imagination

Trees, Treehouses and the Spaces Inbetween

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to understand the importance of trees as a metaphor or literary device in children’s literature. Their growth from seed to giant is in accordance with the growth of knowledge or imagination, they represent the wild within urban areas, they are a liminal space between ground and air. We use them in all manner of ways to talk about family trees, with all the various branches. We refer to a ‘tree of life’, a force that connects creation. Trees are affirmative – they give life by releasing oxygen, they provide food and shelter, they cover about 30 per cent of the world’s land area. No wonder I can rattle off ‘tree’ books in an instant – The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, The Thirteen Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, The Magic Treehouse books by Mary Pope Osborne…and so many more.

But these three recent ‘tree’ books are something special.

everything you need for a treehouseEverything You Need for a Treehouse by Carter Higgins and Emily Hughes

There’s something about a treehouse – that arboreal space that’s also domestic, a meeting of urban and wild, a place where imagination lets loose. This is sumptuously captured in this highly detailed picture book published earlier this year. Lyrical text leads the reader into the book – explaining that what you need for a treehouse is time and imagination. The text then branches out into poetry, using extended metaphor and alliteration, comparing trees to an army, but then calming into more natural imagery – sun speckles seen close, boxes for begonias, and of course elements of play. And the treehouses imagined in this book invoke all sorts of play, from swinging tyres to bookshelves and boats.

There’s practical advice about building treehouses too: proposing a child starts with a plan, or wears a hard hat, and remembers snacks and socks for cold overnight stays. The beauty of the language, of course, is that this is not a set narrative, but a bundle of suggestions, a plethora of ideas. And so illustrator Emily Hughes is let loose with her imagination – just as the child would be, with passion for adventure and creativity.

There are numerous children in this book – a whole school perhaps or a village – each with their own identity, using brains or brawn or humour to play their part. One girl does another’s hair while she lies in a sleeping bag, some children are telling ghostly stories with shadow movement, others listen to music or watch the stars. They play pirates, or direct others with drills and measuring tape. And each page holds a different kind of treehouse – one over water, one as a pirate ship, one as a palm house, and one with a helter skelter staircase. These are treehouses from the imagination and they are fully realised on the page – detailed, wondrous and fantastical. Because of course, not all children have the adult help, time, resources or space to build a treehouse, but Hughes shows that even with just imagination, the most fanciful treehouses can be built in the mind or on the page. Like castles in the sky. You can buy it here.

a good day for climbing treesA Good Day for Climbing Trees by Jaco Jacobs, illustrated by Jim Tierney

Jacobs is a prolific and popular author, with more than 120 books published, although mainly in Afrikaans. This novel, translated into English, is a light book about serious issues. Marnus feels invisible, stuck in the middle of a teenage older brother and a genius entrepreneur younger brother. So when Leila knocks on his door with a petition to save a tree, an opportunity presents. Before he knows it, he’s climbing a tree to stop the bulldozers, and then remaining there in case the bulldozers return.

As well as showing the reader how activism develops – from kindly neighbours and friends, to local journalists, and student protestors, the book explores a thirteen year old’s friendship with a child of the opposite sex, particularly one he’s just met – Marnus’s awkwardness round Leila is drawn with pathos and understanding, and quite a bit of humour too.

A cast of eccentric characters who gather round the tree and their activism makes the text warm and quirky, but Jacobs does more than just populate the story with colour – each character has their motivations and backstory, each character is fully developed and cleverly drawn. But it is Leila’s motive to save the tree that draws the book to a satisfying close – and leaves the reader feeling both fulfilled and uplifted. (Age 8+ years). You can buy a copy here.

the family treeThe Family Tree by Mal Peet, illustrated by Emma Shoard

Another well-known and hugely admired author, Mal Peet’s emotive and evocative novella, The Family Tree, has been given loving treatment by publishers Barrington Stoke after his death. Peet’s succinct, intuitive and astute writing tells the emotional story of an unnamed narrator who returns to his childhood house, looking back with nostalgia but also adult realism, as he recalls the breakdown of his parents’ marriage and the pivotal treehouse in the garden, which provided a childhood adventure but also eventually the sanctuary for his father’s breakdown.

