animals

Yuval Zommer sketches

A few weeks ago I featured the new book by Yuval Zommer, The Big Book of the Blue. Yuval’s illustrations are distinctive among today’s crop of children’s illustrators – playful and cartoonish, populating his exquisitely edited Big Book nonfiction series with a sense of fun and also knowledge. Here, Yuval gives an insight into his drawing process:

I loved working on The Big Book Of The Blue and now that the book is out I often get asked “what was your favourite animal to draw and why?” But I have so many favourites…

I’ll start by telling you that the animals I found most challenging to draw were the Dolphins, they already have a naturally friendly smiley expression and I really didn’t want them to look too cute. I first thought the Sharks would be the most challenging but when I got to draw them they became rather mischievously endearing. Many readers seem to really like the Whales in the book, as do I, but my favourite animals to draw were actually the smallest creatures in the book.

Here are a couple of examples of what I call ‘moods’ (rather than sketches) that I would do as preparation for the book:

Yuval Zommer

I loved drawing these Coral Reef Fish. Here Mother Nature really excelled herself when it comes to flair: these tiny fish who flit brightly among the corals have the most delicate features, almost transparent fins and tails, some gorgeous abstract patterns and splashes of vibrant colours. In my ‘mood boards’ I first try to capture the essence of the animals, how they move together as a fish shoal, what’s the overall colour palette, the corresponding flora etc. Even in a group in which every fish looks almost identical, if you look closely you’ll see there are subtle differences so that each of my fish is still an individual 🙂

Yuval Zommer

Not everyone likes the Crustaceans group, otherwise known as Shellfish, but to me they were some of the most interesting creatures to draw. Crabs, lobsters, shrimp and krill all belong in this ocean family; each has a hard skeleton on the outside of the body. I love how they make such intricate ‘alien like’ shapes with their claws and multi limbs. Also, if you look closely at each shellfish there are so many beautifully blended tones of orange or pink or coral. One of my favourite pages in the book turned out to be the Krill. It’s set at night time and I managed to show a swarm of tiny krill all shimmering under the surface of the sea!

With many thanks to Yuval. Take a look at the book yourself here, and see more of Yuval’s fantastic drawings. 

 

The Boy Who Grew Dragons by Andy Shepherd, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

boy who grew dragonsSo, this is not the first book about a young boy with a dragon pet. I bet you can think of a few yourself. Which begs the question, what makes this book standout from the crowd, what makes it so unique, good and worthy of the book of the week spot?

Tomas helps his grandfather with his unwieldy garden, and one day stumbles upon a strange tree growing the most peculiar looking fruit. He takes one of the fruits home, and later that evening is immensely surprised to discover a dragon hatching from it. What follows is the trials and tribulations experienced when hatching your own baby dragon.

But for me, Shepherd’s unique selling point is not her plot, although it moves with pace, but her ability to mix humour and fun with an intense pathos and understanding of human emotion. It is Tomas’ interaction with the other human characters that really pulls on the reader’s emotions – although there is plenty of fun to be had with the dragon too.

Tomas has a little sister Lolli, who although too young to talk, communicates and spars with Tomas brilliantly in her capacity as co-conspirator in hiding the dragon. Their alliance also demonstrates the uniqueness of sibling relationships – the bond that stretches from affectionate love and sharing of secrets and a helpful camaraderie at one end, to being able to blame the other for something they didn’t do at the other extreme.

The sympathetic grandparent relationship within the story also rings true, and draws the most pathos. Tomas loves spending time with his grandfather, but is torn with guilt between how much time he spends with him versus time with his friends, and Tom also shows an acute awareness, in a wondrous childlike fashion, of how delicate the relationship is as his grandfather gets older and more fragile. The feeling of not wanting to disappoint and yet also wanting to live his own best life compete beautifully within the plot structure.

This gamut of human emotion also stretches to Tomas’ new pet dragon. Feelings of responsibility compete with curiosity and awe, the knowledge of having something different and special and being the envy of one’s peers, and yet knowing that the dragon is precious and special and not merely for showing off – in fact it’s a live being with feelings of its own.

There are some lovely touches here – the timidity of the dragon at first, the portrayal of its physicality as it learns to trust Tomas, and Tomas’ inventive efforts to control the poos and treat his dragon correctly.

But none of this overshadows the sheer fun and vivacity of the novel. Shepherd brings out every flourish of her imagination in Tomas’s discovery – from the tree itself with glowing fruit, to the different types of dragons, their combustible poos, and how difficult dragons are to capture and hide.

Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations here do what they did for the characters in Phil Earle’s Storey Street series, and she brings to life the tree, the dragons and characters with limitless expression. These are warm, animated, engaging illustrations that almost seem to move across the page.

This is a sumptuous start to a new series, bursting with energy and humour, yet tinged with the darker side of life too. There’s a grumpy neighbour, aware but preoccupied parents, an eclectic group of friends, a strange gardening guide, nomenclature of dragon pets – so many facets all covered and explored. A perfect example of domesticity interrupted with a touch of magic. Dragon fruit will never look the same again! Happily for 7+ years; you can buy it here.

Spring 2018 Picture Books

Picture books is a genre that groups books together because of their format rather than their content. The books reviewed below are all strikingly different – some we may think of as traditional picture books in that they’re aimed for younger readers and impart a funny story using animals as characters, and often deliver a message while doing so. But I’ve also covered some books for the slightly older reader in my ten picture books picks of this season, in no particular order:

a bear is a bear
A Bear is a Bear (except when he’s not) by Karl Newson and Anuska Allepuz
A wonderfully simpatico book about a tired bear who forgets who and what he is until a good sleep sees him wake up refreshed and knowledgeable. He tries to be all kinds of animals, from a bird to a fox, but the other animals’ habitats, behaviours and eating habits do not suit his skills and sensibility. After hibernating, he rediscovers the truth and finds his appetite. This is a warm and humorous book with rhyming text, a delightful exploration of the seasons through illustration, and the introduction of woodland creatures, including a moose. The text is written in an invitingly read-aloud style, as if the reader is a narrator talking to the bear. Endearing, friendly and colourful. You can buy it here.

