illustration

A Q&A with New Rising Star Illustrator and Author, Fifi Kuo

the perfect sofaIt’s always exciting to discover a new illustrator, so I can imagine Boxer Books delight to find Fifi Kuo and commission four picture books from her straightaway. And it was no surprise to find that Kuo’s first picture book, I Can Fly, is longlisted for the Klaus Flugge Prize and shortlisted for the Read it Again! Picture Book Award and the Huckepack Picture Book Prize. Kuo’s second book, The Perfect Sofa, dropped through my post box just as I was looking for a new sofa – and her message that we should be grateful for what we have – sometimes the perfect fit is right in front of us all the time – couldn’t be more spot on.

Smitten with Kuo’s expressive, spirited illustrations, and the neat messages behind her books, I was delighted to be able to ask Fifi some questions. And Fifi kindly answered in English for us, even though it isn’t her first language.

The penguin features in both I Can Fly and The Perfect Sofa. What is it about the penguin that makes it such a good animal to illustrate and use to express human emotions (anthropomorphism) in picture books? 

I believe that every creature in this world has their own emotions and feelings. So I don’t really consider giving an animal human feelings because I just see that an animal has feelings! I especially love to draw animals. When I’m drawing them I feel happy. When I was making ‘I Can Fly’, I realized that somehow, and I can’t explain why, drawing a penguin made me much happier than drawing other animals. I live in a tropical climate whilst penguins live in the South- Pole, somewhere I haven’t visited, so I have to imagine the extreme cold. I’ve loved penguins since I was a little child and this may be because they are different to birds in the way that they do not build a traditional nest and because they do not fly in the sky.

An unfinished Fifi Kuo panda and penguin illustration

The panda and penguin are best friends. How do you make them interact so that they appear so well fitted together? (I’m particularly thinking of the illustration on your website that shows Panda posing as a statue, and Penguin attempting to sketch him!)

After I created the penguin, I felt that she must be a bit lonely because she didn’t have a friend. I thought that as penguins and pandas are both black and white, they would look perfect together. Never mind about where they live! I like to think about what characters have in common and why they might attract and I suppose, without thinking, I decided on an Asian animal because I live in Taiwan. But when I am drawing I don’t really think about how to do something. I just fall in love with my characters and wish they had been my friends when I was little. I was an only child so often felt lonely. I am sure that children read pictures and sometimes drawings can express feelings better than words. Children can see how close Penguin and Panda are without me repeating their feelings in words.

An illustration from I Can Fly

There is a strong element of humour in your picture books. Where do you think this comes from?

Oh! I really appreciate that you said that because I don’t consider myself to be a humorous person but I do think humour is important. Sometimes I make serious points but without preaching. I think it is much better to be kind, gentle and funny. Children can learn things effortlessly and I would rather they relaxed and enjoyed the book. It might be that they pick up what my message is first time or they may get it later. For example, in The Perfect Sofa, the message is really to appreciate and value what you have. New is not always best and, of course, friends are important. But I hope children will enjoy discovering that themselves and have fun on the way.

Do you own the perfect sofa?

Nope, unfortunately, I don’t have my own perfect sofa. But fortunately, I can always look forward to it!

I found out that I wanted a sofa when I got homesick after I had to move out from the campus accommodation when I was studying for my MA degree in Cambridge. I found it really hard, as an international student, to find a place to live. During that time, I started to think about what makes me feel at home. Then I discovered I’m totally a sofa-person.

I love to collect almost EVERYTHING … which often drives my parents crazy. These things also help me to feel at home. I collect labels, leaves, soft toys, candy papers, stamps, letters, cards … many, many things. Personally, I find it really hard to throw things away especially the things which bring back happy memories. It is funny how things can evoke memories.

i can flyWhat message do you want children to take away from your picture books?

My initial intention is to deliver the message of love. I believe there are many kinds of love. Many people love to go out shopping in a quest to find the perfect item or piece of clothing but what I think is important is shared experience and discovering that you can be happy when you are content with what you have and kind to other people. It is nice to look at familiar things with new eyes and to discover that new is not always best. Even better to have a friend by you when you make that journey. Sometimes life tells us that nothing is totally perfect but if we look we will find some tiny thing or person that could be perfect. All we need to do is to see it and cherish it. Sometimes you already have the perfect things!

Which illustrators/children’s authors influence you?

Raymond Briggs, Wolf Erlbruch and I feel passionate about Jimmy Liao (not just because he is also Taiwanese). I think he should be much better known in the UK. He is an absolute genius and shows us that picture books can be enjoyed on so many different levels and that they are for everyone. The artists also show us that children can understand difficult subjects, such as loss and death, which adults sometimes find difficult to discuss.

Did you have a favourite book as a child?

The Snowman. I still love it! I read it in Taiwan when I was very young and had never seen snow. I love the friendship between the boy and the snowman and the bird’s eye view of the world. Of course, it is a wordless picture book but I would still say that I read it and each time, I still find something new in Raymond Briggs’s fabulous pictures.

