FCBG

Growing Readers: FCBG Conference 2016 Part Two

Sunday morning’s conversation at the FCBG16 began with a question. Prue Goodwin, doyenne of the dissemination of children’s literature, asked about the title of the conference. Were we growing readers (adjective) or were we growing readers (verb)?

The answer of course, is both. But more than that, because we are promoting reading for pleasure we are actually growing humans. Piers Torday (The Last Wild Trilogy) was keen to point out, in his inspirational lecture, that the benefits of reading for pleasure stretch beyond the educational, social or literary – that the key to books is humanity.

One of the reasons children’s literature retains such a resonance after childhood – the influences of Harry Potter or Aslan or Pooh stretching into adulthood – is that these books are read whilst we are growing our imagination, our cultural heritage, our background, our consciousness, our moral compass. When we were young.

daniel hahn boy top mountain

In Daniel Hahn’s excellent Sunday morning interview with John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), both writers spoke about the moral imperatives growing from Boyne’s war books for children. The posing of moral dilemmas, and the resulting conversations and controversies. Boyne’s latest children’s book, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, investigates the susceptibility of young children to brainwashing – it’s about a boy residing in Berghof with Hitler’s servants. It explores character – that people aren’t born good or evil, but that they can be swayed, and lends itself to a discussion of when bad actions become a personal responsibility. These are big questions for children’s books – but that’s exactly what authors need to be doing – asking children these big questions, while their brains and imaginations are still forming. What better time to develop a moral compass than in childhood?

The Last Wild

Piers Torday’s The Last Wild trilogy also poses some pertinent and tough questions. At what point do we sacrifice our comforts for the sake of the environment? If we know that it’s possible for a creature to become extinct in the next ten years (such as elephants in the real world) what action can we and should we be taking? If we show children a fictional world in which all animals are extremely rare and on the brink, and the world as we know it has changed, then it can be an inspiration that shapes their lives. It can start the ball rolling in their formative years and get them thinking about real world scenarios – as well as entertaining them with a brilliant story, and evoking emotions that they will never forget.

And that’s the key – authors are posing questions to children and growing them into thoughtful people. As someone once said, children who read become adults who think. Children’s literature can start to build a moral compass, and from that children learn to have moral courage.

And it’s not just text that lends itself to this purpose. Once again the topic of illustrations arose with author SF Said and illustrator and author Jane Ray. In an ever visual society, children need to recognise the importance of decoding the visual, just as much as decoding text. Images are given just as much prominence in the adult world as text – in newspapers, websites, and obviously television where the image dominates. Any child watching the news learns to disseminate the information firstly in a visual format, and then with text.

phoenix

SF Said’s Phoenix is a thrilling and captivating science fiction novel, but it is also a story about humanity. It too inspires feelings and thoughts about moral courage, self-sacrifice, fighting for what’s right. But Dave McKean’s images are an integral part of the story – helping to tell the narrative, complementing the text.

urashima

So it’s puzzling to many in the children’s books world that images are dismissed by many adults as being ‘babyish’. The illustrator Jane Ray made the point that unfortunately “when something is expertly and simply done it looks easy – the value is reduced” in the eyes of the adults. Of course anyone looking at Shaun Tan picture books, or even my book of the week today – The Journey by Francesca Sanna – can see that expertly produced picture books can be equally read by adults and can be as influential and challenging as full blown 300 page texts.

In the end, the best children’s books are so influential because they teach empathy and humanity not by instructing but by inspiring. Authors and illustrators nourish children’s imaginations, morality, and ethics by osmosis. All wrapped up in a beautiful story.

 

Building Bridges FCBG Conference 2016

logo FCBG

This weekend I’m at the 2016 Federation of Children’s Book Groups Conference (FCBG16). The theme this year is Building Bridges: Forging Connections and Growing Readers. And of course the aim of everyone here, be they booksellers, publishers, authors, librarians, or teachers is to grow readers – to encourage young people to read for pleasure.

But another question has popped up too – in many of the panel sessions, and that is – what are authors of children’s books trying to achieve? Of course, all the writers admitted that first and foremost they write for themselves – for their inner 9, 11, 14 year old selves, for the book they wanted to read, because as writers, that’s what we do.

