comics

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

When I was twelve years old a new English teacher started at my school. She was young and glamorous, and I wanted very much to impress her, especially as she taught my favourite subject. Then, one day she handed out our homework assignment on the text we were studying – Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. She wanted us to depict a scene in a comic strip. I was devastated. Drawing wasn’t literature, I thought. My level of drawing barely matched Wimpy Kid levels, my love for my teacher plummeted as swiftly as Sir Toby descends into revelry. The effort I put in matched my grade. Low.

But it remains one of the Shakespeare plays I best remember. The cross-garters (easy to depict visually), the gender disguises, the triumphant reuniting of the twins. And perhaps that was to do with having to try to make a visual representation.

One of the ways in which the children in my library club best engage with the books I’m reading to them is if we use the books as inspiration to discuss and draw the contents. We may do craft, or create our own story, or redesign covers, or simply draw our feelings.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth is a series of comics presented in paperback book format. In fact, the publisher very kindly sent me the first three, which I devoured with glee, chortling nonstop. Hilo comes crashing down from the sky, clad only in silver underpants, and has no idea where he comes from, or what he’s doing on Earth.

DJ, a normal kid from an overachieving family, and his friend Gina, try to figure out where Hilo comes from, and by the end of the book, how to fight robots in order to save the world!

The comic is fast-paced – action leaps from frame to frame, but the book goes much deeper than that. DJ has pretty low self-esteem, believing that he lacks the skillsets he sees in his siblings. With the friendship of Hilo and Gina, he grows in confidence, and finds out what it takes to be a real hero.

Winick evokes great humour in his portrayal of Hilo, who has no idea what food and clothing are for, and yet absorbs new information at a startling rate. He introduces catchphrases for the friends, and references other comics and movies.

The books are bright and bold – the colour screams from the page, and the characters are wonderfully empathetic and emotive in their depictions.

There’s long been, and still is, a snobbery about comics, and yet by using them for readers who don’t want to be confronted with a large chunk of text, comics can easily imbue children with great storytelling skills.

One of the great things about comics is that they explore the angle of a scene – like assessing the point of view. The reader can explore each individual picture to see why the illustrator has drawn it in that way – what is shown in this scene, what is not – where is the ‘camera’ looking from, is it a close-up? The language has been carefully selected – after all there’s only so much the author can fit into each square – why did he chose those particular words? And more than that, what is the narrative stream between the different frames? – the connectivity of panels relates to the connectivity of sentences in a narrative text.

With a diverse cast, a cliffhanger ending, and a message of friendship, loyalty and bravery, this is a great new series. For 8+ years. Discover it here.

Fusion Fun

The brilliant thing about reading books with children is that it’s fun. Storytelling can cross genres and create exciting new fusion titles.

Pablo and Jane and the Hot Air Contraption by Jose Domingo fuses comic book with picture book and a Where’s Wally style hide-and-seek to create a madcap colourful wacky adventure story. And Electrigirl by Jo Cotterill and Cathy Brett fuses comic book with novel to create a superhero adventure.

electrigirl

Electrigirl tells the story of Holly Sparkes, an ordinary 12 year old girl, who gets struck by lightning, or so she thinks. But then she starts to notice her new strange electrical charge. It takes her comic-mad brother to recognise that she has electrical superpowers, and that his sister is now a bona fide superhero. Just as well, because her best friend Imogen has disappeared, and someone needs to battle Professor Macavity, head of CyberSky the phone company, to find her.

Although a slim adventure story novel, Electrigirl sparkily packs in a host of elements, from a new feisty female superhero to sibling loyalty, bullying in the playground, and the dangers of mobile phones both to the brain, and also the damage they can wreak on social interaction. As befits any superhero book, there’s also an evil villain at the head of a nasty monopolising corporation.

