dark

Seeing Shadows

shadowMy Year 6 bookclub always look surprised when I tell them it is picture book week. As if, I explain, they haven’t heard me extolling the use of picture books for all ages every day! This week I’ll introduce them to Shadow by Lucy Christopher, illustrated by Anastasia Suvorova – just as I am to you.

This exquisitely subtle picture book shows us a young girl and her mother moving into a new house. It’s formidable and stark, all angles and shadows, so really should come as no surprise to the seemingly reluctant girl that she finds a shadow under her bed. But Shadow isn’t menacing. Shadow is Peter Pan-esque, fun and companionable; this shape-shifting piece of darkness comes as friend, complete with rosy cheeks to match the girl. But the child’s mother can’t see Shadow. In fact, her mother seems at first preoccupied, and then just sad and unseeing – her eyes heavily lidded and shown in shadow.

When the girl and Shadow go to the forest, Shadow disappears and the girl is left alone. Until a familiar voice comes through the darkness…

The prose is simple and light, brief and active, with a wonderful momentum.

This atmospheric picture book could be an allegory about pushing through a childhood whilst living with a parent’s depression, or it could merely be a generic everyman story about coming through loss and darkness into a new world of captured happiness – for yes, there is a happy ending. In fact, the loss of Shadow in the forest is replaced by the dual togetherness of the mother and daughter shadows stretching from their hand-in-hand silhouettes. Returning home from the forest, their new house transitions from one of spectral isolation to one embedded within a whole village, with familiarity and warmth bleeding through the pages. The illustrations turn from dark greys and moody whites, distinctive and atmospheric, to ones toasted with a heat of yellows and intense reds, with an influx of people.

There’s much to read into these illustrations – from the white scratchings aross the page of the early images, as if light is attempting to get through and failing, to the bright redness of the girl’s hair and cheeks and dungarees – a lightness in the face of dark. But even she is tinged with sadness – her eyes perpetually slightly vacant, slightly sad – more noticeable when contrasted with the absolute delight depicted on her face in the later pages when her eyes, fascinatingly enough, are closed in happiness.

However children read into this picture book, whether as being about attention received, about overcoming loneliness and anxiety, depression and loss, they will be able to create a backstory to the characters, and see that in the end darkness and despair are driven out by human interaction and togetherness.

Below, Lucy Christopher explains the genesis to Shadow:

In my debut picture book story, Shadow, a lonely young child moves into a new house where she finds a shadow under the bed who she makes friends with. Together they make mischief and run away, only to be found again by Mum. It’s a story about loneliness and sadness and how this might manifest itself in the very young. Ultimately it’s a story of an awareness of darkness – and shadows – and of coming together.

I was lonely as a child. By the time I was five years old, I had lived in three countries and five houses. My parents had divorced, and my dad now lived thousands of miles across the world. I was beginning my second school, this time in a small country town in South Wales, and living with my single mother and grandmother. I had no siblings and no friends.

On one level it’s easy to see a connection between the child in Shadow and me as a young girl. The feelings of being alone, moving to a new house, and making my own mischief were things I readily understood. I had many imaginary friends, many of them dogs and cats and horses. I spent hours imagining and drawing a huge stable yard of ponies – each one with personality inventories, lovingly drawn tack wardrobes, and a growing list of skillsets. I lived almost entirely in my imagination.

As soon as I could write, I did. I wrote constantly – letters back to my Dad in Australia, or to my family in other parts of the world, letters to friends when I went on holiday. When I was nine, and we did it all again – this time moving back to Australia – my letter writing intensified. I bought notebooks and filled them, sending them back to my family or friends in whatever country I wasn’t in at the time – sometimes my letters would stretch over whole 250-page A5 notebooks. As I grew up in Australia, I became more serious about my own stories, too. My gifts to favourite teachers were stories I had written about them. I wrote to authors I admired. And then, gradually, I began to enter, and sometimes even win, short story competitions. More and more, I started to define myself through the words I wrote.

There’s no denying that aspects of my childhood were hard at times – living in four countries and a dozen houses by the time I hit eighteen has got to have an impact – but these experiences were also massive contributors to what made me a writer, most especially, a writer for young people. I’ve no doubt that my creativity, and my writing skills, are intricately connected to my feelings of loneliness as a child. All my novels have aspects of me inside them, but in some ways Shadow is my most personal story. Shadow came from a place I knew extremely well, and it wouldn’t exist without my history. The little girl in the story isn’t me, and I didn’t find an actual shadow to play with under the bed of one of my many new houses (oh, but how much fun I would have had if I did!), but her journey in the story is also my journey in life.

I do hope though that there are other young children out there who may recognise some of the feelings and themes within the story, and that they may take something from this story. I hope that Shadow will be a book that parents and children can share together. I hope it will offer a chance for discussion about aspects of loneliness and sadness, and how it’s possible to overcome these things through a stronger emphasis on connection.

With thanks to Lucy Christopher for her guest blog post, and to Lantana Publishing for the review copy. Shadow is available in good UK, US, Can and Aus bookshops, or you can purchase it direct from Lantana publishing

For every book purchased from the Lantana website, they will donate a book to children’s hospitals in the UK.

