fiction

Lili by Wen Dee Tan: The Book Blog Tour

Today I am pleased to be part of the Lili book blog tour. This is a stunningly beautiful picture book with exquisite artworks, but is also a book about how our actions can change other people’s perceptions of us.

Lili_Cover_for_web_12.12.14

Lili’s hair is not only fiery red, it is as hot as fire itself. Lili struggles to make friends with anyone because they are frightened of her fiery hair, and is generally shunned. Until the day comes when her hair proves useful in saving some village children, and Lili’s courage shines through. From that day onwards, the other children and people of the village accept and include her.

The magic of this picture book is Wen Dee Tan’s amazingly powerful illustrations. Each spread is like a painting on the wall, simple charcoal lines depicting the whole story, bar Lili’s hair, which is a raging fire of orange burning through each page. Not only does it appear fiery, it truly looks like hair – the reader is enticed to touch it, although knows that it is fiery hot. It’s challenging, and yet simple and enriching for a young reader. There is simplicity in the drawings throughout – both in the faces of the children, but also in the implied terror when the village children are lost in the woods.

Lili spread

Author and illustrator Wen Dee Tan won third place in the Macmillan Prize 2013 for her Lili illustrations and on her blog talks about the joy of holding a pencil and making marks on paper. She’ll certainly be making her mark on the children’s picture book scene with Lili.

You can visit Wen Dee Tan’s blog here.

Two other visually arresting (yet in a completely different way) picture books in which the opinion of someone is changed based on their actions are Mr Big by Ed Vere and How to Hide a Lion by Helen Stephens.

Mr Big

Mr Big tells the story of a gorilla who is big. So big that
“anywhere he went, all everyone saw was someone big and scary.”
Mr Big buys a piano because it looks alone, like himself, and his sadness inspires him to play beautiful music. Everyone else in the city can hear the music and recognises its beauty but they don’t know who is playing. They invite the ‘mystery pianist’ to join a band, which he does, and subsequently he becomes hugely popular. It’s a lovely story that explains that friends come in all shapes and sizes. Ed Vere’s book explores emotions in a simple way for picture book readers, and his use of bright colours in his unique style make this book stand out. I haven’t yet read it to a child who didn’t love it and ask for a re-read.

How to Hide a Lion

How to Hide a Lion by Helen Stephens is very different although the underlying principle is the same. Just because something is ‘other’, doesn’t mean it has negative attributes, and somebody’s actions can change our perceptions of them. A lion strolls into town to buy a hat, but the townspeople shy away in horror. In fact Helen Stephens depicts a rowdy mob chasing the poor misunderstood lion with brooms and rolling pins. A small girl called Iris is not scared and takes him in, hiding him from her parents as apparently “mums and dads can be funny about having a lion in the house”. In the end the lion is discovered and runs away again, only to foil burglars at the town hall. His good deed is rewarded – he is hailed the town’s hero and given what he came for the in first place. It’s a clever little story with endearing illustrations.

With thanks to Fat Fox Books for the sneak preview of Lili.

Fat Foxblogtourlili

 

 

A Whisper of Wolves by Kris Humphrey, illustrated by Chellie Carroll

A Whisper of Wolves
A new fantasy series of the ilk of Michelle Paver, but in a much simpler vein for a younger reader. Set in a time of castles and kings, forests and earthy magic, the book focuses on the whisperers – guardians of the wild, people who have been chosen for their ability to communicate with an animal and protect the landscape and villages in which they live. This first book in the series focuses on two whisperers – Alice and Dawn, and their respective animal companions, Storm a wolf, and Ebony a raven. They have to fight against the evil presence of the Narlaw – dangerous entities who suck the life from human beings and leave them in a sleep-like trance. The book explores the natural landscape, with long adventurous journeys through woods and streams, in deep ravines and up high cliffs. A group of feisty females dominate the novel, from the whisperers who teach their new apprentices, to the princess in the castle, and the past Queen who won the previous Narlaw war.  For a more experienced reader there are clear echoes of the Dementors from Harry Potter in the guise of the Narlaw, and other devices pulled from children’s literature – but this is a good starting point for a young reader wanting to access fantasy novels. An easy-to-follow plot, intertwined with some excellent vocabulary and great imagery. Looking forward to reading more in the series. Published 2nd March, 2015.