And yet there’s also the secondary part of writing, which is the readers. How do we pull them in? And once we’ve opened that door and hooked them, how do we keep children coming back for more? The perennial question in the children’s libraries I work in is ‘What shall I read next?’, and the perennial playground question is ‘What should I buy/borrow for my child to read next?’ Governments pay heed – if we get rid of the librarians, who will hold open that door and not let it swing shut in the child’s face?

Horatio Clare, author of Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot, was very clear that whatever underlying message might be embedded in a text, or whatever else an author sets out to achieve, the dominant intention must be to entertain. For otherwise, of course, who would read the books?

Of course in today’s age, as Mike Revell, author of Stonebird, pointed out, it’s also about instant gratification. The hook must be there from the beginning. When today’s kids switch on the Playstation, an ‘other’ world is built immediately – the child can see it all simply by pressing the on button. With books, the reader has to work a bit harder – it takes longer to become immersed and that is a key challenge for today’s authors.

One of my key messages in my role as a reading consultant is that parents should limit screen time and its instant gratification. If a child is bored, they are more likely to pick up a book. It’s not likely to happen if they are sat in front of a screen with a console in their hands.

For Katherine Rundell (Rooftoppers, The Wolf Wilder), books were a crutch to lean on, a safe place to be, even a way of being – not an escape but life itself – an affirmation of who she was as a child, “a finding place, not a hiding place.” It’s also a totally immersive activity in an age dominated by interruptions – especially the bleepy kind. Katherine Rundell compared reading to walking a tightrope – it’s not something from which you can afford to be distracted.

Authors of children’s books are also trying to broaden horizons, not to limit children’s potential for discovery – booksellers don’t genre segment children’s books in a bookshop because no one wants to be pigeon holed as a ‘fantasy’ reader just because they liked Maurice Sendak as a pre-schooler, or The Hobbit as an eleven-year-old. Much as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the different worlds within was a gateway to fiction for Shane Hegarty (Darkmouth), so ideally children would explore all the different universes of literature before making up their mind what they like.

This includes illustrated books too. The children’s book world is showing an increasing prevalence of illustration, and with the appointment of Chris Riddell as children’s laureate, more and more illustration is being incorporated into fiction, even older fiction. Shane Hegarty believes this is a consequence of adapting to a more visual generation. Even when children have been enticed away from a screen to read a book, it helps if the book has illustrative qualities along with the text.

The author/illustrator Curtis Jobling (Max Helsing: Monster Hunter) agrees that visual storytelling is relevant. Especially with those who, like author Phil Earle, sigh heavily when presented with a very long text-heavy book. And being visual doesn’t have to equate to light-heartedness. No one would argue that graphic novels such as Maus and Persepolis deal with light topics. Phil Earle (Superhero Street) was strident in his views that the danger for many is that they view comics as boiled down to just those few ‘kapow’ moments at the end – the last bit of the drama in which the sucker punch is dealt, rather than concentrate on the plot, the darkness, the conflict that comes before.

“There’s a big resistance in some schools in which they see pictures as being just for infants. But they’re not. Pictures can accentuate the storytelling and the depth of the reader’s experience.”

For debut YA authors, Harriet Reuter Hapgood (The Square Root of Summer) and Sara Bernard (Beautiful Broken Things), one of the purposes of their fiction is reassurance. Teens don’t want educational or didactic fiction, but perhaps they do want affirmative and reassuring fiction. And so there is a responsibility on the contemporary YA author to present truths in their fiction. As the teenage voice becomes culturally more important in our era, so the responsibility lies more heavily.

Not that authors of children’s fiction want to provide all, or even one, of the answers. But (with thanks to Julia Bell) as Chekhov said, “the task of a writer is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.” The authors here are certainly doing that in droves.

 

 

FCBG National Non-Fiction November: Celebrating Maps

The first time a child sees a map may well be in a children’s book. My first was 100 Aker Wood – who could resist the lure of the ‘Sandy Pit Where Roo Plays’, or feel for Eeyore immediately, stuck in his ‘Gloomy Place’. Before the story even begins, the narrative starts in the map – with setting, character, and potential story.

Non-fiction maps also tell stories. Not all non-fiction maps need to be drawn to scale, to accurately represent their size and place in the world – sometimes they can be drawn in such a way that they are just telling their own story – which is the case with my featured book today.