Fifi Kuo

Fifi Kuo

You’ve said you like to draw trees and houses – what is it about these that attracts you?

I studied Landscape Architecture in my BA degree, and that’s the thing I was most familiar with when I first learned ‘illustration’. When I studied illustration, I used to draw trees and houses because they were in my comfort zone. I’m the person who almost always lacks confidence. Even now, I still think I’m not a ‘good illustrator’, but I’ll always try my best to keep going and telling stories. I love what I do. I wouldn’t want to do anything else, but I still need to gain confidence.

What was your reaction upon hearing your book deal?

I couldn’t believe it. I was SO happy. One book is good – 4 is out of this world. David and Leilani at Boxer Books are so good to work with. They listen to my ideas and help me grow. I feel so lucky. It is like a dreamy journey. I am filled with thankfulness.

Can you give us an idea of your work desk/bench? Is it near a window? Do you have a special pen?

Fifi’s desk

A big table is definitely necessary. It’s near a window… I love the window! I love the light and the fact I can look out and day-dream.

I love to recycle things to make homes for my colour-pencils. Better than buying plastic storage items!

Usually, my working table is totally a mess. Sometimes I clean it up when the switch in my brain is accidentally turned on to clear-up mode!

I don’t have any special pen, but I do have a few colours I always love to grab. I like to illustrate in different ways using pens, inks, collage … I love to experiment. And I will always continue to learn, to see things as if I am looking at them for the first time and to draw from the heart.

With huge thanks to Fifi Kuo. Each of Kuo’s picture books is unique, but equally each pulses with emotion and humour, and the drawings are gentle and endearing, fierce and funny. I highly recommend a look at both I Can Fly and The Perfect Sofa. You can buy I Can Fly here and The Perfect Sofa here.

Everyone Can Draw and The Magic Hug: A Book about Emotions are published later this year.

A Little Bit Brave: Sketches by Nicola Kinnear

a little bit braveFrom the moment I set eyes on Logan, the stay-at-home bunny who features in A Little Bit Brave by Nicola Kinnear, I rather fell for him. Logan is first seen sitting comfortably and knitting, a steaming mug nearby, alongside a bookcase almost as packed as mine. He is listening, rapt, to the daring adventures of his companion Luna – herself mid-leap, wooden spoon thrust as if it were a sword, as she acts out her latest adventure with passion and zest.

All of Kinnear’s drawings are equally immersive in this book about plucking up the courage to have adventures. Logan does eventually venture outside, away from his knitting, and tries to join Luna in her adventures, but the world outside can hold danger, and in the end he might have to face up to it alone – albeit to save his friend.

There’s a great camaraderie between Logan and Luna, which takes a simple but effective look at wanting to please a friend and sticking up for them, but also how enormous courage surfaces when confronting dangers.

Kinnear effectively explores the colours and sights of the natural world in her imagined woodland, giving the animals enough anthropomorphic features to render the scenarios and behaviours familiar to a young child.

Here, Kinnear shows the fun she had in creating her two rabbits, and kindly gives us an insight into her creative process:

brave

“These are some early sketches of the characters, Logan and Luna. I really love this part of the project where I can play around with creating characters, figuring out how they are going to look and what their personalities are.”

“I knew from very early on, that the story was going to be about two very different, contrasting rabbits; one brave, and the other scared. The rabbits were really fun and expressive to draw and I could use their ears a lot to convey their emotions.”

A Little Bit Brave by Nicola Kinnear (Scholastic) is available now. You can buy a copy here. It’s a glorious new picture book, perfect for scared little ones, or those being brave and confronting adventures.

Quick Gift Guide: Books

Are you still stuck for Christmas gifts? Perhaps it’s not for Christmas, but a seasonal present. I’m always pleased to receive a book – and trust me I already have a few! Here are some eclectic titles that have nothing to do with Christmas, which various family members might like:

the boy and the bear
For the very young:
The Boy and the Bear by Tracey Corderoy and Sarah Massini
There’s a wintry feel with this delightful picture book about unlikely friendship, and patience. With glowing silver snowflakes on the cover, and a boy in a woolly hat holding hands with an adorable bear, the book gives a warm fuzzy feeling from the start. The story has an old-fashioned timeless feel, the boy running in the countryside flying a paper aeroplane with satchel swinging from his hip. There is not a screen in sight. Nor a friend either. But there is a shy bear. Although seemingly incompatible (in the most adorable ways), the pair strike a friendship, which has to take a hiatus for hibernation. The matching of text to illustration strikes perfection here. There is humour, pathos, a conveyance of the passing of time, and so much emotion. I suggested this for the very young, but if you’re young at heart, you’ll love this too. An absolute gem of a picturebook. You can buy it here.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

