illustration

Summer Holiday

What are you doing this summer? Even if you’re not going anywhere – you can travel the whole world in a book. Firstly, my favourite books about key world cities:

walk in paris

A Walk in Paris by Salvatore Rubbino
Quite rightly winning the IBW children’s picture book award 2015, this is a stunning example of travelling from your armchair. A grandfather takes his granddaughter on a whirlwind trip of Paris, taking in everything in sight from the Metro to the markets, the Seine and Notre Dame to the shops on the Right Bank, a bistro to the Marais, the Louvre, the Pompidou and the Tuileries. He explains, in that grandfatherly way, what things are called and points out interesting details to his granddaughter. Each spread is lushly illustrated with minute details – it’s like standing in the middle of a Parisian painting – the reader feels as if he is in an illustrated city.
Incidentals on each page are labelled in a slightly different font to give extra information to the reader, such as
‘Paris has two water systems. Water for drinking and water for cleaning run through separate pipes.’
This is in contrast to the friendly tones of the grandfather and his narrator granddaughter in the main text:
“I’ve just seen a street cleaner turn a big key. Now there’s water gushing out of the kerb! Mind your feet, Grandad! I say”.
The illustrations are incredible – the colours lend a distinctive feel to the city – mustard yellows, tarpaulin greens, leather browns. Each view deserves its own mention – from the illustration drawn as if looking out over Paris from the top of Notre Dame (with the back of the heads of the grandfather and granddaughter and the close-up of the gargoyles, to the Seine stretching out into the distance with the proportionally correct distances of the Sacre Coeur and Les Invalides (all labelled).) The characters have personality too – the granddaughter holds her pigtail aloft when admiring a coiffured lady stepping from a salon, but also sips her drink through a straw with no hands – capturing her childlike ways magnificently. From bicycles to window boxes, street artists to the bookstall-lined river – this made me want to revisit Paris, or at least the book, over and over again. Moreover, you can actually trace the ‘walk’ if you’re in the city – with instructions on the back of where to start and finish and how long it takes. (There’s also a fold-out Eiffel Tower). Dazzle your children (and yourselves) with this. You can buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

(also available A Walk in London, A Walk in New York)

pop up new york

Pop Up New York by Jennie Maizels, paper engineering by Richard Ferguson
If ever a book could prepare you for the excitement of seeing The Big Apple for the first time, this is it. Pop-up books for children rarely appeal to me, largely because of their inability to refold back to how they were before the book opened, and their susceptibility to be torn by eager hands too early in the day, thus rendering them fairly obsolete, which seems such a pity. However, the paper engineering here is an accomplished success – each page did fold back successfully upon closing, and it does appear to be fairly sturdy. Each page is also overwhelmingly packed with pop-ups – the buildings jump out at you and stand tall – just as they do in the real city. There is a surprising array of information and interactivity laid out here, with facts about all the major districts, buildings, history, sports, and culture, including recent developments such as the regeneration of the High Line. The cleverness of the book is that it works equally well if you read it upside-down, as there is a host of information on the back of the pop-up buildlings. For those of us who know New York fairly well it appears comprehensive and modern – for those who are new to New York it’s compelling and inspiring. You can buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

(also available pop-up London)

katie in london

Katie in London by James Mayhew
Not a new title by any means, although granted a new cover in 2014, but for a Londoner born and bred, still one of the finest and most inspiring picture books about London. James Mayhew takes his character Katie on a whirlwind tour through London, with pictures of iconic London symbols, starting with the first page, which manages to encompass red buses, red telephone boxes, the tube signs, the London taxis and the sense of London stretching for some way into the distance. He also pictures rain – a horde of people with grey umbrellas, but which isn’t Edward Hopper-depressing, but another symbol of the particularity of the glinting reflections of the London streets. London in the rain can be magical and fun. James Mayhew draws in magic, by making a lion in Trafalgar Square come to life, and taking Katie and her brother Jack on a tour of London. The magical warmth of the book lies in the small details – the astonishment on the faces as they see the live lion, the thoughts of the lion as he ponders how cold his tummy gets lying on a stone plinth, and the magnificent detail in every picture – including balustrades, lampposts, and joggers in the park. The tour encompasses the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, the Globe, Hyde Park, St Paul’s, and the Tower of London. It leaves Katie exhausted, but the reader exhilarated. You can buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

hare and tortoise israel

Hare and Tortoise Race Across Israel by Laura Gehl, illustrations by Sarah Goodreau
Now, an exotic location. I love the idea of taking the fable of the Hare and Tortoise and making the race track somewhere different – something children love to see is a tale reinvented. This hare and tortoise live in Tel Aviv and decide to race across Israel to the Dead Sea. Along the way they take in the sights of Israel – the tortoise more slowly, although as is always the moral, slow and steady wins the race. The book encourages children to look around as they travel and to soak in the sights. Covering the museums and entertainment in Tel Aviv, to the different types of food available, to the olive groves and persimmon trees in the countryside to the shuk in Jerusalem, this is a nicely comprehensive first look at Israel. The cultural melting pot of people is also depicted (although the main characters are animals, the extras are both human and animal, which is a little strange), from religious Jews in Jerusalem to Bedouins in the desert, footballers in the park to commuters at the train station. A good cultural summation of an exotic country. You can buy the book here or on the Amazon sidebar.

