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Dumbing Down?

This morning research was published that bemoaned the state of our teenagers’ reading. Apparently secondary school pupils are opting to read ‘easier’ texts. The research comes from Renaissance Learning, who run the Accelerated Learning database in school. This rates books according to their difficulty level and then quizzes children on completion of the books.

Firstly, let’s make a point of stating that if you know you’re going to be quizzed on a book you’ve read, clearly you’d opt for the easier book. I know I’d find it faster and easier to answer a series of questions on the Danielle Steel I’ve just read rather than the Dickens.

Secondly, I’ve just made an assumption here, that the Danielle Steel is an easier read than the Dickens. We have to ask why and how I’ve done this?

Accelerated Reader uses various measures to rate a book’s difficulty – something I’ve written on before, and which the company, quite rightly, then questioned me on. But essentially, they do ‘level’ books according to one criteria at least, which is simplicity of the sentence (vocabulary and syntax). For example, Patrick Ness and David Almond write some ‘easy’ books according to AL, because of their easy-to-read sentence structure. However, any who has read them will know that these are not easy texts. They contain huge themes, promote intertextuality, have complex characters, intense emotions, promote empathy. They are not, to my mind, easy texts.

As the literary agent, Jonny Geller, points out: “It takes a huge amount of experience and self-confidence to write simply.”

But ignoring all that, let’s assume kids are opting to read ‘easy’ texts. After all, David Walliams now commands a huge percentage of the children’s book trade market. He contributed £16m value in 2017 and I would call his books easy texts. The data from Renaissance Learning does show that the popular books for Years 7-9 are by David Walliams and Jeff Kinney. Why are young teens opting for these when there are so many great texts out there with fewer stereotypical characters and more complex plots and themes?

One of the reasons is access. I could point again to the closure of public libraries, which contain a wide range of FREE books, or to the reduction in schools library services at local councils, or the lack of funding to school libraries themselves. Librarians are dying out – more and more redundancies year on year. If we don’t provide access to different books for children, they can’t choose them to read. When Ofsted don’t even count the library as one of the points of inspection, you have to wonder what importance the government put on libraries at all.

Moreover, I could point again to the closure of independent book stores. No wonder children choose to read David Walliams, when the only access to books to buy is the local WHSmith or supermarket, where the book choice is tiny and those bestselling books are heavily discounted. Likewise the algorithms of Amazon, which indicate that if you like reading David Walliams books, then you’ll also like reading more David Walliams books…

Another survey out yesterday from Egmont showed that 48% of parents asked said that they were bamboozled by the choice of children’s books.

Is that because we live in a fast world and want answers immediately? Faced with the bright covers in WHSmith, is it easier to choose the one next to the till, the display of Walliams that are face out, the author you’ve heard of (ie. celebrity)? How do parents find other books?

Yes, there is a golden era in children’s publishing and the choice of books is immense – you only have to look back at my blog for the past couple of years to see the plethora of new amazing books published every month. And yet, parents do find it hard to know what to buy – there is a lack of coverage of children’s books in review sections across all media, there are fewer librarians to ask (see above), fewer teachers having time to read children’s books, fewer good booksellers who know their stuff. (The exceptions to the rule who do exist are awesome, by the way.)

We’re not providing parents with the easy solution of what to choose to buy. According to Egmont, 64 per cent of parents of 14-17 year olds agree that looking at the physical books is better than buying online, but parents find bookshops hard to access, and have little knowledge of where to begin. This leads to purchases of the familiar. Publishers, bloggers, journalists need to make parents more aware of what is out there for their children. It’s what I’m trying to do every day.

But let’s get to the crux of the matter. Some parents will argue with this whole strand of argument. AT LEAST THEY’RE READING A BOOK, they tell me. So what if it’s an easier choice? And I’d tend to agree – for the most part, my aim is to get children reading – to make it a life habit. If a person wants to read Mills and Boon, crime books (apparently we do, just look at the adult bestseller lists), or comics or graphic novels over literary fiction and classics – who are we to judge?