For the unicorn-obsessed (and others)
Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson (7+)
This glittery pink full length comic strip novel tells a cute story in simple sharp lines, with jokes a-plenty, and will enthral youngsters with its tale of Phoebe and her vain mythical animal companion. Phoebe skips a rock across a pond and accidentally hits a unicorn in the face. The unicorn, until then completely absorbed in its own reflection, is thankful for the distraction and grants Phoebe a wish. She wishes for the unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, to be her obligatory best friend. And thus the adventures begin. As you’ve noticed from the name of the unicorn, there’s more than a hint of mischief here, but the book also bears a special message about overcoming loneliness and finding one’s own strengths and virtues. This is a lot of fun, and because the comic strip maintains focus on the key characters rather than deviating too much into the landscape, and the strips are self-contained, the story is easy to follow for reluctant readers. The newest full length comic strip title is Phoebe and Her Unicorn in Unicorn Theater. Sweet and sugary, and reminiscent of My Little Pony with a bit of attitude, this is a US title now available here.

the ink house
For the appreciative art fan:
The Ink House by Rory Dobner (8+)
This isn’t a usual picture book. More a unique curiosity through the artist’s mind as he seeks to explore the insides of The Ink House, an intricately designed mansion built on a pool of ink, in which a party of animals is due to take place, after the human resident takes off in a hot air balloon to search for further knickknacks to add to his treasured collection.

The illustrations, in ink of course, are amazingly detailed and stunningly imagined. There’s a darkness, a gothic tendency in the drawings, and the feeling is that each stroke is penned as delicately as if he were crafting a poem. The story isn’t really a story – just a menagerie of animals within a setting, and the scenes in which Dobner showcases the house in most detail work best. The mouse on the desk with piles of books, clocks, candle, quill pen; the ape in armchair with guitar, old-fashioned tea set, and gramophone showcases the neat juxtaposition between old and new, distorting one’s expectations and reality; the horses in the tiled hallway complete with pillars and a view onto the gardens. The artwork is disturbing, disjointed and wonderful, justifying the purchase even if the text is a little clunky. My advice – add your own words to the pictures, and tell the story in your head. You can buy it here.

absolutely everything

For everyone:
Absolutely Everything by Christopher Lloyd, illustrated by Andy Forshaw
The author of this conversational tome is nothing if not ambitious. The contents of this nonfiction narrative span from the Big Bang through dinosaurs, homo sapiens, ancient civilisations, the classical empires to the medieval, age of exploration, revolutions, wars and onwards. Everything in fact. The tone is avuncular, as if you’ve asked a favourite relative to let loose – tell me about the ancient Greeks, Chris…In this chapter, Lloyd starts with an anecdote about an olive, which merges into why olive oil was so precious, then onto slaves, democracy and war…you can see how the narrative flows from one idea to another, incorporating facts, events and stories. Each section is colour-coded for easy reference and there are colour visuals throughout, from illustrations adorning the text to photos, maps, timelines etc. There’s a nice linear progression to the book, an understanding of how one thing in history leads to another (although this is definitely Western civilisation’s history), and an over-riding infectious enthusiasm to explore how societies linked up, how the world became global. Engrossing and all-encompassing. Give as a gift, and keep a copy for yourself. The sort of book to stop you getting bored in the holidays. You can buy it here.

Winner of the 2018 Klaus Flugge Prize

klaus fluggeThe winner of the 2018 Klaus Flugge Prize for the most promising and exciting newcomer to children’s book illustration was announced last night, Wednesday 12 September. I’m delighted to tell you that the prize went to Kate Milner for My Name is not Refugee (Barrington Stoke), and I was lucky enough to ask her about her win.

Kate studied illustration at St Martin’s College as a young woman – and illustrated magazines on Commercial and Housing Law for a while, but spent most of her career as a librarian. Cuts to the library service resulted in her losing her job, and that prompted her to do an MA in children’s book illustration at Anglia Ruskin University. She created the story that was to become My Name is Not Refugee as part of her degree show, and with it won Student Illustrator of the Year in the V&A Illustration Awards.

And now the prestigious Klaus Flugge. How do you feel?

I am absolutely delighted and quite astonished. I really did not think I had a chance.

my name is not refugeeThe award-winning book is called My Name is Not Refugee. In modern history there have always been refugees. Why do you think your book has been so popular/ caused such a reaction now?

I wrote the book to explain to children what a refugee is. I wanted to get a tool into the hands of teachers, parents and librarians to help them define the term for children and give some small hint of what the experience might be like. The issue has become much more contentious recently because many on the right like to depict refugees as invaders or spongers, not people in real need. I wanted to provide something to be used by people with a more balanced view.

You said you felt quite angry when you were drawing the illustrations for the book, in particular the one with the caption ‘We’ll sleep in some strange places’, but that the anger hasn’t filtered through in the final book – it’s stripped back. Which emotion would you like children to feel when reading the book?

I would like children to feel sympathy for the plight of refugees and curiosity about why they are in such a difficult situation. It was important to me not to make this an angry book, children don’t need adult’s anger; they need clarity.

Did it take a long time to write and illustrate the book? And did the stripped back illustrations and limited palette come naturally as you were planning?