Follow the rest of the blogtour here.

The Night’s Realm by Nick Ward

nights realmWe are such stuff as nightmares are made on. And this is a nightmarish novel. Not in the way it’s written or illustrated, which is pure delight, but rather the spooky story, and the frightening concept.

Like many children, Billy is scared of the dark. But it isn’t something he wants to admit. So when his best friend invites him for a sleepover, he has to think of a reason to back out, even though he’d love to attend. Then his fear of the dark becomes all-encompassing, and he gets transported into the ‘Night’s Realm’, an evil domain in which an evil magician rules, a magician whose very essence is kept alive by feeding off children’s fears. And things get very very dark.

Although printed with fairly large font size, and heavily illustrated throughout, what might seem like a read for a youngish child has many scary elements. Which supposedly, is what happens when the writer transplants all his child characters to a world in which their worst nightmares become real. So there are threatening jackdaws, which wouldn’t be out of place in a Hitchcock film, crawlers (little men with jagged teeth who crawl on all fours), witches and warlocks, Shadowmen (gigantic men made from dust), and more. Add to this the sophisticated vocabulary – words such as cacophonous and cadaverous leapt off the page – this is a novel for readers with sophisticated taste, those with a penchant for spooky stories, or for older yet reluctant readers who want to be brave in the face of some horror.

Above all, it is the ideas behind the story that haunt. When Billy is captured, the daytime turns to perpetual night, and although his town looks familiar, it is empty of adults and devoid of all life, other than the night creatures. Doors are locked, shops closed, factories stopped. And over it all rules a cruel magician who manipulates children with magic, and wants them to be as scared as possible.

The most potent moment is when Billy is taken to his cell in the fortress, which appears to be exactly like his bedroom at home, with sunlight behind the curtains. Of course, it’s all fake and the momentary comfort is swept away.

The illustrations add to the dystopian feel of the novel. In fact, at times, it seems as visually authentic as a high-end computer game – the fortress as detailed as a multi-room escape game. The children’s eyes are large – not cute as Disney eyes – but hollowed out and haunting; each illustration adding a wonder and depth to the story being told.

There are some captivating moments – the children’s attraction to light like that of moths fluttering around an electric light bulb, the unspoken fears even among peers, the loss of identity the more subservient to the magician they become. Multiple allusions to other novels abound – from the tempting Turkish delight, to the room of birds in cages, which doesn’t feel like a huge leap from the Harry Potter series. Plays on words too, most particularly the title, for it is a sword in a stone that Billy needs to find in order to execute his victory. There is also a clever use of childhood itself, as Billy ingeniously uses everyday items to aid his run for freedom – a coat hanger, chewing gum etc.

Overall though, the novel’s overriding message is that nothing wondrous comes from staying in comfort zones. Billy has a defence against the darkness, a resilience against the magician, manifest in a physical object at first, but one that serves as an extended metaphor as to what makes each individual tick. At the denouement, the reader becomes aware that everyone is afraid of something, but that facing one’s fears is the first step to overcoming them – and that fears can be overcome.

By stating the fear, and with the support of others, Billy’s confidence grows until in the end he doesn’t even need a physical object to overcome the magician – self-confidence wins the day from the night.

And all for the sake of attending a friend’s sleepover! For age 8+, although if you’re reading it to your child at bedtime, you might need to leave a night light on…

You can buy it here. With thanks to David Fickling for the advance copy.

When the Stars Come out by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by Lucy Cartwright

when the stars come outWhenever there’s a new topic at school, there’s a scramble from teachers and some pupils to find the library books that fit, the book that’s pitched correctly for the age group and touches on all the themes that the teacher wants to explore during that term. And rarely does a book match exactly. Probably because then it would be a textbook, rather than a book for exploring, a book for further stimulus and enquiry. When the Stars Come Out by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by Lucy Cartwright, is a refreshing piece of nonfiction that not only ticks the boxes when exploring ‘Time and Place, Earth and Space’ for example, but it also neatly stretches the mind, and causes pause for thought, and elicits pleasure at the same time.

Not just a space book, as the title might imply, When the Stars Come Out intends to explore our whole universe at night-time from the sciencey bits, such as why night occurs and the different constellations in the sky, but also the geographical element – both physical and human – and it also reaches right from the outer echelons of the universe into our very heads; what happens when we sleep?

Diagrams and illustrations begin the story of how the night works, showing the rotation of the Earth in relation to the sun. Then, before the constellations are explored, there’s some history on stargazing, and some recognition of why some people are scared of the dark. The moon and stars are investigated, and then tangents of this, including auroras, moonbows and shooting stars.

Coming down to earth, Edwards explores different landscapes at night, from the city to the desert, rainforests, mountains and many more including the sea, extrapolating which changes happen at night in the darkness. Animals are looked at in more detail in the next chapter, looking at sleep, dreams, nocturnal animals, and of course, humans. This chapter is particularly interesting as it’s rarely dealt with in children’s non-fiction. I liked the pie chart of sleep cycles, our natural rhythms, and then a look at super sleepers and world records, including the man who stayed awake for 11 days. It’s dangerous of course, as explained in the text, but fascinating information.