i do not like books anymore
I Do Not Like Books Anymore! by Daisy Hirst
Another one for the fairly young, this will also be a favourite among teachers trying to encourage first time readers to push through. Characters Natalie and Alphonse first appeared in Alphonse, That is Not Okay To Do, primarily about sibling relationships, but this story takes these two little monsters through the course of learning to read. Although they adore books and stories, Natalie starts to struggle to learn to read and in the process, becomes disillusioned about books. With some help from her little brother, Alphonse, Natalie comes up with a strategy to rebuild her confidence, and before long stories and books are favourites again. A fantastic tale about perseverance that is close to home for many readers. Hirst is particularly clever in portraying a familiar domestic environment, with the monsters in typical childlike poses – be it on a swing or reading with legs in the air, sitting on a bus or playing in the bathroom. Look out for the wider cast of characters – a simple but effective way of drawing our modern world. You can buy it here.

almost anything
Almost Anything by Sophy Henn
On a similar theme, although not so specifically on reading, this is Henn’s message that anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it. George is a rabbit with somewhat downcast ears. Everyone else in the woods is busy (birds who play chess, a squirrel who reads, a mouse who knits), but George doesn’t feel confident doing anything, and so does nothing. It is only when Bear comes up with a simple yet cunning plan that George finds the confidence to attempt everything and stop at nothing. Despite Bear’s scruffy looking appearance, she comes up trumps with wisdom, ensuring and inspiring self-belief in others. With Henn’s gentle colour palette, and deceptively simple plot and illustrations, this is a clever, inspirational little picture book that captures the essence of finding confidence, having a go, and importantly, enjoying oneself too (as well as, may I suggest, respecting the wisdom of elders). You can buy it here.

dinosaur juniors
Dinosaur Juniors Happy Hatchday by Rob Biddulph
Long a fan of Biddulph’s simple, almost monosyllabic, rhymes, it seems this author/illustrator can do no wrong. With this first of a brand new series, he has now turned his attention to that perennial love of pre-schoolers – dinosaurs. The illustrations are trademark Biddulph – simple shapes with almost three-dimensional texture, and a bold colour palette – dominated by green in this tree-filled landscape of our green protagonist dinosaur. Biddulph brings a range of topics to this ostensibly simple text about a group of dinosaurs hatching – from counting, to fitting in, to naming dinosaurs, to friendship. Greg is the last to hatch, but is shown to be equally loved and appreciated by the end of the book. Biddulph’s bright colours and stylish illustrations will delight a whole truckload of wannabe palaeontologists. You can buy it here.

nimesh
Nimesh the Adventurer by Ranjit Singh and Mehrdokht Amini
Taking a more complicated route with illustration is this dynamic and interesting new picture book about imagination. Nimesh is an Indian boy in London who uses his imagination to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, from crossing the road to walking through the park on his way home from school. His school corridor is fairly nondescript: a range of notices upon the wall, a few cupboards and chairs, and a wall display of a hammerhead shark as part of shark week. But the following page leads the reader into Nimesh’s imagination, as he sees the corridor as an underwater labyrinth, a school door sprouting from the sea bed, sharks, plants and fish layered upon the school floor with the staircase and fire exit in the distance. The illustrations are collage – a remarkable letting loose of the illustrator to use their imagination as they envisage what Nimesh sees in his vivid mind. The entire book is related in dialogue too – as if the voice of reason is in conversation with the voice of imagination. Children will delight in finding the clue in each ‘ordinary’ picture of the ‘extraordinary’ to come. London becomes magical in this richly layered, diverse and fascinating tale. Extraordinarily different. You can buy it here.

little mole
Little Mole is a Whirlwind by Anna Llenas
Another story revealed in collage illustrations is this interestingly busy book about a little mole with ADHD. Mole can’t stop – the book is full of distraction and interaction as Mole moves through his school day at pace, fidgeting, forgetting, and playing the fool. Unfortunately, his peers find him irritating rather than funny, and his mole parents try to find a way of helping their whirlwind son. Serena the bunny gives Mole the space to experiment and explore, to talk and to listen, and finally Mole and his classmates accept who he is. This may be an unsubtle way of dealing with an issue – Mole at one point is illustrated with luggage labels ‘labelling’ him, but the overall premise is dealt with wonderfully in the busy collage style – pencil and cardboard drawings cut out and layered on top of each other. It creates a busy landscape and shows Mole’s world well. Frenzied but enjoyable. You can buy it here.

forever or a day
Forever or a Day by Sarah Jacoby
In complete contrast, this magically calm picture book for older readers tries to explore the concept of time. Taking subtlety to an extreme, the book reads as a poetic meditation, alluding to the subject matter rather than addressing it directly. Both picture and text combine to explore the elasticity of time – the calm pictures of seaside days contrast with the rushing for a train. There is musing on ageing and how time stretches back and seems far away, as well as added humour in the time spent waiting for a bus. There is the mindfulness of being in the present and appreciating the time now. With a mixture of striking landscapes from afar and up close domestic scenes, this is a thoughtful and somewhat wistful look at how we live and what we lose as we move through life. Clever parallel images appear throughout the book, letting the reader make connections between things and people, between time when young, and time when old. A sandcastle washes away to nothing, a train recedes into the distance, days turn to night. This is a complex, powerful book about one day, and how in memory a day may last forever. You can buy it here.

red bottomed robber
The Case of the Red-Bottomed Robber by Richard Byrne
Master of the playful picture book, Byrne returns with this old-school tale about chalk who love to draw but get upset when their drawings are erased while they are out at play. In true mystery style, they investigate the ‘theft’ of their drawings, weighing up the evidence, which is chalk dust, and rounding up suspicious characters, including the scissors, glue and ruler. When they finally catch the robber red-handed, or rather ‘bottomed’, he feels unjustly accused – after all rubbing out is his raison d’etre. A funny tale, well told on black backgrounds representative of the chalkboard, children will delight in the ‘bottom’ tale, as well as the use of chalk with expressive personalities. Not too far removed from The Day the Crayons Quit, this picture book is shorter, and perfect for exploring a first mystery case, or just enjoying the colourful mess chalks can make. You can buy it here.

