Picture books for children – reviews | Picture books

Young children’s counting books can (whisper it) be a bit dull. They’re brilliant, of course, at helping under-fives learn their numbers. But turning page after page of, say, farmyard animals gradually multiplying can get rather formulaic. How to Count to One (and Don’t Even Think About Bigger Numbers) (Nosy Crow, March 17) aims to mix things up: here, Caspar Salmon teasingly forbids his readers to count beyond one. Matt Hunt’s primary-colored drawings teem with multiple lifeforms – ducks, whales, worms – but you must spot the one duck that’s rollerblading, or the one worm in disguise.

It’s a neat bit of reverse psychology – little kids will itch to break the rules; they’ll revel in chatting back to the bossy narrator (who sometimes slips up: “I made a mistake! And now you have said ‘two!'” he cries). Like French author Hervé Tullet’s interactive bestsellers such as Press Here! and Say Zoop !, this debut is more than a book; it’s an invitation to have fun – a playful provocation.

‘High-energy read’: Monster! Hungry! Phone! Illustration: Fred Benaglia

Monster! Hungry! Phone! by Sean Taylor and illustrator Fred Benaglia (Bloomsbury), is another high-energy read. If the title alone does not wake you up, wait until the monster starts shouting his pizza order down the phone. A red, egg-shaped beast with a beakish nose and inky scribbled hairdo, he’s starving, but keeps misdialling and reaching a sleepy sloth or a jaguar in Nicaragua. Finally, with the pizza almost within his grasp, he accidentally scares the delivery guy away and is forced to gobble the only thing to hand…

When a colorful glass marble drops into the gray, intricately sketched world of the insects in It Fell From the Sky (Frances Lincoln), they all agree it’s the most amazing thing they’ve ever seen. They study the mysterious new addition – roll it, lick it, try to hatch it. Soon, though, a greedy spider decides that it belongs to him, and turns it into a museum attraction with a hefty entrance fee. Until disaster strikes.

'An invitation to have fun': How to Count to One (and Don't Even Think About Bigger Numbers) by Caspar Salmon and Matt Hunt
‘An invitation to have fun’: How to Count to One (and Don’t Even Think About Bigger Numbers) by Caspar Salmon and Matt Hunt. Illustration: Matt Hunt

The latest from Canadian-based creatives the Fan Brothers is a thought-provoking exploration of selfishness, which also encourages children to look deeply. Young imaginations should be enchanted by the idea that stuff lost from their pockets becomes treasure for bugs.

Gill Smith’s illustrations for Saving the Butterfly (Walker) by Helen Cooper also lean towards muted gray shades as we see a boy and his older sister, two refugees, rescued from a boat. The boy settles, makes friends, but the girl is haunted by the past and can not move on until the day her brother brings her a butterfly. As the insect and the girl begin to flourish, the illustrations become as rich and colorful as the butterfly’s wings. A tender tale focusing on the aftermath of conflict, it’s a great companion to Nicola Davies’s memorable The Day War Came (2019).

The notion that a story or film can take you on a journey is overused these days, but it’s the perfect description for I Am the Subway (Scribe), a stunning new Korean picture book by Kim Hyo-eun (and translator Deborah Smith) that evokes the physical experience of riding on an underground train, and the random lives the subway throws together each day. Punctuated throughout by the sound of the train on the tracks – ba-dum, ba-dum – the book shows us Seoul through the eyes of a subway train moving in and out of each station, and delves into some of the passengers’ backstories, whether it’s a granny who grew up by the sea or an overworked young pupil. Kim’s watercolor illustrations are full of feeling – one standout image places the reader inside the carriage at the exact moment the doors fling open and strangers stare directly at us.

'Stunning': Kim Hyo-eun's I Am the Subway.
‘Stunning’: Kim Hyo-eun’s I Am the Subway. Illustration: Kim Hyo-eun

A bestseller in Korea, this is one of the finest picture-book portraits of city life that I have ever read, and a beautiful reminder that humans the world over share many of the same worries and emotions, and the same daily rhythms.

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