Children's books: "The Imaginary" & "The Bear & The Piano"

Here is a short review of two books that I saw recommended in the last few days and bought at the opening of our new local bookshop. The first is a picture book for young readers and the second is for "middle grade" readers - probably around 8-11 but could be worth reading aloud to a slightly younger child. Both are different, highly imaginative and beautifully illustrated.

The Bear and the Piano
This is a moving and beautiful story; seemingly simple yet full of subtle themes and ideas so anyone between the ages of 0-99 can take something special away after reading it. All of us can experience something magical from this touching picture book.

My four year old enjoyed the story for the story, favouriting the reunion at the end - although more so for the bear's reunion with the old piano than his family and friends! My seven year old liked the fact the story was about a bear not a person playing a piano which she thought made it more interesting and more memorable. She also said it showed that "your family are the most important thing and you should always do what feels right to you." Her favourite picture was the one towards the end - but I don't want to describe it at the risk of spoiling its revelation when you read it yourself! While she was beginning to acknowledge some of the themes in the book, her overriding feedback was about the illustrations and how much she liked looking at them. We both agreed the way the text is organised and displayed with the pictures was really well done. I think this also underlines that there is nothing moralising or patronising about Litchfield's work. He has primarily written a book about a bear and a piano. My nine year old enjoyed the book too despite being a bit too cool for school to really elicit any sustained feedback, but I have caught him listening to us as we reread it and glancing through it when he thinks no one is looking!

The last line is brilliant. I shed a tear! There are so many things you could talk about with children after reading this - perseverance, curiosity, friendship, adventure, talent and music.

But first and foremost it is just a lovely book to look at and a lovely book to read aloud. The words are as musical as the sounds it describes. On some pages the phrases and sentences dance and float across the page like the soft motifs from the symphonies and tunes the bear plays. The lines vary in length and pace, like poetry. Repetition has been used to carefully and skilfully create effect rather than for phonetic benefit. The emphasis is on linguistic charm and to enhance the imagery rather than educate. It is a book that will provoke a gently thoughtful, reflective response. It is a book to read aloud and listen to the words that keep reappearing: wonderful, strange, big, music, bright, world, passion..... Words to excite any child and make them crave adventure and wonder.

Oh do buy it for any young children you know - and any big ones too!

I was a little concerned when I read the opening two pages as we are told about the death of one of the main characters, but the first chapter immediately changes the atmosphere and launches us into the happy, bright and loving world of Amanda. Please do not let this opening put you off sharing with your children as it really doesn't represent the rest of the novel. Although there is an accident and scenes at a hospital, and parts of the story are serious, the novel is also about friendship, adventure, magic and imagination.

I'm not sure quite how to review this book fairly and do it justice! I'm not sure exactly which genre it fits into - it's about families, friendship, memories, adventure.....It's humorous, entertaining, a little scary at times, fantastical, magical and even surreal. It's clever. It's creative. It's immensely imaginative and unique. It will suit children who like Roald Dahl,Alice in Wonderland.

The illustrations are gorgeous and compliment the text so much. I loved the final page where the children disappear off to play. Gravett's illustration shows a black and white back garden with the two children riding on a dinosaur to a new planet - in colour. It is such a simple way to emphasise how children can visualise all sorts from nothing and to them it can be as real as real life.

So Rudger is Amanda's imaginary friend. It's mostly told from his point of view which is a quirky and innovative concept. Following Amanda's accident, her memory of him begins to fade, threatening his survival. He is transported to a different place where the imaginary friends congregate, awaiting their next "imagining". There is a noticeboard with photos of children whose imagination is not strong enough to create their own friend and therefore they need a ready made one to go and present itself. And then, there is the ever present danger of Mr Bunting who hunts imaginaries. Will Rudger find his way back to Amanda? Will she remember him? Can they stop Mr Bunting?

This book is full of lovely quotes and poetic lines. I can't decide which ones to use so think I might have to leave it to you to find your own favourites when you read it! I'm going to read through it again and again. Enjoy the pictures, the characters, the eccentricity of the story, the peculiarity of some of the more fantastical aspects and the celebration of all things imaginary and everyone's imagination. Great book. Extraordinary!

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