eddies tent

Eddie’s Tent and How to Go Camping by Sarah Garland
Of course sometimes holidays are about the experience rather than the location. This new book from the super talented Sarah Garland explores what it’s like to go camping, with a simple story of Eddie and his family on a camping trip. This is a stand-out picture book, because both text and pictures convey the complicated nuances within a family, especially on a holiday, and also what’s going on in Eddie’s head. Sarah Garland employs the well-known phrase – are we there yet? from the two little sisters, but the picture bears out more strongly how the family feel whilst stuck in traffic, not to mention the second picture on that spread, in which the adults exchange a glance without the children seeing. This family is not a stereotypical family either, the adult male is referred to by his name, rather than as ‘Dad’, and one of the children is of a different ethnic origin – so there is diversity and complexity in their family make up, which is refreshing to see in a picture book. Eddie is well-depicted – like many small boys he is meticulous about what he packs for the trip, and not only do we see what he imagines in his head whilst day-dreaming in the tent, but we also admire his propensity to throw himself into the trip and demonstrate his growing independence in fetching driftwood, and making his own tent. Food is a major detail in the book – as it should be on all camping trips, and a nice gentle story runs alongside the painstaking detail of camping. At the back of the book is guidance on camping including knots, cooking and first aid. This book is part of a series featuring Eddie, including his garden, his kitchen and his toolbox, which may also be well worth exploring for teaching those essential life skills to children. You can buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

mi and museum city

Mi and Museum City by Linda Sarah
Lastly, a wacky book for any child who’s been dragged around a museum or place of ‘interest’, which they actually didn’t find that interesting at all. This book is completely leftfield, but with such great intentions, so much detail and interest and such a good idea at its heart, that I have to include it. Mi inhabits museum city, in which every building, other than Mi’s house, is a museum, but they are all dull, including such museums as the Museum of (extreme) Politeness, The Museum of One Million Completely Boring Things Belonging to King Bore, and my favourite, the Museum of One Man Walking Very Slowly. Then Mi meets Yu, a busker, and they come up with an idea to build two very different and interesting museums that make them happy. They finally secure the mayor’s approval, and before long all sorts of bizarre and unusual museums are opening, making Museum City fun and bright. This book distinguishes itself by being filled with maps of museum city, each intricately detailed and with miniscule annotation. This reminded me so much of children’s drawings themselves, when they write something in barely legible tiny writing, or doodle on paper. It’s a fun book to explore and has a detachable A-Z museum fold out map at the back. It works well as a jumping off point from which to engage children in coming up with their own museum ideas. Even the bar code on the back cover has been incorporated into the artwork – becoming a Museum of the Bar Code beep Choir. If that doesn’t entice you, then nothing will. You can buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

Tweet me @minervamoan if you have your own favourite  ‘travel’ picture book.

With thanks to Kar-Ben publishers for the copy of Hare and Tortoise Race Across Israel

 

Children’s Literary London

My favourite activity is sitting at home in my little leafy patch of London reading a book. However, sometimes, according to my children, we have to leave the house. So here are my top tips for having a children’s literary day out in London this summer.

Lost and Found

Discover a story: The first place to grab our attention is The Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford, East London. Their current summer exhibition is the Wonderful World of Oliver Jeffers. You can actually step inside his books, immerse yourself in props from the illustrations, including the rocket, the penguin, the boat etc. It’s very hands-on, and it really lets the smallest children relive their Oliver Jeffers’ books obsession. There’s an outside story garden to explore too, as well as craft and story sessions.

Visit a good bookshop
: As if I didn’t have enough books already *waves from behind a towering stack* there are some beautiful bookshops to explore in London. Of course there’s Waterstones Piccadilly, the biggest bookshop in Europe – head for the second floor to find the newly expanded children’s department. I adore Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street – if ever there was a bookshop to entice you to browse this is it. Also, you can’t miss Foyles in Charing Cross Road, in its fairly new location. It’s Independent Bookshop Week this week, so for children’s books, you can try The Alligator’s Mouth in Richmond, the Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill, and Bookworm in Finchley Road, Tales on Moon Lane in Herne Hill, South-East London, or Pickled Pepper in Crouch End. Check them all out on Google, as they often have author events, craft sessions or storytime for children.

tiger who came to teawhen hitler stole pink rabbit

Celebrate a great author: Judith Kerr A Retrospective is currently touring England, and this summer alights at the Jewish Museum in Camden. We’ve yet to do this one – it only opens on 29 June, but I have high hopes. Judith Kerr is an author who reaches out to children of all ages, from her Tiger and Mog stories to When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. This is an exhibition touring from the Seven Stories Centre in Newcastle, so should be a good one. Opens 29 June.