But this story is perfect for reluctant readers, because the scenes that build tension, and the scenes of superhero action are all depicted by Cathy Brett as graphic comic strips. The book starts, in fact, with Cathy’s comic book portrayals of the main characters, and the illustrations really kick off when Holly gets zapped. There is no lack of explosions in the book – at first Holly can’t control her powers and blows everything up, which is enormous fun.

The author drops in a number of ‘clues’ and intrigue along the way, such as “if only I’d known then what I know now,” as well as some wonderful vocabulary in the comic strips – zaps and tingles and schwumpzz, mixing all the elements of the two genres beautiful in this fusion novel.

The next in the series is out on 1 August this year, and I’m feeling tingly already. Age 7+. You can buy it here.

pablo

Pablo and Jane and the Hot Air Contraption bursts with bright, bold wacky colours, as befits the adventure inside. The picture book starts as comic strip: Pablo and Jane are bored, so decide to explore the spooky old house up on the hill, having hilariously ruled out the ‘abandoned sawmill’, ‘the old graveyard’, ‘the haunted orphanage’ and the ‘tunnel of whispers’! Once there, they are trapped into the Monster Dimension by an evil cat, Dr Felinibus.

There follows twelve double pages of full page illustrations from Lopsided London to Monstrous Moscow, Muerto Mexico and ‘Orrible Outback. In each spread, Pablo and Jane, and the reader must find the correct tools to fix their Hot Air Time Machine, and travel back home, in a kind of ‘Where’s Wally’ scenario.

Each of these luscious spreads is crammed full with detail, colour, mad figures, props and entertainment – in fact the end of the book suggests other things to look for on each spread too including such mischievous elements as “A handsome troll (compared to the others, that is)”, and “2 zombies in rubber rings who can’t swim”. Each time the reader examines the illustrations, there is even more to find, jokes to see, and the ‘finding’ is fairly challenging.

The adventure resumes in comic book style as the children find their way home. It’s perfect for reluctant readers, enormous fun, and there are carefully wrapped narratives in each scene.

The book bursts with energy and flamboyance – and beware – monsters. Also suitable for age 7+ years. You can find it here.

Tamsin and the Deep by Neill Cameron and Kate Brown

Tamsin and the Deep

This is a first for this blog – a review of a comic book. Last year I came across The Phoenix, a weekly children’s comic that’s growing in popularity, and on Feb 4th they are publishing one of their strips as an entire book.

Tamsin and the Deep borrows from folklore and myth, with echoes of The Little Mermaid, as it tells the story of Tamsin, and the legend stalking her family.

While surfing at the beach, Tamsin wipes out and goes missing for a month. She can’t remember what transpired in the weeks she went missing, but before long other strange things start happening to her – from the appearance of a magic stick to a talking bird. Then, she realises that her brother is in terrible danger, and she must break the mermaid’s ancient covenant to save him.

This is a dense storyline, with compelling plot and imaginative vocabulary. The comic book style lends much immediacy to the story – at times enabling several simultaneous events to be unfolded on the same page. It hones terrific inference skills as the reader gathers much of what’s happening from the pictures rather than the text.

But this is no standard comic, no standard story. The characters are rounded, and richly developed. The dialogue between the siblings and their friends is realistic, engaging and witty. There’s a beautiful sibling relationship, but underwritten with the impatience and frustration that accompanies familial dynamics.

The darkness of the legend, and the story within a story give this comic a real potency – it’s both adventure story and fantasy, containing both humour and dark undertones.

The illustrations too are a cut above – the initial drawings of wet-suits at the surf lend this a space age feel, but then it seems to borrow from manga too in its depiction of our feisty heroine. The legend is told almost in sepia, and looks fantastical and romantic – different styles highlighting the illustrator’s wealth of talent.

In a blogpost, Neill outlined the trickiness of writing a comic – it’s not just about the text of course, but a directive and collaboration with the illustrator, almost as in a film script – to work out from which point of view the drawing is in each box, to depict not just the action but the expression on the face, whether there’s a close up or background. This is an intriguing and completely different way of writing from prose, and it draws out attention to detail, each emotion, and each development.

