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Illustrative Wonders

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Hello, Mr Dodo by Nicholas John Frith
Frith’s second picture book arrived in September, just as he picked up the Klaus Flugge Prize for most promising newcomer to children’s picture book illustration for Hector and Hummingbird. With the same technique and a similar style, Hello Mr Dodo! also comes across as being thoroughly nostalgic in look and tone, as well as startlingly fresh and new.

Hello, Mr Dodo! uses a colour palate that looks decidedly retro, with its bright orange front cover contrasting with the blue line boundary, but also the vividly crayon-esque inside, which depicts a house and garden in bright yellow and orange. Already warmed by the illustrations, the reader is tickled by the text, which smiles from the first sentence:

“Martha was cuckoo about birds.”

Cleverly considered, this little girl’s retro name matches the illustrations, and the joke is tucked in for charm. Martha is lovable. She talks to the birds every morning, but then the author uses a typical story construct to add in the excitement – one morning she spies something new with her binoculars. It is the biggest bird Martha has ever seen.

She finds out more by looking in her books – which Frith illustrates in black and white for the reader to see – slotting in much non-fiction about the Dodo. Nestling behind the enlarged pages of the reference book though, is Martha in her bedroom. And this is where Frith shines too – for his attention to detail is exemplary. Martha has modern ‘bird-shaped’ slippers, but a retro trio of flying ducks on her wall. She has bird skeletons and anatomy drawings, but also arrows poking from her toybox, a kite and skipping rope too.

She keeps the Dodo secret, until one day, her secret slips out. The worry on Martha’s face as she scoots to find her Dodo is lusciously drawn, but readers shouldn’t worry too much – the ending not only illustrates Martha’s cleverness, but also gives hope to the Dodo’s future.

There is so much to love about this book, from the small incidental details, such as the squirrel camouflaged on the tree, by which Frith gives a good nod at nature, to the overarching plot, in which the pacing is superb. It feels good to read aloud – the rhythm of the text works brilliantly, and the illustrations fit seamlessly. Already a firm favourite in our house, this is a fantastic picture book with a simple story illustrated to award-winning perfection.

Filled with fun for children, including doughnuts for a Dodo, clues about friendship, bird watching and keeping secrets, I have no doubt this is one to slip into your shopping basket. You’ll love it as much as they do. You can buy it here.

midnight-at-the-zoo
Midnight at the Zoo by Faye Hanson
Another second book, this time from acclaimed illustrator Faye Hanson. Mia and Max are excited – they are going on a school trip to the zoo. But when they arrive, all the animals are asleep or hiding. Max and Mia dawdle in the hope of seeing something that no one else does, and they get left behind, and spend the night in the zoo. Luckily for them, this is when the zoo really comes alive.

This is another exquisite picture book – so different in style from Mr Dodo – this one is utterly contemporary, jam packed with detail and minute pencil and pen marks, giving everything a different texture so that each page looks like an artwork in its own right.

The plot is well handled. Hanson builds the expectation, and also slight trepidation of the young children going on a school trip. The excitement on arrival, followed by slight disappointment, and then she addresses a teacher’s worst nightmare – leaving children behind. Of course, this is where the fun starts here because Max and Mia have an amazingly surreal time at the midnight zoo.

There is a wonderful contrast in terms of colour and light between the zoo in day time and the zoo at night time. In the day, the pages are greens, yellows, reds. At night, the pages positively pulse with spots and flares of almost fluorescent colour – a muted dark purple turquoise background behind the colour injections of a host of colourful butterflies, the incandescent red  of the flamingos, and the shining lights and confetti of the following pages – making a carnival atmosphere. It’s a little like the Disney Electric Light Parade – a feast of light.

Hanson also plays with her language; using a plethora of similes to describe the children’s emotions before the visit – they trundle like elephants, cling like monkeys before scampering excitedly. At the midnight zoo, she uses alliterations; “flouncing flamingos and fabulous fountains,” “loud, laughing lemurs with lanterns alight”.

But for this reader, the most exciting part of the visit to the zoo, in daytime or night, is the attention to detail – the mimicking of the small child’s eyes, which often see the incidentals. Hanson has furnished her book with a wealth of illustrations, which convey depth of characterisation and make Hanson stand out, just as she did with her first book, The Wonder.