Visit somewhere that has a copy of every book printed in the UK: Anyone who loves books has to feel a bit of an affiliation with The British Library. This is definitely one for older children though. There is an exhibition on the Magna Carta until September, but their ongoing exhibition, Treasures of the British Library, showcasing the actual manuscripts of famous authors from Shakespeare to Austen, as well as the Alice in Wonderland handwritten original are enough to inspire any future budding writer, and awe literary enthusiasts.

alice in wonderland

Go to Wonderland: If you’re into Alice, you should also try Adventures in Wonderland at the Waterloo Vaults. Led through snaking paths into the labyrinth of wonderland by a guide, and entertained by actors dressed as the various characters from the story, this is a compelling piece of moving theatre. Children of all ages, including grown up ones, will love the disappearing Cheshire Cat, the bounciness of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and be charmed by the Mad Hatter. The crew behind the show have put a great deal of creativity and imagination into creating a wonderland under Waterloo; it’s a remarkable feat and you truly feel ensconced. There’s a daytime show for children, and an evening show for adults. During the day, if you’re feeling decadent, you can also sample a real Alice Tea Party at the Sanderson Hotel in Oxford Street with their Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea.

the rest of us just live here

Meet an author: For teens and those into young adult literature, one of the most exciting events this summer is the YALC, which is happening on July 17-19. It is a celebration of young adult literature, brought to fruition by the last children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, and now managed by BookTrust. It takes place at the London Film and Comic Con at Olympia, and includes authors such as Judy Blume, Cassandra Clare, Derek Landy, and Patrick Ness, and there’s a Harry Potter party. You can find a full schedule of panels and workshops and events on the website, although tickets sell out fast.

harry potter

Take the Hogwarts Express: Not only can you visit platform nine and three quarters in Kings Cross Station, but you can also venture a little further away from the centre and go to the Warner Bros Harry Potter studios. Even if it’s more film than book, JK Rowling’s magic pervades the site – with the Hogwarts Express, the Great Hall and more. This summer they’re concentrating on the food in the films – you can eat Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.

The twits

Travel further and be a twit: If you’re feeling really adventurous you can leave the cosy of the city for Great Missenden and visit the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre – this is well worth a visit – the museum takes you through the life of Roald Dahl and then has an interactive gallery focusing on his writing, encouraging you to get creative too. You can see Roald Dahl’s writing chair, dress up, use touchscreens to tell stories, and attend a storytelling session. It’s good fun, although really for children who already have a good knowledge of his work and are happy to get involved.

stig of the dump

Learn to be an illustrator: Lastly, if you’re attracted to children’s books by the illustrations, you might want to visit Quentin Blake’s House of Illustration in Kings Cross, where there is currently a Ladybird by Design exhibition featuring nostalgic Ladybird book illustrations, or attend one of their monthly family workshops led by professional illustrators. There’s also celebration of children’s illustration at The Illustration Cupboard; their summer exhibition concentrates on the work of Edward Ardizzone (Stig of the Dump, The Little Train). Beware though, it’s very tempting in here to get swept away and want to purchase your very own children’s illustration.

Lastly, there’s a neverending stream of children’s books being turned into theatre in the capital – from Matilda and Charlie to Hetty Feather, Aliens Love Underpants, Pinocchio, Horrible Histories, The Gruffalo, The Railway Children, War Horse…to mention a few.

Or, you can just stay at home and read my book of the week. As I will be doing today….

To illustrate or not to illustrate

laureate
So it seems fitting to talk about pictures the day after illustrator Chris Riddell was named the new Children’s Laureate, replacing the esteemed Malorie Blackman. No one who works or associates with anyone in the field of children’s publishing can be unaware that there is an ever-growing penchant for text to be accompanied by pictures in today’s children’s books. Although there are lots who will argue that pictures have always been essential in children’s books – I’m not denying it – there seem to be an ever-increasing number of books for children that heavily feature images to partner words.

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney with its comic drawings first published in 2007, won the Blue Peter Book Award in 2012, and regularly tops the bestseller charts. The Tom Gates series by Liz Pichon, complete with doodles and drawings, was our side of the pond’s offering, and published in 2011 to huge acclaim. It won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, a Red House Children’s Book Prize, Waterstones Prize, and also a Blue Peter Prize. Hot on the heels of that came Timmy Failure by Stephen Pastis, another US offering.

For younger children, the illustrations came thick and fast. Cakes in Space and Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and illustrated by Sarah McIntyre showed everyone what they could achieve in a chapter book rather than a picture book. Chris Riddell’s own Ottoline and Goth Girl series highlight the wonderfulness of his incredibly detailed illustrations, and more and more middle grade titles are starting to increase the number of illustrations within, such as Demolition Dad by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie.

However, many parents don’t quite share the twitterati’s enthusiasm for highly illustrated chapter books. They decry that although the books are lovely, they tend to be released in hardback first, with a steeper price point, and that their children read them in one sitting. The nice but expensive problem of the one book a day child!

So what are the pictures doing there? Just when your children had started to read independently, and with some vigour, why are they choosing books that are doodled on, illustrated and filled with drawings? Although you want the children to love reading, you also want them to increase their vocabulary, gain better comprehension skills, and expand their grammatical prowess. How do they do this by looking at pictures?

