Monday, June 27, 2011

Children's Book Review, The Last Viking

Children's Book Review
Children's Book Review by Susan Stephenson, www.thebookchook.com Check out more by clicking on the right side bar, Reviews button.

I have a new favourite picture book! The Last Viking, written by Norman Jorgensen, and illustrated by James Foley, was published by Fremantle Press (2011).

Josh is very brave. He's only a tiny bit afraid of the dark, ghosts, boy-eating dinosaurs, pirates, monsters, vampires… Hmmm, and of course going to Nan and Pop's. In fact, he's as brave as a lion. Sort of.

Luckily, Pop introduces Josh to the Vikings. Josh becomes Knut, and his imagination takes flight. He'll need all that imagination, and bravery, and perhaps some Viking magic to cope with the neighbourhood bullies.

All kids have anxieties. Literature is a great way to show children they're not alone in their fears, without preaching to them. I think Knut's story makes an excellent choice for parents and teachers who want to remind children that we all have fears, and that sometimes feeling the fear and doing it anyway can have surprising results.

Jorgensen's writing works on two levels, like that in all the great picture books. There's the main story, satisfying and full of drama. And then there's the subtext produced by the combination of his words and Foley's pictures. Like when Knut, outside with sword upheld to a thunderous sky and lightning bolts, vanquishes his foes, while inside Pop asks after little Knut because there might be a storm. And when Nan, who just doesn't get it, refers to the bullies as Josh's new friends and wants them to come in for some cordial.

Some picture book partnerships seem to be a relationship made in Heaven - or should that be Valhalla? Jorgensen's writing is beautifully complemented by Foley's art. The drawings are cartoon in style, but there is a richness and texture to the whole illustration that makes the book a real visual delight.

There is lots of attention to detail in The Last Viking. I adore picture books that engage our attention over multiple re-readings, don't you? Several page borders turn out to be not just decoration. Even the end papers fascinate, with more messages to decode and an alphabet-rune key. What fun to totally confuse older brothers and sisters by writing messages in runes!

Do check out the author and illustrator's blog for teachers, students and aspiring authors, Knut the Last Viking. You'll find a great Resources page with pictures to colour, as well as runes to solve.

After reading this book with your kids, they'll love to create their own Longships, be they from rearranged furniture, cardboard or construction blocks. I love the emphasis in The Last Viking on the close relationship between literature and imaginative play - it fits perfectly into The Book Chook's scheme of the Universe. The book also emphasises non-fiction - there is a whole page depicting the book Pop gives to Josh, Vikings:Pirates of the North. I also love the way Josh is so inspired by this book, that he enters fully into his role as Knut, Prince of the Vikings.

Kids might like to work out their own names in runes, and read more about vikings on the BBC website, which includes a Dig It Up game and teacher resource page. Try carving runes into clay, or plaster of paris, or decorating rocks or pebbles with runes. Your older children might like to read an interview with archaeologist, William Fitzhugh, who feels the viking's sordid reputation wasn't entirely warranted. No matter the age, it's lots of fun learning to write in runes, and confusing those not in the know! Can you guess what words are in my runes above?

Fremantle Press have teacher notes available to support The Last Viking, and below is the wonderful book trailer that succeeds in transmitting the flavour of the story without giving too much away - bravo!

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