And yet, I would support the nudging of children onto ‘better’, more challenging books, onto those by David Almond, Katherine Rundell, Sarah Crossan – I could go on and on. There are great books out there, and some have simple language despite their huge themes! This should be our aim – in the same way that footballers take time to perfect taking a penalty, not only just kicking it straight at the middle of the goal, but trying different skills and angles, so we should aim to improve our reading too – reading a wide variety of texts and discerning between what we like and dislike, what is hard and what is easy.

What’s stopping children and particularly teenagers reading? Why are only half of all preschool kids read to? The elephant in the room, and the topic that comes up at the end of every article, just like mine, is the evil screen. Our children are opting to watch YouTube rather than read a book.

Are screens vastly more entertaining? They are a more passive form of entertainment for sure, even though you can pick up a narrative and learn new information from watching a decent programme. But I’d argue that we adults are at fault here. Why do we give the screen as an option in our children’s spare time? The second piece of research published(Egmont) explained that parents say that their children prefer to watch the screen – but the question I’d ask is why are we giving them that choice? Why do we let them take their phones into their bedrooms at night instead of a book? Why do we let them fester on the sofa with them? For an easy life?

We don’t ‘let’ them get away with other things. We don’t let them eat chocolate instead of broccoli as a side serving to their protein. We don’t let them go partying until 4am; we insist they come home at a certain time. So why don’t we remove their phones? Why don’t we make reading the go-to option? It won’t make a parent popular, but then parents aren’t supposed to be their child’s best friend, they’re supposed to be their parent and guide. And the best way to do this – lead by example. Put your own phones away, pick up a book, and watch your child do the same. Who knows, you might even discover there’s more to life than Youtube.

Nine New Picture Books Begging to be Read

little red reading hood
Little Red Reading Hood by Lucy Rowland and Ben Mantle
‘Why didn’t I think of that play on words?’, is the first thing I thought upon reading the title, but when I perused the insides, I realised I couldn’t have done it better myself. This is a captivating and entrancing picture book – the sort a child treasures and rereads. Little Red Reading Hood loves books and in a twist, doesn’t visit her grandma, but rather, the library. When Little Red Reading Hood and the tenacious librarian impress the wolf with their literary knowledge and analysis, the wolf turns to stories instead of eating people.

The twist here, is that instead of straying from the physical path through the woods, it’s better to stray from the all-too-predictable ending of a story, and instead, reinvent it.

The story is told in rhyme, with pitch perfect rhythm, but it’s also the little touches that enhance this picture book so wonderfully. From the endpapers with Little Red Reading and the wolf having fun mixing up fairy stories, to the beautiful ethereal golden-hued illustrated imagination that soars through the book, to the nature depicted in the woods. This is a fabulous new picture book and my top choice. You can buy it here.

pirates of scurvy sands
The Pirates of Scurvy Sands by Jonny Duddle
The Pirates Next Door is an immensely popular read, and this sequel keeps equal pace and humour with the original. In fact, just one reading of it inspired my little tester to find and read ALL of Duddle’s back catalogue. This time round, Matilda is going on holiday with her pirate friends, the Jolly-Rogers. Their destination – Scurvy Sands – like a sort of Butlins for pirates. The only trouble is that Matilda, with her squeaky clean demeanour, doesn’t quite fit in.

This is a totally luscious affair for pirate fans. Also told in rhyme, it’s simply packed with swashbuckling vocabulary and pirate allusions, with a busy backdrop on every page – telescopes, pirate paraphernalia, characters and more. Duddle has gone to town (or sea) and had lots of fun in the process. There’s even a treasure map on the reverse of the book jacket. Gold coins all round. You can buy it here.

cat and dog
Cat and Dog by Helen Oswald and Zoe Waring
For younger children comes this exquisitely illustrated lesson on getting on with others. A nocturnal cat and a diurnal dog love to scrap, but when they fail to see eye to eye on their different routines, and Dog insults Cat, it looks like a beautiful friendship is over. By the end, of course, they learn to say sorry and accept each other’s differences.

It’s the illustrations in this simple story that bring it to life, two hugely endearing and familiar animals, drawn so that they look good enough to stroke. The crayon-led illustrations add to the familiarity of the chosen pets, and the last page of their ‘scrapping’ together is a clever childish mess. Too cute to miss, this is a lovely publication from new publisher on the block, Willow Tree Books. You can buy it here.