Here’s how. Let’s take two books – Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell (the first in the wonderful Ottoline series) and Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre (look out also for their soon to come Pugs of the Frozen North).

ottoline
Ottoline and the Yellow Cat introduces Ottoline, who lives with Mr Monroe because her parents are away travelling around the world. She lives in a very particular way, excels at disguises, and solves incredibly exciting mysteries. Her stories are punctuated by postcards arriving from her parents who are themselves having far flung adventures collecting magnificent things. You can purchase it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

oliver and the seawigs
Oliver and the Seawigs is about a boy called Oliver, whose parents are explorers. Just when they all decide to settle down, Oliver’s biggest adventure begins. With the help of an albatross, a short-sighted mermaid called Iris, and an island that’s alive, Oliver goes in search of his missing parents. He hadn’t warranted on the sea wig competition or the sea monkeys getting in his way though. You can purchase it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

Pictures help to set the scene. No child wants to read a long rambling description of a place before the story begins. In Ottoline, the text describes where Ottoline lives, on which floor and the type of building. The illustration cleverly shows all the other buildings around Ottoline’s, giving it context and detail. It also begs the question, if she lives on the 24th floor, why does the illustration not show 24 floors? Inside the apartment, Instead of writing all the marvellous things that Ottoline’s parents have collected, Chris chooses to draw them –so the reader is left to study each one and work out what it is – then they use their own descriptive powers and vocabulary to respond to it.

Pictures help to illuminate characters: Not just from the artist drawing them but by the artist giving more information than you would glean from the text. They add another layer of understanding rather than reinforcing your impression. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Chris Riddell’s portrayal of Mr Monroe, described in text as small and hairy and not liking the rain. Although you may expect him to be a fully formed adult human being as befits someone living with (and hopefully taking care of) a girl, the pictures show something quite different. It gives the entire story a different perspective. As do the drawings of Ottoline – one minute an everyday child wearing a hoodie, the next dressed in a Mongolian dressing gown. In Oliver, Sarah MacIntyre’s drawing of Iris the mermaid is inspired. The detail in the illustration belies more personality than you would think possible. The pictures of comical characters are helping the reader to interpret and understand visual metaphor, and in particular, irony. What can you interpret from a facial expression?

They develop plot themselves. In Ottoline, the progress of the cat burglar through the town is told in pictures while Mr Munroe’s progress is simultaneously told in both text and pictures. When the cat is caught, the illustration of the bear is very telling – the text simply says “The bear caught her in a big bear hug”, the picture shows much more about the hug!

They help to provide mood. This can be adding comic elements, or perhaps just creating an impression of darkness or sadness. This is something that children are only just learning – as it’s more of a feeling than a physical description. It can be hard to portray. The Ottoline pictures of the city give an impression of a deserted place with an element of mystery and fear. (see the shadowing/the light/tall buildings). Whereas the comical illustrations in Oliver and the Seawigs, despite all the danger Oliver is in, give tones of adventure, mystery, unexpected surprises and fun rather than darkness. Particularly the sea monkeys. You must find a copy and see them!

They can give a different viewpoint from that given in the text. Oliver and the Seawigs is written from Oliver’s point of view. So, without the illustrations, we wouldn’t be able to see the face of the Rambling Isle on which Oliver sits – by the fact that he is sitting on its head, and can only see so much by peering over the top. Our omniscient illustrator shows us what lies beneath the surface.

Pictures expand on the imaginative creative process. In the same way as you use your own life experiences to mentally picture what’s happening in a story that you read, so you can use the pictures provided in the same way. Just like text, they are a starting point from which to jump off – what might happen next? What colours would you add to the black and white, or one tone illustrations? What extra details would you add? Even the page numbers are illustrated differently in Ottoline, which prompts questions as to why.

Pictures assist struggling readers. Of course, for struggling readers, pictures are hugely helpful. They can extrapolate buried meaning, explain difficult vocabulary, and give visual clues to what’s happening in the story. In Oliver, Philip Reeve describes “two big glass globes dangled in cradles of knotted rope, like earrings, or baubles on a Christmas tree.” His text description itself is wonderful, but Sarah provides a beautifully detailed illustration to help the reader. Barnacled rails, megaphones and all sorts of difficult words are illustrated too.

Pictures are our aesthetic way into creative text Lastly of course, pictures provide and inspire a love of the visual. They make the book more interactive. Illustrations give us an aesthetic appreciation of books, they introduce us to an appreciation of art and creativity. Many of my fellow booklovers have been known to stroke a book for the beauty of its cover…the illustrations play such a huge part in this.

I feel like I’ve only highlighted the icing on the cake, but I’m hoping you’ll see for yourself in the books when you read them.

Encourage children to race through the books with searing excitement by all means, but also encourage them to spend some time imbibing the wonder of the illustrations. I would urge all adults to embrace the narrative – whether it’s told by text or illustration or both. Illustrated books, comics, graphic novels can all be scintillating ways into literature for children, all can help with developing understanding of narrative, inspiring children’s creativity, and sparking a love for books. Chris Riddell wants to promote visual literacy – if we all carried a sketchbook as he suggests, we might all take in more of the world around us – the excitement outside our windows. Chris said yesterday, ‘I write because I want to give myself things to illustrate’. I implore you to let your children pour over the illustrations in the same way as they pour over the text. The two are intertwined.

