illustration

Frostheart by Jamie Littler

frostheartWith exquisite artworks to match the finely tuned world-building, illustrator turned author Jamie Littler has written a captivating fantasy adventure.

Ash is a Song-Weaver, a boy with a powerful ability to tame the monsters that lurk in the Snow Sea, the vast tundra that surrounds the human-kin stronghold in which he lives. But he doesn’t fully understand his power, and nor do the other human-kin, choosing to shun him for his ability.

When the book opens, Ash is waiting for the return of his parents, who left the stronghold many years before. All he has to remember them by is a lullaby, although this too he doesn’t fully understand. When Ash uses his song to calm the monsters as visitors approach the stronghold, the rest of the human-kin are scared, and they exile him along with his guardian, a grumpy Yeti called Tobu. Ash and Tobu leave with the visitors on their sleigh, the Frostheart, set to traverse the snowy tundra in order to find Ash’s parents and solve the mystery of the left-behind lullaby.

In a nod to time-honoured explorer adventures, the crew of the Frostheart together with Tobu and Ash visit many strongholds, all separated by the Snow Sea, and in each stronghold discover a different kind of tribe, some human-kin, others not, such as the Vulpis (small fox-like creatures who like shiny things). This Gulliver’s Travels-esque set up provides much momentum and intrigue across the book, but at the same time the reader, with Ash, is grappling with Ash’s own individual mystery – how to solve the riddle of the lullaby and the whereabouts of his parents.

Along with these questions, comes the question of the motive of the other members of the Frostheart crew, such as the captain (a wooden-legged walrus), Lunah, a young girl mapping the undiscovered world, who soon becomes a close friend for Ash, and the shadowy Shaard, a knowledge-hunter looking for clues from the World Before.

Littler uses classic tropes in his fantasy adventure, from the role of the protagonist Ash as an outsider, to his mentor and teacher Tobu, who appears grumpy and sets Ash repetitive tasks, but actually holds and gives intense wisdom. In this way, he reminded me so much of Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid films. But because Littler has built such an extraordinary new world, these tropes are welcome as familiar signposts in an unfamiliar landscape.

Themes of friendship and family and belonging pervade the entire story, as Ash seeks his heritage and his true clan, all the while learning to be part of a team with the Frostheart crew, and finding true friendship with Lunah.

Littler’s clever use of song, positing Ash as a Songweaver with unexplored powers, points to the power of creativity and the creative arts, something that seems to get a little lost in education today, and the power of song gets Ash into trouble, but also proves to be a solace and salvation, as well as a way into his emotional well-being.

The other intensely creative element across the book is Littler’s illustrations, which almost spill into graphic novel territory – there are so many and they are so intricate. They delineate the characters, both complementing and going further than the text, and in some cases are hugely humorous.

The book is so punctuated by these illustrations that it helps the reader along the voyage – this is a lengthy adventure for the age group. However, it is always packed with action and onwards momentum, with numerous dangers, and interesting technologies, using a mixture of age-old weaponry such as bows and arrows, but also solar polar in the sunstones.

There’s an innate pull to nature too – the power of fire and light, the bleakness and intensity of cold and snow.

Yet, what remains strongest is the characterisation of Ash. His vulnerability makes him endearing, and Littler has a good eye for compassion and when to pull at the reader’s heartstrings. In fact, with his sublimely executed illustrations, and his well-constructed other world, this awesome adventure won’t leave any reader with a frosty heart. The only problem is that it does leave them hanging – the ending points thoroughly towards the sequel, and threads are left untied.

Look out too for the gorgeous production – the book has a die-cut foil cover, and Waterstones are selling a special edition with sprayed edges. For ages 9-12 years. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Puffin for a review copy.

A Q&A with Jon Agee

Jon Agee has published more than 30 picture books, but may have come to MinervaReads readers’ attention with his picture book The Wall in the Middle of the Book. This October, he comes to England from the States, and is appearing at The Children’s Bookshow, following the publication of his latest picture book, Life on Mars, on August 1st.

life on marsLife on Mars follows a young astronaut in pursuit of evidence that there is life on planet Mars. As he explores the red planet, beautifully illustrated in stark black outlines, unbeknown to him, a large simpatico alien follows behind. Rather sweetly, the astronaut does discover life on Mars, but doesn’t quite make the discovery the reader has. Agee has pictured this planet’s landscape as rather hostile; large empty surfaces, dangerous craters and looming mountains, but this contrasts so well with the warmth of life itself that the reader is drawn into the book, both in terms of cheering on the astronaut and the alien life form. With wit in illustration and text, this is a mission accomplished.   