glassmakers daughter
The Glassmaker’s Daughter by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray
Far more long-lasting than chalk is coloured glass, in this exquisitely beautiful fairy tale of Daniela, the daughter of a 16th century Venetian glassmaker. Daniela is miserable, and her father offers a glass palace to the first person to make her smile. In true fairy tale trope, many try, including jugglers, mask makers and trumpet players, but only the last glassmaker manages, by making Daniela a mirror in which she can laugh at the sad miserable face she shows to the world. Although it feels like a classic princess tale, there is no ‘happy marriage’ at the end, and indeed those of both genders who try to make her smile are not motivated by thoughts of a wedding. This is about finding happiness within oneself rather than with another person – and how laughter is catching. But more than this, the picture book gives historical detail about glassmaking in Venice, and shows originality and immense detail in the exquisite illustrations – and a sparkle of glass when it shatters in the middle. An intriguing, historical, luxurious picture book that explores European culture. You can buy it here.

out out away from here
Out, Out, Away From Here by Rachel Woodworth and Sang Miao
A completely different illustrative style, but also in a book lavishly produced, is Woodworth’s tale of exploring emotion and escape. The red-haired narrator of this book acknowledges in very few words that sometimes she feels happy, but sometimes mad and sad, and sometimes all at once. When things are particularly overwhelming, she seeks escape in her imagination, a wild place populated by nature, with faces in the shapes, and strange creatures, with domestic objects inserted in wild landscapes, where the domestic merges with the wild. But at the end, she always comes back to her fully domestic family scene. Miao has had fun with the scant text, letting her own imagination create crazy landscapes within the mind. The fusing of the familiar with the strange and the dreamlike colours are particularly effective – from orange skies to flying fish, vivid blue seas and unidentifiable shapes in greys and greens. The domesticity is well executed too, from the yellow mac on rainy days to the zoomed in picture of the girl with her hands in her hair as she listens to the baby scream. This is another well thought out book of emotion and intensity, with just the right balance of darkness and depth to create a wonderful narrative to promote discussion of our emotions and how we respond to them. Excellent. You can buy it here.

 

 

Social Action Picture Books

I do firmly believe that starting out with an agenda is not the best way to write a book, but often a cause or an issue catches our attention because of the story behind it. The media know this all too well – putting a human face to a crime, building a narrative around Brexit, giving story examples of health crises are the way we engage with issues. We need stories.

These clever picture books may be issue-based, but they win over the reader with their subtle blend of picture and text, with their bold narratives.

Homelessness:
the old manThe Old Man by Sarah V and Claude K Dubois

A skilful mix of tender illustrations and sparse text portray this issue with pathos and intelligence. Homeless people often feel invisible, and the gentle pencil sketching and sepia tones of this picture book lend an invisibility to the homeless man, but also give the book a sophistication and elegance that makes it attractive.

The book starts with daylight and a girl rising from her bed within her house, but flits quickly to the homeless man also starting his day, in the rain and ignored. It portrays his struggle with hunger and cold, his awkwardness and shame, his loneliness.

For much of the book, the people remain faceless – shown from waist down, or blurred in the rain. It is only at the end when there is human connection between the little girl and the homeless man, that the features begin to be defined. It is one act of human kindness that gives the homeless man the warmth and humanity to go to a shelter, and be recognised for who he is.

This is a brave and touching story, and an excellent picture book for allowing children to explore an issue and see that people are more than just their outward appearance. You can buy it here.

Gender Roles:
looking after williamLooking After William by Eve Coy

This humorously illustrated story takes a look at domestic roles and the workload of a parent in a warm and engaging manner.

The little girl of the story decides to act as ‘mummy’ to William, her stay-at-home Dad. She not only performs everyday tasks, but also sees his potential to be whatever he wants to be when he grows up.

The reader will adore her attempts to look after him – making him breakfast but spilling the milk all over the table, giving him exercise by making him tow her up the hill on his bike, and generally ‘looking after’ him by making him push her in the swing, or take her round the supermarket in the trolley. Her grown up jobs include building blocks, and making tea for her toys.

It’s a gorgeous portrayal of domestic life, with immense wit and warmth. In the end, the little girl decides that her Dad only wants one job, despite all the wonderful things he could achieve – and that, of course, is being her Dad. Uplifting and cute, and dominated with shades of blue, green and yellow – like a soft lamp casting a warm hue across the page. You can buy it here.

Animal Conservation:
hello helloHello Hello by Brendan Wenzel

Wenzel’s first picture book, They All Saw A Cat, took the perspective of the animal in viewing the world and illustrated each page accordingly. Hello Hello also gives animals shape and zest, showing the animal world in amazing variety – in colour, but also in action, with animals leaping, flying, twisting, turning and dancing across the white pages. Reminiscent of Lucy Cousin’s Hooray For Fish with its similar sparsity in rhyming text; the animals address each other with descriptive greetings: ‘Hello Stripes, Hello Spots, Hello Giant, Hello Not’. But Wenzel’s sparklingly colourful exploration of animal life takes the illustrations further by using a huge range of media including cut out paper shapes, oil pastel, computer graphic.

The message is simple – that the animals all share certain traits, despite their vast differences. Many of the creatures featured are endangered and Wenzel lists the animals at the back, stating whether they are vulnerable or not. A vibrant call to action. You can buy it here.

is it a mermaidIs it a Mermaid? By Candy Gourlay and Francesca Chessa

A tale of identity and imagination, in that Benji and Bel find a strange creature on their beach, and although they know it is a dugong, Bel goes along with the dugong’s story when she claims to be a mermaid. The humour lies in the illustrations, which represents the dugong as a fairly lumpen animal, about as far removed from mythical ideas of the mermaid as possible.

When Benji’s negativity causes the dugong to cry, he realises he’s been insensitive, and plays along too. The illustrations are colourful, particularly of the undersea world, and beautifully atmospheric, especially in the change in light depending on time of day, but they also bear out a childlike simplicity. What’s more the children and the dugong are constantly active – so that the picture book feels alive and exuberant.

At the end, the authors remind the reader that both dugongs and sea grass habitats are under threat, and give resources for how to help. Save the world here.

 

Environment Conservation:
the coral kingdomThe Coral Kingdom by Laura Knowles and Jennie Webber

Through simple rhyme, this book manages to explore facts about the coral reef, portraying the colour, diversity and life cycle of the ecosystem. Each page has a simple sentence accompanied by the most detailed and colourful illustration. In this way the book both informs and inspires.