An Interview with Abi Elphinstone, author of The Dreamsnatcher

The Dreamsnatcher cover FINAL   Abi Elphinstone
Abi Elphinstone’s debut children’s book, The Dreamsnatcher, is a bit special. It’s my Book of the Week this week, and you can read the review here. The Dreamsnatcher wasn’t sent to me by a publisher for promotion or review, I merely stumbled across it when going through the entries for next year’s Red House Book Awards. The blurb appealed and I read it before ‘testing’ it on the children. It had quite a hold. Then Abi and I started tweeting and she kindly agreed to be interviewed on my blog.

MinervaReads: You’re obviously very influenced by reading the works of Phillip Pullman. What other influences would you cite – for me the gypsy qualities in Moll were also reminiscent of The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden?

Abi: Ha! Yes, I adore Phillip Pullman’s books. Northern Lights, together with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, were the books that made me believe in magic and Pullman even wrote me a little note wishing me luck in my writing when I started out six years ago.
Pullman
I learnt how to write action scenes from reading Michelle Paver’s books, particularly the brilliant Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, and The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden inspired me to create a Romany gypsy girl with spirit. Oh, and Moll’s slightly ‘off the wall’ nature comes from reading about truly unique heroines like Mina from David Almond’s My Name is Mina and Sophie in Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers.

MinervaReads: The natural imagery and surrounding landscape are key to your story. Do you see this as a growing trend in children’s literature – and did you purposefully set out to make the setting vague and unknowable so we don’t know which country Moll is from?

Abi: Having grown up in the wilds of Scotland, I think I’m naturally drawn to stories set in remote landscapes – and whenever I go walking in the highlands or swimming in the Fairy Pools on Skye, I can’t help but feel there is so much magic buried away up there. I’m not sure if there is a trend emerging with children’s writers focusing on natural landscapes but I adore any book that does, like The Black North by Nigel McDowell and The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse most recently. I’ve got plans for a series about an Inuit girl called Eska and a grizzly bear cub next but as with The Dreamsnatcher, I won’t give specific place names. I deliberately wanted my setting to be vague (even though I did much of my research in the New Forest) because that way children can dream up the story anywhere.

Abi SkyeAbi at the top of a mountain in Skye

MinervaReads: How did you get published? And did it take a long time for you to write The Dreamsnatcher?

Abi: From the ages of 24 – 28, I wrote three books. I sent each one out to a smattering of literary agents and I think I racked up 96 rejections in total. I guess that’s what happens when you dash out stories that don’t matter that much to you… A few agents said they saw ‘glimpses of brilliance’ and ‘raw talent’ in my work but that my plots were unoriginal and my writing style was amateur. So I kept writing, I went to literary festivals and writing workshops, I read more and more children’s books, and most importantly, I re-worked my ideas and style until they were the very best that they could be. I wrote The Dreamsnatcher over the course of a year and I literally threw everything at it because it was finally a story I wanted to tell: I watched wildcats prowl in the New Forest, carved wooden flowers with a Romany gypsy and wrote every spare second I could until there were literally no words left inside me! Then I sent off The Dreamsnatcher to one agent, Hannah Sheppard – and she signed me. Although the rejection process was painful, it taught me a lot about humility, determination and creativity.

MinervaReads: Some of the imagery (the burning of the hand at the beginning) is quite unsettling and frightening. What’s your view on the use of frightening imagery in children’s books?

Abi: Yeah, I scared myself when writing about Skull quite a few times! But I think that as long as you offer children hope – and virtues like bravery, friendship, tolerance and kindness set against the evil you present – then you can go quite dark. I mean, Tolkien totally terrified me as a child but Frodo and Samwise Gamgee taught me to be brave – and I think that kind of lesson is worth being scared rigid by Black Riders for.