I Say Ooh You Say Ahh by John Kane
One for reading out loud to a willing audience, this reminded me of those old-time party entertainers, but here, the silliness is executed with modern panache and an element of complete childhood joy.

This is a traditional call and response book – the author asks the reader to say or do something every time they read or see something. The result has an hilarious effect, leading to the children shouting underpants quite often. The reader has also to remember which action goes with which command, so it’s stimulating too. Great for classroom fun, and the colours are bold, bright and all-encompassing. The author used to work in advertising – and it shows in the block colours – easy to look at, easy to understand. You can buy it here.


Ten Fat Sausages by Michelle Robinson and Tor Freeman
It’s often remarked how translated fiction can go further and push more boundaries than our home-grown picture books, but here’s one that takes the ten protagonists and really gives them a raw (cooked) deal.

A play on the song, Ten Fat Sausages Sizzling in a Pan, here Michelle Robinson shows what happens when they try to save themselves. Unfortunately, sausages don’t appear to be very clever. Whether it’s leaping from the pan into the blender, or even into a ceiling fan, it seems that no sausage is safe.

The illustrations from Tor Freeman match the madness of the concept – from blueberries with their eyes covered, to weeping sausages, hoola hooping onion rings, and an almost retro comic feel to the lot – this is a crazy sausage adventure. Sure to bring out the giggles in little ones. You can buy it here.


The Strongest Mum by Nicola Kent
Being a mum, and having a great mum myself, I’m always touched by the portrayal of fabulous mothers in picture books – be it giving Sophie a fabulous tea when the tiger arrives, or returning to the Owl Babies at the end of the night. The mum in this delightfully sweet picture book amasses belongings and carries them all as if she were weightlifting for England.

Dealing with a familiar issue (carrying everything!) – and why giving up the buggy too early and having to schlep all the shopping by hand can be a mistake – this is a wonderfully exaggerated portrayal of a super mum. From carrying some treasure found in the garden at the beginning, Little Bear’s Mum ends up carrying everything including Zebra’s shopping, Lion’s laundry, and then…a piano. It all comes crashing down though, and Little Bear realises he has to help.

The illustrations are undeniably child-friendly, in a multitude of jewel colours, with an aerial view of Mum’s bag, each item labelled! With oodles of white space, the book doesn’t feel slight because every illustration is packed with texture, pattern and colour, despite a slight transparency to it all. An intriguing new style and a good pick for Mother’s Day. You can buy it here.


Lionel and the Lion’s Share by Lou Peacock and Lisa Sheehan
Another for a slightly younger readership, giving a moral story, this encourages children to share. Lionel the Lion is bigger than most of his friends, and good at snatching. So whenever they see something they want, Lionel always gets there first. When Lionel goes a bit too far at Chloe the Cat’s birthday party, he realises that he’s angry and sad, and needs friends most. Sharing is best.

Drawn with tender pencil strokes, Lionel himself is phenomenally vibrant, with a large orange and brown mane, and his animal friends are equally detailed. They are vastly anthropomorphised with clothes as well as human behaviours, but it is the colourfulness and fun of the backgrounds that enhance this picture book. A detailed musical instrument shop, a hat shop, and the village green – this storybook world looks timeless and appealing. You can buy it here.


Robinson by Peter Sis
A bit of a love letter to Robinson Crusoe, this picture book takes a look at the meaning of being bullied for liking something different, and also a whimsical approach to solitariness. It also shows what happens when a child or adult finds inspiration, solace and adventure in a storybook and use it within their own lives.

In fact, author Peter Sis researched the flora and fauna of Martinique, the inspirational island behind Defoe’s novel, and used his knowledge to illustrate the book. Sis’s fine art background gives some insight into the illustrations in these structured and intriguing pictures. He plays with point of view and light and shadow to create an utterly unique look to the book. The colour palette tells the plot just as much as the narrative itself.