Max and Mia’s bedroom is a paean to zoos, with an animal mobile, a striped light switch, toy animals, wallpaper, animal print bed sheets and more. The small vignettes at the zoo need careful inspection to spot where the animals are hiding (look out for the meerkats holding hands). The other school children too – shown on the bus, in the zoo, and at the end when they find Max and Mia, are fabulous – each one with a different personality – each one identifiable throughout. Even the endpapers, one showing a map of the zoo by day, the other by night.

And there’s even a happy ending. Check it out here.

Before I Wake Up by Britta Teckentrup

Before I Wake Up cover

Britta Teckentrup has illustrated more than 80 children’s picture books, and this latest, Before I Wake Up is one of her best. It has a soothing, dream-like quality, encapsulating the essence of the idea, which is a book that portrays a child’s nighttime in the most reassuring way possible. It follows the dreamscape of a little girl, accompanied by her toy lion, and taking ideas and articles from her life with her – yet distorting everything slightly – as happens in dreams.

Like in Teckentrup’s picture book about the changing seasons, Tree, the colour palate blends and merges like a tonal rainbow, from the intensity of a dark night to the encroaching glow of morning. By using collage – layers of transparent images – the dreamlike quality escalates, the further into the book the reader goes.

Although a typical journey of a children’s book, it is the clever use of imagery that pulls. The moon transforms into a hot air balloon – pulling the child’s bed through her subconscious with a dreamy consistency. Other images are repeated and warped slightly, yet soothe and reassure; the toy lion is a companion who leads the little girl through the night. The lion grows in the dreamscape, but as a protector rather than a predator – putting his arms around the child in the storms.

There is an innate sensitivity to the images, pared with rhyming text that contains a multitude of soothing words, such as gaze, stars, song, rocking, safe, kisses.

The face of the little girl in repose both absorbs this stillness and also offers assurances. The dazzling brightness of daytime comes into play in the final pages, the yellow hue so powerful it is as if you really have opened your eyes from a dream. Wonderful stuff. For anyone who’s ever had a worrying, sleepless night.

Below, Doris Kutschback, Editor-in-Chief of the publishers, Prestel Junior, explains how the book came about.

Can you give some background information as to how the book was created?

When Britta showed me the book she had already worked on it for a long time. It was a project of the heart. I was very excited by it straight away and we sat down together and selected the spreads that would make it into the final book out of a vast selection of images.

The book is a 56pp picture book and not a typical 32pp picture book… why have you chosen a longer format?

The rhythm of the story didn’t allow for it to be cut down to 32pp. How can you travel through a whole night if you’re limited to 12 spreads?

Was the original text written in German or English (Britta was born and lives in Germany)?

It was written in English and it was not that easy to translate the English rhymes into German.

What do you love about the book?

I mainly love the soft tones and how the lion gives the girl strength with his subtle tenderness. I love the soft flow of the images as they guide you through the night. It’s all very harmonious without ever getting boring.  The mood is perfect for this subject matter. I also really like the paper and the whole look and feel of the book…it all works together very well.

Have you got a favourite page?

My personal favourite is – ‘…I wish I could stay in this wilderness…’

fav spread

Is there anything you would have done differently?

No!

What was it like working together with Britta on this book?

She’s perfect! Super professional, super relaxed and unpretentious…She is a fantastic artist and isn’t a diva but always very modest which makes working with her a great joy. I enjoy brainstorming with her and I have got the feeling that we are on the same wavelength – we always understand immediately what the other person is talking about.

Britta 1Britta in her studio

Thanks so much to Prestel for providing the interview and the book review copy. You can visit Britta’s website at www.brittateckentrup.com or find her on twitter @BTeckentrup. You can purchase a copy of Before I Wake Up… here

 

The Dark All Around Us

Many small children have a fear of the dark. This can be difficult to address because the dark is an abstract idea; the fear is of the unknown, which makes it hard to conjure in a picture book. However, I have found five books that I think do the job really well in different ways. I’ve listed them in a kind of youngest to oldest order (lots of quibble room here though).

can't you sleep little bear

Can’t you Sleep Little Bear by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Barbara Firth