Lastly, the book investigates extreme days and nights – near the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, as well as clever inventions such as glow in the dark cement and what scientists are working on in terms of night-time and day-time differences in plant growth, for example. The book ends with a glorious celebration of the night – from Diwali to Walpurgisnacht.

This is a joyous and fascinating book. The illustrations are detailed and immersive – both conveying the science in the lunar cycle, but also a sense of wonder and mystery in dreams and night visitors. My only caveat is the size of the text against darkish backgrounds – not good for sleepy eyes – but perhaps the text’s smallness will keep the mind focussed and prevent daydreaming!

The book is large in size but well designed to reflect the information inside. The mountains spread reads as portrait rather than landscape – mirroring mountains of course, but also giving the different levels of mountainous terrain – the birds, the climbers, the foothills. Other pages look like landscapes – the savannah for example, with its panel of night sky at the top, but then it’s land mass stretching towards the reader. The animals are illustrated in action – grazing or in motion, but the text is chunked nicely into individual paragraphs, many in their own colourful panels. The book is extremely visual – the colours subtle rather than garish, reflecting the muted light of night times.

An exciting non-fiction title that illuminates the mysteries of our night-time and stimulates curious minds across a broad spectrum of inter-linking subjects. You can buy it here.

The Light in the Night Giveaway

light in the night
A few weeks ago I reviewed The Light in the Night by Marie Voigt, a new picturebook about overcoming fear of the dark, and helping others. It explores the notion that bravery can only be found if one confronts one’s fears – that reward comes from adventure.

Marie Voigt’s aim with her picture book is to inspire and delight, to have a small impact on making the world a little bit brighter and happier. And this book does exactly that.

You can read the full review here. It’s a very special book, winning over the reader with its adorable cuddly illustrations. Although I’d love to give away replica cuddly bears, all I can offer is books!

To celebrate this very special picture book, I have three hardback copies of the book to give away, thanks to Simon and Schuster publishers. To win one of these, simply find @minervamoan on Twitter and retweet the Light in the Night blogtour tweet from today to win.

Sam Wu: A Conversation

Sam WuSometimes the best ideas come from collaboration. The junior fiction Sam Wu series is a lively and fun introduction to chapter book fiction for newly emergent readers. Featuring a truly funny main character in Sam Wu, with a loveable and realistic family including younger, and more confident, little sister Lucy, and wise grandma NaNa, this depiction of a Chinese family is refreshing and comes from author experience. Katie and Kevin Tsang have developed their winning main character and his group of friends in three books now, as Sam and companions lurch from adventure to adventure.  In Sam Wu is Not Afraid of the Dark by Katie and Kevin Tsang, illustrated by Nathan Reed, Sam and his friends take a camping trip away from Lucy and NaNa, but the book roots itself firmly within Sam’s tight friendship group. The Tsang author team showcase the magnificence of children’s imaginations, as more often than not Sam and his friends make their own adventures by imagining the scarier elements of life, all the time remaining within the safe sphere of their childhoods. With dynamic type and graphics, illustrations on almost every page, and lots of jokes, this is a great little series to enthuse young readers for chapter books.

A camping trip is a marvellous way to explore the bridge between childhood security and their growing independence, and as with Pamela Butchart’s There’s a Werewolf in my Tent, Sam and his friends imagine all the horrors that might come up to their tent in the dark. They also take a brave trip to a cave, and attempt to stay awake all night around the campfire in order to see off any nasty creatures or aliens that might share the woods with them. In the end, of course, all creepy noises are easily explained, and Sam Wu lives to breathe another day. Here, Katie and Kevin interview each other to explore the enjoyable elements of Sam Wu, their enthusiastic banter indicative of the fun, energy-filled dialogue within the book:

Photographer: Chris Close

KATIE AND KEVIN INTERVIEW 

Katie: I’m excited to interview each other!

Kevin: Me too!

Katie: I’ll go first. What are you most afraid of?’

Kevin: Sharks!! Researching for SAM WU IS NOT AFRAID OF SHARKS was very scary. But I also think sharks are awesome!

Katie: You really are very afraid of sharks.

Kevin: Okay, my turn. In SAM WU IS NOT AFRAID OF GHOSTS, Sam serves his friends Chinese food. What Chinese dish would you serve your friends?

Katie: I wish I was better at cooking Chinese food! I would probably take them to a Chinese restaurant. We’d either go out for dim sum (one of my favourites!) or to Sichuan (super spicy!) or for Peking duck. Like Sam, I love roast duck!

Katie: I’m stealing your excellent question that you asked me about what Chinese food I’d serve my friends. What would you serve?

Kevin: I’d take them for Peking Duck, like Sam! And I’d also make them try turnip cake.

Katie: I don’t believe that you’d make them try turnip cake

Kevin: That is just because you don’t like it.

Katie: Sometimes I do! It just isn’t my favourite.

