Book review: Beastly beasts, a space odyssey and hair-raising fun

The team behind the world-famous Gruffalo lead the charge as summer gives way to a multi-coloured selection of spectacular autumn children's books.

Beastly beasts, a space odyssey and hair-raising fun
Beastly beasts, a space odyssey and hair-raising fun

Age 2 plus:

The Ugly Five by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

If you thought the Gruffalo was scary, take a look at these beastly beasts!

Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, one of the world’s top picture book teams, have been busy creating the Ugly Five, the African animals with a reputation for being a little grisly and grotesque.

It was while she was on safari during a South African book tour that Donaldson was introduced to the much-admired ‘Big Five’ animals… the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. But the author extraordinaire was much more intrigued by the ‘Ugly Five’ and has now made them the stars of her wonderful new picture book.

So meet wildebeest and warthog, lappet-faced vulture, spotted hyena and marabou stork. Some people might call them ugly but this line-up of strange-looking beasts are set to become the latest classic characters in the world of picture books.

And they are also helping to raise money for Tusk, a pioneering charity that supports the people and wildlife of Africa with projects that aim to alleviate poverty, improve education and reduce conflict.

‘We’re the ugly five, we’re the ugly five,

Everyone flees when they see us arrive.’

Who’s that singing on the savannah? It’s the top five ugly animals in Africa! The wildebeest, warthog, vulture, hyena and marabou stork are gangly, warty, bumpy, bristly, spotty and stinky but they proudly amble across the savannah, rejoicing in their ugliness. Fortunately, not everyone thinks they are ugly. Peeping from burrows and inside the trees are their babies who think their cuddly, brave and strong parents are the most beautiful creatures alive!

Scheffler’s distinctive, bold and gloriously quirky illustrations bring the savannah to colourful, comical life and are the perfect foil for Donaldson’s funny and heartwarming story which is brimming with her addictive, rhythmic verse and such fun to read aloud to children.

A joyful celebration of unloved animals and another comic masterpiece from a superstar duo!

(Scholastic, hardback, £12.99)

Age 9 plus:

Beyond the Sky: You and the Universe by Dara Ó Briain

Fasten your jetpacks and begin the countdown! Comedian Dara Ó Briain is ready for take-off on a thrilling mission that transports youngsters beyond the skies and around the stars.

In fact, the whole family will be over the moon when they get their hands on this fantastic space odyssey crammed full with facts, figures and the funny Irishman’s trademark wit and magical way with words. And there is plenty of room to make your own scientific notes at the back of the book.

Ó Briain, an entertaining and refreshing new voice in children’s publishing, plucks his readers from the comfort of their earth-bound armchairs and takes them on a voyage to the edge of our universe, travelling through the solar system and across our galaxy.

‘I’m delighted to share my love of space and science with a whole new generation of astronomers and astronauts,’ he says, ‘and to show young people that the greatest sights in the universe can sometimes be found by simply looking up.’

After debunking the idea that we humans are perfectly designed for life on Earth on the grounds that we can walk around, breathe, drink water, eat vegetables, read books, not get poisoned or crushed to death when we go outside, he sets out to convince us that it might actually be fun to head into space.

People, he tells us, have been dreaming about space travel for centuries. There has always been something amazing about the idea of leaving our planet behind and setting out to explore the universe… and there’s so much we still don’t know.

Written in Ó Briain’s inimitable style, fabulously illustrated by Dan Bramall’s two-tone artwork, and bulging with big bangs, poisonous gases, spectacular supernovas and light seconds, this is an all-action, eye-popping space orbit that will have youngsters glued to their capsules.

So don’t let gravity hold you back… comets, moons, black holes and exploding stars are just waiting to be discovered!

(Scholastic, hardback, £12.99)

Age 9 plus:

Goth Girl and the Sinister Symphony by Chris Riddell

If music be the food of ghastly ghosts, then play on Ada Goth!