Typeset in uppercase letters, the whole book feels like a stream of consciousness, a message in a bottle, as the colours blossom and bloom with the boy’s discovery of his own island in the imagination.

The book aims to deliver a paean to the act of adventuring and exploration, even that which happens in the mind rather than in actuality. A great discovery. You can buy it here.


My Worst Book Ever by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman
Last, but definitely not least, if you’re wondering how all those authors and illustrators featured so far produced their books, then you’d best read My Worst Book Ever. Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman are no strangers to the picture book trade, and here they’ve created a humorous look at what can go wrong when writing a book.

A classic book within a book scenario, as Ahlberg explores how he is writing a picture book about crocodiles, the text of which is hinted at within this book, but then things start to go wrong – the illustrator has different ideas, as does the publisher, and then a naughty girl at the printers messes it up even further. Added to this are all the various procrastinations that writers bow to – distractions out the window, family interruptions etc.

For children this is a fun and humorous look at the publishing trade. For writers, it’s a mirror. Illustrated cheerfully, this will bring a wry smile to many a face. You can buy it here.

 

Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year starts today, and this year, 2018, starts the Year of the Dog. These two wonderful new picture books celebrate aspects of the Chinese New Year.

The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes by Ying Chang Compestine, illustrated by David Roberts

This wonderful retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen tale politicises the fairy tale, while also inverting the identity of the hero of the story. Whilst the hero is still a small boy in this version, he is also the emperor himself.

Rosy-cheeked little Ming Da becomes emperor of China at the young age of nine. But because he is so young, the ministers and advisers around him take advantage of him and steal from the treasury for their own gains. Soon, Ming Da’s kingdom is poor – the people can’t afford to dress, or buy food, but Ming Da is scared that the corrupt ministers will take over if he simply fires them.

With the help of his tailors, the boy emperor concocts a plan, and for the Chinese New Year parade, when traditionally people have dressed in new clothes so that evil spirits won’t recognise them, he tricks his ministers into wearing rice sacks and believing that the sacks are enchanted, and actually appear as the finest garments in the world.

A boy in the crowd does pipe up and shame them, but it is the emperor who has the last laugh, seeing his ministers flee in humiliation, enabling him to restore the riches to his people.

Compestine has bravely taken the origins of the tale together with a folklore element, and twisted them neatly to suit her purpose. In fact, she grew up in poverty during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where food was scarce and Western folk and fairy tales banned.

Her book zings with both righteousness in the morality of the tale, but also in its new cultural identity and contemporary storytelling. David Roberts has created vivid, mesmerising artworks to match the tale, with colour vibrancy pared down so that the colour lives in the detail of the illustrations – the patterns of the silk robes, the intricate designs of ancient China. There is a clever switching too between full page framed illustrations and those that live in free space surrounded by white background.

The subtle colouring indicates a light touch, but also lets light onto the beautiful details of the expressive faces, as well as the sweet insertion of an observing mouse on each page. There is a guide to making your own Chinese New Year Parade robe at the back. You can buy it here.

The Great Race: The Story of the Chinese Zodiac by Christopher Corr

A complete contrast in the illustrations here, in which Corr uses his book to explain how the Chinese zodiac came to be. There is colour vibrancy from the outset, and illustrations that take on a looser, less geometric styling than Roberts’ above, but which still carry a fair amount of detail, and feel authentically Chinese, well-researched and lively.

The story begins before the delineation of time, in ancient China when the Jade Emperor decided that he wanted to be able to calculate how old he was, and thus there must be a way of measuring time.

The Great Race begins. The emperor decrees that the first twelve animals to cross the river will have a year named after them. The animals’ personalities come out in their method of crossing, from the rat who is devious to the lucky rabbit. Some of the animals even take to teamwork to get across.

This is such an appealing picturebook. An old folktale told in contemporary language, with breathtakingly colourful images – the picture of Emperor Jade welcoming the tiger across is particularly bright and evocative.

All the animals are ‘male’, which again reiterates the debate made in the Guardian last month, but this may be a nod to how the story was always traditionally told. However, as Compestine has shown above, twisting a tale is perhaps what’s now due.

Despite the male dominance in both books, these are fantastic introductions to the Chinese New Year, and beautifully illustrated. You can buy The Great Race here.