Kevin: Speaking of favourites, who is your favourite character in Sam Wu?

Katie: Lucy is my secret favourite. I love how brave and bold she is. It was important that we portrayed positive sibling relationships. I also love NaNa.

Kevin: I have to admit, my favourite character is SAM.

Katie: Well, what is your favourite part about writing Sam Wu?

Kevin: Working with you!

Katie: Other than that, because that is obvious.

Kevin: I love seeing Nathan’s illustrations! He’s SO good. And the design team at Egmont is amazing too.

To buy a copy of Sam Wu is Not Afraid of the Dark, click here.

The Light in the Dark

It’s the time of year when the days are getting longer, and the Christmas lights at teatime are just a memory. But with January weather in London, the evenings are still very dark. For some children (and adults), the darkness of winter brings sadness and even fear – dark can be scary for many – altering shapes in the darkness, the fumbling unknown of not being able to see, shadows springing unbidden. When I was little, I took great comfort in The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, enjoying Plop’s discovery that other people like the dark for many different reasons. Dark was super, and kind, and exciting.

Four newer picture books aim to shine a light on the fear of darkness too. And they are all fantastic.

light in the night
The Light in the Night by Marie Voigt
Betty has no fear of the dark and enjoys bedtime for her bedtime stories. But when a Bear from one of her books comes to life, she must help him overcome his fear of the dark – and in turn he might help her too. On the surface, this is a simple book with adorable illustrations – a cuddly bear whose every expression shows on his face, a small intrepid child. And yet there is more depth – this is not just a book about conquering fears, making friends, or helping one another. The climax of the story draws out the notion that one has to try new things and this may entail showing incredible bravery in the face of darkness. Rewards come from adventure.

The ending is also particularly sweet and clever – the bear and Betty dance and sing back home; their fear masked by a togetherness in hope, and their shadows when they arrive home aren’t the scary shapeshifters of most fiction, but tall and proud elongated reflections. This pair have inner strength. Voigt’s illustrations feel animated – and each scene shows prescience in the story to come, as well as the character within. The pictures on Betty’s walls are of adventures, the bedtime book foreshadows the adventure she is to take, and the different illustrative perspectives of the woods show the reader when something familiar and normal can become scary and vice versa. Conquer your fears here.

the rabbit the dark and the biscuit tin
The Rabbit, the Dark and the Biscuit Tin by Nicola O’Byrne
A slightly different issue in this picture book with a lift the flap element, in that Rabbit just doesn’t want to go to bed. And if it doesn’t get dark, he won’t have to. So he traps the dark in a biscuit tin. The consequences, of course, are that Rabbit upsets a lot of other animals – the bats and owls and foxes. But the really excellent part of the book is the dialogue between Rabbit and the Dark, as the Dark tries to negotiate its way out of the tin. In the end, it’s Rabbit’s ability to empathise with others that makes him open the tin. This gradual awareness of the needs of others mirrors the development of a child – recognising others and feeling empathy for them.

O’Byrne cleverly uses her illustrations to mirror this point, highlighting Rabbit’s grumpiness and own desires with subtle use of ear positioning and body language, before the joy of doing things for others is shown all over Rabbit’s face.

The Dark is neatly personified in the illustrations too – a dark hand reaching out for a biscuit, but in the end the Dark is shown in its glory – it is necessary, and exciting, and rather wonderful. Open your own biscuit tin here.

elephant that ate the night
The Elephant that Ate the Night by Bing Bai, illustrations by Yuanyuan Shen
A not dissimilar theme in this Chinese tale of a dark mushroom forest and the night that grows over it at the end of every day. The baby animals are scared of being swallowed by the darkness, and invite Awu the elephant to swallow any lurking darkness himself. He does, and as he does, his stomach gets fuller, illustrated by a growing blackness across his grey skin. When he’s satisfied he pats his tummy and sleeps. But the animals soon realise that they need the darkness for sleeping, and they implore Awu to spit it back out.

The repetition of sounds and phrases make this a perfect bedtime read, and the quirkiness of the illustrations – the elephant’s pink toes, the colour palate of yellows and greys, the patterned trees and the animals’ teeth – make this stand out from the average picture book. It treads on the edge of fear, without being swallowed by it completely. Find your bravery in the shape of an elephant here.

king who banned the dark
The King Who Banned the Dark by Emily Haworth-Booth
This picture book came out earlier last year, and takes the premise of no darkness one step further. A prince who is afraid of the dark bans it completely upon becoming King, installing an artificial sun and enforcing anti-dark laws.

However, there is much more to this story than the fear of darkness. The King has to win over his people, persuading them why darkness is so terrible, and sustaining his argument. Manipulative marketing morphs to a slow brainwashing. But before long, the people start to revolt.

With pages that stimulate discussion on propaganda, and selling a story, as well as distortions of the truth, this is an up-to-the-minute picture book that deals with an age-old fear in a very modern way. It analyses what makes people happy, and how people can be manipulated to think they are happy with the way things are, as well as exploring freedom of speech, tyrannical rule, and of course, the power of darkness.