Using Pictures for Narrative

Rules of Summer Quest

One of the things that I frequently speak to parents about is using narrative as a way into reading. For those reading age children we label as ‘reluctant’ readers (and I grimace here), sometimes the key is not to thrust prosaic text upon them and hope they will eventually read it, but to reach out to them through love of narrative before text. Because in the end, some of the skills we glean from reading, such as empathy, we get through understanding narrative. We want children to be able to pick apart a narrative – to deconstruct what’s happening, what might happen, what if something happens, and why it’s happening. Narratives are all around us, whether they be in a fairy tale app, a soap opera on the television, an advert trying to sell us something, or the story of our day. One brilliant way to discuss narratives with children is to use a picture book that leads by illustration, or one that doesn’t have any text at all. You can take your time to decipher what’s going on rather than turning the pages as soon as the words are read, which we, as parent readers, have a tendency to do all too quickly.

Two books that lead by pictorial narrative are:

Quest

Quest by Aaron Becker
This is the second wordless picture book by Aaron Becker, the first being Journey, and although Quest is seen by many as a sequel to the first, it works equally as a stand-alone title. I’m loathe to explain too much of the narrative here, because the beauty of the book is to look at the pictures and without saying anything let your children have a go at telling you what they see, what they think is happening, and their predictions. You’ll be surprised how different it can be to your own perceptions. For those who want a brief guide before borrowing/buying the book, it depicts two children in a fantasy landscape who draw on the magic of their tools to transport them across their world and to seek answers so that they can rebuild the kingdom and restore the rightful king to his palace. It’s a fantasy adventure, drawn with depth and imagination. The front cover is typical of that within; images of the boy and girl on each spread with their purple bird in a mystical place with nature and man-made structures colliding, and magical things happening. My favourite picture is that of the children swimming underwater accompanied by their bird and finding their own Atlantis beneath the ocean. As expected, the pictures are detailed, use colour and light in intriguing ways, and draw in the eye to numerous things on each page. The action is non-stop – each picture has motion and plot development – and there’s a map/guide to which my readers kept flicking back. A true adventure in pictures. To buy the book from Waterstones, click here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

Rules of Summer

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan
Shortlisted for the 2015 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal, and by highly acclaimed artist Shaun Tan, this is a stunning picture book. For those who are aware of Tan’s work already, it delivers on your expectations – the right amount of surreal fantasy, emotional landscapes and sense of foreboding. In fact, much of Tan’s work could be taken to be fairly nightmarish for a sensitive child – so do beware.
Each page (even the cover and endpapers) depicts two boys, one who is clearly older than the other. The book starts with a simple line: “This is what I learned last summer”, and then proceeds to state the rules learned, accompanied by Tan’s distinctive surreal imagery. For example the rules include: “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline” and “Never be late for a parade”. Throughout the book it is clear that our focus is on the relationship dynamic between the two boys. At first they seem playful, but the mood changes as friction grows between the two. In fact some of the images are particularly menacing. After a while it appears that the small boy is prisoner, and only after a considerable time lapse does the bigger boy come to help, with the rule: “Always bring bolt cutters”. At the end there seems to be some redemption and forgiveness, although the last line is particularly ambiguous: “That’s it”. At this point the two boys are shown watching television together with drawings on the wall of things that have previously seemed to be real and menacing in the landscapes – perhaps Shaun Tan showing that they were merely figments of the boys’ play landscapes. On the other hand, Tan has stated that the whole book doesn’t necessarily have a linear narrative, and that each picture is a standalone story. What is clear is that the book shows the relationship between the two boys – be they friends or brothers. It asks the reader questions: what is the dynamic between the two, from whose point of view is the landscape drawn? And with whom do you most identify – the bigger or the smaller boy? The title also asks questions. What are rules? Are they useful or not? Are they self-imposed or dictated from afar? Are they rules from life experience or simply rules in a game? Only one thing is for sure, this a childhood world we are inhabiting. The images come from the children, and there are no adults present, merely other shapes or beings.

I haven’t said much about the actual pictures – this is because they need to be seen! But the use of colour and light is magnetic – from the yellow heat of the title page, to the dusky sky at nightfall, to the intense shadows created by the sun in the backyards, to the illuminated fantasy land in “Never forget the password.” The muted pastel greys and whites when the smaller boy is taken prisoner are haunting, whereas the vibrant fruit of the still life near the end is warming and intense. Most of these could be artworks hanging on your wall. In fact, I’ve visited The Illustration Cupboard in London and viewed some of Tan’s artworks just so. They are stunning. To buy the book from Waterstones, click here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

Once you’ve read one of these with your children, it’s amazing how much enthusiasm they’ll find for the next book – and then you can gradually start introducing a little text as well – through picture books, comics, graphic novels and illustrated books. Then the magic of the text will start to become apparent as well, as the reader begins to create their own pictures in their heads from the words on the page. And then the reader takes their own flight of the imagination and the seed of wonder of books is sewn….