MinervaReads: The character of Moll is so well defined. Have you always had her in your head as a sort of alter ego or did you mould her as you wrote the story?

Abi: Hehe. Moll is basically me: ‘a ball of misdirected enthusiasm’ (that’s how my brothers describe me). She’s energetic and adventurous but hopelessly headstrong and pretty impatient – and she almost always says the wrong thing at the wrong time. But she means well and she’s fab with a catapult. Moll was the easiest character to write because I just kept scribbling down what I’d do and say in the situations she got into. It was a LOT of fun.
Abi as MollAbi, as a child

MinervaReads: One of myy most treasured possessions is a set of the His Dark Materials trilogy signed by Phillip Pullman to my children. What’s your most treasured possession?

Abi: My teddy. It goes everywhere with me. He even went on my honeymoon. Wow, that’s embarrassing seeing that sentence in actual typed letters on my computer screen. Oh well.

You can visit Abi’s author website here and watch the video trailer for her book
For teaching resources on The Dreamsnatcher, click here

The cover for The Dreamsnatcher was designed by Thomas Flintham

 

Red House Children’s Book Awards 2015

RedHouse Logo

It’s awards season. Sandwiched between the BAFTAs and the Oscars, and following hot on the Costa Book Award, was yesterday’s Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ Red House Children’s Book Awards 2015. There were no designer frocks, no red carpet, and a distinct lack of paparazzi, but the event was a warm embracing ceremony, with excited children lining up to have a chat with their favourite authors, and to get their much cherished books signed. For the authors, not only were they shortlisted for the national prize voted for by children, but they were also presented with a portfolio of feedback – pictures, poems, reviews and letters all from their readers. I’m sure these are just as precious as any metal trophies.

The shortlist was as follows, for Younger Children: Dragon Loves Penguin by Debi Gliori (review here), The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (review here), Go to Sleep or I Let Loose the Leopard by Steve Cole, illustrated by Bruce Ingman, and That Is Not a Good Idea! By Mo Willems. The winner is The Day the Crayons Quit.
crayons

For Younger Readers, the shortlist was Baby Aliens Got My Teacher! By Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Thomas Flintham, The Bomber Dog by Megan Rix, and Demon Dentist by David Walliams, illustrated by Tony Ross. The winner is Demon Dentist.

Demon Dentist

For Older Readers, the shortlist was Noble Conflict by Malorie Blackman, Prince of the Icemark by Stuart Hill and Split Second by Sophie McKenzie. The winner is Split Second.

Split Second

The overall winner is The Day the Crayons Quit

Day Crayons Quit winner

And this all made me think. What are awards ceremonies for? Why do we do it? Of course, there is massive attention paid to the books/films/artworks which win awards, all of which drive value or sales, and so it’s a marketing person’s passion to be on the shortlisted or winning team. But for an author, what does it say? For how do we judge a good work of fiction? Being in a bookgroup, or chatting to anyone else who reads, it’s clear that what suits one doesn’t suit another. I love the Bronte sisters but I don’t love Dickens. Reading fiction is obviously completely subjective. On what criteria is it that we judge books when we give them awards? Similarly, what criteria makes a child’s piece of creative writing deserve an A rather than a B grade? There might be a checklist, but it’s totally dependent on the judges isn’t it?

One of those million dollar questions bandied about by authors and such, is ‘Would you rather write a bestseller or win the Booker prize?’ Of course winning the Booker might make you a best seller, but how about the Nobel Prize for Literature? Ie. would you rather be read by millions, or read and judged to be best by a few?

The Red House Children’s Book Award is great because it’s voted for by the readers – so it kind of ticks both boxes. Even then, pitting books against each other in an age range is hard. Whether it’s fantasy against contemporary, or funny against historical, are we right to rate them against each other, when some children don’t even like one of those genres?

The author SF Said recently raised the question of whether children’s books should be considered for the top book awards too – not just judged for the Carnegie Medal. Is it right that there’s a women author only prize? (Bailey’s, previously the Orange). The Booker has just started accepting novelists from the US as entrants as well as the original Commonwealth-only criteria, but should it even be judging different genre books against each other at all. It aims to judge ‘the best novel in the opinion of the judges’. Therein lies the rub. The judges.