And the illustrations are different too – although almost all in shades of grey and yellow, there is careful thought behind light innovations – a lamp hat, the power of torches, an array of light shops, candelabra dripping with light – but also the scariness of the dark, the creeping shapes and shadows, the stealth behind cover of darkness, and also its magnificence. Buy your own princely beam of light here.

A Q&A with Bryony Thomson

It was the lampshades that frightened me. Pink, gentle tulips by day; at night after lights out, they morphed into vicious monsters with lightbulb tongues.

Many children imagine some kind of monster in the darkness while they lie in bed after lights out, and it can take parents several trips and opening and closing of wardrobes to reassure them. So what relief to find a book that helps to assuage fears.

The Wardrobe Monster by Bryony Thomson explores what makes Dora and her toy friends afraid to go to sleep, and grouchy the next morning. It actually is a monster in the wardrobe, but this monster is as scared as they, and so they all snuggle in bed together, until another bump gives them a fright.

Thomson’s book is delightful in its premise, but most particularly in its illustrations and depiction of Dora and her soft toys. They are as lifelike as Woody and Buzz, and inflected with as much personality as Pooh, Eeyore and friends. The Wardrobe Monster is Bryony Thomson’s debut picturebook, and from this superb start, it’s easy to see that she’ll go far.

A firm favourite here already – I look forward to gifting it to friends’ small children. There are so many exquisite touches, from Dora and friends stalling bedtime, to addressing the wardrobe monster as ‘Mr Wardrobe Monster’, to the play on Lion’s bravery; but my favourite is the constant affection and intimacy between Dora and her toys. Beguiling and comforting, this is an adorable and pleasurably happy read. I was lucky enough to quiz Bryony on her debut:

The Wardrobe Monster is a comfort book for those children who have a fear of the dark. How did you counteract this fear when you were young without The Wardrobe Monster to help you?

I’m not sure I had a very good system – that’s partly why I wanted to write The Wardrobe Monster. I had a very vivid imagination as a child and can remember lying in my bed at school as various pipes and bits of furniture in the enormous dormitory creaked and groaned, making up all sorts of possible scenarios for what could be causing the noise. That would usually go on until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more!

The soft toy teddies in your book all have distinctive characters, something the publisher compares to those in Winnie the Pooh. Was that an influence on you? And which other books/illustrations have influenced you?

I would definitely count Winnie the Pooh as one of the long term influences on my work. It was one of my favourite books growing up, in particular the incident where Pooh goes to visit Rabbit, eats too much honey and condensed milk and gets stuck in the rabbit hole. The characters all have such distinctive voices, I can still hear them in my head (the way my Dad used to read them) and that has had a massive influence on my storytelling.

In terms of other books and illustrations, I would say Rebecca Cobb’s books such as Lunchtime and Aunt Amelia. I love the simplicity of her stories and illustrations, there is a real sense of joy and magic to them. Laura Carlin has also been a big influence from an illustration point of view. When I began to study how her drawings are connected to reality and observation whilst at the same time incorporating a high level of stylisation it was a real revelation and opened a lot of doors. Somehow it gave me the confidence to let go of the need to make everything completely accurate and true to life.

The pictures in the book feel so warm and enticing to children because they look as if they were done in crayon. What medium did you do the book in, and which medium do you prefer?

The book is made with a combination of monoprint and pencil scanned in, layered together and then coloured in Photoshop. This process was something new I discovered while working on the early stages of this book and I feel it suits the story well.

I don’t know whether I have a favourite medium as I’m always trying to discover the best thing for a particular story. I do have a never ending love affair with screenprint but I find it rather too labour intensive for books; it is too much of a disaster when you get something wrong!

For me the choice of medium is always about creating a high enough level of uncertainty in the end result. I’m naturally a real perfectionist and so to fight against this I try to use media that I can’t fully control; often it is the mistakes or unexpected outcomes that lead to the biggest breakthrough in the artwork. I think that is why I like print techniques as you never really know how something is going to turn out until you’ve done it.

I adore the main character’s distinctive hair colour and matching slippers. Was this something that occured to you near the beginning of the process, or an inspired decision near the end?

Dora’s hair was pink right from the very first draft of the story – possibly because I’ve always wanted to have pink hair! What came later was the idea to incorporate some of the pink into the Wardrobe Monster to create a connection between the two characters. As if, even though this was an enormous scary monster, there was something in him that Dora could immediately recognise and empathise with.

You’ve avoided using gendered pronouns for the soft toys in your book. Was this a reaction to the recent survey regarding male gendered animals in picture books?

Whilst I thought that survey was incredibly interesting in terms of reflecting how we naturally tell stories, it wasn’t actually an influence on my decision; I made the choice right from the very beginning, a long time before the survey results came out. My reasoning was that I knew I wanted a female lead character in Dora – in large part because she represented me in the story – but I was very aware that I didn’t want to create a book that appealed solely to girls by designating the other characters as male or female.

I have a very clear idea in my head of the genders of the other characters because of who I have based them on in real life, but I wanted the reader to be able to see them in their own way.

You mention that you went to boarding school. Not many children are used to that concept now. Was it all midnight feasts and tuck shops?