I certainly wrote and illustrated the first draft ridiculously quickly with, lets be honest, not very much planning at all. I thought of the idea about twelve days before the final critique for my MA at Cambridge. It was obviously supremely stupid to embark on a new project so close to the end of the course; I tried to stop myself but I failed. The stripped back quality comes, partly, from trying to make a book that applies to all sorts of refugee situations so trying to avoid specific details like domestic interiors. At that stage it didn’t really have a palette, that evolved later in discussion with the publishers.

Do you feel that your book has a happy ending or is it ambiguous?

It is happier than the reality of most refugees lives would suggest. I wanted children to be able to read it as happy, and the boy at the centre of the book is a cheerful, outgoing character so I think he would flourish. I’m not sure his mother would find it so easy.

Is there a need for more political books for young children?

I don’t think children care much about party politics, and who can blame them, but they are curious about an increasingly complicated and inter-connected world. Picture books are a very flexible and relatively cheap way of introducing all sorts of new ideas, emotions and information. Nice, decent adults tend to feel that children should be shielded from politics, and I can see their point but, if we’re not careful the only voices they hear on these subjects are ignorant and shouty.

kate milnerYou started life as an illustrator but then became a children’s librarian. Do you think you have a special insight into what children want from a picture book by being blessed with these two different but rewarding careers?

Working in a library certainly made a huge difference to me. Being surrounded by children’s books all day was really inspiring. My job involved reading out loud to groups of children and reading a book out loud is such a good way of discovering if it works or not. Too much detail about the thoughts and feelings of farmyard animals bored me as well as the children I was reading to.  Knowing something about children has been a huge advantage in one respect, I know that they are curious about many more things than they are sometimes given credit for.

Can you tell MinervaReads readers a little bit about your next project/book?

I am working on a very different kind of book for Pushkin Press, a novel for middle grade children with illustrations. It’s called Duncan and the Googleys and it’s a serious book with jokes about the way modern media works for children and against them. I am also looking forward to doing more projects in the vein of My Name is Not Refugee and I’m working on an idea at the moment.

What is your favourite picture book?

My current passion is for The Railway Passage by Charles Keeping published in 1974. It is a  strange tale about a group of old people winning money on the football pools and the perils of wealth. I love it because it conjures a whole world of people and places, and because the drawing is superb.

What advice would you give budding illustrators or authors?

The very worst plan is to produce work that you think will be commercial. It won’t be, it will just be derivative and stale. Make work that matters to you, make it as fun and lively and real and magical as you possibly can.

Congratulations again on your win, and thank you for answering my questions. You can buy Kate Milner’s My Name is Not Refugee here.

Yuval Zommer sketches

A few weeks ago I featured the new book by Yuval Zommer, The Big Book of the Blue. Yuval’s illustrations are distinctive among today’s crop of children’s illustrators – playful and cartoonish, populating his exquisitely edited Big Book nonfiction series with a sense of fun and also knowledge. Here, Yuval gives an insight into his drawing process:

I loved working on The Big Book Of The Blue and now that the book is out I often get asked “what was your favourite animal to draw and why?” But I have so many favourites…

I’ll start by telling you that the animals I found most challenging to draw were the Dolphins, they already have a naturally friendly smiley expression and I really didn’t want them to look too cute. I first thought the Sharks would be the most challenging but when I got to draw them they became rather mischievously endearing. Many readers seem to really like the Whales in the book, as do I, but my favourite animals to draw were actually the smallest creatures in the book.

Here are a couple of examples of what I call ‘moods’ (rather than sketches) that I would do as preparation for the book:

Yuval Zommer

I loved drawing these Coral Reef Fish. Here Mother Nature really excelled herself when it comes to flair: these tiny fish who flit brightly among the corals have the most delicate features, almost transparent fins and tails, some gorgeous abstract patterns and splashes of vibrant colours. In my ‘mood boards’ I first try to capture the essence of the animals, how they move together as a fish shoal, what’s the overall colour palette, the corresponding flora etc. Even in a group in which every fish looks almost identical, if you look closely you’ll see there are subtle differences so that each of my fish is still an individual 🙂

Yuval Zommer

Not everyone likes the Crustaceans group, otherwise known as Shellfish, but to me they were some of the most interesting creatures to draw. Crabs, lobsters, shrimp and krill all belong in this ocean family; each has a hard skeleton on the outside of the body. I love how they make such intricate ‘alien like’ shapes with their claws and multi limbs. Also, if you look closely at each shellfish there are so many beautifully blended tones of orange or pink or coral. One of my favourite pages in the book turned out to be the Krill. It’s set at night time and I managed to show a swarm of tiny krill all shimmering under the surface of the sea!

With many thanks to Yuval. Take a look at the book yourself here, and see more of Yuval’s fantastic drawings. 