Before his performance at The Children’s Bookshow, I’ve been lucky enough to ask Jon some questions.

You’ve published more than 30 picture books.  Do you find it gets easier with each book?

Yes, probably, though every book seems to have its own evolution, from original idea to final execution.  The text for My Rhinoceros was written, almost word-for-word, in a notebook in one afternoon.  The Wall in the Middle of the Book began as a simple notion; treating the book’s middle (or gutter, as we call it) as if it was a solid barrier.  But it took many months for a story to materialize.  Little Santa had a promising, offbeat premise, but  – as so often happens – I couldn’t figure out where to go next, and I tossed the dummy in a file.  Months later, looking at it again with fresh eyes, the rest of the story came quickly.

So, a concept doesn’t always come to you fully formed? For example, with Life on Mars, did you start with an astronaut seeking life, or the box of chocolate cupcakes (the astronaut has taken cupcakes as a gift for the life form he hopes he’ll find)?

Book concepts begin as wisps of an idea: a doodle of people chatting, a phrase or sketch that has an unusual juxtaposition.  If it amuses me, I pursue it.  With Life on Mars, I made drawings of a little astronaut walking around a remote planet, communicating with the folks back on Earth.  “Do you see anything?” they ask.  “Nothing yet,” he responds. His matter-of-fact conversation, juxtaposed with the ominous alien creatures watching him was the spark for the story.  The chocolate cupcakes came later.

What comes first, the illustrations or the text?

Doodles (loose drawings) of people and other living creatures, followed by text or talk balloons.

the wall in the middle of the bookThe illustrations in Life on Mars have very strong defined shapes with clear thick black outlines. Whereas in The Wall you went without the outlines. How do you decide what sort of illustration will suit the subject matter?

Every book seems to require its own palette, or motif.  For Life on Mars, the sky was a flat black.  As a counterpoint, I gave the planet texture, with crayon, colored pencil and wash.  The landscape was made up of simple shapes (craters and rocks), so a thick black outline worked well.

The Wall has a two-dimensional look, like a compressed stage set, where the reader follows the action from the front row of the theater.  Since the artwork was mostly large, strongly defined shapes against the white page, I didn’t think an outline was necessary.

And the faces are drawn very simply and yet are still full of expression – the reader can work out what’s going on without the text. How do you imbue a character with expression?

Since I draw simply, I use everything available: the face, body (posture), gesture, gait, scale, juxtaposition, lighting.  In Life on Mars, the little astronaut has about ten distinct emotional episodes.  When he steps out of his spaceship he surveys the Martian vista from up on a rock.  This suggests confidence.  When he walks, he stands upright, and his footprints follow a direct route.  Again, confidence.  As he becomes doubtful, his footprints start to zigzag.  Then there’s a close-up of his face.  He looks concerned.  Further on, his posture slumps.  He abandons his box of cupcakes.  All these elements are used to convey the way the character is feeling.

Much of your text is very honed down, very sparse. Does it take a while to get to the state in which not a superfluous word is used?

The editing process doesn’t seem to stop until we’ve sent the book to the printers.  With a picture book, you’re revising both pictures and text, and how they relate to each other.  As pictures are revised, the text usually needs to be whittled down.  It’s inevitable that you fall in love with a word, line or phrase, and sometimes, only late in the process, you realize that it has to go.

In fact, many of your books play with words. Does this come fairly naturally? 

I think so.  In Nothing, a wealthy eccentric states that she has everything, but she’s never had nothing.  So she sets out to buy nothing.  In Terrific, a grump named Eugene proves – with sarcasm – how a word like “terrific” can mean two different things depending on how you express it.  Another double meaning appears at the end of The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau.  The text reads that Mr. Clousseau “returned to his painting” and the picture shows that he has – believe it or not! – walked into a painting.  In Life on Mars, the word “life” suggests a Martian creature, but it ends up meaning something completely different.

I should add that, along with my picture books, I have created a fair number of books of wordplay: anagrams, oxymorons, spoonerisms, tongue twisters, and four volumes of palindromes, beginning with Go Hang a Salami!  I’m a Lasagna Hog!  (Forwards and backwards it says the same thing).

Your books are also full of humour – how important is this in a picture book?

True, my books are often funny.  Humour is useful when writing about serious or complicated subjects (see many books by Dr. Seuss).  That said, humour is not essential.  One of my most favorite picture books, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, is not a very funny book.

What advice would you give a child who wants to be an author/illustrator?