Not really…there certainly was a tuck shop and the occasional midnight feast but mainly it was just lessons, really horrible school food and slightly old fashioned plumbing (my first school was in a very old stately home in Norfolk)! I went when I was 8 through until I left school at 17 and found it quite hard. You get used to the routine of being away from home but it doesn’t really make you miss it any less. What it does give you, however, is a fantastic education, as there are far fewer distractions and a lot of confidence in your own ability to cope with whatever life throws at you. Plus for me it gave me the inspiration for The Wardrobe Monster!

Do you have a favourite soft toy that you took/take to bed?

When I was born my grandmother made me a soft toy dog with long ears and a zip in her tummy for my pyjamas; I called her Debbie. She is now unbelievably battered and threadbare and is living out her well earned retirement at my Mum and Dad’s house.

Where do you do your illustrating? Do you have a particular desk/pen?

I have a little basement studio at our house in Surrey which I absolutely love! It is really quiet and peaceful and I can shut the door and get totally immersed in whatever I’m working on.

I don’t have a particular pen but I do have very specific tools for different jobs – for rough drawings and character development I need a Castell 9000 2B pencil and for monoprinting a Caran d’Ache Neocolor II crayon and Grafwood 3B pencil. I’d love to say that I’m really flexible and can pick up anything to draw with but if I don’t have those three things there is usually a bit of a crisis, followed by some speedy internet shopping!

Quickfire:
Favourite colour: Purple
Favourite biscuits: Dark chocolate digestives
Best TV show: Of all time? Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Most treasured childhood memory: Every year for my birthday we used to go to one of the local farms to see the new lambs, you could stroke them and pick them up, it was magical.
Best place in the world: Suffolk without a shadow of a doubt – that’s where I grew up.
Favourite childhood book: Hard to choose just one but Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, I must have read it or been read it dozens of times.

With thanks to Bryony Thomson for answering my questions. You can find her website here, and seek her on twitter here. If you want to read more about Bryony Thomson, have a look here tomorrow for more on Bryony’s blogtour, and you can buy your own copy of The Wardrobe Monster here

Children’s Mental Health Week

Children’s Mental Health week in the UK runs from February 5th to the 11th. One publisher has sent me a story specifically for this week, and there’s a gathering number of voices who are publishing books that speak to children’s mental health issues.

But reading any good narrative enables the reader to step into someone else’s shoes, to experience their story, and hence gain some empathy on another’s state of mind. But as well as that, some books relate more directly to the reader’s own experience – if the characters are going through a situation that they too are experiencing, the reader can see how the characters react. How do they deal with the darker side of life, how do they overcome their obstacles? In turn, the reader may review their own situation. The book may not offer a solution, but it can show readers another way of thinking about things, perhaps a different way through their dark time.

Someone asked me recently what comes first – if readers learn resilience through books, or if they come to certain darker books with resilience, enabling them to read the books without fear. It’s a tricky one. Some resilience is innate – there are children who accept scary books quite readily, others who approach them with horror, but some resilience is garnered through the reading of difficult situations and issues.

Most of all, books offer a safe space in which to experience the darkness of life, and also show how others perceive a similar darkness. Reading, funnily enough, can be less isolating.


Michael Rosen’s Sad Book
, illustrated by Quentin Blake
is a great example. Rosen wrote the book as a reaction to the death of his son – which is stated within the first few pages. But he also talks about a general sadness that can come over any of us at any time.

The book also explores ways in which Rosen tries to overcome some of the sadness, by thinking about good things he has done that make him proud, or remembering that other people are sad sometimes too. It’s good not to be alone. Talking through the sadness helps him as well.

This is a deservedly award-winning book, which prompts all kinds of emotions, both through the simplicity of the book, but also through Quentin Blake’s astonishingly emotive illustrations.

The book takes the reader through the different layers and types of sadness, from that which settles like a weight, to the sadness at the edges of the happiest things. Emotions are not isolated – they come in a tangled heap, sad with angry, sad with frustration, and sad with happy.

But most of all, this is not a book to which a child needs to bring their resilience. They will find it in the pages within. You can buy it here.


One newer book on the scene is Night Shift by Debi Gliori. This small formatted picture book is targeted at a teenage audience. Even its size and beautiful production (fabric cover) give away this book’s topic – depression can make you feel small, and anything that relieves it can be beautiful.

Gliori draws on her own experience of depression to illustrate this book, showing the illness in the form of a dragon in her charcoal-like illustrations. At first the dragon’s steam is a fog rolling in at night, but soon it pervades the day. Gliori highlights the physical effect of this mental illness in all its debilitating forms, but all beautifully drawn onto the normal day of a teen girl.


Gliori then goes on to highlight different ways in which the girl tries to rid herself of the feeling, from talking about it, drawing it, living with it. One of the most startling pages is the one in which she addresses the platitudes that are given to her: “chin up”.

There is a resolution at the end – her own way of finding a small beauty that helps the fog to lift, the dragon to fly away. As in Rosen’s book, it’s the skill of the simplicity of the language to convey the feeling, and the essence of sharing and hopefulness despite the darkness. You can buy one here.