 

Spring 2018 Picture Books

Picture books is a genre that groups books together because of their format rather than their content. The books reviewed below are all strikingly different – some we may think of as traditional picture books in that they’re aimed for younger readers and impart a funny story using animals as characters, and often deliver a message while doing so. But I’ve also covered some books for the slightly older reader in my ten picture books picks of this season, in no particular order:

a bear is a bear
A Bear is a Bear (except when he’s not) by Karl Newson and Anuska Allepuz
A wonderfully simpatico book about a tired bear who forgets who and what he is until a good sleep sees him wake up refreshed and knowledgeable. He tries to be all kinds of animals, from a bird to a fox, but the other animals’ habitats, behaviours and eating habits do not suit his skills and sensibility. After hibernating, he rediscovers the truth and finds his appetite. This is a warm and humorous book with rhyming text, a delightful exploration of the seasons through illustration, and the introduction of woodland creatures, including a moose. The text is written in an invitingly read-aloud style, as if the reader is a narrator talking to the bear. Endearing, friendly and colourful. You can buy it here.

i do not like books anymore
I Do Not Like Books Anymore! by Daisy Hirst
Another one for the fairly young, this will also be a favourite among teachers trying to encourage first time readers to push through. Characters Natalie and Alphonse first appeared in Alphonse, That is Not Okay To Do, primarily about sibling relationships, but this story takes these two little monsters through the course of learning to read. Although they adore books and stories, Natalie starts to struggle to learn to read and in the process, becomes disillusioned about books. With some help from her little brother, Alphonse, Natalie comes up with a strategy to rebuild her confidence, and before long stories and books are favourites again. A fantastic tale about perseverance that is close to home for many readers. Hirst is particularly clever in portraying a familiar domestic environment, with the monsters in typical childlike poses – be it on a swing or reading with legs in the air, sitting on a bus or playing in the bathroom. Look out for the wider cast of characters – a simple but effective way of drawing our modern world. You can buy it here.

almost anything
Almost Anything by Sophy Henn
On a similar theme, although not so specifically on reading, this is Henn’s message that anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it. George is a rabbit with somewhat downcast ears. Everyone else in the woods is busy (birds who play chess, a squirrel who reads, a mouse who knits), but George doesn’t feel confident doing anything, and so does nothing. It is only when Bear comes up with a simple yet cunning plan that George finds the confidence to attempt everything and stop at nothing. Despite Bear’s scruffy looking appearance, she comes up trumps with wisdom, ensuring and inspiring self-belief in others. With Henn’s gentle colour palette, and deceptively simple plot and illustrations, this is a clever, inspirational little picture book that captures the essence of finding confidence, having a go, and importantly, enjoying oneself too (as well as, may I suggest, respecting the wisdom of elders). You can buy it here.

dinosaur juniors
Dinosaur Juniors Happy Hatchday by Rob Biddulph
Long a fan of Biddulph’s simple, almost monosyllabic, rhymes, it seems this author/illustrator can do no wrong. With this first of a brand new series, he has now turned his attention to that perennial love of pre-schoolers – dinosaurs. The illustrations are trademark Biddulph – simple shapes with almost three-dimensional texture, and a bold colour palette – dominated by green in this tree-filled landscape of our green protagonist dinosaur. Biddulph brings a range of topics to this ostensibly simple text about a group of dinosaurs hatching – from counting, to fitting in, to naming dinosaurs, to friendship. Greg is the last to hatch, but is shown to be equally loved and appreciated by the end of the book. Biddulph’s bright colours and stylish illustrations will delight a whole truckload of wannabe palaeontologists. You can buy it here.

nimesh
Nimesh the Adventurer by Ranjit Singh and Mehrdokht Amini
Taking a more complicated route with illustration is this dynamic and interesting new picture book about imagination. Nimesh is an Indian boy in London who uses his imagination to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, from crossing the road to walking through the park on his way home from school. His school corridor is fairly nondescript: a range of notices upon the wall, a few cupboards and chairs, and a wall display of a hammerhead shark as part of shark week. But the following page leads the reader into Nimesh’s imagination, as he sees the corridor as an underwater labyrinth, a school door sprouting from the sea bed, sharks, plants and fish layered upon the school floor with the staircase and fire exit in the distance. The illustrations are collage – a remarkable letting loose of the illustrator to use their imagination as they envisage what Nimesh sees in his vivid mind. The entire book is related in dialogue too – as if the voice of reason is in conversation with the voice of imagination. Children will delight in finding the clue in each ‘ordinary’ picture of the ‘extraordinary’ to come. London becomes magical in this richly layered, diverse and fascinating tale. Extraordinarily different. You can buy it here.

little mole
Little Mole is a Whirlwind by Anna Llenas
Another story revealed in collage illustrations is this interestingly busy book about a little mole with ADHD. Mole can’t stop – the book is full of distraction and interaction as Mole moves through his school day at pace, fidgeting, forgetting, and playing the fool. Unfortunately, his peers find him irritating rather than funny, and his mole parents try to find a way of helping their whirlwind son. Serena the bunny gives Mole the space to experiment and explore, to talk and to listen, and finally Mole and his classmates accept who he is. This may be an unsubtle way of dealing with an issue – Mole at one point is illustrated with luggage labels ‘labelling’ him, but the overall premise is dealt with wonderfully in the busy collage style – pencil and cardboard drawings cut out and layered on top of each other. It creates a busy landscape and shows Mole’s world well. Frenzied but enjoyable. You can buy it here.