This was a delight to read – darkness, humour, and a great story. A great many books fall through my letter box weekly and not all are snatched away by the children who live here – but to review this one I had to wrestle it from their hands. If that’s not proof enough, then what is? Suitable for all readers, 8+ years.

Publishes 4th Feb 2016. You can pre-order or buy it here.

A Stepping Stone To Books

When I talk to parents whose children aren’t keen readers, I often mention how important it is to find another way into books – to make reading a habit. One brilliant stepping stone to engage children who aren’t ready for a lengthy book is to turn to a periodical. These are still relevant for keen book readers – many of the keenest readers adore my first featured periodical for its ability to tell a story and wait breathlessly for their Friday installment. The three periodicals featured below are informative, engaging, interactive, and interesting, and also work as an extra treat for the most dedicated book readers.

Phoenix

Phoenix Comic
I’m starting with The Phoenix because it celebrated its 200th edition last Friday. The Phoenix is a weekly comic for children aged about 6-12 years. Rather than just containing comic strips, it also features adventure stories – serialised week on week. In fact you may have seen some of these produced as books, including Corpse Talk by Adam Murphy. This comic strip appears in The Phoenix each week and brings back from the dead a famous character from history, supplying excellent non-fiction snippets, and cringe-worthy jokes (the book was shortlisted for the 2015 Blue Peter Best Book of Facts Award). Evil Emperor Penguin by Laura Ellen Anderson (a prolific children’s book illustrator) also features weekly, and Anderson’s Penguin adventures were also published as a book this October.

As well as the captivating story-telling in the comics, and the humour, and the facts contained within Corpse Talk, parents love that there are no gimmicks – no adverts, no plastic toys.

Without them realising, it gets children reading, teaches them to look for visual clues, provides different styles of writing, explores story arcs and offers a way into storytelling like no other. Many of the reading schemes I work with in schools have comics as part of their new titles now – it’s a good way for children to break down a story and see how a plot unfolds. The vocabulary in The Phoenix is great too – from onomatopoeias of comic genius, to sacrifices, explorers and rebellions related historical strips. As the publisher, David Fickling says “libraries and schools are deliberately stocking our comics because they see them as a link to books, not competition to them.”

The 200th edition has a beautifully illustrated cover by our children’s laureate, Chris Riddell, and a preview for the new strip called John Blake coming 2016 written by Philip Pullman, and illustrated by Fred Fordham. This edition also sees The Phoenix being stocked in WHSmith for the first time.

First news

First News
Another weekly that is fought over by children each week (“I’m reading it first!”) is First News. A weekly national newspaper for children, it features news told in a non-patronising but accessible way. Each news story assumes little prior knowledge on the history of the topic, so gives the story context, and tries to present it in an appealing way with graphics where necessary.

There is general news, home news in snippets encircling a map of Great Britain, world news presented likewise, but with reference numbers for each piece of text corresponding to the appropriate place on the world map (geography has never been so interesting), picture news, science, animals, entertainment and sports news. There are also weekly features including a comic strip, jokes, amazing facts, interviews, book reviews and a book corner, puzzles, and a great section called ‘Your News’ in which children send in their own reports about interesting experiences they have had.

It sounds comprehensive – and it is. It manages to tackle sensitive issues, such as refugees, bullying and the environment well, without resorting to sensationalism or being too simplistic.

The special editions, which are printed as an in-depth look at certain subjects, are also well presented. The Election 2015 edition was particularly well done.

The weekly newspaper does contain adverts, but having seen almost 100 editions, I’ve yet to find anything too objectionable. It’s an excellent source for knowledge about current affairs for children. A print version of the wonderful Newsround from the 1980s.

aquila

Aquila
The ultimate magazine for young non-fiction fans, Aquila is a monthly issue rather than weekly. Aimed at roughly 8 years and over, it features one topic per month and delves into it in a range of fun, interactive and informative ways. Next month is Life on Mars, this month was Invisibility.