Another starkly compelling and moving picture book is Small Things by Mel Tregonning, completed posthumously by Shaun Tan. The title is ironic of course – what the protagonist deals with here is not small at all. This wordless black and white graphic novel deals with one small boy’s misery at school – excluded from sports and friendships. His schoolwork is suffering too, and slowly the reader starts to see strange shapes and shadows that invade and penetrate the boy’s world. These take over, keeping the boy up at night, eating away at who he is.

The illustrations are painful to take in sometimes – the small boy’s sadness manifested in his large head and eyes, the anxiety and angst all too clear, the shapes and his disintegration fairly horrific. But when he shares his feelings with his sister and then confides in his parents, things start to change. Finally, he sees that he is not alone in the strange creatures – gradually, the boy sees that others have the shapes to deal with too, and so feel as he does and a bond is formed. It’s not a complete resolution, but a path forward.

The book comes from a place of pain, but the idea is that it provides solace to those who otherwise may not have reached out. Wordless, it screams louder than most. It’s available here.

The last book is the one sent to me by a publisher for this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week. It’s a book that aims to explore and teach mindfulness. Mind Hug: The First Story by Emily Arber and Vanessa Lovegrove shows a boy upset by the influx of noise inside his head, the buzziness of everyday life, but also the thoughts that can erupt from nowhere. Then his father shows him how to breathe and to dismiss the overcrowding. It doesn’t work at first go, but the boy tries again. In the end he shares it with a friend, who shares it again.

The idea, like mindfulness, is relatively simple, and the premise good. Unfortunately the text is a little all over the place, with some rhyming, some not, and a rhythm that comes and goes. You can buy it here.

But it’s not just picture books that bring awareness of mental health, and I’ve highlighted a couple of others here.

Like so many other ‘issues’, sometimes the best books are those that nudge a child towards the issue rather than focus the entire book on it. Flour Babies by Anne Fine is an excellent example – when the children in school have to look after their own ‘flour sacks’ as babies, and learn many things in the process. Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot by Horatio Clare talks about the difficult subject of parental depression all wrapped within a beautiful nature adventure story, Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho Yen and A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill also deal with depressive parents, but again, next to well-told stories. The protagonist in The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson has OCD, but the book reads as a mystery.

By opening up a book with a fictional cast of characters but with very real problems, it’s hoped that children can find a way through, discover a path they may not have thought of, see a light in the dark. Have a look at The Empathy Lab here, for more ideas.

 

The Light Jar by Lisa Thompson

the light jarLisa Thompson excels at illuminating the darker, scary and more painful side of life, even when it penetrates children’s lives, and then shining a positive light on the situation and making the world glow brighter with hope.

Her first novel, The Goldfish Boy, shed some light on OCD, its effects, misunderstandings about it by peers, and the wretched humiliation it can cause (and yet all neatly tied up in a children’s mystery book). This latest, The Light Jar, enlightens the reader about even darker issues, including the effects of psychological abuse, the terror of being abandoned, and fears about darkness, but again does so in a clever and warm way, so that it never feels as if the issues highlighted overshadow the story or are so dark that they are inappropriate for the readership.

Nate and his mother run away to a tumbledown cottage, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. On the second day, Nate’s mother leaves to buy provisions, but never returns. But it turns out, he’s not completely alone, for comfort shines at him in the way of friendship from a mysterious girl called Kitty, solving a treasure hunt nearby, as well as the surprising appearance of a friend from the past.

Thompson intersperses Nate’s fear of being left alone, and worry for his missing mother, with humour in the way of a stray chicken and Nate’s Magic 8 ball, and a simply marvellous book that Nate carries round called ‘Freaky Things to Freak You Out’, a type of non-fiction mystery book. The book inspires Nate to solve Kitty’s treasure hunt, and provides humorous elements to the story. Indeed, although Nate doesn’t forget his fearful situation, Kitty’s treasure hunt propels the plot with an engrossing mystery to solve, and actively involves the reader by including rhyming clues within the text.

But with light, comes darkness too, and here Thompson crafts it in the way of Nate’s memories, which gradually show that Nate and his mother are escaping an abusive relationship with his mother’s new boyfriend. No physical violence is explored, but instead a creeping psychological abuse that’s threatening and horrifying to live through. Thompson deals with this gently, and with enormous understanding. The most interesting memory is that of Nate bringing home a friend for tea, and how the boyfriend deals with the situation. The manipulation of the play date is well handled, and the author here cleverly invokes both incredible sympathy for Nate, as well as empathy with the friend, who although he doesn’t realise what is going on, and isn’t friendly afterwards, would enable the reader to think twice in such situations before dismissing a friend so easily – there may be much going on behind closed doors, and awareness and understanding are key.

There’s no technology in the book (mobile phones/wifi etc) – characters must do away with traceable technology when they’re on the run, and the lack of it adds an extra dimension to the story, as well as intriguingly letting the plot remain highly contemporary and realistic. At first, the book reminded me of The Secret Life of Daisy Fitzjohn by Tania Unsworth, another novel in which a child is seemingly abandoned by her mother and left within a crumbling house. And although there are similar fears and imaginings, The Light Jar soon veered off into different territory.