In conclusion, we each make a judgement when we read a book, so why not celebrate our opinions with award ceremonies. They grab that elusive media attention – they pull people in to reading books, they drive sales of books. We’ve been telling stories since the Bible and before, and we will continue to do so. And if the RHCBA brings together children’s authors and their readers and celebrates children’s books, as the culmination of the Imagine Children’s Literature Festival, then I’m all for it.

Judge away. Tell everyone which are your favourite children’s books. The children who accompanied me had a fantastic time meeting authors they admired, and hearing readings and seeing live drawings. I came away from the event with recommendations for even more great children’s literature. And some beautiful autographs too.

Blackman and HillStuart Hill and Malorie Blackman pose laughing for a photograph

Pamela Butchart and Thomas FlinthamThomas Flintham and Pamela Butchart show off their shortlisted book

The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone

The Dreamsnatcher cover FINAL

Lightly straddling the realms of adventure and fantasy, Abi Elphinstone’s debut novel teases out memories of a canon of beautiful children’s literature that has gone before her, as she builds a world of gypsies and dark magic set entirely in woods in a mystery land. Our likeable protagonist Moll is a 12 year old gypsy, raised entirely in a wagon-filled clearing in the woods, unknowing of the world outside (she has never seen the sea or imagined other countries). This landscape allows Abi Elphinstone to explore the wild elements of Moll’s upbringing, filled with animals and birds, and herbs and potions.

The oracle foretells that Moll, along with Gryff, her wildcat, will be the sole defenders against the power of the dark magic of the Dreamsnatcher. The author’s energy enthuses throughout the book; she manages to pack action into the story – Moll never seems to sit still for a minute, the book is crammed with some extraordinarily restless vocabulary; Moll is forever springing forward or leaping or unfurling, with her heart hammering. It’s a whirlwhind of an adventure, and pulls the reader along.

The scenes of the dark side of magic – Skull and the dreamsnatch – are chillingly portrayed, the imagery is dark and scary, but Moll and her friends are so beguiling that the book balances beautifully between the dark and the light. The author employs devices borrowed from Pullman, Barrie and Rowling in her use of imagery, relationships and evil. This book is highly engrossing, with a dark imagination. I would recommend it for an advanced middle grade reader. Once read, you won’t be able to wait for the next in the series; it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve read since the His Dark Materials trilogy. Published 26th February 2015.

Cover illustration by Thomas Flintham

Love in the Time of Children’s Books

book heart

I couldn’t resist a small Valentine’s Day post this week. But we are talking kids’ books so I’ll be very gentle.

I love you blue kangaroo

First Love: I Love You, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark
This has to be defined by love for a soft toy. Whether it’s a teddy or a monkey, for many of us our first true love was with a ball of fluff. To honour this I have chosen I Love You, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark. For those of you who don’t know the series, Blue Kangaroo is Lily’s favourite toy. In I Love You, Blue Kangaroo, Lily receives a stream of soft toy presents from an array of family members who have come to tea, to stay, or for her birthday – and gradually Blue Kangaroo gets edged further and further away from Lily at bedtime as the new toys take over. Then, one night Blue Kangaroo is pushed out of bed altogether and takes refuge with Lily’s little brother. Lily attempts to retrieve him:
“Mine!” cried the baby.
“No!” shouted Lily.
But Lily’s mother is aghast that Lily is pulling Blue Kangaroo from her baby brother’s arms when she has so many other toys. In the end Lily’s choice is easy – she hands over all the other toys to the baby, retaining only one:
“He can have all of these,” she said,
“but nobody can have Blue Kangaroo!”
This picture book reveals the beauty in allowing us to latch onto something special and keep it for ourselves – not everything has to be shared. Sometimes an attachment to one other object or person is what gives us security, passion and self-awareness. With up to 70 per cent of young children in the Western World having some sort of attachment to a toy or blanket, it’s good to see picture books celebrating this.
Age 4+