The team behind the magazine deal with each subject in an imaginative way. Invisiblity is addressed not only as when you might feel invisible (such as starting a new school) but also what’s invisible in the natural world – because it is camouflaged. The Invisibility edition features an activity to help the reader make an invisibility cloak, a science experiment to make an object invisible, information on static electricity – which of course you can feel but not necessarily see, a double page spread on archaeologists ‘seeing’ what’s invisiible, and the history of priest holes, which are ancient hiding places – the sort that some Catholic priests used for hiding places to escape capture following the Gunpowder Plot.

There are also stories, puzzles and competitions. As with The Phoenix, there are no adverts, just a very full letters page with enthusiastic feedback from readers. It’s for curious children everywhere, and is delivered by post.

 

 

 

My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons

My Brother Superhero

I was sold on the premise of this book before it even arrived: Luke goes for a much needed wee, leaving his older brother alone in the treehouse at precisely the moment when Zorbon arrives from outer space and grants his undeserving older brother superpowers. And David Solomons has executed his premise wickedly.

From the first sentence explaining Luke’s bad timing, he comes across as a loveable comic-mad 11 year old with oodles of wit, attitude and boyish exuberance. The plot develops at fair pace, with Luke exploring which superpowers Zack has been granted and trying to identify his Nemesis. Then Zack is kidnapped, and Luke has to work with his friends to rescue him in time so that Zack can use his superpowers to save the entire planet.

As the story builds to its climax, David Solomon’s writing becomes more and more filmic – the final scenes in the fake volcano are more than inventive – it’s like every comic book sewn together as one. I could almost feel the evil laugh ‘mwha ha ha ha’. In fact it is one of the most filmic children’s books I have read – the author even imagines that his acknowledgements should ‘zoom out the page at you in massive 3D titles, accompanied by a stirring orchestral score’.

References to comics, superheroes, and films abound, although it is easy to follow even if you aren’t genned up on all of these. There are touching references to Luke’s Dad introducing him to Star Wars, which were particularly enjoyable. The superb cast of characters bring scope for humour in every eventuality – their traits are enjoyable without being forced. A supervillain who wants to be the superhero but is deluded, a girl who wants to be a journalist but gets her vocabulary wrong – especially at inappropriate moments; to the supervillain:

“‘You’re diluted,’ she said scornfully.

He looked understandably puzzled.

‘Deluded’ I explain.”

Luke’s best friend, Serge, is French and obsessed with food – there’s no end to the comedic possibilities. Their use of the vending machine as part of their plan to stop the villain is inspired, especially the children’s research of online discussion forums to find ‘known issues’ with the machine. In fact there are constant references to modern technology and culture (although no one I know in a certain DIY store has ever been that helpful), and references to the younger children’s restrictions with phones, which sits the book squarely in today’s zeitgeist.

It was so funny I laughed out loud on numerous occasions, read out bits with delight to my family, and gulped it down in one read. A fantastic new talent – I fully expect that one day I will see David Solomon’s name blasting out my television George Lucas-esque.

You can buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

Reluctant Writers

It was late in the holidays, with work to be done
Going back to school soon, the end of the fun
My son scratched his head and gave a big sigh
I’ve got to write a story, to give it a try

The problem he said was creating a story
His teachers would never give him the glory
He was averaging c’s in his paper he said
He simply had nothing flowing from his head

Then, wait just a sec, I said with a yelp,
There’s this book I know, I think it could help
Called Descriptosaurus with characters and stuff
It could pad out your stories without any fluff

With settings and adjectives and adverbs and things
You could write about dragons and monsters and kings
It could give you emotions; happy, evil or sad
With heroes and villains; the good and the bad

Creatures with wings, arms, legs and heads,
Buildings with secret stairs, armchairs and beds
Landscapes with mountains, volcanoes and bogs
Atmospheres with lightning, misty skies, fogs

In conjunction with that though, I said just remember
There’s no substitute for reading Jan to December
With Descriptosaurus you can make quite a start
But you’ll also need to use what’s in your heart.