Gothic fantasy for young readers doesn’t come better than this beautifully illustrated and award-winning series from artist, political cartoonist and former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell.

The deliciously dark adventures of quirky Ada Goth pay homage to the outlandish, adventuresome style of Alice in Wonderland and the stars of other literary classics whilst offering a more contemporary and knowing way of looking at the world.

And this new book – the fourth in the series – with its glittering silver foiled cover and sparkling green page effect is not just another cracking Ada adventure but a gift for kids in every sense of the word.

Summer has come to Ghastly-Gorm Hall and Lord Goth is throwing a music festival to celebrate. Musicians from throughout the land are desperate to be included in the line-up but who will be the headline act of ‘Gothstock’?

Ada is very excited despite the inconvenient distraction of her grandmother’s desperate attempts to find her father a fashionable new wife and the fact that she has a faun called Shaun living in her wardrobe. It also appears that Maltravers, the indoor gamekeeper and outdoor butler, is up to his old money-making tricks. Ada, with the help of her Attic Club friends, must make sure everything goes to plan, and luckily even more assistance is at hand from a very interesting house guest…

Riddell’s outstanding black and white illustrations have a wonderfully nostalgic feel and bring to life this funny and yet often moving tale. And with the now trademark teeny weeny surprise tucked into the back of the book, some clever literary illusions and the fearless, feisty Ada taking starring role, this is reading heaven for all young Goths.

(Macmillan, hardback, £11.99)

Age 7-10:

No Worries! Mindful Kids by Lily Murray and Katie Abey

Everyone feels anxious, stressed, sad or angry sometimes… and kids are no exception.

The modern world is a busy, full-on place and can leave children struggling to understand their conflicted feelings, and at a loss to know how to cope with them.

Many schools are now introducing mindful techniques to the classroom in an effort to deal with childhood stress and anxiety, so it’s perfect timing for these two beautifully and sensitively created activity books.

No Worries! and Hello Happy! are the first Mindful Kids titles in a new series from Studio Press this autumn. The two activity books combine mindful activities with Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) methods which have been developed in association with consultant Dr Sharie Coombes, a child and family psychotherapist.

No Worries! is aimed specifically at young people who sometimes feel anxious or stressed. The interactive, self-care activities help children aged seven and over to colour and doodle their way to happiness, calm and confidence. The simple activities encourage children to think about their worries and the enjoyable exercises tackle anxiety, sadness and stress.

Youngsters will find comfort in using their creativity to combat negative feelings, work out why they feel worried and how to put stress back in its place through writing, colouring, doodling and drawing.

Hello Happy! by Stephanie Clarkson and Katie Abey is designed to help young people who are sometimes sad or angry, and encourages them to explore their feelings through effective and structured activities.

Both books feature Abey’s charming and quirky illustrations. Her gallery of colourful, eye-catching pictures and diagrams are subtly designed to keep readers entertained and focused as they work through the book, or simply dip into the pages for ten minutes of calm colouring.

With an introduction and notes for grown-ups by Dr Coombes, lots of discussion points for parents and children, and a fantastic range of activities, these books are ideal for both at home and at school.

(Studio Press, paperback, £8.99 each)

Age 7 plus:

Spynosaur: The Spy’s the Limit by Guy Bass and Lee Robinson

Anarchic humour and action-packed, technology-filled missions meet in glorious madcap madness in the third outing for the spy that everyone loves!

Spynosaur, the world’s only prehistoric powerhouse, dishes out justice and puns to a host of eccentric enemies in a crazy new adventure from Guy Bass, one of the finest comedy writers for young people.

Bass’s genre-bending books capture the energy, excitement and clever humour of literary heroes like Roald Dahl and Simon Furman but take them to a whole new level.

Featuring comic-strip pages and doodles from Kung Fu Panda artist Lee Robinson, the Spynosaur books positively buzz with high-octane energy and geeky technology as the super-spy dinosaur – who can save the day with a swish of his mighty tail – heads off on dangerous missions to make crime extinct.