There is much to take in – the dive of the dugong, homes of polyps, sea stars and mantas, turtles and minke whales. The colours and textures are plain to see, and the interweaving of the different creatures and plants make for quite a spectacle.

The shock comes over halfway through, when the beautiful colours are gone – bleached by the warming seas. The remainder of the book explores what humans need to do to protect this environment, with a beautiful pull out spread of how it should be, accompanied by information about conservation on the reverse. From the winners of the Margaret Mallett Award for Children’s Non-Fiction, this is a perfect picture book to teach first steps to conservation. See the coral here.

when the bees buzzed offWhen the Bees Buzzed Off! By Lula Bell, illustrated by Stephen Bennett

With a die-cut front cover, and lift the flaps throughout, this is a nifty book for young children about discovering nature. The insects inside the book are frantic that the bees have disappeared – told in an array of speech bubbles, accompanied by short narrative sentences.

The authors have had fun here: the insects are imbued with personality, and pretentions of comic wit: “the search is fruit-ile” says one, a joke wasted on the very young but wry for the adult reader. Other jokes suit the readership better – the jealousy of tadpoles at different stages, the lying spider.

In the end, the insects learn that bees need certain flowers to enable pollination, and without them our world would be poorer in many ways. You can buy it here.

Riding a Donkey Backwards

riding a donkey backwardsAs we celebrate the month of Ramadan, and think about how to increase diversity and representation in the books our children are reading, this sumptuous hardback, Riding a Donkey Backwards dropped onto my doormat, and I had to share it with you. It’s a collection of 21 tales and riddles about a trickster known across Muslim culture. Mulla Nasruddin is both the wisest man and the biggest fool. Through telling some of his stories, all contained on one or two pages, Sean Taylor, the Khayaal Theatre, and Shirin Adl bring the tales to life with drama and creativity.

Each tale is only a paragraph or two long – spanning one or two pages, with full double page colour collage illustrations. The text is jaunty and chatty, as befits the subject, and some tales and riddles leave a wry smile, others pose philosophical questions. Many invite critical thinking, but there are those that are just silly – on purpose. The text feels modern, but the illustrations feel traditional – set in familiar age-old landscapes, such as a school, a kitchen table, a market place. A Nice Steam Bath is illustrated to look as if it’s a wordless comic strip or an ancient scroll, and many of the collages use domestic materials such as a child might use: cotton wool beards, glass bead rivers. They are bright and welcoming, playful and intelligent.

Below, Sean Taylor explains about the book.

How did Riding a Donkey Backwards come about?

“It came about, indirectly, because of a terror attack. Back on 7th January 2015, there was a massacre in Paris, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. That day, I could feel people in the UK were shaken by the nearness of the violence, and I sensed some ‘retreating into shells’ going on. This made me want to do the opposite. At an event at Shakespeare’s Globe about 12 years previously, I’d met Luqman Ali and he’d given me a leaflet about Khayaal Theatre. Khayaal is a theatre company founded by him and Eleanor Martin. It is dedicated to showcasing the rich traditions of story, poetry and humour in Muslim cultures, and also to building engagement between Muslim communities and the wider world. I kept the leaflet Luqman had given me. Sometimes I’d come across it, wonder if there might be some way of collaborating with Khayaal, and decide probably not. But, that day, I wrote to Luqman. Looking back, my message said, among other things:

I have no more connection with, or understanding of, the Islamic world than you would expect from a man with an interest in stories and poetry who grew up in the home counties of England. My strongest connections are, in fact, not to the east, but to the west. My wife is from, Brazil. We have lived there on and off over the past twenty years. But rather than seeing these things as obstacles, I shall, for the sake of this message, see them as reasons for making connection. Might we meet? Might we talk a bit about stories, and about theatre and about work with young people? Might something fruitful result from this impulse to reach out? ”

What happened next?

“We did meet, at the British Library, a few weeks later. And it was clear that, though we are from quite different cultural backgrounds, we had a lot in common in terms of our work around story and education, and our shared interest in the imagination, dreams and humour. So it seemed natural to try to find a way to work together. I had in mind there might be ways Khayaal could make use of my experience of writing for theatre. Actually, they expressed an interest in writing a children’s book. So the idea of retelling some of the stories of Mulla Nasruddin in a publication for young readers was born. I thought newly-founded Otter-Barry Books might show interest in the project. And I’m happy to say they did.”

Who exactly is Mulla Nasruddin?

“There’s no exact answer. Some say Nasruddin was a real man who lived in the thirteenth century. Nobody knows for sure! Many different countries claim to be his birthplace, including Turkey and Iran. In the introduction to the book we say:

He has many names because stories about him are told in many different countries. In Turkey he is Hodja. In Central Asia he is Afandi. The Arabs know him as Joha. Others call him Mulla Nasruddin. He is a trickster. And Muslims all over the world love him because he makes them laugh. If he doesn’t make you laugh, he will certainly make you think – and perhaps think sideways instead of straight ahead. He may even make your thoughts do somersaults inside your mind!”

Why retell these Nasruddin stories?

“They are age-old stories, but I think they are absolutely relevant to the times we live in. Nasruddin challenges fixed ways of looking at our world, and stuck ways of behaving. So the stories about him fly in the face of fundamentalist thinking – whether it be the single-track thinking of Islamist fundamentalism or the equally narrow thinking of Islamophobia. Take a story like the one we’ve called They Can’t Both Be Right! In this, Mulla Nasruddin is asked to settle an argument between two men, in a tea house. Nasruddin listens to the first man and says, “You are right.” Then he listens to the second man and says, “You are right.” Then the owner of the tea-house says, “Well, they can’t both be right!” And Nasruddin says, “You are right!” This is a brilliant, light-hearted way of pointing out that the world cannot be seen in black and white (as more and more people seem happy to see it.) In another story, called Don’t Ask Me! the donkey Nasruddin is riding is startled by a snake. As the donkey gallops madly off, a young farmer calls out, “Where are you going, Nasruddin?” Nasruddin calls back, “Don’t ask me! Ask the donkey!” Can you feel how this has a message for anyone who thinks they have simple answers to the challenges of our times? When an out-of-control donkey is carrying you, how can you sit there stiffly certain about where you are going? At one level this tale is just a funny anecdote. But scratch its surface (or the surface of the other stories in our book) and you find wisdom. Nasruddin asks fresh questions in the face of ready-made answers. The stories in Riding a Donkey Backwards offer new ways of thinking to anyone numbed by the world, or feeling driven to recrimination and aggression. These are reasons why we wanted to bring Nasruddin, his provocations and his heartfelt laughter to life for young readers.”