forever or a day
Forever or a Day by Sarah Jacoby
In complete contrast, this magically calm picture book for older readers tries to explore the concept of time. Taking subtlety to an extreme, the book reads as a poetic meditation, alluding to the subject matter rather than addressing it directly. Both picture and text combine to explore the elasticity of time – the calm pictures of seaside days contrast with the rushing for a train. There is musing on ageing and how time stretches back and seems far away, as well as added humour in the time spent waiting for a bus. There is the mindfulness of being in the present and appreciating the time now. With a mixture of striking landscapes from afar and up close domestic scenes, this is a thoughtful and somewhat wistful look at how we live and what we lose as we move through life. Clever parallel images appear throughout the book, letting the reader make connections between things and people, between time when young, and time when old. A sandcastle washes away to nothing, a train recedes into the distance, days turn to night. This is a complex, powerful book about one day, and how in memory a day may last forever. You can buy it here.

red bottomed robber
The Case of the Red-Bottomed Robber by Richard Byrne
Master of the playful picture book, Byrne returns with this old-school tale about chalk who love to draw but get upset when their drawings are erased while they are out at play. In true mystery style, they investigate the ‘theft’ of their drawings, weighing up the evidence, which is chalk dust, and rounding up suspicious characters, including the scissors, glue and ruler. When they finally catch the robber red-handed, or rather ‘bottomed’, he feels unjustly accused – after all rubbing out is his raison d’etre. A funny tale, well told on black backgrounds representative of the chalkboard, children will delight in the ‘bottom’ tale, as well as the use of chalk with expressive personalities. Not too far removed from The Day the Crayons Quit, this picture book is shorter, and perfect for exploring a first mystery case, or just enjoying the colourful mess chalks can make. You can buy it here.

glassmakers daughter
The Glassmaker’s Daughter by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray
Far more long-lasting than chalk is coloured glass, in this exquisitely beautiful fairy tale of Daniela, the daughter of a 16th century Venetian glassmaker. Daniela is miserable, and her father offers a glass palace to the first person to make her smile. In true fairy tale trope, many try, including jugglers, mask makers and trumpet players, but only the last glassmaker manages, by making Daniela a mirror in which she can laugh at the sad miserable face she shows to the world. Although it feels like a classic princess tale, there is no ‘happy marriage’ at the end, and indeed those of both genders who try to make her smile are not motivated by thoughts of a wedding. This is about finding happiness within oneself rather than with another person – and how laughter is catching. But more than this, the picture book gives historical detail about glassmaking in Venice, and shows originality and immense detail in the exquisite illustrations – and a sparkle of glass when it shatters in the middle. An intriguing, historical, luxurious picture book that explores European culture. You can buy it here.

out out away from here
Out, Out, Away From Here by Rachel Woodworth and Sang Miao
A completely different illustrative style, but also in a book lavishly produced, is Woodworth’s tale of exploring emotion and escape. The red-haired narrator of this book acknowledges in very few words that sometimes she feels happy, but sometimes mad and sad, and sometimes all at once. When things are particularly overwhelming, she seeks escape in her imagination, a wild place populated by nature, with faces in the shapes, and strange creatures, with domestic objects inserted in wild landscapes, where the domestic merges with the wild. But at the end, she always comes back to her fully domestic family scene. Miao has had fun with the scant text, letting her own imagination create crazy landscapes within the mind. The fusing of the familiar with the strange and the dreamlike colours are particularly effective – from orange skies to flying fish, vivid blue seas and unidentifiable shapes in greys and greens. The domesticity is well executed too, from the yellow mac on rainy days to the zoomed in picture of the girl with her hands in her hair as she listens to the baby scream. This is another well thought out book of emotion and intensity, with just the right balance of darkness and depth to create a wonderful narrative to promote discussion of our emotions and how we respond to them. Excellent. You can buy it here.

 

 

You’re Safe With Me by Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry

you're safe with meThere’s something about the physicality of a book that can’t be matched. Perhaps that’s why, as Egmont report in their Print Matters findings, 94% of children’s books bought in 2017 were purchased in their print format. If we look to history, it was the most important texts that were physically preserved – revered for the time invested in them. The Grimm Brothers saw the necessity of the oral folk tales, and therefore wrote them down. And picture books earn their place in this tradition of printed matter, with the attention to detail and care that goes into them.

Mass printed they might be, but sometimes picture books are so beautiful they appear as if they have been created with the individual reader in mind. This latest picture book, You’re Safe With Me from Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry, catches the eye with its lyrical prose, but also stands out for its stunning design, which calls up the kalamkari tradition of textiles, apt because the name derives from the Persian words for pen and craftsmanship – and this book does feel like a piece of exquisite craft.

