One of the delights of blogging for me – and indeed, of being a journalist in general – is the variety of things you get to do, see, experience, write about… So I was quite chuffed when someone sent me some children’s books to review. I’m an avid reader and want to communicate to my children the joy of books, so it’s a pleasurable task to be charged with.
I was sent them because the author, Anita Pouroulis, who is South African, is also an expat living in Spain. Anita lives in the residential development of Sotogrande on the Costa del Sol with her husband and 10-year-old daughter. This coastal resort has some of the most expensive real estate in Spain, allegedly. Sort of like Sandbanks in Poole, except newer, and with sun.
Anita has written four children’s books, for ages 4-7 – my son Zac is just six, so he’s perfectly placed within the age range. Each book is illustrated by a different artist, so they all have their own look, though what they do have in common is being bright and colourful. The books are written in rhyming verse.
The first one we read was Mum’s Cronky Car. I’d never heard the word “cronky” before - it sounds like an amalgam of “cranky” and “wonky” – the only online dictionary I could find with a definition was a colloquial one. It said “shaky, dodgy, falling apart, in poor condition”.
Mum’s car is an old banger which doesn’t work very well – it stops and starts, chugs, coughs and lurches. The little girl is embarrassed and says “I wish that I could hide in the boot!” and “I just want to pull out my hair in utter despair! This car is so beyond repair!” After pages of complaints about the “cronky car”, which I found a tad repetitive (I was surprised the editor hadn’t cut them down), we have a welcome diversion in the form of a voyage into dreamland: the girl rides an elephant, a hippo and an ostrich; then the car takes off and flies through the air, over the houses, a la Harry Potter, and also meets a plane. My son was thrilled by the animals and the flying car, and liked this book in general – boy+car+flying (he’s currently obsessed with helicopters)=guaranteed success.
Next we looked at Oh, What a Tangle! which is a about a girl’s messy barnet – she doesn’t like to brush her hair. I have curly, hard-to-control hair, so I can identify with her torment. This girl, Kiki, uses her hair as a brolly, a herb garden, a bird sanctuary, and to clean windows. Finally, her mum gets fed up and chops it off. I thought it was quite funny, but Zac wasn’t impressed, as it was “too girly” and “too smelly” (don’t ask me), but he did enjoy the mum getting annoyed with smoke coming out of her ears (probably because he’s used to seeing me like that).
Pancake Pandemonium was better received, although it was about a girl (called Polly), but with no car or aeroplane. Unfortunately Zac doesn’t like pancakes, so that part of the appeal was lost. This book is about a girl who yearns for an endless supply of pancakes, so she decides to set up a Heath Robinson-style factory in her back garden, complete with cows for the milk, chickens for the eggs, and bees for the honey. Again, Mum isn’t happy when the animals escape, trashing her garden and attracting the disprobity of the neighbours. The idea was great fun, especially the chickens sitting on their funnels, and the eggs being carried along on a conveyor belt.
My Monster Mayhem was the last of the four books. This one is about a superhero girl who has to fight monsters in her house with wonderful names like Scrapadapadocus, the Limbobo and Noctanonoes. Zac found it “too scary” – he “didn’t like the monsters” (this is a child who sleeps with the bedroom light on – the main light, not a nightlight - so I wasn’t going to push it), although he did love the bath scenes with the drain-dwelling Biver Quiver. There was one particularly frightening sequence, with a nearly dark page showing a beastly shadow, then on the following page, a many-eyed ogre who said “BOO!” It even made me jump!
Some of Zac’s reactions may have been down to a lack of enthusiasm on my part: these books didn’t really grab me. We’re used to a diet of the peerless Julia Donaldson (The Gruffalo, Zog, The Snail and The Whale), who has rhyming tales down to a fine art, so it’s hard not to compare the two writers. Donaldson’s couplets flow beautifully, bouncing along with no extra syllables, rhyme perfectly, have beautifully-structured stories with wonderful characters, and and are a joy to read, and wonderful to listen to.
So, from my point of view, it’s hard for other rhyming books to match up to the standard of hers, although these characters did have some interesting quirks. Anita’s books are full of fun and great ideas and adventures, but they’re not as well-crafted as Donaldson’s – they don’t read as smoothly (see lines quoted above). They’re are also too wordy and long, in my opinion – not that I’m one to talk; self-editing is not my strong point.
The illustrations were an interesting mix. My Monster Mayhem was sort of in the style of Dr Seuss, with eccentric-looking beasties, and other books from the same era. We’re big Dr Seuss fans - Green Eggs and Ham is a great book for a keen young bookworm like Zac to flex his reading muscles - so that was good. The cronky car pictures were nice, friendly illustrations, although there were too many similar pictures of the car stuck in traffic – labouring the point somewhat. Art is very subjective, I know, but personally I didn’t like the illustrations in the other two books. In the hair book all the faces looked bizarrely like Viking masks, and the pancake book ones were too CGI-cartoony.
Having said all that, these books have some nice touches, such as word searches and spot-the-differences in the back, and find the creature hidden in pages throughout the book. Each book has its own app with various zippy interactive features such as objects you can find and move around, which my kids loved, roaring with laughter at the meowing cat which frightens the mum at the start of the My Monster Mayhem app. Nail-painting and changing hairstyles are probably of more interest to girls than boys – the books are more girl-oriented in general, with all-female protagonists.
I think whether or not you buy these books comes down to how you choose what your children read – is it you or they who make the selection? I mostly buy online, picking ones I’ve been recommended by friends, or by authors we already know. Living in Spain, English books are prohibitively expensive, so a trip to a bookshop when we’re back in England is a big treat. And our local library there is heaven, of course – they can take exactly what they want. I don’t know if my kids would go for these books if they saw them on the shelf – that’s the real test. The covers are great, as you can see, but the content didn’t win me over, and my children weren’t convinced either. Check out Anita’s website (see below) for yourself and see what you think.
Pancake Pandemonium, Mum’s Cronky Car, My Monster Mayhem and Oh, What a Tangle! are all published by Digital Leaf as both paperbacks and ebooks priced £5.99 and £2.99 each respectively. The apps cost £2.99; all except Mum’s Cronky Car are available now; MCC is out in early December. See Anita’s website for more games and activities.