Book review: The big, the Bard and the beautiful with Usborne books

April marks the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth and Usborne children’s books are helping youngsters to understand and enjoy the greatest figure in England’s cultural heritage.

Wednesday, 2nd April 2014, 10:00 am
The big, the Bard and the beautiful with Usborne books
The big, the Bard and the beautiful with Usborne books

In association with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, they have put together an extensive collection of books ranging from Sticker Dressing Shakespeare and a special Usborne Young Reading of Shakespeare to accessible retellings of some of the best-loved plays.

And there are plenty of other new titles, from a ‘peep-inside’ board book revealing cosy animal homes to a super-size, full-colour guide to famous artists, all guaranteed to keep young hands and minds busy over the Easter break.

Age 7 plus:

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Young Reading William Shakespeare by Rosie Dickins and Christina Uzner

No child is too young to start getting to know and understand about Shakespeare’s work and his role in the cultural and literary development of this country.

As part of their Young Reading Series Three, aimed at children whose reading ability and confidence allows them to start tackling longer and more complex stories, Usborne has put together an exciting and informative account of his life.

The book describes his incredible journey from an ordinary childhood in Stratford-upon-Avon to his extraordinary career as a playwright and performer, and the influence which his great works continue to hold today.

It tells the story of young William who dreams of acting and writing plays. His ambition takes him from the quiet country town of Stratford to the great playhouses of London where his talent takes the city by storm.

Illustrated by Christina Uzner, and with photographs of real-life locations connected to Shakespeare and internet links to recommended Shakespeare websites, Young Reading William Shakespeare is a beautifully produced book complete with a handy ribbon marker.

The perfect introduction to an English literary genius…

(Usborne, hardback, £4.99)

Age 6 plus:

Macbeth by Conrad Mason and Christa Unzner

Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, gets a brilliant retelling and special makeover for children growing in reading confidence and ability.

This is a new title in Usborne’s Young Reading Series Two and presents Shakespeare’s classic tale of madness, murder, treachery and witchcraft for a younger audience.

Macbeth is the bravest general in Scotland and a loyal servant to King Duncan. But then he hears that one day, he could be king himself. Mad with ambition, Macbeth sets out on a blood-soaked path to power.

Macbeth is just one of an outstanding series of condensed versions of Shakespeare’s plays from Usborne. With their exciting and atmospheric illustrations, accessible and thought-provoking storytelling and internet links to associated websites, there could be no better way to awaken an early and hopefully lifelong enthusiasm for the Bard.

(Usborne, hardback, £4.99)

Age 5 plus:

Sticker Dressing Shakespeare by Rachel Firth and Diego Diaz

All the world’s a stage, wrote Shakespeare, and youngsters get the chance to act out the roles of some of the Bard’s most famous characters with this fun-packed sticker book.

Discover the drama of Shakespeare’s plays and share the excitement of dressing up by using over 200 colourful stickers. There’s the chance to select costumes for the actors and get them ready for their stage performances.

From star-crossed lovers and girls disguised as boys to murderers, fools and fairy royalty, there are dozens of Shakespeare’s tragic and comic characters to find and dress, as well as famous quotations from the plays to bring the action to life.

Sticker Dressing Shakespeare is a lively, hands-on and accessible way to learn about the Bard and guaranteed to spark further interest in both the playwright and his work.

Usborne’s Shakespeare books are part of a vibrant Reading Programme, featuring over 200 titles, which supplement National Curriculum levels 1C to 4A. Bright, full-cover illustrations combine with lively text to make these colourful hardback fact and fiction books irresistible for children learning to read, and will help capture their imagination and build confidence as they move from one level to the next.

(Usborne, paperback, £5.99)

Age 2 plus:

Peep Inside Animal Homes by Anna Milbourne and Simona Dimitri

Where do animals live? Anna Milbourne and illustrator Simona Dimitri take toddlers on a magical journey of discovery in this engaging ‘Peep Inside’ adventure book.

Turn the pages, lift the flaps and take a look into nests and inside burrows to see baby animals and their cosy homes whether they are in the treetops or under the water, under the ground or even under the snow.

Written in straightforward prose which will intrigue and inform, the book opens up a wonderful hidden world of animal homes. There are holes to peep through, flaps to look under and snippets of information to enjoy.

Nests, warrens, hives, dens and dams are all waiting to be discovered in a colourful, vibrant book full of fun and facts.

A book that’s sure to cause a flap …

(Usborne, board book, £6.99)

Age 9 plus:

The Usborne Book of Famous Artists

And what about a big, bold art book bulging with the incredible stories and paintings of the world’s most famous artists?

Usborne’s Book of Famous Artists is the best introduction a child could get to the lives and works of 35 great artists, including Vincent van Gogh, Michelangelo, J.M.W. Turner, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.

This magnificent book, ideal for home or school, includes reproductions of the artists’ works as well as photographs of the artists at work, their personal belongings, homes and the places that were important to them.

Ideal for older children eager to learn more about art and artists, The Usborne Book of Famous Artists includes internet links to websites to see more art works and find art activities, and provides just the right amount of information and background on the masters and their masterpieces.

Don’t miss the chance to get in on the big picture…

(Usborne, paperback, £9.99)

Age 9 plus:

A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson

Everyday home life and interaction with siblings are some of the most familiar aspects of the small and intimate world of children.

Lara Williamson’s compelling debut novel has its finger firmly on the pulse of family life with the story of an ordinary boy with a single-minded determination to make his absent dad love him.