 

Animals, Hotels and Crazy Antics

Once they reach an age of reading for themselves, it’s quite delightful to see young readers pick up a series – they can devour book after book, knowing what’s coming next, but also developing an affinity with the characters, and feeling secure in the familiarity. I know that some of the most popular series in the library for these newly independent readers are Claude by Alex T Smith, Isadora Moon by Harriet Muncaster and of course, Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon. But if your little ones have READ ALL THE BOOKS IN THE LIBRARY, as one said to me recently, then you might like to try these new books:

nothing to see here hotelThe Nothing To See Here Hotel by Steven Butler and Steven Lenton
One of the wackiest, zaniest and most inventive books of the new year is this fun, silly, and outrageously colourful adventure from the author of Dennis the Menace books. The Nothing To See Here Hotel sits on the Brighton sea front, but it is enchanted and therefore invisible to the human eye (except for when a seagull flies into one of the invisible towers). Our narrator, busting with the same enthusiasm and energy of the author, is Frankie, one thirty-sixth troll, who lives in a world of magical creatures, and is descended from a long line of trolls, harpies, witches and puddle-nymphs.

Told in a chatty, conversational style, this is an exuberant romp through a day in the life of the hotel, which is owned by Frankie’s parents. A goblin messenger arrives in quite a whirlwind, announcing the imminent arrival of the goblin prince. The hotel is excited, until they see the prince’s mammoth entourage (which reminded me of the entourage song in Disney’s Aladdin), and the stuck-up prince himself, who is hiding a little secret.

The book moves fast – the characters are constantly in action, and Butler piles on the craziness, scene after scene. There is much unexpected plot, as it veers off in different directions, endlessly daft, weird and fun.

Like Phil Earle with his Storey Street series, and Tom Fletcher in The Creakers, Butler weaves himself into the novel by playing with the role of author – exploring elements of story and congratulating the reader on reaching certain points. This is never patronising, but an extension of the fun and games Butler is clearly having with the text. He also invents new vocabulary, along the likes of Dahl, weaving in words such as ranciderous and squivelling. Each addition is exciting, fun and fits the story well.

Hotels are also great fodder for literature – endless rooms, misfit characters, people away from home, and Butler makes full use of his imaginative Brighton resort. The final copy will be highly illustrated by Steven Lenton, but I received a very early review copy without illustrations. You can buy it here.

bee boy
Bee Boy: Clash of the Killer Queens by Tony De Saulles
Another cracking start to a series is this cartoon-based book about a new kind of superhero, a bee-boy. Melvin, by way of a touch of magical surrealism, falls into a bee’s hive that he’s tending, and is nominated protectorate from all anti-bee things by the bees.

It may sound a little strange, but works brilliantly, as De Saulles, illustrator of the Horrible Science series, meshes together ideas of bullying and survival, in Melvin’s experience of school, and the bees’ experience of human and natural dangers.

The parallel might seem extreme, but as Melvin battles with the horrific Norman Crudwell at school, so his bees battle against a myriad of menaces, from killer wasps to hawkmoths. Of course, De Saulles pulls in much ‘bee education’ in this fiction tale, but he manages to keep providing great sting and wit at the same time.

The reader will feel for Melvin as he overcomes his obstacles, but pathos is particularly evoked in the illustrations – Melvin has oversize glasses and sticking-out-teeth but manages to be presented as fairly adorable too. In fact, with the popularity of awkward cartoon-like heroes such as Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid, Bee Boy enters the fray as another contender for most gawky, and will win fans and readers. The book is simply full of illustrations, which gives a fabulous clue to each and every character. Most importantly, check out those endpapers. De Saulles has gone to town with his miniature depictions of Melvin’s classmates – imbuing each with an identity and personality. Lashings of fun, and a wonderful little crush on school friend Priti make this a buzzing read. You can buy it here.

night zoo keeper
Night Zoo Keeper: The Giraffes of Whispering Wood by Joshua Davidson, Giles Clare and Buzz Burman
Will is taking part in a school project to paint a mural at the local zoo, but gets admonished for his creative use of colour. When he returns at night, he opens a portal into the land of the Night Zoo, where animals talk, and danger lurks.