Stunningly told, the publishers have pared the perspicacious prose with Shoard’s impressionistic full colour illustrations – their light smudging a beautiful counterpart to a story going back into the past. Features are slightly indistinct, the green and greys lend a fluidity to the scenes, and the treehouse is both a loving object and a place of menace as it becomes the father’s home and the cause of much angst and pain. Shoard’s illustrations bring an almost sensory element to fill the white spaces left in between Peet’s words – the body language of the three family characters is both poignant and brilliant.

Rarely does one come across a children’s tale written quite so hauntingly, leaving one drained and emotional but also strangely hopeful, nostalgic and understanding of human nature, and in particular fatherhood. I read in one sitting – as will you – and yet it will stay with you much longer than the hardiest of treehouses. (YA title, not suitable for younger readers). Unmissable. Buy it here.

 

Spring 2018 Picture Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Other Worlds: A Guest Blog by Guy Jones

Guy Jones

I’m delighted to host Guy Jones on the site today, talking about his ‘other worlds’ influences. Guy has spent much time writing for the theatre, including the West End musical Never Forget, but now he has turned his talents to children’s books, and his debut novel, The Ice Garden is a wonderful adventure. You can read my ‘book of the week’ review here. Guy talks below about why, despite enjoying gritty realism, sometimes we like to leap into ‘another world’. 

It started with Tolkein. My dad reading a little of The Lord of The Rings to me at bed each night. Spooling out, bit by bit, a reality that seemed as rich and complex as my own, but with the added benefit of dwarves and elves and wizards. But it wasn’t just the narrative itself that carried me along, it was the sense of there being an entire world – history, language, culture – of which the tale I was hearing was just a fragment. If we went for a walk I would imagine armies of orcs pouring down the hillside or hobbits padding through the trees. It wasn’t only a story, it was fuel poured onto my own imagination.

And then so many more… The grimy, serious fantasy of Earthsea, the raging creativity of Ray Bradbury, the beautiful Dark is Rising series, and the near-perfection of Discworld. And through all that, slowly grasping a new pleasure – stories where the uncanny and the magical rub up against the real world until it’s not clear where one starts and the other ends. It’s why I’m a sucker for the ghost stories of MR James and Susan Hill. It’s why Neil Gaiman is the writer I most look forward to reading. It’s why discovering The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly has been one of my highlights of the year so far. It’s why I wrote a book as deliberately ambiguous and strange as The Ice Garden.

Of course, some of this is just personal preference. I can ‘do’ gritty realism. I enjoy gritty realism! But I don’t enjoy it as much as something that has a little flavour of the other, or what Robert Aickman called his ‘strange stories’. But, also, I think there’s something more to it than that.

ice gardenWriting fiction is an act of imagination. But reading fiction is too. A series of marks on a page translate inside the reader’s head into something completely different; something replete with meaning and emotion that stimulates every sense. (If you don’t believe me then read Stephen King’s description of Stan Uris’s first encounter with IT. You can feel the atmosphere he evokes.) And nowhere is the imaginative leap required of a reader greater than when they’re plunged into an entirely different world.

Put simply, I believe these strange stories build the muscle of imagination. And the importance of that at a young age can’t be overstated. Not many jobs require you to invent a fictional history for the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, but there are very few that don’t require some kind lateral thinking or problem solving. Some kind of imagination, you see. And it’s not only key in a practical sense – I believe all this also only adds to the richness of a child’s inner life.

I understand it’s not for everyone. Some like stories set in the here and now, that deal with the world as it is. Some people hate Tolkein! And if your tastes run that way then I appreciate why. But remember… just because a book is set in another world, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

With thanks to Guy Jones. THE ICE GARDEN by Guy Jones out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). Read MinervaReads review of The Ice Garden here, and purchase a copy here. You can follow Guy Jones on twitter @GuyJones80 and find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com

The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart

Eye of the NorthA timeless, icy, steampunk adventure, this is a really interesting and intriguing debut novel.