How was the book created?

“Khayaal Theatre’s Eleanor Martin joined Luqman and me in the writing process. And it turned out to be a fruitful collaboration, with lots of discussion, and drafts to-ing and fro-ing as we worked out which Nasruddin stories to include and how to tell them on the page. Otter-Barry Books brought Iranian illustrator Shirin Adl on board, and Shirin came up with the wonderfully crafted illustrations which make Riding a Donkey Backwards so beautiful to look at.”

With thanks to Sean Taylor. You can buy Riding a Donkey Backwards here.

A Taste of Home: A Guest Post from Victoria Williamson

fox girl and the white gazelleVictoria Williamson’s debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, is the compelling story of two frightened girls who are dealing with traumatic circumstances within their own families, and yet through their unlikely friendship, manage to overcome and even banish some of their fears.

When the two girls discover an injured fox and her cubs hiding on their estate, they realise that a friendship between them will help the foxes. Slowly, they discover that they have much more in common than just saving foxes, and soon it is Reema (a Syrian refugee) showing Caylin (a native Scot) how to fit in and belong in their local Scottish community. The power of their friendship gives a stability and a hopefulness to both girls.

Caylin is troubled – the reader first sees her in the role of bully, taking birthday money from a school girl, but the reader is soon aware that although Caylin’s actions can’t be excused, there are reasons behind her behaviour. Williamson draws Caylin with breathtaking empathy.

In alternating chapters the reader meets Reema, a refugee fleeing her wartorn country, and coming to terms with the damage the war has inflicted upon her family and the realities of facing life in a completely different country and immersing herself within its culture:
“Here even the trees speak a different language.”

Caylin is a wonderfully drawn character – distrustful of adults around her due to past circumstances, predisposed to show a lack of effort at school, and yet remarkably likeable, and completely misunderstood. And Reema too, is shown bravely straddling her old and new lives, embracing her new culture whilst trying not to eschew the old. But it’s Williamson’s own grasp of the two cultures that makes for such an effective read.

Here, she explores how she used the sensation of taste and the meaning of food to explore the characters within her novel:

Harissa cake, mint lemonade, tangerines, pears, plums, beans, soup, fish and chips, battered sausages, tea, lamb stew, peanut butter sandwiches, chocolate biscuits, corned beef, porridge, pizza, chewing gum, toast and jam, tabouleh salad, chicken shawarma, baqlawa pastries, ma’amoul cookies, bubblegum, coffee, meatballs, yoghurt, ice cream, custard, sweet and sour pork, crisps, flatbread, chicken casserole, pancakes with whipped cream and chocolate, black pudding, haggis, Irn Bru and deep-fried Mars Bars.

This is just some of the food mentioned in The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle.  It wasn’t until I was editing my novel that I realised just how many times food and drink was discussed, and how important it was to my characters. For Caylin, chips from the local chip shop are not just a necessity as her mother’s expensive alcohol habit uses up their benefits money, but a treat to be looked forward to at the end of a hard school day. In chapter three she says:

“I stuff the plastic bag with the wrapped chips down my jacket as soon as I get outside, hugging them to my chest and soaking up the warmth and delicious smell. Then I run home, the secret stash of chips protecting me from the wind and the rain like a magic charm.”

For Reema on the other hand, the chips in the school canteen are a greasy reminder that she’s in a foreign country very far from her beloved Syria. Even something as simple as a cup of tea that doesn’t taste the same makes her homesick, as she describes in chapter four:

Mama makes the tea that our neighbour has brought instead of using the packet of tea leaves the mosque gave us along with a big box of food supplies. She is afraid the old lady will not like our strong Syrian tea, and she wants our guest to feel welcome. I try not to make a face as I sip the weak brew. It tastes soft and sad, just like the Scottish rain. I long for a cup of strong black tea and the lashing rain of home.

Victoria in Cameroon

It got me thinking about the time I spent working as a teacher in Africa, particularly my two years in Cameroon. The food was so different from anything I’d eaten before – boiled fufu corn and Njama njama (a kind of fried huckleberry leaf), rice and bean stew, ‘foot cow’ pepper soup, and egusi pudding (ground seed paste with dried crayfish).

And then of course, there was achu.

I thought I would never, ever get used to the taste of achu and yellow soup. It looks about as appetising as it sounds: a grey, volcano-shaped mound of pounded coco yam with a play-doh like consistency, and thick yellow soup with a crushed limestone base. The first time I ate it the only way I could swallow it down was to take a big gulp of water with each bite, fake-smiling at the teacher who’d spent hours preparing it for me and hoping I wasn’t going to look like an ungrateful guest by throwing it up on the table. Try as I might to avoid it over the next two years, it turned up regularly at the end of each long school meeting, prepared by some of the female staff. We’d share a drink and a laugh together over our meal, and eventually I learned to tolerate and then grow strangely fond of the grey goo that I’d struggled to swallow at first.

Towards the end of my time there, I found my mind wandering in class when lunchtime approached, but it wasn’t the rice and beans I enjoyed so much at the local chop house I was thinking about. I couldn’t get the thought of my mother’s shepherd’s pie and cherry scones out of my head. There were times I’d even think longingly of the oxtail soup she used to make for lunch when my brothers and I would come running home from primary school, which was odd, as I didn’t even like oxtail soup!

This is where Reema’s homesick voice comes from, when she asks her little sister in chapter twelve:

“Remember the food Aunt Amira used to make? The tabouleh salads and chicken shawarma and baqlawa pastries? And the Eid al-Fitr feast when we would invite all our family and friends to eat Mama’s famous ma’amoul cookies?”

My mouth is watering at the very thought of my favourite dishes, but Sara is frowning at me as though I am speaking a foreign language.