He makes friends with a giraffe called Sam, who explains that not only is Will the Night Zookeeper, but that he must keep the animals safe from the Voids – scarily destructive robotic spiders.

This is a short, fantasy adventure story, with stunning black and white illustrations throughout, but it is also a jumping off point for children and teachers to explore an accompanying website, called NightZooKeeper.com with the idea to stimulate creative writing.

A mix of animals, action, robots and a helping hand from a girl called Riya, the book ends on a cliff-hanger leading into the next story, publishing in August. It’s not ground-breaking storytelling, but my little testers liked it well enough. You can buy it here.

dave pigeon
Lastly, and by no means least, is what happens when a series for newly independent readers takes off (no pun intended). Dave Pigeon (Racer!) by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey is the third title in the successful series about a couple of pigeons who talk their way through their adventures and demonstrate oodles of personality and pigeon wit. In this particular episode, Dave Pigeon is recovering at the vets, having had a prosthetic wing fixed, when he’s challenged to a race by a pirate bird. Playing on the idea of racing pigeons, and with allusions and jokes galore for adults as well as children, this is a sniggertastic read. With language puns, sparkling wit in both text and illustration, your newly independent reader couldn’t ask for more. Unless they want a fourth Dave Pigeon book? You can buy it here.

 

The Eye of the North: A Guest blog by Sinead O’Hart

the eye of the north

Sinead O’Hart’s debut novel tells the story of Emmeline Widget, a girl who has never left her house. Until the day comes when her scientist parents disappear, and she is packed off to a safe house in Paris by boat. But before the ship arrives, she is kidnapped by the evil Dr Bauer, and  it becomes apparent that she is headed in the same direction as her parents – to the far north and the deep ice, within which a legendary monster dwells. But why does Dr Bauer want to unleash the monster? Who is the Northwitch? And why will Thing help her under any circumstances? 

This dazzling, icy fantasy is magnificent in scale, hugely ambitious, and magical at the same time. Here, Sinead O’Hart, who can read Middle English with perfect fluency, explores her inspirational childhood books (they’re all in modern English).

The Five Books that Made Me:

I read Alan Garner’s Elidor when I was eight, and it changed my life. It’s a book about family, about love, and about the threat of all you treasure being lost; it’s a book about another world seeping into the ‘real’ world, and how unsettling that can be. It features magic, mythology, sacrifice, and absolute bravery in the face of terrible odds – and it’s a book I still read at least once a year, because I always learn something new from it every time I read it.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince is another book which I adore. Partly a fable, partly a story about the frightening reality of being trapped in a desert without hope of rescue, and mostly a story about love that transcends space and time, it’s a classic that everyone should read.

Orla Melling’s The Singing Stone is a book I read as a young teenager, and it meant a huge amount to me both then and now. It is a children’s book, but there aren’t any children in it; all the characters are teenagers or young adults. Somehow, that didn’t matter to me at all. A young woman travels from Canada to Ireland to find out who she is and where she comes from; a story which links her to the Tuatha de Danaan, the old gods of Ireland, ensues. It’s a magical, dreamlike tale which fed into my love of mythology and folklore.

Pat O’Shea’s The Hounds of the Morrigan is a book I first read when I was eleven, and I can read it with as much joy now as I did then. It’s about Pidge, his sister Brigit, and a ragtaggle cast of characters who seek to save Ireland, and the world, from the terrible power of Morrigan, the Great Queen, the three-faced Battle Goddess of Irish mythology. It’s brilliant. It’s hilarious. It’s also genuinely nail-bitingly scary in places. It’s one of the most important stories in the world to me.

And Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time is a book that captivated me when I was nine or ten. It sweeps from our universe to another; it takes in complicated ideas from science and astrophysics and somehow makes them seem perfectly simple; it has a very clever girl at its heart. It’s also about the power of love, and how that’s the most important force in existence.