It is a dark and stormy night, and the baby animals within the Indian forest are scared: a monkey, a loris, a tiger and a pangolin. Two familiar animals, two rather more exotic – familiarity for cosiness, and exotic for exploring and learning. Looking after them all is Mama Elephant – her size and wisdom providing solace and comfort.

A ‘Raindrops on Roses’ story for the young, this is a more in-depth and intelligent soothing of fears. Mama Elephants attempts to explain, with her scientific knowledge, the logical reason for the storm – why the wind blows, why the thunder clatters, why the river rumbles. In doing so, she explains the weather cycle – the ability of the wind to bring seeds, the rain to cause them to grow, the river to take the water back to the sea. But her language is poetic; and she speaks in a rhythm that soothes like a lullaby.

By naming each sound for the babies, and then explaining its purpose, she dispels their fear with understanding – a lesson for our times. This feels like an old fable, brought up to date with understanding and modern sensibility. An emotional attachment is formed with the animals, and a sense of relief in their comfort, much like the smell of Earth after a rainstorm.

But it is the illustrations that propel this book and make it so much more than a comforting bedtime read. The patterns on the page, the fusion of geometry and art, are drawn with a richness, almost a hypnotic quality. The reader sees the shapes of the animals, but each is so exquisitely drawn, etched with colour and design, so that the frogs are both stark against their background, but also blend into it with a riot of line and pattern. The fish swim on a background of blue circles, the lightning sparkles against a black background of shining diamonds and circles. It is absorbing, glossy and appears almost three-dimensional in its intricacy.

You’re Safe with Me is a triumph of a picture book. The rhythm of text and illustration sweep the reader into the story. I can imagine children hugging it to sleep, the physicality of this book reassuring and mesmeric. You can buy it here.

Chris Wormell’s Studio Tour


Chris Wormell is a celebrated children’s author and illustrator, a self-taught print-maker of considerable talent, and also happened to have opened our primary school library. From the cover of award-winning H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, to his own picture books of Two Frogs and George and the Dragon, Wormell consistently produces striking illustrations to match the most wonderful narratives. His most recent book, Dinosaurium, with text from Lily Murray, is a wonderful addition to the Welcome to the Museum series, and an excellent tome for dinosaur enthusiasts. Here, Chris opens up his studio for you to see where and how he works:

This is where I do my wood engraving and lino cutting. I use the magnifying glass when engraving in fine detail.


Here’s a close up view of a block and some engraving tools.

This is where I do much of my drawing. The sketch is for the Marine Reptiles image. Underneath it is a light box – very useful for tracing.

Computers and drawing tablet. I draw on the tablet much as one would on a piece of paper. Behind the computers you can see some engraved blocks on the shelves.

Here’s a closer view of them. This is just a tiny fraction of all the blocks around the house.

This is my printing press – an Albion press, made in 1846. It’s not actually in the studio but downstairs. There are a few blocks in here too. The large tube in the middle there has a roll of Japanese paper in it, but originally contained a five metre roll of lino.

Beside the press are inks and rollers (the crown engraving was for a school crest).

With huge thanks to Chris Wormell for the fascinating tour of his studio. You can buy a copy of Dinosaurium here.

A Visit to The Children’s Bookshow


Was it unfair to split the audience into cats (Judith Kerr) and dogs (John Burningham)?

In actuality, Nicolette Jones of The Sunday Times did point out the similarities between Judith Kerr’s work and John Burningham’s work. They both had huge success with their debut books, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Borka respectively, and Nicolette Jones also showed the audience slides of the little detailed parallels between the two illustrators’ work – depictions of a cat and dog peeing, a baby in a blue romper – much to the amusement of the audience of school children.

This was on September 29th, at The Old Vic Theatre in London, where I was a guest at The Children’s Bookshow, a charity that runs an annual tour of children’s authors and illustrators around theatres and venues in the UK for schoolchildren.

John Burningham set quite a high bar for illustrators back in 1963 when he published Borka. Not only was he the first to win the Kate Greenaway Award for a debut picture book, but his was also the first children’s book that Jonathan Cape published. It wasn’t to be the last. Unique it may have been, but it also depicted a now well-worn trope in children’s literature – that of a child, or in this case a goose, who doesn’t fit in.

Judith Kerr’s Tiger also boasts enormous longevity, with its now familiar warm domestic scenes, and like Borka, shows great sensitivity in the emotions it depicts and elicits.

And whether it was discussing first signs of a promising career, their work, or their travels, both illustrators showed their warmth and zest for life in Friday’s conversation.

Kerr’s childhood has been well documented, most particularly of course, in her own novelised version of her life, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. She speaks about her escape from soon-to-be Nazi Germany, talking about the near-misses in life that dictate how the future turns out:

“I think of the people who didn’t get out who would have given anything to have a small part of the life I’ve had.” Her modesty glimmers through in every sentence as she speaks of the glare her mother gave her for almost giving them away to the passport inspector on the train:

“I wasn’t the most intelligent child,” she says, but she was clearly talented, for her mother had the foresight to save her childhood drawings, bringing them with her in a small suitcase from Germany.