 

Ivy Pocket Character Development: A Very Lofty Opinion of Herself

ABIPCOVER

I’m delighted to host a guest post from John Kelly, the illustrator for Anyone But Ivy Pocket on my blog today:

Ivy in cake

I love designing characters.
My favourite thing about being an illustrator and writer of children’s books is the bit at the beginning of a project where you get to decide what a character looks like. To be honest, I’d be happy just doing that, and not bothering with any of that messy story business. So, back in November last year when I got an email from Bloomsbury asking me if I wanted to illustrate, Anyone but Ivy Pocket I didn’t even wait to find out if I had time in the schedule to do it. I just read:
“Ivy Pocket is a 12-year-old maid of no importance with a very lofty opinion of herself.”
‘Perfect’, I thought. I know exactly what she looks like. So I drew a quick sketch and sent it to the designer.
It was Ivy standing by the broken pieces of a priceless vase, with a dopey expression that said, “I’m afraid it was an escaped panther, M’Lady.”
IVY rough 1

And that, with a few tweaks of expression, was pretty much how long it took to design Ivy.
IVY rough 2

That’s not normal. Usually there’s loads of versions and roughs. Lots of furious scribbling, curses, and rubbing out before the character starts to slowly appear. So, just for form’s sake, I did a few more doodles of Ivy, and a simple character pose. But she pretty much stayed the same. And the character pose I did even ended up as the cover of the book. I credit the writer, Caleb Krisp, with writing such perfectly described characters. And he was brilliant at offering feedback when I got it wrong. For example, my first attempt at the beastly Matilda Butterfield wasn’t right at all. Her description read:
12 years old. Very pretty. Dark hair, hazel eyes, red lips and an olive complexion. Looks like a doll. Lovely, but somehow unreal.
For some reason I gave her bubbly blonde curls and an expression of worried angst. Caleb put me straight and pointed out that she was supposed to be a selfish, malevolent, spoilt brat. I gave her long dark hair and a vicious little expression.

Matilda wrong
The hardest character to pin down was the enigmatic (and villainous) Miss Always.
Prim-looking young woman (aged 25-30) with mousey brown hair. Wears a brown dress and matching gloves. She has unremarkable brown hair pulled back from her face. Round spectacles. Excellent teeth.
She’s supposed to look harmless, uninteresting, and unthreatening. It’s really hard to draw ‘unremarkable’ and make it interesting. Anyway, it took me a while to get there. At first she was too silly, then too scary, then a teensy bit prim, then too friendly, then stern, then sappy.

Ms Always (1)

Good grief! Eventually I somehow combined them all and got it right.

Ms. Alwats final

So, I do love designing characters, but give me a massive evil beard, a villainous octopus juggling a cutlasses, or a giant alien robot every time. Much, much easier.

With thanks to John Kelly. The illustrations, as you can see, do enhance Caleb Krisp’s characterisations and further bring the story to life. You can read my review of Anyone But Ivy Pocket here, and purchase it here

Ten Picture Books Published in 2014

I wasn’t writing my blog in 2014 (well not until the very end), so in order to catch up with the new brilliance emerging in picture books, here are some of my favourites from last year. The good news is that now it’s 2015 they should all be appearing in paperback sometime soon if not already. Note that many of these are not just for 4-6 years, many 8 year olds have enjoyed these equally, if not more, and teachers will love the rhyming language, clever plot devices and nuances of some of them. Others can be studied for style alone.

Oi Frog

Oi Frog by Kes Gray and Jim Field
Top billing for this book in which a disdainful cat explains to a frog where he ought to sit. This book is totally hilarious – worth reading over and over again, particularly if you can get the tone of voice right for the cat. It’s a rhyming book, inspiring children to shout out the punchlines before you get to them. The beauty of the book is the extreme simplicity of the concept –which animal sits on which object? The cartoon-like illustrations of the animals will have everyone in fits of laughter from the beginning endpapers of the frog to the lambs sitting on jams, the bees sitting on keys, the pumas sitting on ….. – no, I shan’t give it away. Buy the book!

you are not small

You Are (Not) Small by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant
This is a picture book where the pictures are everything (and no wonder as the illustrator is none other than the New Yorker illustrator Christopher Weyant). You Are (Not) Small attempts to explain relativity to children. Not a detailed theory of Einstein, but simply that everything is relative depending on your standpoint. Two hairy nondescript creatures argue over whether one is small or one is big until a bigger creature comes along, and some much smaller ones too – and suddenly big is not big but smaller, and small is not small but bigger. Confused? Without pictures it’s easy to be, but with pictures it’s not only clear but also hilarious. Two astute punchlines at the end make this a giggle for the children, as well as an interesting lesson.

little elliot

Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato
Another picture book on the topic of size, and with amazing illustrations – but this is quite different from You Are (Not) Small. Little Elliot is an overwhelmingly cute elephant, but small of size. He lives in a big city – Mike Curato has drawn almost Edward Hopper-like New York cityscapes – old fashioned with towering city blocks and a bustling subway packed with people in hats. Elliot can’t manage in the big city, even struggling to reach the counter to buy a prized cupcake in a pink cake box. Then he bumps into someone smaller than him (a mouse), and by doing this mouse a good deed, feels as if he is the tallest elephant in the world. The landscape changes abruptly to reflect his mood. This is a highly stylized depiction of size, with a huge emotional impact, especially when we discover that Elliot has not only gained confidence, but gained a friend.