Spynosaur is secret agency Department 6’s not-so secret weapon. Created by mysterious science rays, Spynosaur, the first ever Super Secret Agent Dinosaur, has the mind of a super spy and the body of a dinosaur. Together with his daughter Amber, this prehistoric hero protects the world from villainy.

In The Spy’s the Limit, Spynosaur and Amber race to investigate a distress beacon coming from the Arctic Circle… the last location of Spynosaur’s long-lost father, super-spy Abner Gambit. They trace the beacon to an underground hideout where they are met by an army of mecha penguins … and are rescued by Spynosaur’s dad, who has been accidentally frozen in ice for the last 30 years.

Father and son team up to complete Abner’s unfinished mission to track down enemy agent The Purple Spyder who is in possession of the P.L.O.T. Device, a machine that can predict spies of the future. The race is on to find the device but, with very different approaches to spying, can Spynosaur and his dad put aside their differences long enough to save the day… and the future?

Prepare to meet up with some old friends, marvel at new super-secret plots and enjoy the dastardly Bronzeface, a dangerously egotistical businessman with ruthless ideas, delusions of grandeur and an alarming bronze toupee and tan!

Bass is a master of zany comedy with his finger firmly on the pulse of young readers, and this knockabout new adventure will have kids laughing all the way to the Arctic Circle!

(Stripes, paperback, £5.99)

Age 3 plus:

Moon by Patricia Hegarty and Britta Teckentrup

Light up the night sky this autumn with a beautiful new picture book from award-winning illustrator Britta Teckentrup.

In her most stunningly atmospheric peek-through picture book yet, Teckentrup and author Patricia Hegarty take little readers on a journey into the shadowy night-time world as we celebrate one of nature’s wonders… the moon.

Have you ever wondered why the moon shines in the night-time sky? Turn the dusky-coloured pages to reveal the shimmering, silver-foiled moon changing shape as it goes through the lunar cycle. As the moon waxes and wanes above, the world below is full of busy night-time creatures. From turtles laying their eggs on white sandy beaches, to migrating birds using the moon to navigate their way to sunnier climes and puffins shivering under the glow of the Northern lights, this is a magical way to learn about the moon and its many phases.

Teckentrup is one of the most innovative contemporary picture book artists. Her intricate collage style is strikingly original and here she brings the nocturnal world to life in all its glorious contrasting shades, lights and colours.

Hegarty’s lyrical, rhyming text helps little ones to understand the moon’s cycle while Teckentrup charts its amazing waxing and waning with peep-through holes, the glittering, glowing moon and her brilliantly appealing and expressive artwork.

The perfect way to shine a light on our amazing moon!

(Little Tiger, hardback, £11.99)

Age 2 plus:

Florence Frizzball by Claire Freedman and Jane Massey

More used to writing about aliens and underpants, inventive author Claire Freedman turns her talents to truly hair-raising adventures in a gorgeous new picture book.

Freedman, best known for her much-loved Aliens Love Underpants series, and illustrator Jane Massey steal hearts and win lots of laughs in the curly-whirly tale of fetching little Florence who would dearly love to iron out her frizzy locks.

Florence’s frizzy, wild and crazy hair couldn’t be more different from her little brother Ben’s sleek, shiny, neat and tidy locks. Florence’s hair is positively electrifying… it crackles with static and constantly blows over her face. She begs her mum to let a hairdresser try to tame it, but when she gets the restyle she wants, will Florence be happy with her new straight hair?

Adorable Florence and her frizzy, wizzy hair are a delightful double act and the crowning glory of Freedman’s cute and cuddly rhyming story which gives cheer to frizzy-haired youngsters and puts the comfort of sibling love at its warm heart.

Massey’s suitably heart-melting illustrations add extra pathos and help to reinforce important messages about being comfortable in your own skin… and hair.

An enchanting book that makes you want to ‘curl up’ and read it over and over again…

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)