Keep a notebook: write in it, draw in it.  Read all kinds of things: books, articles, old letters, fortune cookies.  Look around: at artwork, movies, theatre, dance, nature, animals, and people at work and play.

Two recent books, Life on Mars and The Wall, both refer in some way to topical events – Life on Mars to the essence of our being and space exploration (the anniversary of the lunar landing), – and The Wall to the divisions in our society. Is this on purpose – do you try to write topically, or are the topics just in your head?

The Wall was inspired simply by the architecture of a book; thinking about the opposing rectangular pages as unique places, separated by the binding in the middle.  Many months later, a story emerged from this.  The concept of a protective wall seemed ripe for parody, so I turned it on its head.  It was simply coincidence that the book was published at a time when a controversial wall was being discussed here in the States.

Life on Mars came about from doodles of a young astronaut wandering a barren planet, watched, unwittingly, by curious alien creatures.  There was something amusing about the juxtaposition of us knowing – and his not knowing – what was going on just behind him.  What does it mean?  The truth is, when I’m working on a book, I don’t think about what it means.  I know there’s a message or a moral, but I leave that for the readers to figure out.

With thanks to Jon Agee for answering my questions so comprehensively. To purchase tickets for The Children’s Bookshow, click here, and to purchase Life on Mars, click here. With thanks to Scallywag Press for the review copies.

Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue by Paula Harrison, illustrated by Jenny Lovlie

kitty and the moonlight rescueAll children, except one, want to grow up fast. I think about this (totally adapted) first line from Peter Pan every day in the school library, as readers from Foundation Stage and Key Stage One (children aged between 5 and 8), eschew picture books and red-spine-stamped early readers for ‘real books’. ‘Can we read these?’ they say, holding up a tome. They can barely stagger under the weight of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (636 pages long), or the encyclopedia they’ve dragged down from a shelf above their heads, collapsing beneath it. Of course, a librarian never says no, but rather nudges towards something more appropriate.

So it is with relief and joy that I stumble across new books such as Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue, the first in a series of six. (Number two, Kitty and the Tiger Treasure, is also published this September, with a view to getting impatient children hooked). The series follows in the tradition of Isadora Moon, Claude, Marge in Charge, Amelia Fang, Daisy and more.

Kitty wants to be like her superhero Mum, but she’s scared of the dark and doesn’t feel so brave. She dons a costume and pretends to be a superhero within the safe confines of her house. But when a desperate cat pitches up needing superhero Mum, and yet Mum is already out on a mission, Kitty must fill her shoes. Will she find her inner strength, and also her cat-inspired super powers, including feline hearing and eyesight, in order to solve the mystery of the strange noise coming from the clocktower?

This is a great example of pithy fiction for younger readers. Illustrated throughout in two-tone colour, there are enough illustrations to keep children interested, but also a bulk of text on each page to make them feel like grown-up readers. This is the age at which you want children to make reading a habit and also a passion, and so the plot needs to be pacey, the characters loveable, and the ideas sparkling.

This ticks those boxes, with add-ons. There are themes of friendship and loyalty, but there is also the building of confidence and self-worth. The parents aren’t absent – Mum, although on a mission, is the ultimate feminist superhero – out saving lives and yet also present with her children. Dad too is portrayed well. He isn’t a superhero, but also isn’t inept or bumbling. He takes care of the children, shown more in illustration than in text, but completes a great family picture, with incidental details thrown in, such as that he is the maker of Kitty’s costume.

Having a superhero with animal features is both interesting and knowledge-imparting. Kitty’s Mum can see in the dark, climb walls and balance on rooftops, and Kitty begins to inherit the same skillset. At the back of the book, the author has neatly described some super facts about cats that inspired her imagined superhero – such as their powerful sense of smell and their fast reflexes.

There’s humour too, an important feature to keep children reading, and the illustrations are fully imagined – small details abound from loose shoelaces to Kitty’s incredible bed with bookcase beneath. Which mother wouldn’t want to be depicted as a slinky catwoman in the way that Lovlie illustrates Kitty’s mother! The domestic scenes contrast well with the superhero moments – Kitty’s landing on the rooftop is expressive and daring.

With just enough adventure to offset the cosy domesticity, and more cats than one could wish for, this is a gentle, well-informed text for the age group. Purrfectly plotted. You can buy it here.

Refugee Week Books

Refugee Week starts this week, with the slogan ‘Different Pasts, Shared Future’. It’s a theme well worth bearing in mind in our current climate, especially if you read this article in The Observer from 9th June, which pointed to the increased number of war refugees, and the growing threat of climate change that will result (and already is) in an increased number of climate migrants.