In the months after I returned to the UK, I got to eat all of the food I’d missed – my mother’s homemade cooking, spaghetti Bolognese, moussaka, chille con carne and chocolate cake. But one day as I finished teaching a maths class just before lunch, I realised a strange thing. Instead of fantasising about the pasta and pizza, fish and chips or baked potatoes in the canteen, all I could think about was a big plate of achu and yellow soup. Two years of trying to avoid the stuff, and there I was missing it like a long lost friend. That was when I finally understood. It wasn’t about the food at all. It was about the people I’d shared the food with that made the memories of it so powerful.

That’s why Caylin loves her chips so much despite eating them every day until her unwashed uniform starts to smell of grease. They remind her of happy times and make her feel safe. In chapter five she describes sharing a meal from the chip shop with her mother:

I snuggle up next to her on the couch and rest my head against her fluffy dressing gown. She puts her arm round me and holds me tight as we laugh at the stupid film and the rubbish acting. This is my favourite time of day – just before bed, when Mum’s slept off the doctor’s tablets to help with her depression, and before she reaches for a bottle to help her through the night. This is when I can pretend we’re a proper family again and the accident that ruined it all didn’t ever happen.

No matter where we are in the world, our thoughts, opinions and memories of the food we eat will be shaped by the people we share it with. Even if at first we struggle with the flavour, texture or smell of a new dish, ultimately whether we come to love and miss it will depend on our willingness to connect to the people who sit with us round the table. Despite missing home so much it hurts, Reema comes to discover a fondness for Scottish food when she makes friends with Caylin and starts to feel more at home in her adopted country. Caylin describes this in chapter twenty-nine:

On the way home we stopped at Michael’s Superchippy. We had a great party eating Syrian food with the Haddads  a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to share something from Scotland with Reema and Sara. I asked Brian to get them a black pudding or haggis supper, but he said they weren’t allowed to eat meat that wasn’t halal, from their own Muslim butchers.  I was disappointed, but Brian winked at me and asked the guy serving us for a deep-fried Mars Bar each for pudding.

Now we’re sitting on our sofa, eating chips and deep-fried chocolate bars, and I can’t stop laughing at Reema’s impression of a Glaswegian accent when she says “pure dead brilliant!” and takes a swig of Irn Bru from her can.

“Does this mean I’m Scottish now?” Sara asks, licking the chocolate off her fingers. “Am I properly Scottish?”

Brian can see that Reema doesn’t like her saying that, so he says quickly, “You’re Syrian-Scottish, Sara. You get to be two things at once, which is extra special as most of us only get to be from one place, and that’s boring.” Brian’s good that way.  He knows how to say the right thing and make people feel more relaxed. I was totally wrong about him. He isn’t a bit like Mum’s old boyfriends.

“Syrian-Scottish? Yes, I like that,” Reema smiles and clinks her Irn Bru can against mine like it’s champagne we’re drinking.

So next time you’re far from home and faced with a strange dish you’re not sure you’ll like, take a look at the people you’re eating with. If you’re willing to let your guard down and make new friends despite language and cultural differences, then chances are you’ll come to miss that food just as much as the friendly faces round the dinner table when you leave.

With thanks to Victoria Williamson for writing with such passion about her novel. You can buy your own copy here

You’re Safe With Me by Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry

you're safe with meThere’s something about the physicality of a book that can’t be matched. Perhaps that’s why, as Egmont report in their Print Matters findings, 94% of children’s books bought in 2017 were purchased in their print format. If we look to history, it was the most important texts that were physically preserved – revered for the time invested in them. The Grimm Brothers saw the necessity of the oral folk tales, and therefore wrote them down. And picture books earn their place in this tradition of printed matter, with the attention to detail and care that goes into them.

Mass printed they might be, but sometimes picture books are so beautiful they appear as if they have been created with the individual reader in mind. This latest picture book, You’re Safe With Me from Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry, catches the eye with its lyrical prose, but also stands out for its stunning design, which calls up the kalamkari tradition of textiles, apt because the name derives from the Persian words for pen and craftsmanship – and this book does feel like a piece of exquisite craft.

It is a dark and stormy night, and the baby animals within the Indian forest are scared: a monkey, a loris, a tiger and a pangolin. Two familiar animals, two rather more exotic – familiarity for cosiness, and exotic for exploring and learning. Looking after them all is Mama Elephant – her size and wisdom providing solace and comfort.

A ‘Raindrops on Roses’ story for the young, this is a more in-depth and intelligent soothing of fears. Mama Elephants attempts to explain, with her scientific knowledge, the logical reason for the storm – why the wind blows, why the thunder clatters, why the river rumbles. In doing so, she explains the weather cycle – the ability of the wind to bring seeds, the rain to cause them to grow, the river to take the water back to the sea. But her language is poetic; and she speaks in a rhythm that soothes like a lullaby.

By naming each sound for the babies, and then explaining its purpose, she dispels their fear with understanding – a lesson for our times. This feels like an old fable, brought up to date with understanding and modern sensibility. An emotional attachment is formed with the animals, and a sense of relief in their comfort, much like the smell of Earth after a rainstorm.

But it is the illustrations that propel this book and make it so much more than a comforting bedtime read. The patterns on the page, the fusion of geometry and art, are drawn with a richness, almost a hypnotic quality. The reader sees the shapes of the animals, but each is so exquisitely drawn, etched with colour and design, so that the frogs are both stark against their background, but also blend into it with a riot of line and pattern. The fish swim on a background of blue circles, the lightning sparkles against a black background of shining diamonds and circles. It is absorbing, glossy and appears almost three-dimensional in its intricacy.

You’re Safe with Me is a triumph of a picture book. The rhythm of text and illustration sweep the reader into the story. I can imagine children hugging it to sleep, the physicality of this book reassuring and mesmeric. You can buy it here.

An Interview with Bren MacDibble

how to beeThe other week, I featured How to Bee by Bren MacDibble as my book of the week. It’s a near-future fictional look at the plight of children in a world in which bees have been wiped out from pesticide use, with a stand-out protagonist in the shape of Peony, a farm child who longs to be a bee (a worker who manually pollinates the trees). Bren MacDibble kindly gave me some time and answered my many questions – the book itself throws up many topics of debate and is a fascinating study, as well as a bold and gripping novel.