With thanks to Sinead for her thoughts. To buy a copy of Sinead O’Hart’s debut book, click here

Spyder: A Guest Post from Matt Carr

There’s been a spate of picture books recently that play on words or names, and I’m loving this one: Spyder by Matt Carr. Readers may think it’s easy being a spy when you’re small and have many legs to scuttle about on, but Spyder has problems with her size. Sometimes it means she ends up in the bath – a tricky place from which to escape. But by the end, Spyder saves the birthday cake from the evil fly and all is well.

This delightful picture book follows Matt Carr’s debut, Superbat, which also features a bold and bright animal behaving like a human, with some factual animal information at the back, a story packed full with humorous adventure and huge bold illustrations in comic book style. This time, our protagonist is female, and although immured in a retro colour palette, she is daring and brave with a very modern outlook and set of gadgets. 

I’m happy to host Matt on the blog today, telling us where he works, and how sometimes a work space isn’t necessarily the best place to sit and wait for ideas…

The word studio doesn’t really suit my workspace, and I say ’work’ and  ‘space’ in the loosest terms. I ‘work’ (I don’t really work, not in the proper sense, I just make pictures. It’s a bit odd way to earn a living really!) in a 6 ft x 3 ft lean-to at the back of my tiny galley kitchen.

It’s a bit of a tip because I’ve got so much stuff crammed into a small space. We call the kitchen ‘The Trash Compactor’ like on STAR WARS! and we reconstruct that famous scene on a daily basis, especially just before the School Run!

There’s not even a partition to separate it from the chaos of the house three daughters (disdainful of me), one cat (not sure what she thinks of me, you never can tell with cats), one kitten and 23 stick insects (although to be fair they don’t cause much trouble). Anyway, as you can imagine it’s not the greatest creative space but it does for me. In addition to this, I utilise other areas of my tiny house, as well as the town and surrounding areas.

I do most of my thinking while early morning running up on the downs. (Although, it’s barely running, more of a plod really). But up there I get peace and quiet and go through all the stuff I’ve got to do, as well as think about stories / characters / jokes etc. It gets me out of the house, which is an absolute joy.

I also go to the cafe down the road when I’ve got to formulate an idea and get it down on paper. I don’t know why, it just feels like the sort of thing proper ‘writer people’ would do, and indeed at the local Cafe Nero you see quite a few of them sat at their laptops typing away. It makes me feel as if I’ve got a proper job. I like the sketching / storyboard part best as it’s where an idea is really pure and you can shoehorn in as many jokes as possible.

If I’ve got drawing to do I go up to my eldest daughter’s room. It’s quite sunny and my cat sits up there all day, bird watching, so I’ve got a bit of company. I draw on the floor, like I used to do for hours when i was a kid. The only trouble is now I’m not a kid anymore, after half an hour I’ve seized up and it takes about an hour to get up! Due to this sad fact I’ve also started to draw a bit standing up in the kitchen which seems to work quite well! Then it’s on the computer doing my books and my day job (graphic design). We’ve got a new kitten, Doris, who now comes and squeezes in next to me and slowly edges me out of my seat. I almost sat on her last Wednesday!

The good news is that we’re hopefully getting an extension soon, so my workspace will get marginally bigger! I might even get a drawing desk!

With thanks to Matt Carr. You can buy Spyder here.

Matt Carr is an incredibly talented graphic designer and author-illustrator whose debut picture book, SUPERBAT, was published to international acclaim in the UK, US, Spain, Korea and Israel, and is currently shortlisted for a number of upcoming awards. Matt loves tea and lives in East Sussex. @mattcarrdesigns www.mattcarrdesign.co.uk

 

Children’s Mental Health Week

Children’s Mental Health week in the UK runs from February 5th to the 11th. One publisher has sent me a story specifically for this week, and there’s a gathering number of voices who are publishing books that speak to children’s mental health issues.

But reading any good narrative enables the reader to step into someone else’s shoes, to experience their story, and hence gain some empathy on another’s state of mind. But as well as that, some books relate more directly to the reader’s own experience – if the characters are going through a situation that they too are experiencing, the reader can see how the characters react. How do they deal with the darker side of life, how do they overcome their obstacles? In turn, the reader may review their own situation. The book may not offer a solution, but it can show readers another way of thinking about things, perhaps a different way through their dark time.