One hopes that the next generation will use their passion and skills to solve some of these issues, be it understanding different political, ethnic and religious tensions, or coping with the displacement of people due to changing climate. Even, one hopes, to reverse some of these changes, but ultimately to accept the global movement of people.

Teaching tolerance starts young. Two picture books that provoke thought and understanding about accepting others’ differences, and learning to embrace others in new communities, are aimed at the very young – The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros, and Quill Soup by Alan Durant and Dale Blankenaar.

migrationsBut firstly, there is the striking little Migrations: Open Hearts Open Borders with an introduction by Shaun Tan. This postcard sized-book is a selection of illustrations from children’s book illustrators around the world. The illustrators submitted images for a travelling exhibition (visiting London, Worcester, South Africa, Korea), to express support for human migrants. Each illustrator submitted an illustration of a bird on a postcard, and a message on the reverse.

The book highlights the intense difference in style between children’s illustrators – from those well-known in this country, such as Chris Riddell and Petr Horacek, to the lesser-known Marija Prelog from Slovenia. She has etched a beautiful red-breasted bullfinch, whose claws and facial expression look it to be in some kind of distress – the ‘clouds’ in the sky resembling shadowy human figures that might be swimming or struggling through the air. It’s a powerful arresting image. Myungae Lee from Korea has colourfully crafted birds as a series of balloons held by people on the ground with their arms raised – turning the postcard vertically to use the space.

Divided into themes: Departures, Long Journeys, Arrivals, and Hope for the Future, the book is both inspirational and thought-provoking. Migration, of course, is tied up with ideas of journey, destination, flight and discovery – just like children’s fiction.

And also like children’s fiction, it has hope pulling the strands of the journey together, a dream of something better. Each journey and illustration is an individual act, but very much part of a whole. The idea – to have to leave one community but to join or form another community in a better, safer place.

You can buy it here.

The idea of community is threaded through the two picture books – both asking for acts of kindness in welcoming strangers.

the suitcaseThe Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros is the story of a funny little creature who arrives in the book after trekking over quite a jaggedy mountain, pulling a suitcase.

He looks pretty fed up and tired. The animals at his destination ask him what’s inside his case, but they know he’s fibbing when he explains that as well as a teacup, there is a table and chairs, a house and more. When the stranger curls up and goes to sleep, weary and vulnerable, the other animals break into the suitcase to sate their curiosity.

The inherent message is making amends for doing something wrong, welcoming a stranger, and gaining an understanding of what that stranger has been through. There is an intense lesson of empathy here, which children will gain through the osmosis of reading.

The arrival of the creature at the destination is illustrated with pages of simple colours in a landscape of mainly white space. But the journey is depicted by the landscape dominating the page – from the high mountain to an abundance of waves that threatens to drown the book. A struggle before final acceptance.

Effective in its simplicity. You can buy it here.

quill soup

There’s an old folk tale called Stone Soup, shared commonly in European communities (although it has other global variations) in which a hungry stranger tries to convince the townspeople to share their small morsels of food with him, and in the end makes a meal for the whole community. Sharing is best – breaking bread with strangers who become new friends.

This is the essence of the story in Quill Soup by Alan Durant, illustrated by Dale Blankenaar, but in this retelling the stranger is a porcupine called Noko, and the story has been replanted to Africa – the village populated by an array of African animals including meerkats and monkeys. The style is unique – vivid colours dominating each page, intricate patterns and silhouettes, in active, highly populated scenes, so that a child is almost seeking the animals in the jungle – picking out their shapes and eyes in a teeming patterned landscape.

An excellent retelling that not only teaches about welcoming strangers and sharing resources, but for a Western readership, it shows cultural diversity in the actual design of the book. You can buy it here.

Detective Geniuses: Introducing Sophie Johnson

sophie johnson detective geniusWhat do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a perennial question asked of youngsters, and Sophie Johnson is the most winning picture book character to help answer it.

In her first foray into the book world, she was a ‘unicorn expert’, but now she is trying her hand at detecting.

In the Sophie Johnson picture books by Morag Hood, illustrated by Ella Okstad, (strapline: Meet Sophie Johnson: outgoing, optimistic and oblivious), there is a perfect match of text and picture, the two working harmoniously to give a greater whole. Indeed, despite Sophie’s bragging of her expertise in her chosen career, the pictures give a slightly different perspective.

That doesn’t detract from Sophie Johnson’s awesomeness. In the latest book, Sophie Johnson: Detective Genius, she is enthusiastically looking for the thief who has stolen Lion’s tale. She doesn’t have the time to train her assistant, Bella the dog. But maybe Bella doesn’t need as much training as Sophie thinks.