winnie the pooh

Friend Love: Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by AA Milne
I can think of few other books for young children that teach friendship as well as Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne. In the first story, this is demonstrated by Christopher Robin’s devotion to Pooh – helping him to obtain honey without ridiculing his plans, and assisting the madness by marching up and down with an umbrella in bright sunshine pretending it’s going to rain – Christopher Robin does not lose patience at all. Then, friendship is demonstrated in Pooh Bear’s loving generosity and kindness for Eeyore, as Pooh tries to lift Eeyore’s depression by bringing him birthday presents and building him a new house. In fact the entire population of 100 Acre Wood show their love for each other in their attempts to rescue their friend Eeyore from falling into the river, and their solidarity in their expositions to the pole, and their gradual acceptance of their ‘new’ friend when Tigger joins the wood. The epitome for me though remains the friendship between Pooh and Piglet. In every adventure Pooh attempts to motivate Piglet into overcoming his shyness and timidity, whether it be tracking woozles or tricking Kanga. In fact, it is the thought of helping Pooh that enables Piglet to summon the courage and rescue Pooh and Owl during a blustery day.
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
Age range 5-105 yrs

Danny Champion of the World

Parental Love: Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Of course, before realisation dawns at puberty that our parents aren’t perfect, we may well in some cases idealise our parents, and certainly strive to please them. One of the very best examples of a father/son relationship in children’s fiction has to be the classic Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl.
Danny lives with his Dad in a gypsy caravan at the garage where his father is a mechanic. One day he discovers his father’s love for pheasant hunting, and together they hatch a plan to outwit the horrible land-owner, Mr Victor Hazell, who doesn’t permit poaching on his land. Although an adventure story, the essence of Danny, Champion of the World is the relationship between him and his father. Danny almost hero-worships his father, and joins him in somewhat criminal activity which is life-threateningly dangerous, and yet in Danny’s eyes his father can do no wrong. Not only that but they have a strong emotional dependence upon each other, as Roald Dahl has written out the mother figure and any close friends. The story hinges on the moral choices that Danny makes, and the guidance and advice he gets from his father.
“My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.”
Age range: 7+ years.

Ballet Shoes

Sister Love: Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Much middle grade fiction focuses on sibling tensions, jealousies and anxieties, but one of the truest forms of sister love is portrayed when the girls have actively chosen their own sisterhood. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield is a classic chidren’s book, slightly dated and old-fashioned, but nevertheless with a great sense of story and theatre. It tells of three orphans, Pauline, Petrova and Posy – adopted by an eccentric fossil collector. They decide to share a surname – Fossil – and thus impose sisterhood on themselves. The three sisters are very different people with different ambitions, and through the book they demonstrate sisterly love by working hard and sacrificing certain things in order that their other sisters can benefit. Pauline wants to work in the theatre, Petrova with cars, and Posy in ballet. The sisters like to insist that they have no family heritage to live up to as they are all adoptees – they have no ties that bind, and each birthday they make a vow to make something of the Fossil name themselves – unfettered. And yet, a clear component of their confidence and achievements is the support network of being one of three. What’s also lovely about this book is that the children are surrounded by adults who take an interest in their lives and want to spend time with them. Noel’s older sister Ruth illustrated the book when it was first published. Age range about 7+yrs.

The Last Wild

Animal Love: The Last Wild by Piers Torday
I wanted to include this book in my Valentine’s Day selection for two reasons. Firstly, because I really do love it – like a friend or like a Desert Island Disc book, and secondly because it fits in well under animal love in an unexpected way. This isn’t a book that is about a boy who loves animals – it doesn’t feature a trusty dog or a cuddly rabbit pet. This isn’t a typical ‘animal’ book – it’s an outstanding adventure story set in a dystopian landscape. It’s about courage and the environment and our relationship to it, and also about communication.
The Last Wild is a highly original story of a boy called Kester who is mute, but realises he can communicate with animals. This is particularly startling as he lives in a time when all the animals have been wiped out by a terrible virus. The Last Wild tells how a flock of pigeons and a particularly confident cockroach lead him to the last surviving group of animals in a desperate attempt to get him to help them save themselves. Kester’s (and the reader’s) love for animals grows as the story progresses. By the end we too love the animals, even the cockroach, because the animals have demonstrated their qualities to us – their loyalty, their strength, their bravery, and their fight for justice. I don’t want to give too much away – it’s a fast-paced, creative, brainstorming triumph. Buy it for every child you know aged about 9 or older.