50 States

The 50 States by Gabrielle Balkan, illustrated by Sol Linero
One of our favourite games as youngsters was to try to name all fifty states of the USA. It’s not easy – some invariably get left out. No longer though, after reading this weighty, comprehensive, unique book on the states of America.

The endpapers open with a map of America, easily divided by colourful sections into the fifty states, each with page numbers – a pictorial contents page. The states are not to scale – it’s not an atlas, but a book that aims to divulge the character of each state.

50 states contents

Each page highlights a different state in similar ways – showing influential and inspiring people connected with the state, key facts, history, capitals, places of interest, size, bordering states and much more.

For example, Pennsylvania features famous people such as Andy Warhol and Taylor Swift – depicted in cute little illustrative framed portraits – it also features famous landmarks such as the State Capitol and the world’s oldest operating wooden roller coaster, and key moments from the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg to Hershey breaking ground in 1903 for his new chocolate factory. It’s an eclectic mix but tells a good story.

The introductory text on each page is simple, informative, and explains the importance of each state – Pennsylvania is the ‘keystone state’ and the book explains why. The language is not dry though – Penn is described as being “something of a spiritual home for history lovers” and the author explains how a visitor can travel back in time to experience some of the highlights. It’s friendly and fun, reflected too in the choice of typeface.

The page on Mississippi explains the meaning behind the name, as well as revealing that “the river is as much a hero of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as Huck and Jim”. It contrasts hugely with Idaho, in which forty per cent of the land is covered by forest. Describing Maryland as big in personality, this state, purported to be “America in miniature” was home to the first American passenger railroad.

And each state is shown by its shape on the double page spread – with its borders – the angles and twists and turns of geography laid bare.

There are key facts on each state boxed off and labelled so that a quick flick can give the reader the all-important quiz facts such as each state’s capital, state bird, motto, tree, time zone and much more.

There’s also a comprehensive index, mini illustrated framed portraits of each American president up to Obama, and a table of the state flags.

The tone is excellent – pitched perfectly at a curious mind, not too fact heavy, not too light either. It invites you into each state and gives you a flavour of what you can find. I’m set on visiting all 50 – each has so much to offer.

With this book the reader gains a comprehensive insight into America – the history from the native Americans to the battles fought, signing of the Constitution to civil rights, the discovery of oil to the current president. The geography, from the acres of farmland, forests, length of rivers, mountains and plains. Culture – from Bob Dylan to Frank Sinatra, from Tennessee Williams to EB White, even weather from Maine’s Ice Storm to Louisiana’s Hurricane Katrina, as well as a sense of place from Missouri’s Gateway Arch to New Jersey’s Atlantic City boardwalk, sports too, and quirky eccentricities.

A reader can compare and contrast the difference and similarities between states, the sheer amount of space and history. There is so much to pore over on each page – it’s lucky the book’s dimensions are so big. This is one to savour – for every geographic nerd, non-fiction aficionado, and for anyone who’s ever tried to rattle off all 50 states and not quite managed it.

For 8+ years. You can buy a copy here, or see the sidebar. With thanks to Wide Eyed Publishers for sending a review copy.

National Theatre: All About Theatre

National Theatre

Collaborations between national institutions and children’s book publishers can produce some of the most exciting books for children, so I was delighted to receive Walker Books’ All About Theatre book, produced with the National Theatre.

I’m doubly delighted to bring it to you today, 1st November, for National Non-fiction November.

Drama is a key topic for children – it can boost confidence, encourage visual and spatial awareness, helps communication skills, teamwork and cooperation, empathy, and of course creativity. By providing a romp through all the various elements that go into theatre production, this book excels in its comprehensiveness as well as its stunning graphics and accompanying photography.

Each aspect of putting on a theatre production is covered in a separate chapter, and with reference to a National Theatre production. The introduction contains a very brief history of theatre, and then an explanation of what the National Theatre is, and an extended glossary of who’s who within a theatre.

The chapters range from the play itself, including different genres, playwrights, the vision (this page features glorious photographs of War Horse), directors and puppets. Then the cast – actors, rehearsals, tricks of the trade, stagecraft, stage fighting, comic timing – and this is only the first 48 pages of a 130 page book.