on sudden hill

On Sudden Hill by Linda Sarah, illustrated by Benji Davies
Far, far from the city, this picture book also packs a punch emotionally, but the setting couldn’t be more different. On Sudden Hill is set in a deliberately unrecognisable everyman’s countryside, where rabbits and chickens frolic in the long grass. Birt and Etho are two boys who climb up Sudden Hill to play their imaginary games with each other. Then one day a third boy arrives, but his arrival has difficult consequences for Birt, who seems to have lost his “two-by-two rhythm”. He shows his frustration in anger, and then withdraws, and it takes a while before the boys can find their new “three-by-three rhythm.” The illustrations are almost whimsical in the way they hark to a childhood time of freedom, of swinging in trees, larking with discarded materials, and seemingly having all day to play under the sunshine. As in Little Elliot, the drawings are of an American landscape and the story delivers a fine message.

sam and dave

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen
A definite two-by-two rhythm here as Sam and Dave are two small boys working towards a goal together. There’s a camaraderie between the two that one imagines is shared between author and illustrator, as the text and images play off each other to make the jokes. The images are in muted colours in the same way as the boys’ conversation is sparse and unembellished. As On Sudden Hill it relates to a childhood where all day could be spend digging a hole just for the sake of doing it. The reader is let in on certain jokes from the illustrator while the boys dig deeper and deeper. The whole text, images and pages from the very beginning to the very end need exploring for the reader to fully understand the whole context, the in-jokes and where Sam and Dave get to with their hole. Nothing to be given away here – you’ll have to buy it.

the something

The Something by Rebecca Cobb
Another hole, but this one is a complete mystery. Rebecca Cobb’s protagonist (described as a boy on the publisher’s website although to me the cleverness is that the child could be a boy or a girl) loses his ball down a hole in the garden, and spends the rest of the book imagining (with the help of friends and family) what could be down the hole. The book comes alive with the small deft touches at which Rebecca Cobb is so brilliant, the cowardice of the father figure, the imaginary mouse house beyond the hole, the diverse group of friends, the animals whose actions mimic those of the grandparents. This is a surprising and wonderful picture book, which, like On Sudden Hill, captures the power of imagination, and the beautiful landscape of the outside.

shh we have a plan

Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton
The power of colour screams from this blue book. This deserves a slow read – the text is almost a by-product, as all the action, characterisation and plot occurs through pictures alone. It’s a clever device, and if savoured, will result in your children clutching themselves in laughter. It did mine. Four hunters attempt to capture a bird, and fail every time. It’s a classic convention, yet executed in a stunning format. Each page is tones of blue – both hunters and landscape – the only extra colour being the hunted bird. Chris Haughton has a very distinctive style and he uses it to aplomb here.

teacher monster

My Teacher is a Monster (No I am Not) by Peter Brown
Again, an interesting use of colour for Peter Brown’s book, which as in Shh! We Have a Plan shows plot development through picture rather than text. The colours throughout are shades of brown and green – slowly turning to some turquoise and blue, and like Chris Haughton, Peter Brown’s style is truly distinctive. Initially Ms Kirby, the teacher, is portrayed as quite a monster. She roars in class, and stomps about with threatening behaviour. But then Bobby, from class, bumps into his teacher in the park at the weekend, and gradually they get to know each other. Bobby rescues Ms Kirby’s hat when it’s whipped away in the wind – and Ms Kirby suggests they fly paper aeroplanes – the same deed for which she had scolded her class earlier in the week. Then before his and our eyes, gradually her monster features are softened, and then disappear altogether through Peter Brown’s clever drawings, until in the end we see that she’s an ordinary lady. Peter Brown is showing us how we fear the unfamiliar, but if we overcome the otherness, then no fear remains.

ralfy rabbit

Wanted! Ralfy Rabbit, Book Burglar by Emily MacKenzie
Reminiscent of many other books that demonstrate a character’s intense love for books (see Bears Don’t Read by Emma Chichester Clark, and The Snatchabook by Helen Docherty), Ralfy Rabbit is another addition to the book lover’s library. However, Ralfy Rabbit stands apart for the massive attention to detail in the pictures and text. His lists of books will have adults chortling (The Rabbit with the Dandelion Tattoo), just as much as the children will be oohing after the cute rabbit pictures. Ralfy Rabbit loves books so much that he starts stealing them. Arthur is a little boy who discovers who is stealing all the books, but no one will believe him. His teacher’s attitude is astute and funny: “I want you to go away and have a long, hard think about what you are saying”, as is the bunny line-up when Ralfy Rabbit is eventually caught. The punchline – that a place exists from which you can borrow books – the library – is truly apt for our times. Let’s hope Ralfy Rabbit and public libraries have the longevity they deserve.

sloth slept

Sloth Slept On by Frann Preston-Gannon
Another picture book that explores the value of books is Sloth Slept On. When two children discover a sloth in their garden, they attempt to find out where it comes from – of course it doesn’t tell them – it’s always asleep. After coming up with a myriad of possibilities using their wild imaginations, they discover the answer by looking in a book and on a globe. Then the children need to work out how to get the sloth home – with interesting consequences, and a particularly funny punchline, which is alluded to throughout if you pay attention. The illustrations are adorable – from the sloth’s upturned mouth while it sleeps to the two playful and curious children. A winner for younger children.