Romance
There was a discussion this week among several bloggers/authors/interested partners about the place of romance in middle grade fiction. Most agreed that really there was no place for it, and that romantic love belongs in the Young Adult genre, not any younger. In much middle grade fiction, there is a ‘friendship’ that develops between a boy and a girl, or a tag team of boy and girl who attempt to solve the mystery/adventure together. One trilogy that cropped up time and again as one which features a form of romantic love is that of Will and Lyra from His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman, and of course there is the kiss in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (although many would argue that Harry Potter ventures into YA territory and away from MG the further into the books one ventures). Quite often in middle grade books romantic love is introduced when the protagonist has an older sister or brother and it is through them (as an aside almost) that we witness love. But generally the argument is that middle grade is for finding your own identity – your own place in the world. Only once we graduate to young adult fiction do we start to become entangled in that messy web of romantic love.

 

Image: Book Heart from OnlyImage.com

Stonebird by Mike Revell

stonebird
This is a stunningly impressive debut novel. Mike Revell tells the story of 11 year old Liam who moves to a new area so that his mum can be near his grandma, who is suffering from dementia. Liam struggles with the consequences of the move – a new school, his mum’s new friend, as well as with his elder sister’s advance into adulthood. Liam stumbles across an old stone gargoyle in the abandoned church behind his house, and after finding his grandmother’s old teenage diary, discovers that the gargoyle is magic and can make stories come true. Liam harnesses this power of storytelling to right the perceived wrongs in his life, from fixing his grandmother to dealing with the bullies at school, but before long the storytelling becomes more dangerous and powerful than Liam had imagined.

The novel is told in the present tense, giving immediacy and tension to the story, and sweeps the reader along. At the same time, Mike Revell conveys an 11 year old’s feelings and emotions sensitively as Liam witnesses the deterioration of his grandma from dementia, and the frightening fallout effects on the whole family. At no point is the story too bleak though, as Liam is an intensely realistic and likeable protagonist, with an inspirational teacher, a loveable dog and enough support to carry him through. This is a well crafted and deftly written book. Definitely one of the highlights of 2015.

Never Judge a Book By Its Cover

Children do judge a book by its cover. The children who come to my library sessions tend to look at the back cover blurb only after they’ve decided they quite like the cover art. For younger children of course the picture on the front is everything – they cannot read the blurb yet. Even for adults, the cover picture dictates whether they buy the book for their children – this is particularly true in a gender divisive way – I don’t see many parents even picking up, let alone buying, this for boys:

cathy cassidy sweet  honey

Or this for girls:

books for boys

Don’t get me wrong – I am not suggesting that there should be ‘separate’ books for boys and girls, I have lots of girls reading football books, especially the Tom Palmer series, although not so many boys reading Rainbow Fairies. Gender aside, how do we make a judgement on whether a book is right for us?

The emotional pull of the front cover is what draws in the reader at the start, and the artwork nowadays is often stunningly beautiful. The pairing of a good illustrator with the right writer can produce an artwork that is completely indicative of what’s inside. This is particularly relevant in modern children’s literature as illustrations become more and more central to a book’s success. One only has to look at sales of Wimpy Kid or Tom Gates to see that heavily illustrated text is today’s big attraction.