Arresting from the first sentence, O’Hart tells the story of Emmeline, a girl constantly on her guard, taking ‘always be prepared’ to the next level. So when she is kidnapped, and stolen away on a ship to the far north to be used as a bargaining chip to get her scientist parents to awaken a giant mysterious creature (the Kraken) buried deep beneath the ice, she must use her wits and her anxiety to whittle herself free.

The book is dense, and surprisingly gripping, and positively teems with ideas. Emmeline meets a stowaway on her first sea voyage, a nippy little figure named Thing, as well as an organisation trying to prevent the evil kidnapper from taking further control of the world – this organisation is named The Order of the White Flower (with headquarters in Paris). With tentative allusions to underground opposition groups in World War Two, such as The White Rose, the complexity of O’Hart’s plot begins to show itself here.

The reader learns that this underground organisation has many members who have been working against Dr Bauer (the kidnapper) for a long time, but little detail is given, although the group sound intriguing and each member fascinating; O’Hart keeps the reader completely in the dark (to the end). One member has built an intensely complex flying machine, which Thing endeavours to fly to rescue Emmeline. As with everything within this detailed and wondrous book, my issue is that the contraption sounds so terrific, so fantastical, that it is difficult to envisage in one’s mind’s eye. The same happens numerous times – with the denouement, in which Dr Bauer constructs an engineering contraption to extract the Kraken from beneath the ice, using mirrors  – the idea is so highfalutin, that it is difficult for the reader to picture.

As Emmeline moves through her adventure, so O’Hart throws more and more at the reader. We learn that the world has been submerged in much water (presumably the effects of global warming), and so Paris is much nearer the sea than it is in the real world. As with the characters of The Order of the White Flower, this idea isn’t completely developed though, which is a pity.

At every stage in the adventure, from Emmeline meeting an almost mythological horse, (which sounds as if inspired by the old Guinness advert in which the horses morph into waves – powerful like the gods), to Emmeline meeting the Northwitch, who splinters into ice shards and then re-forms with a spellbindingly cold evil chill, the inventiveness is powerful and spellbinding, and O’Hart smashes the imagery out of the park. The only issue is that the images are so extreme that the fantastical is hard to pin down in one’s imagination.

There are some wonderful touches – the tribal people living on the ice, with their sledges and their fear of outsiders, although again, this is underdeveloped as a concept, which is a shame.

The Eye of the North is a sensational story, but this book alone could probably have been developed into about three volumes – so that each part could be extrapolated more.

It touches on humans’ environmental impact on the world, scientific explorations and contraptions, evil beneath the ice, mythical horses, an evil ice queen, good versus evil organisations, greed and power, as well as anxiety and bravery.

It fits beautifully into the zeitgeist of the moment, with a wintry landscape, a future blighted by our environmental impact on the world, and a protagonist with parent scientists who have high stakes in the action. Blending a timelessness with technology and environment, and featuring children who perpetuate their scientist parents’ ideas by attempting to prevent harmful agents, but taking the best part of the science and seeing it through.

The two children are intensely likeable. They are feisty and free-thinkers. Emmeline’s character is strong at the beginning; she is determined, holds onto her comforts, remains quick-thinking and suspicious, but I wanted even more character development from her. Likewise with Thing, who has issues with his haunting past, yet has a strong determination to hold onto a person with whom he’s made a connection. Because their characters ring so true, the reader wants to stay with them.

This is a storming adventure story for the age group, ambitious and hugely entertaining, and there’s no denying this is a powerful book. I just think it could have been about three. You can buy it here.