Although not immediately apparent that this about a fear of the dark, Can’t you Sleep Little Bear displays a perfect juxtaposition of darkness and light. The book kicks off with a light-drenched illustration as the bears play in the snow in bright sunlight, but then soon retreat home for bed to the Bear Cave as the sun goes down. Immediately the illustrations move to the ‘dark’ part of the cave where Little Bear is trying (and failing) to sleep. During the course of the book, Big Bear fetches larger and larger lanterns for Little Bear in the hope of trying to disperse the “dark all around us”. There’s no magic resolution to the story, as it becomes apparent that tiredness overcomes the fear in the end, but it does try to illustrate that there is no real dark, as even outside in the dark, the moon and stars overcome it, and Little Bear ends up “warm and safe in Big Bear’s arms”. There is nothing remotely frightening in this book, no hidden shadows or shapes in the ‘darkness’, just a comforting glow of the adult space. In this way, it can comfort the smallest of children. (There’s even a touch of humour added for the impatient grown up reader).

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There’s a Dragon Downstairs by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Amanda Harvey
This book won various awards about a decade ago and tackles the darkness in a solid way by illuminating the dark’s distortion of everyday things into monstrous entities; the darkness makes the familiar appear fearsome. Even the pencil lines of the illustrations indicate the ephemeral shadiness of the darkness. There is much sympathy for our protagonist Sophie from her parents, who valiantly search the house for the dragon, although in the end it is Sophie who must fight her own demons! Of course, the end is beautifully reassuring (spoiler alert!) – the dragon is revealed to be none other than the friendly domestic cat. A great way to explore a child’s fear without stating the obvious.

 there's a dragon downstairs

The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, illustrated by Paul Howard
A beautiful picture book, which I read as a child as a chapter book – today it is published in both formats. The owl parents in this instance are ‘laissez-faire’ parents, sending the child owl ‘Plop’ to do some research on why it’s good to be a night owl! Plop interviews various humans (and a cat) about the dark to find out why they like it. Each character supplies Plop with a new adjective about the dark:
“The small boy said DARK IS EXCITING. The old lady said DARK IS KIND. The little girl said DARK IS NECESSARY. The man with the telescope said DARK IS WONDERFUL.”
Jill Tomlinson manages to convey Plop’s stubborn childlike qualities in his language;
“I still do not like it AT ALL”,
although he is persuaded in the end. The picture book, illustrated by Paul Howard, conveys the excitement of the fireworks and the magical quality of the night stars, as well providing the most exquisite owl drawings. A book that confronts the fear head on! I never tire of it.

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The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen

A more recent picture book that confronts the fear head on is The Dark. The pictures as much as the text in this book simulate the fear of the little boy Laszlo, who is seen only in rays of light, while the rest of the page stays in the dark. The dark is even personified here, given a voice halfway through the book, which itself is pretty frightening:
“The voice of the dark was as creaky as the roof of the house, and as smooth and cold as the windows, and even though the dark was right next to Laszlo, the voice seemed very far away.”
I’ve suggested this is for slightly older readers because although immensely powerful, during most of the book the illustrations are fairly threatening. Laszlo is a brave hero and ventures further and further into the dark, until the dark is finally explained by Snicket, in fact – explained in the same way as the little girl in The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark – as being necessary! The darkness is also generous in The Dark, giving Laszlo a lightbulb to explain how without the dark:
“you would never know if you needed a lightbulb”.
A tricky concept, adeptly handled.

Dark Lemony Snicket

Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett
This is not strictly about the dark, although there is a page about being alone or in the dark, but Emily Gravett’s book uses a different tool from the other books to conquer fears, which is perhaps worth mentioning here: art. Big Book of Fears sets out lots of things that may be frightening, from common childhood fears of dogs and getting lost, to fears that are slightly more obscure, such as fear of clocks, but each time the illustrator implores you to overcome your fears through use of art. Not such a bad idea, when for children, expressing emotions through pictures can be an illuminating task. The other undercurrent here for confronting and defeating fear is humour. The scared mouse taking us through the pages, delights parent and child alike as it recoils from ‘knives’ in a page that features newspaper cuttings on the ‘three blind mice and the farmer’s wife’. There are some excellent pull-outs here too – the page on heights features an exciting map of the Isle of Fright. A great book for starting a conversation about what’s scary and how fears can be confronted and conquered.

Little Mouse book of fears