Tom GatesSkullduggery pleasant parent agencySophie bookhansel and gretel

I know that Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates is going to be a funny story fully annotated with diagrams and illustrations simply by looking at the busy covers. In the same way I can tell that Skullduggery Pleasant crosses the horror/fantasy lines; The Parent Agency (illustrations by Jim Field) is going to be a comedy; and the Dick King Smith stories (now with rebranded covers by Hannah Shaw) will be gentle, old-fashioned and comforting. Neil Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel, even if I was unaware of Neil Gaiman’s style, is clearly going to be chilling. Lorenzo Mattotti’s dark cover illustration reflects those within, which in turn reflect the darkness of Gaiman’s retelling. In fact publishers seem to be taking more time and interest in picking the right illustrator for their covers as bookseller shelf becomes even harder to win.

mr stinkTwits

Some illustrators are used widely and can give the book great appeal – the use of Quentin Blake to illustrate David Walliams’ books gives them a market advantage and immediately allows for comparisons between Walliams and Roald Dahl. On the other hand, it can also be quite confusing for children: Chris Riddell’s Ottoline and Goth Girls titles have similar ‘looks’, but so does Witchworld – which is by a different author – Emma Fischel.

Goth Girl FeteWitchworld

Likewise The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket looks vastly similar to The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas – both illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, and yet both completely different books by completely different authors, John Boyne and David Almond respectively. Within the industry we may know what’s going on – but does the consumer?

Barnaby BrocketBoy Who Swam With Piranhas

Likewise the choice of Nick Sharratt, illustrator and author of such titles as Shark in the Park, You Choose, and the Daisy picturebooks, to illustrate Jacqueline Wilson books is an interesting one. Whereas the Daisy picture books are aimed at 4-6 year olds, Jacqueline Wilson stories are for 8 years and over – sometimes 10 years and over, because of the issues dealt with in the story, but the covers appeal to the younger end of the age group.

Daisy picture book Nick Sharratt Tracy Beaker

When a publisher rebrands a classic book, there’s a collective interest in what they’ve chosen, as we already know the content and so we’re party to the same thoughts as the publisher. When Bloomsbury rebranded Harry Potter with Jonny Duddle covers (see Harry Potter blogpost), the publishers knew they had to please the people who had already read the book, as well as appeal to the new young readers who hadn’t. Personally I feel they got it right. One Hungarian student decided to design her own Potter covers – they glow in the dark. You can read about it here.

Sometimes the rebranding of the cover is an update, sometimes a publicity stunt. The Penguin Modern Classics edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in August 2014 took many by surprise, but was defended as being aimed at the adult market. Here are some of the Charlie covers through the ages.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory1charlie4charlie5Charlie cover2 charlie6   charlie3  Charlielatest

But how else can we judge a book? The book cover and blurb aside, Chickenshed publishers and Little Tiger Press often give a page number on the back of a book, almost like a film preview – indicating that you should read that page as it will give you the clearest insight into what the book will contain, or as the most enticing and intriguing part of the story, ensuring you want to read more.

When you’re buying online there’s a tool on many sites to ‘look inside’ the book, or view a couple of sample pages. More often than not it’s the contents page or endpapers, neither of which give much of an idea as to what’s inside. Some publishers and sites are more generous, giving the whole first chapter, although this is impossible with picture books, and rare with non-fiction titles.

On e-readers, samples are usually available to download before buying, but once the book is purchased, I find the most frustrating element of the e-reader is that you never see the cover or title again. Research shows that you’re more likely to forget a book having read it this way –is that because we need a more visual element with which to connect? Personally I find I can remember a book by its cover, even if I don’t always judge the book by it.

 

Harry Potter Re-Imagined

Potter1

How much thought do you give to the illustrations accompanying a book? How about a favourite book? In the same way as a film adaptation, it can be really irksome when a favourite character or scene isn’t portrayed how it appears in your mind. So the people at Bloomsbury had a huge responsibility when they decided to rebrand the much-loved Harry Potter books and commission a new illustrator.

This evening, at the first Harry Potter Book Night at Waterstones Piccadilly, I heard Jonny Duddle explain why he had been chosen. “We were all asked to illustrate the scene where Ron, Hermione and Harry all see Hogwarts for the first time. I think I was the only artist who had Harry facing outwards – looking at the reader – otherwise you only saw the backs of their heads.”