The Stone Bird by Jenny McCartney and Patrick Benson

The Stone Bird by Jenny McCartneyOne of the most beautiful picture books I’ve read this year, this story about the power of imagination marries the wondrous lyricism of both illustration and text so that the reader becomes completely immersed in the narrative, the emotion and the possibility of the story.

Eliza picks up a stone from the beach. But this is no ordinary stone. She is determined in her knowledge that it is an egg, and is not surprised to find that the stone cracks and a stone bird appears. An alive stone bird.

This simplicity is part of the beauty of this book, which seeks to explore a child’s resolve in her imagination, a steely belief that magic can happen. The story explores patience – in Eliza’s ongoing steadfastness to her ‘bird’, all through the change of seasons, her mum’s doubts and even slight mockery:

Her mother smiled, “It’s too hard to be a bird.”

“Well then,” said Eliza, “it’s a hard bird.”

And yet also, by the end, the story explores the ability to let go.

The narrative clearly takes the perspective of Eliza, but what brings Eliza to life for the reader, in the same way that the stone lives for Eliza, is not only Eliza’s speech, which is particular to her and encompasses her character, but also the expressiveness of her personality through her relationship to her friends, her school, her playing.

The illustrations are exquisite. The shifting perspective of the illustrator – seeing Eliza sometimes from above, sometimes up close, sometimes from the back – allows the reader an intimacy with the protagonist. We see how strands of hair pull across Eliza’s face, how she holds her pencil, how she lets her sandals slip from her feet, her scuffing through autumn leaves, and the crouch position on her haunches as she scoops the pebble from the sand.

Because Eliza experiences such joy and pain with her stone bird, such frustration and satisfaction at different times, the reader is constantly aware of the nuances in her emotional state through her behaviour. The delight at first discovery, the irritation and sadness at her mother’s skepticism, the wonder as the bird emerges, even the concentration as she colours in a drawing. There is so much attention to detail and close up that readers will feel as if they know, or indeed, have become Eliza.

Patrick Benson is the illustrator of Owl Babies, and once again he has achieved a picture book that feels fresh and original, and yet appears classic at the same time. Designed with the narrative at the heart, there are superb touches, such as the white space surrounding Eliza at her most miserable, and the author’s adept understanding of the simple pleasures of childhood:

“Not even the idea of her birthday made her smile.”

And also the ability of the author/illustrator to understand when to flood the page with illustration, such as the double page magic of the Christmas spread. It feels intimate, homely and yet imbued with a hint of wistfulness too.

A compelling, lyrical, superbly illustrated picture book that matches the power of imagination with the power of books. You can buy it here.

You Choose in Space

Whenever I sneak a look at the top ten most borrowed books in the school library, there’s one book that always features. You Choose by Pippa Goodhart, illustrated by Nick Sharratt is that dream of a book: children can read it over and over again, huddled around its pages with their friends, changing the narrative each time, reinventing the story in multiple ways, daydreaming their future. After a while, there is even a comforting familiarity about the illustrations. Just this week, some Year 3 pupils were going through the book making choices based on how much money their character had! So, it was with open arms that I embraced the new title, You Choose in Space. Whether it’s which alien you would befriend, what mode of transport you would use, or which freaky food you’d eat for your space snacks, the book has everything for a fun-filled interactive space adventure. Just as the original, the pages are packed with vibrant, colourful, happy images, giving full boost to any child’s imagination. It’s amazing to think that the original premise was rejected by publishers – for many children, You Choose has been their introduction to books. So, to turn the world on its head, I didn’t ask readers what they would choose in space, I asked Pippa and Nick. Here, are their choices for You Choose in Space:

 

 

Pippa:

Nick and I are actually pictured in the space craft coming in to land on Planet Pick-and-Mix.  Search carefully, and you’ll spot us!

If I had all those choices to choose from when we came down to land, I think I’d mostly go for blue things.  Why?  Because blue is my favourite colour.  I’d pick the blue bobbed hair to wear.

Nick: I’d choose the blue and orange hair and the Saturn top.

Pippa: A blue iced donut to eat.