A Boy Called Hope will pull at the heartstrings of anyone who has been through the pain of separation but it is also – as the title of the book implies – full of humour, drama, resilience and hope.

Dan Hope is an ordinary boy, in an ordinary home, in an ordinary town but he has an extraordinary amount of hope in his heart. He has a list of things he wants to come true including his older sister Grace going to university at the North Pole and coming back just once a year… and then only for 24 hours.

He would also like to help Sherlock Holmes solve his most daring mystery yet, to be the first 11-year-old to land on the moon, to stop his dog throwing up on the carpet… and he would like his dad to love him.

After his dad ran off with the lady from the chip shop, everything went topsy-turvy – from his sister acting strangely, and his mum’s boyfriend even more so, to his dad turning up as a local TV presenter. Now Dan is on a quest to make things right, starting with getting his dad back.

But when dad doesn’t reply to his emails, a class project to immortalise a hero seems like the perfect opportunity to impress him. When Dan’s plan goes pear-shaped however, it’s his mum’s boyfriend who is there to help and comfort him and Dan starts to realise that maybe you don’t need to share a surname with someone for them to be part of your family…

There’s laughter, tears and oodles of human empathy in this remarkable story which strikes a perfect balance between funny and serious, innocence and maturity, happy and sad.

Williamson’s characters are so palpably real and their dilemmas so universal that any child undergoing personal change and family disruption will find reassurance and comfort in this wonderful tale of dogged Dan.

A highly accomplished and beautifully written debut…

(Usborne, paperback, £6.99)

Age 9 plus:

Seeing Red by Kathryn Erskine

Family life also comes under scrutiny in a powerful new novel from Kathryn Erskine, author of Mockingbird which told the story of a girl suffering from Asperger’s whose brother is shot dead in a high school massacre.

Seeing Red transports readers to the Deep South of America in the 1970s and tackles the emotive subjects of family, friends and race relations.

Red Porter is a kid growing up around black car grease and white fence paint. He knows the difference between right and wrong, black and white, but he also knows that for folk in his hometown, Stony Gap, Virginia, this isn’t always clear.

When Red’s daddy dies, he’s left with his younger brother, his mama and some hard decisions. As their money dwindles, Red does everything he can to keep the family gas station, store and repair shop afloat but when he uncovers some of the racial injustices that have been happening in Stony Gap since before he was born, Red is faced with unsettling questions about the legacy behind his family’s shop and everything he’s fighting for.

But through his friendship with some unlikely characters, Red starts to see that there’s a whole lot more than car motors and rusty fenders that need fixing in his world. He can’t mend the past but he can still change the future and stand up for those who need him most…

This is a story about coping with grief, learning to respect differences, hitting back at bullies and fighting the evils of racism. Seeing Red places the emphasis firmly on a better, fairer future and underlines the importance of making a difference to others’ lives, however small those acts may be.

A thoughtful, emotional and inspiring story…

(Usborne, paperback, £6.99)

Age 10 plus:

Model Under Cover: A Crime of Fashion by Carina Axelsson

What girl worth her salt could resist the seductive charms of an undercover detective who infiltrates the glittering fashion world by dressing up as a catwalk model?

And who better to write the fantastic story of fashion’s most stylish sleuth than real-life former catwalk model Carina Axelsson?

Star of this brilliant new Model Under Cover series is Axelle Anderson who, despite her long legs and fashion-obsessed family, only wants to solve mysteries. Her adventures in the world of lip-gloss, sky high heels and back-stabbing are set to enthral all budding fashion fans.

In A Crime of Fashion, we find Axelle furious when she is sent to stay with her uber-fashionista Aunt Venetia for Paris Fashion Week but when star designer Belle La Lune vanishes into thin air, Axelle seizes the chance to go undercover as a model to crack the case.

Tortured with eyelash-curlers and swept up in a whirlwind of castings, shows and photo shoots, Axelle starts to unravel the mystery behind Belle’s disappearance, aided by London’s most stunning supermodel and the distractingly gorgeous Sebastian, son of Paris’s bumbling chief inspector of police.

Axelle must race against the clock – and the arrival of her mother on Eurostar – to solve the mystery at the heart of Paris Fashion Week...

Humour, fashion, drama and intrigue prove the perfect combination in this high-flying and immaculately stylish new series.

(Usborne, paperback, £6.99)

Age 14 plus:

Writing in the Sand by Helen Brandom

With recent statistics showing that the UK has the highest teenage birth rate in Western Europe, Helen Brandom’s subtle and moving debut novel is perfectly timed.

Writing in the Sand tackles the topical subjects of young carers, teenage pregnancy and adoption with an accessible and sensible voice whilst delivering an absorbing and page-turning story.

Sixteen-year-old Amy is used to keeping secrets − about her mum’s illness, her irresponsible sister and about Liam, her ex-boyfriend. Amy is her mum’s sole carer and every day is filled with tiny battles to achieve the simplest things, from cooking a meal to keeping the house clean, especially when social services come round.

No matter how difficult things get, Amy doesn’t want anything to change. But then a shocking discovery turns everything upside down. Amy now has one secret that cannot be kept, a secret that involves the newborn baby left on her best friend’s doorstep and which has become the talk of the town.

Only Amy holds the key to the baby’s identity and now she has two choices. Does she tell the truth about the abandoned baby, or keep quiet and live a lie... forever?

Written with insight, wisdom, a deep understanding of important teen issues and with extra material at the end for reading groups, this is a book to set hearts beating and minds in motion.

An outstanding debut…

(Usborne, paperback, £6.99)