A riotous, clever, and thoroughly enjoyable picture book, I fell for Sophie as soon as I saw her. Her character’s personality, oozing warmth and exuberance, is infectious. The zesty conversational prose instantly sucks in the reader, and the illustrations are endearing, vibrant, colourful, and full of familiar domestic details, as well as wit and energy.

Here, author Morag Hood gives us Sophie’s favourite detectives:

Top 5 Detective heroes:

My name is Sophie Johnson and these are my top 5 Greatest Detective Geniuses Ever in the Whole World (apart from me).

Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

People always call him a ‘classic’ detective (which I think is probably just a nice way of saying he is really quite old now) but Sherlock is a genius just like me. He can solve any mystery and he doesn’t let silly things like manners get in the way of him cracking a case. He also has a hat which looks a bit like mine so he must be pretty clever

Basil The Great Mouse Detective (Disney)

In some ways Basil is just a smaller, mousier version of Sherlock Holmes, but I think he has a lot more fun. He also has a snazzy outfit and a dog assistant just like me. Although his assistant is called Toby and he does actually help a little bit, unlike my assistant Bella who just barks at things.

Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)

This man does have a very funny moustache, but Poirot is actually quite good at solving cases most of the time. He can spend a bit too much time thinking rather than doing, but we can probably forgive him for that because he did live ages ago.

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong (Murder Most Unladylike books by Robin Stevens)

Finally, a detective with a good assistant! Although actually I think they are probably just joint Detective Geniuses. They prove that girls like me are even better than grown ups at crime solving. I’m sure I will solve all kinds of mysteries once I am at school.

Dr Mark Sloan (Diagnosis Murder)

He is a detective and a doctor and he sometimes wears roller skates and sings.

With thanks to Morag Hood for letting us read Sophie’s detective choices, and S&S UK for the review copy. Sophie Johnson: Detective Genius by Morag Hood and Ella Okstad is published by Simon and Schuster and is available to buy here. I suggest you do!

Grumpycorn: introducing…NARWHAL!

A guest post by Sarah McIntyre

grumpycornIt’s that age-old conversation when you say you’re a writer, and the person you’re conversing with replies by saying ‘I’ve been thinking about writing a book too,’ or worse, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a book, I just don’t have as much time as you.’ Writing a book is incredibly difficult, but luckily in children’s picture books, author and illustrator Sarah McIntyre makes it LOOK super easy.

Her latest, Grumpycorn, is a tongue-in-cheek story about a grumpy unicorn who wants to be a writer. He has all the equipment (a fluffy pen, moonberry tea) but none of the inspiration, refusing help from friends. In the end, of course, he succumbs to his friends’ assistance. With vibrant rainbow colours, as befits a unicorn, sumptuous descriptions of food, a McIntyre trademark mermaid and more, this is a bright and brilliantly fun picture book. Below, Sarah McIntyre describes introducing Grumpycorn’s friend, Narwhal.

Who doesn’t love narwhals, the unicorns of the sea? In my new Scholastic UK picture book, Grumpycorn, Unicorn loves the idea of being a writer and coming up with the most fabulous story in the world. But he just doesn’t have an idea for his story.

…And then Narwhal shows up! Narwhal is FULL OF IDEAS for Unicorn.

But instead of being grateful, Unicorn acts like a total diva and is very mean to poor Narwhal.

Oh no! How could anyone say this about a Narwhal. Nasty Unicorn!

But Narwhal is surprisingly unruffled by this treatment. He’s used to Unicorn being a poseur and very silly, and goes off to do much more fun things with his friend, Mermaid.

At the end of the story, it’s Narwhal who is a surprise hero. He figures out that writing a story isn’t about coming up with the most fabulous idea ever, it’s just to start writing. And he starts by jotting down what’s happening right in front of him.

I think Narwhal is the character in the story who is most like me. This is exactly how I started this story, writing that I didn’t know what to write. And sometimes when people are mean to me, I sort of forget about what’s happened and get on with things – or at least, I think I’ve forgotten it. But then those things will percolate in the back of my head and turn themselves into ideas for stories, drawings or comics. I really like Narwhal, and I hope you will too.

For all my books, I create activities and how-to-draw guides, and this book has sparked lots of activities! You can download this How-to-Draw-Narwhal sheet from my website, and check out lots of other Grumpycorn activities here.

With thanks to Sarah McIntyre and Scholastic. You can buy a copy of Grumpycorn here.

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.