Many parents have asked me which books their child should read to improve their creative writing and enhance their vocabulary. There’s no magic solution to writing – otherwise we’d all be published authors, but there are tools that can help. The two issues that come up most often are 1) the creative process – a story with which to work – which comes from the child’s imagination. Some children are better at this than others – and many who themselves read voraciously will find it easier to come up with an idea. And 2) vocabulary and setting. It sometimes seems that those who devour non-fiction more readily than fiction can have the stronger vocabulary. For vocabulary and setting, I’ve found a book that might be able to help.

Descriptosaurus

Descriptosaurus by Alison Wilcox is an interesting resource, marketed mainly at the education industry, although it does have a place in the home if used correctly. It aims to frame that first ‘idea’ or expand vocabulary into a rounded piece of creative writing – offering help with settings, character traits and emotions. It helps to break down language into its different grammatical components – explaining phrasing, adjectives and verbs and using them in conjunction with landscapes, places, and characters so that the child has a starting point and can then progress to a story from their own imagination with the tools in place to help them. The book divides up into settings, characters, and creatures. It’s an expensive resource for parents, but can be a useful addition to a classroom environment.

Show Me a Story

Show Me a Story by Emily Neuburger is also targeted primarily at parents or carers, but with a less academic slant. It is American, so the store suggestions at the back are redundant for the UK reader, but the rest of the book is illuminating and inspiring. Initially the start of the book is aimed at the parent, informing them how to start a discussion on narratives, to encourage inventive minds and demonstrate how children use stories to explore emotions and questions about the world, to solve problems and to answer moral dilemmas. Emily Neuburger then goes on to explore how to encourage storytelling – visiting inspirational places, starting a journal etc. She then describes different craft activities to help children form a story and storylines, from ‘story pools’ to collages, blocks, dice and games. She brings to mind the Simon and Garfunkel song (America) of sitting in a train carriage imagining what all the other people do for a living, exotic or otherwise, making up stories wherever you are.

write your own story bookwrite and draw your own comics

The Usborne Write Your Own Story Book is a user-friendly book, spiral bound to lay flat, which encourages writing within it. It uses the same sorts of tools in a more basic way – setting and character suggestions, and possible story openers. In a way though, it is quite prescriptive – the blank pages have titles at the top that encourage the child to write within a certain genre: telling a story from a given picture, continuing a story already started, creating your own fairy tale, writing a story about time travel (all good training but more limiting perhaps). There are handy tips in the margins too: explaining motive, questions to ask, super verbs, sights and sounds etc. The crucial difference between this and Descriptosaurus, is whereas the latter looks like an academic text book, Usborne’s looks like a fun book to play with – which will help to get the creative juices flowing for enjoyment. Usborne’s more recent title is Write and Draw Your Own Comics, which is similar but of course with the drawing element as well – explaining speech bubbles, sound effects, exploring action drawings, and moving the story along frame by frame. Both encourage a love for writing.

Write Your Own Story2

These are all great tools for starting out, but again, for me there is no substitute for reading as much as possible and also discussion about stories with your child – be it stories from books, newspapers, TV, family history and the real world. It’s important to share views on what might happen next, why a character acted how they did, what emotions you feel after reading or watching something. From this, children can gather the tools needed to create their own wonderful imaginative adventures.

You ChooseYou Choose2

If completely stuck for a starting point for discussion, one useful book is You Choose by Nick Sharratt and Pippa Goodhart. For a while it was given free to toddlers in the Bookstart book pack in the UK, and although it is lovely to look at with a toddler, it is also an ever-useful tool to spark ideas for creative writing, in much the same way as the more advanced titles above. Each page aims to provide a different ‘choice’; where would you go, where would you live, how would you travel – all excellent tools for setting a story.

Happy writing!