How To Bee is a phenomenal story set in the future after the loss of bees has caused an environmental disaster and famine. How did you come up with this idea?

For a long time, I’ve been looking for a farm story (being a farm kid, write what you know and all that stuff), but I love fiction set in the future, so it came about pretty naturally after looking into food security and all the possible threats to our food supplies. Bees and their current plight are definitely worthy of a story, having worked alongside English crops for centuries, and their current situation being so dire.

The future in the novel is fairly bleak, not only the environmental impact, but in terms of a massive divide between rich and poor, and a seeming lack of human rights/right to education/child protection. Did you set out to show this wealth divide for a reason?

I see it happening all around us right now, so a future without it didn’t seem honest. When you have money there are so many ways to use that money to make more money, but the poverty trap is just that, a trap. Once you’re poor, there are so many barriers to getting work, to getting by, to getting ahead. So many people, and societal structures that tell you daily you’re worthless and stupid, adding your own lack of self-worth to the trap. Working for just enough money to keep working is another form of poverty. Maybe you feel safer, because you can buy enough to eat, and the clothes you need to keep working, and pay for the travel to the job that pays just enough to keep you employed.

The poor and the working poor suffer first and suffer most in any catastrophe. Floods, fire, famine. Money, and the insurance it buys, is insulation that carries people through a catastrophe, but the poor don’t have that. They were struggling already to pay rent, to buy food, they didn’t have the funds to plan for the unexpected. That had to be shown if this was going to be an honest story. And I wanted this to be an honest story.

In the novel, Peony, the main character, has a truly distinctive voice, which reflects her lack of schooling and her rural upbringing. Did you find writing the voice easy?

Peony’s voice was so easy. She just got into my head. Her voice was full of the bravado of someone who has mastered her own small world, but also so simple and honest. There were a few elements I had to think about, like that fruit and flowers were precious in this new future so all good things like the children’s names, and the term ‘super-cherries’ had to celebrate fruit or flowers, also I wanted to set it in the future, but I needed them to still speak like farm kids. So it had to be futuristic with words like ‘diz’ for disrespect and ‘Urbs’ for city dwellers, but roughed up and full of farm terms like ‘go stomp yourself,’ which is how they get rid of pests in the future on farms with no pesticides.

The rich people in the novel still have phones and computers and televisions, yet the poor people don’t at all. Do you see our use of technology dying out in the future, rather than extending communication between different people?

In this future, young Esmeralda can play games on her fridge and in her room, and no doubt her parents use technology in their jobs much as we do, but there are so many poor in the post famine world, that I expected any technology they once owned would’ve been swapped/sold/pawned for food long ago. Electricity and internet fees would be further costs that could better go towards food and shelter. Maslow’s hierachy of needs does not have technology in the bottom layers.

In the book’s acknowledgements, you mention that you wished the foreman on the farms had been as nice as you had made Boz, the foreman in the book. How many farms have you lived on and what was your experience? How did you use that experience to form How to Bee?

There were about five farms between the ages of 7 and 17. On one, we lived in little more than a shed, surrounded by an electric fence and a chow chow paddock full of steers. I was alternately electrocuted and chased by young bulls, the bare wooden floor gave me splinters and the water chugged out of the taps brown. At the local school which had two classrooms and four kids in my year level, no one would talk to me because their parents owned land and we were the scruffy kids who lived in a shed in the chow chow paddock. The land owners certainly made it known that we were lesser beings. Whether they were swearing at us to round up sheep faster, or giving us a dressing down for stealing fruit from their orchards, we certainly got the impression that we were feral sub-beings who should just be quiet and behave. The last two farms were better, the land owners were nice, often had things to give away, and would invite us to use their pool on hot days.

You also write school reading books. Is there a big difference between writing these stories and your novels? Is it more restrictive?

I just write what I want, which doesn’t really fit with most publishers in the educational market, just those keen on humour, with fun series. Okay, mainly just one publisher, but their series are hugely popular and sell into the UK and US as well, so I’m very lucky to have found that one educational publisher that likes me. Mostly these are short concise stories and there’s not the room to be intensive with the characters, the way Peony is written.

I’ve read that you have quite a bit of wanderlust. How does travel inform your writing?

I think it’s built into me, this moving on thing. We moved around a lot when I was a child, I backpacked the world in my 20s, travelled across the US on motorbikes recently, and now I live in a bus. I think it does inform my writing because if you’re living how I’m living right now, which is with only the basics, you understand what you really need to get by. Travelling lets me meet a lot of people, see a lot of lives, hear a lot of accents, gather ideas, avoid the need for a full time job, and understand what it is a human really needs to be okay.

What do you think has been the biggest influence on your writing?

Reading. I read widely. I read all the time. I get upset that people think I have to read all the latest and greatest or all the classics because I need time to read all the obscure and wonderful too. It’s a terrible shame our lifetimes are too short to read everything. I read my favourite writers when they talk about what they do and I try to understand how they do it. So basically, finding authors I love, whatever the genre, and listening to their observations. Shoving it all into my head so I can understand how to do what I want to do, which is write with honesty and heart and really connect with readers.

Are you excited to bring your novel to the UK? Do you think readers here see differently from those in your native Australia/New Zealand?

Super excited. In Australia, the bees don’t have the varroa mite and deformed wing virus, yet. The bees are not suffering as much as they are in every other country. So there isn’t as much noise about saving bees as there is in the UK. I think people in the UK are more ready to see the importance of this book. Young readers in Australia and New Zealand have given me absolutely wonderful feedback about How to Bee, and I think young people in the UK will love it too. Peony’s way of talking is universal, being a future/country mash up rather than anything colloquial, and young UK ears will tune into it very quickly given their exposure to accents and slang. It’s been shortlisted/won six awards down under and it’d be super-cherries if it took off in the UK as well.

What are you working on next?

Dry Running is almost done, and comes out this year in Australia. I have created another famine, this time caused by the death of all grass and grains due to a fungus (this was recently reported in Queensland, but I promise I’m not writing these things into existence!). A brother and sister have to escape the city and drive their dog cart, pulled by three Malamutes and two Huskies, 600 km to safety to reunite their family. Two kids, five big dogs, and a wide bare land to cross. It’s going to be an adventure!