Surprisingly, before the call from Bloomsbury, Jonny Duddle hadn’t read any of the Harry Potter books…then suddenly he had to read all seven and draw the cover designs in the space of six months. Even armed with a wand he would have been hard-pressed.

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Duddle’s favourite character in the book was Hagrid. He sketches the images, then layers them digitally. While he worked on the drawings he would listen to the audiobooks of Harry Potter, scribbling down on post-its anytime the book launched into a character description. He saved space at the top of his computer screen for the most important post-it of all – the one that said ‘SCAR’. “I was really worried I would forget to mark Harry’s forehead.”

For accuracy he used his wife, his childminder, the neighbour’s child – all to pose in certain positions so that he could get the depiction of hands, or flying capes, or wands held aloft, exactly right. For Harry’s cape in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban he bought one off ebay – “a Slytherin one though, not Gryffindor, as it was £10 cheaper.”

Jonny Duddle’s definitely funny in person, and a great character on a stage – but does his work live up to expectations? That’s up to you – to my mind, his Hagrid is exactly how I imagined on first reading – and his expecto patronus is truly majestic. Wizards’ hats off to Jonny Duddle.

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See my main blog this week on why Harry Potter is still so important.

Harry Potter Book Night

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In 2007, more than 1,000 people queued outside Waterstones Piccadilly, Europe’s largest bookshop, to get their hands on the final saga in the Harry Potter series. Tomorrow night I’ll be revisiting that bookshop to celebrate the first global Harry Potter Book Night and the release of the series with the new cover illustrations from Jonny Duddle. A marketing ploy you think? Yes, indeed, it’s time for Bloomsbury to re-release the series with a new modern look, and to create a moment, a day, to celebrate the brand. For me, there’s nothing wrong with that at all – Harry Potter (or rather JK Rowling) has redefined children’s literature. She started the ball rolling for a groundswell of readers who wanted more children’s literature and wanted it recognised in its own right as a major genre.

Since 1998 when the Potter books first burst onto the scene with their modest print run, children’s books are finally being celebrated. In 2000, The New York Times created a special children’s bestseller list alongside their adult one, as Harry Potter was squeezing out so many other titles. In 2002, Phillip Pullman won the overall Whitbread Awards for his children’s book, The Amber Spyglass, beating all adult titles. In 2014 children’s book sales were up ten per cent against a book market that was generally about 2 per cent down.

What did JK Rowling do in Harry Potter that had such an effect? The magic of Harry Potter works on many levels. It invokes the age old conflict of good versus evil. It consistently and continually poses mystery – everything is a question that JK answers pages later. Why can Harry hear snakes? What happened to Moaning Myrtle? And the third component is the voice – the ability of the author to step inside a child’s head and understand the nuances of friendship, the emotions involved, and the frustration with the adult world – to eke out the bonds behind certain relationships – loyalty, trust, and empathy.

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JK Rowling is not the only writer to do this, other writers before her wrote wonderful children’s books – so did she just hit the zeitgeist head on – was she in the right place at the right time? Barry Cunningham, the man credited with finding JK Rowling, had been asked to set up a Bloomsbury children’s book list only a couple of years before the manuscript was submitted. He had previously worked with Roald Dahl, amongst others.

Not only did the Harry Potter series rejuvenate the children’s book market, it also enticed adults into reading again. It was an easy read for grownups who had long abandoned reading for pleasure of any sort. And reading is habit-forming. Harry Potter doesn’t only reach across age ranges, it also breaches the gender divide. Although JK Rowling was encouraged to be named as JK on the cover, not Joanne Rowling, because the publishers thought that books about boys written by a woman were not going to sell, it seems it no longer matters. Harry Potter has reached girls and boys, men and women, from 8-80 yrs.

This Thursday is Harry Potter Book Night. It’s an event created by Bloomsbury to celebrate Harry Potter and introduce him to the next generation of readers. Many many schools, libraries and shops throughout the country are holding parties – it’s a great excuse to celebrate children’s books.  I’ll be tweeting from the event at Waterstones Piccadilly, and blogging again tomorrow after the event. Have a great Harry Potter Book Night for those that do.

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