There is so much that goes into a production, and this book proves it. I particularly liked the graphics representing different types of staging from proscenium arches to thrust and the round; and the page on costumes depicting how to get from sketch to stage. The photos for make-up feature the play Frankenstein – a very gruesome picture here, and a lovely ‘try me at home’ section on how to apply stage make up – to create a green witch.

For those with a less audience-facing inclination, there is plenty on creating props, lighting, special effects, music, and even marketing.

There are anecdotes and tips from stars of the stage, and professionals who work behind the scenes, and an amazing variety and array of plays and tools – from Shakespeare to Treasure Island, One Man Two Guvnors to Emil and the Detectives. What’s more this is a book that can be read front to back, or dipped into for particular skillsets.

There is a bold use of colour throughout – many different colour backgrounds, but all with easy to read text. The pages contain chunks of text, captions, snippets, quotes, lists and diagrams so it’s fun, attractive and handy reference. Easy on the eye, and easy to understand.

If this doesn’t inspire you to see theatre, make theatre, enjoy and appreciate theatre, then I don’t know what will. After all, all the world’s a stage….

Age range approx. 8+ years.

You can buy it here.

FCBG Conference: Inspire

logo FCBG
Last weekend I attended the FCBG Conference. The FCBG aims to promote enjoyment in children’s books and accessibility of those books to all – as well as attempting to put the right book in the right child’s hands. The theme of the conference was ‘Inspire’ and I was inspired in three ways.
its about love

Firstly, by those who seek to examine fresh ways of looking at narrative in children’s publishing and what can be achieved. From the award-winning narrative apps, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, of Nosy Crow Publishers, presented by their supremely dynamic MD, Kate Wilson, to the spoken word artist Steve Camden (aka PolarBear), author of Tape and the soon to be published It’s About Love, who introduces his young adult novels with performance poetry. See here. In fact, understanding and being able to decode narrative is critical for a child’s development of empathy. And taking time to be engaged in a narrative and not be easily distracted can contribute to a child’s wellbeing. The writer Nicola Morgan explained that a big report on offline/online reading will be published in about 2017/2018, but that it is notable that reading offline does lend itself to fewer distractions. Everyone at the conference pointed to print books as an integral part of the narrative process as well as whatever other technologies we may apply. Books I’m looking forward to from Nosy Crow in the near future include There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins, the next in the Wigglesbottom Primary series by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor, and My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons. Reviews to follow.
Theres a Bear on my chair
Secondly, I was inspired by people working within the children’s publishing industry and others I met who are simply sharing their incredible book knowledge. Philip Ardagh is passionate about books and writes some startlingly funny ones. I’m hoping to review his book The Unlikely Outlaws soon, and he has also written a funny series called The Grunts, and Awful End. Sophy Henn and Rob Biddulph spoke about creating their picture books, PomPom Gets the Grumps and Blown Away respectively, which I’ve reviewed previously. Click on the titles to read my reviews. There was also much to learn about non-fiction titles, and I had a lovely chat with Nicola Davies who told me about her new theatre venture at the Hay Literary Festival. Nicola bubbles over with enthusiasm when speaking about her books, which weave a narrative structure within non-fiction to create spellbinding titles. One of my favourite titles of hers is The Promise, a picture book that seems to use osmosis to seamlessly transfer the author’s love for trees and nature onto the reader. Not only that but it imparts the idea that just because a child has a difficult start in life, it doesn’t mean that the rest of life will be equally difficult.

The Promise

Lastly of course, it is all about the power of the book; the power of the story to tell you that you are not alone, and as Frank Cottrell Boyce (author of The Astounding Broccoli Boy) put it “to break you free of the prison of the present”. Getting the right book into your own hands can inspire you in the same way that putting the right book in the hands of the right child can inspire them for life. Frank Cottrell Boyce revealed that simply reading Heidi empowered someone he knew to understand that happiness was a possibility for them despite all their hardship. On a lighter note, Steven Butler (author of The Wrong Pong) realised that reading might be for him after all when he realised that it was possible to put the word ‘knickers’ in a children’s book – he discovered it in Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes!
the wrong pong

I came away with MORE knowledge about children’s books and subsequently a better idea of which books I can recommend for your child. It’s about getting children reading. You can access the FCBG website here.