Nick: It has to be the rainbow jelly for me.

Pippa: I’d very much like to meet the smiley blue alien with knobs on her head who rides a scooter and makes blue sandcastles from soft blue sand. I think she would make a fun friend.

Nick: I think the tall alien with the spike on the top of his head looks like he’d be nice and friendly.

Pippa: I’d also like to try and spy a duckafly from all the strange animal things as I fly by in one of those big baskets with wings.

Nick: My favourite is the horse bird.

Pippa: I’d very much like to ride on a pink-powered orange space hopper.  Why?  Because space hoppers were a new toy here on Earth when I was about ten, and I got one for my birthday, and I hopped and hopped on it again and again.  If it had that added pink zoom power I could hop it higher into the sky, and maybe even fly into space and explore all those other planets.

Nick: I had a space hopper too! But I’m going for the rollercopter.

With huge thanks to Pippa and Nick for taking time out of their busy writing and illustrating schedules to read their book with me. What would you choose? Go into space and make your own choices here.

 

Kevin by Rob Biddulph

Reading is so satisfying because it’s one of the closest ways we have of getting inside someone else’s brain – and I don’t mean just inside the characters’ thoughts, but also the author’s. It’s fascinating to see how someone else’s mind works, how they deal with a particular situation, or even simply the fluffy rainbows and unicorns that bounce about in their head.

One of the most striking ways some children have of utilising their imagination is in the creation of an imaginary friend. I’ve looked at this a little bit here to explore the whys of this phenomena – and trust me I think it’s something that can pervade adulthood too, especially for writers – I know my characters certainly live with me in one way or another.

Rob Biddulph’s latest picture book character explores this phenomena with a very clear motive. Sid Gibbons invents his imaginary friend as a scapegoat – someone to blame when Sid himself messes up. His mother, wisely, demands evidence of this guilty persona, and Sid draws Kevin (his imaginary friend) in quite acute detail, and his mother, wisely again, doesn’t ‘disbelieve’ in the friend – only in the premise that Kevin, not Sid, is to blame.

By the end of the story, empathy with Kevin shows Sid the error of his ways, (through a delightful little twist in the middle of the story), and before long Sid not only starts behaving, but enjoying his time with Kevin – and Biddulph sneakily lets the reader into the secret that Sid’s not the only child to have invented an imaginary friend.

Biddulph brings his distinctive rhyming style to this picture book, but has expanded upon it, so the sentences are longer, but still retain the rhythm and bounce of his previous books. The illustrations though, are exquisite. Freed from the animals of Penguin Blue, Biddulph not only portrays his humans with style and personality – from Sid’s trapper hat to his mother’s slippers – but also crafts the most appealing make-believe world, complete with a vast array of colourful flowers, spotty rainbows, and daft made-up beastie creatures. Shot through with a wide colour palate, they are nostalgic for adults used to 1970’s fashions, and vibrant for young children. Biddulph has a certain talent for images that appear simple, but are layered with detail. It’s fun to try to copy them – many children do (and for those with adults on twitter, you can follow his work on #drawwithRob).

What’s more the moral messages throughout – not blaming others, saying sorry, understanding others, cherishing friendship – aren’t spelled out in a pompous saccharine way, but carefully dripped through the story so that they are gently absorbed.

My only quibble is the portrayal of the Dad behind a newspaper and the mother with takeaway coffee and ugg boots, although in Biddulph’s defence perhaps it is just an accurate reflection of UK middle-class suburbia. Full marks though for the diversity of the children on the last pages – there’ll be much fun for children in spotting the different children, different beasties and familiar playground equipment. Watch out too for allusions to prior Biddulph picture books, and the final image, which suggests that sometimes Biddulph too escapes to his own imaginary world. You can buy your own copy here.

Story

What do I mean when I say I’m a writer? Aren’t we all writers? Whether it’s composing a ‘to do’ list, thumbing a text, emailing a sick note, we all do a bit of writing in an average day. My writing tends to be a little more creative; as well as reviewing or writing opinion, I also spend a vast amount of my time ‘making stuff up’.