With huge thanks to Bren MacDibble for so patiently answering my questions. And I highly recommend How to Bee. You can buy it here

 

The Big Book of the Blue by Yuval Zommer

big book of the blueFollowing The Big Book of Bugs, and The Big Book of Beasts, Zommer dives into underwater territory with The Big Book of the Blue, and I think it’s his best yet. It bears the same format as the others in the series, large format hardbacks with double pages dedicated to a theme, and questions to introduce these – such as ‘How Does An Animal Breathe Underwater?’ And ‘When is a Turtle a Sea Turtle?’ Each question is answered with a simple one or two sentence paragraph.

This is a book more about trivia than in-depth knowledge, so for young readers it works spectacularly. I had no idea that a flying fish was blue on top so a bird flying above can’t spot it against the sea, for example, and these are just the sort of facts that children like to spout at random.

Zommer excels at creating distinctive illustrations too. The book is a wash of blue, gentle lines and shading in the background giving a sense of movement and depth (except for the deep exploration, in which there is a completely black background to represent menace and the unknown – the place where the sunlight doesn’t seep).

But it is the creatures that perform. Zommer gives his fish two eyes, even when they are in profile, which makes them stand out as different, but also gives them a slightly comic feel. His octopuses side-eye from the page, his sharks grin wickedly whilst glancing around them, his penguins look slightly mad as they waddle the shoreline or dive for fish – their heavy bones sinking them to the bottom of the page. Only the whales remain one-eyed for the main – their bodies too large to show both.

These features – the protruding mouths of the puffer fish, the pursed lips of the boxfish – lend a cartoon element to the illustrations, making them playful and imbuing them with personality. And accompanied by the scant text with minimal yet intriguing facts, this feels like an immersion in a strange playful underwater world.

There are numerous small touches that bring a smile to the reader – the magnifying glass to illuminate krill, (although nothing is to scale, this is an imagining of the sea in pictures), the teeth of the leopard seal, and also the pages on ‘how to talk like a sea life expert’. But there is plenty of seriousness too – Zommer points to the plastic polluting the sea, overfishing and global warming. There is information on sea depths, and a page on rock pools.

And there’s even an interactive element, with a ‘Can you Find’ feature throughout.

An index gives the book a proper non-fiction attribute, and with a sea-life expert consulting, this feels like the perfect starter non-fiction. The facts are verified, and although the text appears slight, there is a wealth of information within. By the end, even I could ‘talk like a sea life expert’, understanding words such as habitat, tide, food chain and plankton.

Chatty in tone, serious in information, this is a an exciting way to entice children to find out. You can dive into the deep for your own copy here.

Let Them Eat Cake!

There’s a lot of cake in publishing: book launches have their fair share of wine, but there is a trend too for book-themed cakes and cupcakes. Has cake hit the zeitgeist because of the Great British Bake Off? Or is it just a perpetual British tradition?

Those looking after children have long known the effect of baking a cake with youngsters – you may end up with flour all over the kitchen, but it teaches science and maths, and there’s always a treat at the end. These picture books have captured the moment:

i really want the cakeI Really Want the Cake by Simon Philip and Lucia Gaggiotti

It’s so terribly tempting. A luscious chocolate cake has been made and is sitting on the table. There is no one around. Who could resist?

The little girl is intent upon having her cake and eating it in this endearing rhyming picture book. So much so, that just licking is not enough, and she resorts to eating the entire thing, (despite her mother’s note informing her not to), and then attempting to rectify her mistake by baking another.

Not only is the story terrifically entertaining, and written in such an enticing way that the reader simply has to read the story out loud with the correct inflection, but the illustrations match the tone completely.

This picture book hits every taste bud perfectly – because although the premise is simple, the execution is as flawless as smooth chocolate fudge icing, and the small details all piped on perfectly. Note the cakes instead of pupils in the little girl’s eyes, the dog a complicit partner in crime, and the exquisite mix of mischievousness, wicked intent, culpability and cuteness of the protagonist. There’s a recipe at the back for those who wish to also make a cake as an apologetic gift for their mother! Top prize. Devour it here.

Cake by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet

One of my little book testers stopped eating peas a couple of years ago, and I’m sure it’s got something to do with Sue Hendra’s Supertato books and the evil nemesis within – Evil Pea. So, we were both eager to read Cake, Sue Hendra’s latest book.

Cake has been invited to his first ever birthday party, but feels he looks plain. He buys a hat with candles on top, on the advice of his friend Fish, and goes to the birthday party, where the hosts have been long awaiting him. The reader has a slight inkling that Cake maybe isn’t prepared for what’s about to happen, and may be awfully relieved when he escapes as the candles are extinguished. There’s a neat sting to the tail though in the final twist – if readers have a vivid imagination, then things could get quite nasty!

The sense of humour prevails throughout, in the plot and the illustrations: from the penguin shop assistant to Cake riding his bicycle, to the absorbing emotions of Cake’s face.

This is a delicious book, warm, witty, and bearing the authors’ joint bold and brilliant styles. If the little testers ask for Cake over and over, and yet they’re not talking about the edible kind, you know you’re onto a winner. Buy yours here.

Great Bunny Bakes by Ellie Snowdon

Watchers of that famous television programme will notice something similar in this Bunny Bake Off book, in which Quentin the wolf enters a competition designed for baking rabbits (no, not rabbit pie, but bunnies who bake). The wolf loves baking, but has to disguise himself as a rabbit to enter.

Luckily for the bunnies, Quentin is much more interested in perfecting each round of baking rather than eating rabbits, and before long has shown off his bread loaf and his wibbly wobbly trifle. But one particular bunny is jealous and aims to sabotage the rest of the competition. Quentin survives this slight, and slipping on a banana skin, and eventually being outed as a wolf, and still emerges the triumphant winner, winning not only the competition but some bunny friends too.

The tone is light and fluffy, the illustrations rich and full of incident, and there’s a nice sprinkling of kindness throughout. Snowdon is adept at adding in as many extras as she can, from honeybees swarming the honey buns to cherries popping from the trifles, all of which add to a general feeling of busyness, mayhem and delight in the baking. This is a very tasty debut. You can buy it here.