 

 

Never Judge a Book By Its Cover

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

cathy cassidy sweet  honey

Or this for girls:

books for boys

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

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

Tom GatesSkullduggery pleasant parent agencySophie bookhansel and gretel

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

mr stinkTwits

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

Goth Girl FeteWitchworld

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

Barnaby BrocketBoy Who Swam With Piranhas

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

Daisy picture book Nick Sharratt Tracy Beaker

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

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

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory1charlie4charlie5Charlie cover2 charlie6   charlie3  Charlielatest

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

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

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

 

Freedom to Draw

In view of the world’s events last week, I thought it would be appropriate to share my thoughts on books that encourage children to draw, to dabble in cartoons and illustration, and to use drawing to express a point of view. Teachers use the power of drawing in many ways – whether it be early mark making, or at a later stage to help tease out the emotions and narrative threads in a story.

In my line of work I’m lucky to interact with plenty of illustrators, and when I saw Oliver Jeffers and Quentin Blake in conversation last year, my children were blessed to have a small tutorial by Oliver Jeffers on how to draw his iconic penguin. It’s created from a few very simple lines. Illustrators have taught me that sometimes the simplicity of a pen stroke can tell a whole story.
oliver jeffers penguin

Three picture books that promote the ability to create a story from a simple pen stroke are as follows:
The PencilThe pencil inside

The Pencil by Allan Ahlberg, illustrated by Bruce Ingman
The book starts with a pencil, all alone, who one day decides to draw. The pencil draws characters, and then a scene, and then actions, and after a flash of inspiration, a paintbrush which paints colours onto everything. When the world that’s been created starts to go wrong, the pencil draws an eraser…and chaos ensues. The characters, although all drawn by the pencil, have their own identities and want distinctly different things, and the rubber has its own agenda too. There are some lovely touches, such as when the rubber rubs out the chair from underneath the boy. There are some serious messages in here though – what can we create from nothing – and what would we create – and what happens when what we create doesn’t go as planned, and how we rectify it.
Dog loves Drawingdoodle Dog Loves Drawing

Dog Loves Drawing by Louise Yates
This dog loves books and drawing, which is fantastic. The idea is much the same as in The Pencil, Dog draws and as he draws the pictures come to life, and he creates a narrative. My favourite page is the page of doodles, the stickman pointing out:
“That’s the best way to come up with ideas.”
Brilliantly, the pictures Dog draws are simple and inspirational so any child reading the book can attempt to copy them. They are also drawn in simple pencil crayon and some are unfinished so drawing novices can really see how the animal takes shape. We managed a particularly good crab and owl.
crab Dog Loves Drawing
The book is full of humour too, as each new character also takes up a pencil or pen or paintbrush, and has its own ideas about what to do. In most cases though, the characters work as a team; dog draws a boat whilst crab scribbles the sea. The duck manages to mess things up by drawing a monster, and Dog has to escape back into his bookshop, but makes sure that his new friends are safe too. It’s a book that tells a sweet story, and promotes a love of drawing, with much fun along the way.

The Dot

The Dot by Peter Reynolds
There’s now a tenth anniversary pack on sale for this wonderful book. It tells the story of Vashti who thinks that she cannot draw, and so leaves her sheet of paper blank at the end of the lesson. Her marvellous teacher grabs the opportunity to see potential in her pupil, and Vashti gradually learns how to express herself through dots. Vashti experiments with colour and even blank spaces, and eventually gains enough confidence to pass the life lesson onto another child. The book is about using art to express yourself, having someone to believe in you, and how gaining confidence can influence a growing self-belief in others. Peter Reynolds also published a book called Ish, which is about children worrying that what they’ve drawn isn’t good enough, and overcoming that fear. You can watch him reading Dot here.

The Day in the Crayons Quit

Lastly, one book I must include but which speaks out with a slightly different message is The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. Duncan’s box of crayons send him a stack of letters, each one signed by a different colour crayon with a different message. Some are overworked, many are cross at being stereotyped (pink wants to be used more). The message is again one of individuality amongst the crayons – a rising up of the ‘workers’ against the ‘employer’, but also, much more pertinently, one of suggesting to a child that they can stretch the boundaries and use colours in a different way –promoting freedom of expression. Why can’t the sky be yellow, the sea be green, the whale be orange and the rainbow be black? This book has been shortlisted for the 2015 Red House Children’s Book Award.

All of these books inspire children to draw. Starting with a blank page – what narrative would we create and how would we illustrate it? Whether it be telling a story, expressing an emotion, or an opinion – illustrations can be hugely powerful things.

If your children love drawing, see this link from Guardian Children’s which teaches how to draw some favourite characters from children’s books.

 

 

With thanks to http://www.ojxdi.com/ for the Oliver Jeffers’s penguin image.