs and organs, scabby knees and baby bumps.

Illustrated by Andrés Lozano, each cartoony spread is devoted to a different aspect of the body and its care (eg teeth, or what happens during surgery). Full of concise facts and body positivity, it’s a title for children to return to as they grow: little hands will love grabbing the lens and watching bones appear; those in the upper primary school years might read cover to cover, learning new vocab as they go.

Marvellous Body: ‘little hands will love grabbing the lens and watching bones appear’
Marvellous Body: ‘little hands will love grabbing the lens and watching bones appear’. Illustration: Andreės Lozano

The feelings that pulse under the surface of the physical self are a big focus for picture books currently. One recent release, My Bindi (Scholastic), takes a joyous approach to tackling anxiety around difference. The time has come for Divya to start wearing a bindi but initially she’s scared of standing out, being seen as “weird” by her classmates. Illustrator Archana Sreenivasan cleverly interweaves bindi designs and Hindu-style flourishes, visually representing a merging of cultures, into the pages of Gita Varadarajan’s debut picture book.

Speaking of debuts, this year I judged the Macmillan prize for illustration, an award that’s been launching the careers of new picture book talent, such as Emily Gravett, for 37 years. It’s an exciting time for the genre – in January, Nielsen BookScan figures showed that the picture books market outsold fiction aimed at older readers for the first time since accurate records began. And if the fresh, fizzy art school talent entering the 2022 Macmillan prize is anything to go by (particularly Heike Scharrer, who this month was crowned winner for The Queue, her beautifully imaginative, child’s eye view of an everyday situation), it will be booming for years to come.

Who’s Tickling Tilly? by Rob Jones.
‘A mini feat of engineering’: Who’s Tickling Tilly? by Rob Jones. Photograph: Text and illustrations © Rob Jones, 2022

Board books rarely pop up in this column but they’ve really come on in recent years and Rob Jones is one author clearly having fun with the form. Following his concertina-style sausage dog title, Where’s Brian’s Bottom?, his latest “veeeerrrrry long fold-out book” for babies and toddlers, Who’s Tickling Tilly? (Farshore, 4 Aug), stars an unfeasibly lengthy dinosaur trying to find the tickler of her faraway tail. Over the pages she asks everyone from Valerie the T rex to Terry (toasting marshmallows on a volcano) until finally – with the book fully extended to two metres long – the cute little culprit is revealed. Not just a story, it’s a mini feat of engineering. It really tickled me.

Another master of the absurd returns with the third outing in the Billy and the Beast series. Nadia Shireen’s Billy and the Pirates (Jonathan Cape) finds our big-haired heroine and her sidekick, Fatcat, trying to return a mysterious key in a bottle to Kevin the Kraken. Expect scrapes, sea-faring baddies and plenty of snacks.

Fresh to the post of children’s laureate, Joseph Coelho (the first black man in the role since it began in 1999) is releasing Our Tower (Frances Lincoln, 2 Aug), the tale of three friends who live in a “boring, grey” high-rise, illustrated by Richard Johnson. One day, the children are drawn to the woods by an enchanted tree that gifts them a stone, allowing them to see their home in a new light. Coelho, who has drawn on his experience growing up in London, has said: “I wanted to bring the magic of Narnia to the tower block” – which seems the perfect mission statement at the start of a tenure that coincides with rising bills and struggling families, when books can’t fill tummies but they can provide hope and escape.

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