So, in a day, I’m likely to do various types of writing. Writing to communicate direct information with people, writing for publications, and lastly for an artistic purpose – which also has a personal aspect – it’s a way of trying to make sense of the world.

I’m lucky in my artistic pursuit. I don’t (at the moment) have a time or topic constraint, and my first draft can literally be whatever splurge I like. Then I can revise it with a view to shaping and developing my thoughts, and adding knowledge. At the same time I’m going to hone my language, perfecting my ability to express myself.

My children, however, are not so lucky. The majority of their writing happens in school, and at the moment they are constrained by the topic they are being taught, the grammar system they have to learn or put into their work, and time. More often than not, the stimulus for writing is external rather than internal – their piece of writing is a response to another piece of writing or a film clip.

In essence, there is little freedom in their writing. There is little opportunity to empty their heads, to write about what interests them individually. And most of those children do not want to go home and write. Some do – and all are able – but most will not write for pleasure. They are far more likely to read for pleasure – writing is seen as work, associated with school – even more so than reading.

In an ideal world, there would be time in school for both reading for pleasure – quiet reading time to read a book of their choice – and time for writing – to write something of their choice.

Of course with ultimate freedom, comes some panic. Stick me in front of a blank screen and I will succumb to ‘writer’s block’. The same with children. So a walk in the park, a listen to the birds, might do the trick. If you’re stuck inside though, a package from ‘Story’ might help.

Story is a new company that sent me something called a ‘Walk-in Book’. It’s not as fleshed out as a Choose Your Own Adventure Story, and in actual fact doesn’t look anything like a book. It comes in a bag, and contains inspiration for characters, settings, and quests.

It’s like the stimulus mentioned above, except far less restrictive. It’s a walk in the park in a bag. In fact, my young testers and I found the map far more helpful than the plot pointers. Printed out on what looks like square maths paper, the map winds and weaves round leaves, buildings and crude drawings of animals and gives the most delightful nameplaces within which to set your story. We loved ‘Whispering Walk’, Red Rabbit Run’, and ‘Gushing Gully’, and found that picking out a route around the town was a good way to build a plot from scratch.

The story cards were a little pedestrian in their themes, but we did notice that what they had in common was that they asked questions, so we did that to form our story too. What if this happens, why would our character behave this way, who is doing what, and of course where does that happen? The cards are separated into ‘beginning’ cards for those who find it hard to start, and ‘quest’ cards for those who need a little help on the way. A doll and mask are provided for character beginnings.

I think the doll may be intended to look fairly unisex, but we attributed a girl’s name for it, and couldn’t quite see it as a boy.

The package did make us think quite hard about writing our own story though, and I can imagine that it would work well in group environments – discussion pointers for children to then go off and write their own story. I intend to use it in school, and think it will go down well, particularly for those children who just don’t know where to start.

For me though, I find the best stories hit me when I’m not looking for them. I’ve given my own children blank pieces of paper and told them to write from scratch – just to splurge from their own heads. And inside, they found treasure troves.

It must be all that reading they do!

Story can be found online at https://www.wearestory.co.uk/

 

 

The Right To Fail

So recently, I was shown a TED talk all about how we (society) are letting down our girls by pressing on them the idea that they need to be perfect. We are enabling them to be scared of failure. We are not pushing our girls to take risks, to be brave. And we should be.

Then, two very different children’s books arrived on my desk, and yet they have something in common. They want children to be bold, to be brave, to experiment, to risk failure.

If Found Please Return to Elise Gravel by Elise Gravel
This amusing sketchbook shows the reader how to be an illustrator. In fact, Elise prefaces her book like this:

“I give myself the right to fail, to mess up, to create ugly drawings. I’m kind to myself.”