Burningham too, has travelled extensively, although his journeys were mainly contained within the UK. The one place he hasn’t visited is the fictionalised place he references in answer to a well-worn question. As with many children’s authors, he’s often asked where he gets ideas from, and he says his favourite answer to that was the person who said, “If I knew, I’d go there.”

He may not have been to the land of ideas, but it certainly seems as if he has. His latest book shows the quirkiness and specialised way of thinking that many of the top children’s authors and illustrators possess. There is a purposeful naivety to his drawings, but also an idiosyncratic approach to the storytelling which enables him to see things from a different point of view – Mouse House explores the plight of a mouse family when a pest controller is called in by the human parents. The children of the house write a warning note to the mice, enabling them to leave before their execution. Of course, as with many children’s critics, Nicolette Jones reads into this the plight of refugees, perhaps echoing the experiences of Kerr, who is also on stage, recounting her refugee childhood. But it is this very quality that distinguishes Burningham’s work – the ability to read the narrative whichever way one is inclined.

For both illustrators, there is no end to the ideas they have, as proven by their prolific output. Whether inspiration is taken from true-life occurrences, such as Kerr’s father, who for a short time attempted to adopt a seal, retold more kindly in Mr Cleghorn’s Seal, to Burningham’s take on the world around us in such books as Whaddayamean, an exploration of arms control and pollution.

Both infuse their books with their own sense of humour, which comes across in conversation too. Be it stumbling into the illustrators’ world, or failing illustration class at the Central School of Art (Kerr is the latter), they both approach illustration as a privilege and an honour, and are delighted to still be practising the art – Kerr is 94, Burningham, slightly younger at age 81. They are both still working, and still promoting children’s literature, especially to the noisy and enthusiastic audience at the Old Vic, as Burningham says, “I don’t worry about the ideas running out, I worry about time running out.”

 

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell


There’s so much chatter about ‘gender’ at the moment, so it’s liberating to see another children’s book with dual protagonists – a boy and a girl, both on a mission to overcome perceived ideas of who they should be and how they should turn out.

Set in a sort of long-ago Iron Age, in which iron defeats magic, and before the British nation has any sort of identity, this is tribal warfare in deep dark forests, in which warriors are pitted against wizards, and witches are a third tribe, perhaps extinct, but definitely most evil.

Prince Xar is a princely Wizard, whose magic hasn’t ‘come in’ yet, and is desperate to join his peers and brother in that attribute. Wish is a Warrior, determined to express both her independence and worth to her mother, the Warrior Queen. When tweens Xar and Wish meet by happenchance in the woods, both rebelling against their parents, it sets forth a rollercoaster of events and opportunities for both of them to prove themselves. Before long, it becomes apparent that the two tribes may need to come together in order to defeat a third.

Cressida Cowell is an accomplished storyteller, having risen to fame with her prior series, How To Train Your Dragon. Not dissimilar, this is a world teeming with engaging characters, effervescent humour, and hugely wondrous world-building. Cowell has a particular ability to pit deep questions alongside silliness and humour, so that readers are absorbing both with great delight. Cowell poses terrific questions such as, ‘what if what you had been taught to believe was wrong?’, and shows the reader how to see beyond someone else’s differences, as well as challenging perceived notions of upbringing and parents’ perceived perfection.

There is plenty to love. Both characters, being royal subjects, are surrounded by entourages – Xar’s is particularly large, and includes a bird with a screaming sense of when things are rebellious or wrong (reminiscent of The Lion King’s Zazu). Wish’s entourage includes a bodyguard who faints at the first sign of danger, and an enchanted spoon.

This kind of wackiness is enhanced by the purposefully haphazard illustrations (drawn by Cowell herself) that sit alongside the text, from the map of the lands at the beginning, to the various facial expressions of the spoon. The illustrations are scribbly and sketchy and give the impression of being spontaneous and highly creative, as energetic as the prose itself.

The pace is fleet of foot and unrelenting, and this new world is populated with a realm of enchanting and peculiar creatures, from slow but philosophical giants to sprites, fairies, and ogres, all with their own individual personalities – be it cute and small, or large and menacing.

But most of all, two things stand out. Firstly, Cowell’s voice, which is confident and unswerving, appealing to her young readers without didacticism or being patronising, but making them think. It also carries a humour and slight quirkiness, even posing the question to her readership of who this omniscient narrator might be within the story. And secondly, the emotional intelligence with which she writes her young characters – they are authentic in their selfishness and desires as well as their relationships with their parents and siblings, and yet courageous and resilient, adaptable to the changes happening around them.

If you buy a hardback copy, do look under the dust jacket for a rather shimmery surprise. Unfortunately though, the only fault lies also in the production. In my copy, the blackness of the background on many pages rubbed off on my fingers, leaving an inky residue, which meant that the book not only touched my heart, but certainly left its mark. For the younger end of the middle grade category – this is suitable from 8+ years. You can buy your own signed exclusive edition from Waterstones here.