What both have in common though, is an expert handling of suspense, and text that flows effortlessly, engaging and enthralling the reader. Although The Light Jar has an horrific topic in the shadows, it feels both clever and warm and points to the wonder and light of friendship and hope.

There’s much light in Thompson’s writing; you’d be mad to keep it in the dark. You can purchase your copy here.

 

Sisters Working Together

A deliciously dark fairy tale, Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia and Lauren O’Hara tells the story of a small girl who is afraid of her shadow, and plots to get rid of it. With delightfully descriptive phrases such as ‘wolfish woods,’ combined with the onion turrets of Russian architecture, the book has a distinctive style. Throughout, the author and illustrator manage to give a warmth to the snowy landscapes with the innocence of dotted pastel illustrations, and a subtle simplicity within the text. 

The menace in the tall trees matches the menace Hortense sees in the stretch of her shadow, but in the end her happy ending comes when she sees that the shadowy figures in the background can be more frightening than her own shadow. Without her shadow, she is smaller. With it, despite its darkness, she grows in stature and confidence. With an allusion to Peter Pan via a sash window guillotine, and the hints of fairy tale, this is a picture book that comes from the literary canon that preceded it. 

Author Natalia and illustrator Lauren are sisters. They were born in the North of England to an English father and an Eastern European mother, and now live in London. MinervaReads asked Natalia and Lauren to discuss working together, where their ideas come from, and writing alternative modern fairy tales. The sisters, being sisters, interviewed each other. This is their conversation.

Natalia: In a way, Hortense and the Shadow was your pick, because I came to you with six or seven story ideas and asked which you liked best. What attracted you to the story?

Lauren: It felt by far the most personal of the stories you’d come up with, and also the weirdest and least commercial. Those are qualities we both seem to be attracted to. It also seemed like it didn’t have a bat’s chance of getting published – I remember us saying we’d cut our teeth on this one, and do something commercial later. Actually it was kind of liberating, feeling like we could just play and learn because nobody would ever want to publish this book.

Natalia: It surprised me when you said just now that Hortense and the Shadow was a personal idea. What do you mean?

Lauren: I don’t know if I can put it into words but there’s something about that story that always spoke to me on a personal level. It had a message about self-acceptance I loved. Remember, that was the time when I was coming out of that dark period in my life, and working hard to accept myself and my flaws. And both of us struggled with low self-esteem when we were children. I think we were just lucky that we’re not the only ones who’ve had experiences like those, so it felt personal to some other people too.

Natalia: We talked about Hortense being a kind of modern incarnation of the fairytale princess and about gender quite a bit when we were making this book. What did that mean to you?

Lauren: Well if you remember, when we very first started working on the book there was a moment where you considered making the hero a little boy. But I remember us both feeling that wasn’t the right solution at all. Because this story has a message about accepting your darkness and holding onto your imperfections. I think of course that’s important for everybody, but with the world being how it is, it’s a crucial message to give to little girls.

Natalia: Who are your favourite illustrators of fairytales, and why?

Lauren: I think the first illustrated fairytale I fell in love with was Errol Le Cain’s The Snow Queen. His illustrations for that book are just so evocative and magical. The beautiful snowy landscapes and talking animals and flower-filled gardens… I remember copying out some of the illustrations when we were little, and I feel like they worked their way into my head and found their way out again when I was illustrating Hortense and the Shadow. As you know I also love Jiri Trnka, Lisbeth Zwerger, Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen…

OK my turn! Were you ever surprised by how I interpreted your writing?

Natalia: Not really. When you showed me your first drawings the feeling was more like – “Oh there it is!”. You were developing a new style because you were illustrating for the first time, but at the same time what delighted me was how you were channeling the books and illustrators we loved as children – Jiri Trnka, Errol Le Cain, Mirko Hanak. Probably because of that your illustrations felt familiar to me.

Lauren: Do you think our Eastern European background influences the kind of stories we tell?

Natalia: How could it not really? There are subtle ways it influences us, like the mood of melancholy and nostalgia that comes from being born into a family like ours, where every generation until ours, people had to go into exile to escape horrible political events. Then there are more obvious ways, like the fact your illustrations look a lot like the hand-me-down mid-century Soviet books we had at home. Or the fact I love to write strong female protagonists, which is quite common in Slavic fairy tales where the princess often rescues the prince. So yeah, I think it’s everywhere, just like our English heritage is everywhere.

Lauren: Why do you like writing fairy tales?

Natalia: Fairy tales often seem simple and sweet, but underneath they’re full of complicated emotions and ideas that can take many readings to uncover. If it’s a fairy tale, people have an expectation that all that depth is in there and they don’t mind digging for it. Fairy tales grow up with you; they give you darkness and complexity when you’re ready for them. That’s why I love fairy tales, and why I believe they’re full of magic.

Photo credit: Charlotte Knee Photography. You can buy a copy of the book here