Pages and pages of full colour doodles and inspiration follow, as well as small snippets of stories, to provoke the reader’s imagination. There are some step-by-step guides, such as how to draw a hedgehog, but with a bit of perseverance, and a recognition that failure is an option, most of the illustrations are fairly easy to copy without a broken down guide.

But as well as recognisable hedgehogs, Elise also stimulates the imagination with her made-up creatures, from ‘floofs’ to the perfume-footed ‘woompus’. It’s a great example of how to start a character description, with some illustrations leading into textual explanations such as the ‘woompus’ being a “close cousin to the squirrel…he communicates with a little sharp cry that sounds like an angry baby.”

Each illustration is drawn and coloured with vibrant felt markers – so any child can copy, or take it as a starting gun for their own design. The idea is to stop the reader or young artist from worrying about whether what they’ve drawn is good or bad – it’s all about practising and drawing anything.

The joy of this book is that it looks and works like a journal – an organic entity, which aims to explore, humour, and tease the reader into keeping their own doodle pad – to experiment without risk of judgement, ridicule or failure. There are no blank pages within though – you have to buy your own blank sketcher for that.

With an attached elastic bookmark to keep place, this is a feel-good addition to any young artist’s stationery and book collection. Buy it here.

Rosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers by Andrea Beaty, illustrations by David Roberts
No child I know has failed to love Andrea Beaty’s cool STEM picture books: Rosie Revere Engineer, Iggy Peck Architect and Ada Twist Scientist – which manage to spin a cunning rhyme, promote women and diversity within science subjects, and tell a good story at the same time. This spin-off title takes the reader even further by offering interaction.

The activity book begins with a story – the background to Rosie Revere and the influences in her life. Most important is her Great Great Aunt Rose, who explains that success comes after a series of failures:

“Your brilliant first flop was a raging success.”

“Failing is just part of learning and the only true failure can come if you quit.”

The book then lists some treasure that the reader might want to collect over time to use in their own inventions, including nuts and bolts, pliers and yarn, and all sorts of bits from recycling or thrift markets.

As well as a myriad of activities throughout the book, such as directions on how to make a catapult, and making your own marble run, the book also explains that part of being an engineer is improving existing designs and models – challenging the reader to improve a bicycle for example, and also looking at world problems that need solving, such as lack of water.

The activities are interspersed with knowledge: information about real life engineers and scientists, the different types of engineering, as well as definitions of different simple machines.

There is plenty of space for creativity: the book poses questions, showcases inspirational people, promotes brainstorming etc. Being an engineer also involves using your imagination. And there’s a section on teamwork too.

The book is a great way to develop a child’s problem-solving skills, but most importantly it empowers a child to fail on their way to success. This is a brilliant book. You can buy it here.

 

 

Draw and Discover with Yasmeen Ismail

Mark making has long been an important part of early years education. As well as developing those all-important motor skills, (which strengthen the muscles in the hands to help children to write for significant periods of time when they are older), making drawings, scribbles and illustrations helps a child to explore their imagination. It develops hand-eye coordination, and also helps a child’s cognitive thinking – learning about the world, planning and experimenting. Confidence in drawing can lead to confidence in mathematical thinking too.

How often do we, even as adults, picture things visually? And for caregivers, marks can make a child’s thinking visible before the child can write.

So the new range of Draw and Discover books by Yasmeen Ismail are particularly appealing. The books help children to identify word meanings and express themselves. Each book is led by a different character – Rabbit, Duck and Bear – as they explore different concepts: big, small, empty, full, push, pull, inside outside, and also of course Happy, Sad, Feeling Glad, which provides space and ideas for children to learn about, give name to, and draw out their emotions.

I’m delighted to have a downloadable pdf for you today, from Happy, Sad, Feeling Glad so that you can have a taster of this marvellous new activity book. Just click here: Yasmeen Ismail Happy Sad Feeling Glad

With thanks to Yasmeen Ismail, pictured below with her real live cat! (thanks to Olivia Hemingway for the photo too).

Yasmeen Ismail in her Studio on 28.2.17