Someone asked me recently what comes first – if readers learn resilience through books, or if they come to certain darker books with resilience, enabling them to read the books without fear. It’s a tricky one. Some resilience is innate – there are children who accept scary books quite readily, others who approach them with horror, but some resilience is garnered through the reading of difficult situations and issues.

Most of all, books offer a safe space in which to experience the darkness of life, and also show how others perceive a similar darkness. Reading, funnily enough, can be less isolating.


Michael Rosen’s Sad Book
, illustrated by Quentin Blake
is a great example. Rosen wrote the book as a reaction to the death of his son – which is stated within the first few pages. But he also talks about a general sadness that can come over any of us at any time.

The book also explores ways in which Rosen tries to overcome some of the sadness, by thinking about good things he has done that make him proud, or remembering that other people are sad sometimes too. It’s good not to be alone. Talking through the sadness helps him as well.

This is a deservedly award-winning book, which prompts all kinds of emotions, both through the simplicity of the book, but also through Quentin Blake’s astonishingly emotive illustrations.

The book takes the reader through the different layers and types of sadness, from that which settles like a weight, to the sadness at the edges of the happiest things. Emotions are not isolated – they come in a tangled heap, sad with angry, sad with frustration, and sad with happy.

But most of all, this is not a book to which a child needs to bring their resilience. They will find it in the pages within. You can buy it here.


One newer book on the scene is Night Shift by Debi Gliori. This small formatted picture book is targeted at a teenage audience. Even its size and beautiful production (fabric cover) give away this book’s topic – depression can make you feel small, and anything that relieves it can be beautiful.

Gliori draws on her own experience of depression to illustrate this book, showing the illness in the form of a dragon in her charcoal-like illustrations. At first the dragon’s steam is a fog rolling in at night, but soon it pervades the day. Gliori highlights the physical effect of this mental illness in all its debilitating forms, but all beautifully drawn onto the normal day of a teen girl.


Gliori then goes on to highlight different ways in which the girl tries to rid herself of the feeling, from talking about it, drawing it, living with it. One of the most startling pages is the one in which she addresses the platitudes that are given to her: “chin up”.

There is a resolution at the end – her own way of finding a small beauty that helps the fog to lift, the dragon to fly away. As in Rosen’s book, it’s the skill of the simplicity of the language to convey the feeling, and the essence of sharing and hopefulness despite the darkness. You can buy one here.


Another starkly compelling and moving picture book is Small Things by Mel Tregonning, completed posthumously by Shaun Tan. The title is ironic of course – what the protagonist deals with here is not small at all. This wordless black and white graphic novel deals with one small boy’s misery at school – excluded from sports and friendships. His schoolwork is suffering too, and slowly the reader starts to see strange shapes and shadows that invade and penetrate the boy’s world. These take over, keeping the boy up at night, eating away at who he is.

The illustrations are painful to take in sometimes – the small boy’s sadness manifested in his large head and eyes, the anxiety and angst all too clear, the shapes and his disintegration fairly horrific. But when he shares his feelings with his sister and then confides in his parents, things start to change. Finally, he sees that he is not alone in the strange creatures – gradually, the boy sees that others have the shapes to deal with too, and so feel as he does and a bond is formed. It’s not a complete resolution, but a path forward.

The book comes from a place of pain, but the idea is that it provides solace to those who otherwise may not have reached out. Wordless, it screams louder than most. It’s available here.

The last book is the one sent to me by a publisher for this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week. It’s a book that aims to explore and teach mindfulness. Mind Hug: The First Story by Emily Arber and Vanessa Lovegrove shows a boy upset by the influx of noise inside his head, the buzziness of everyday life, but also the thoughts that can erupt from nowhere. Then his father shows him how to breathe and to dismiss the overcrowding. It doesn’t work at first go, but the boy tries again. In the end he shares it with a friend, who shares it again.

The idea, like mindfulness, is relatively simple, and the premise good. Unfortunately the text is a little all over the place, with some rhyming, some not, and a rhythm that comes and goes. You can buy it here.

But it’s not just picture books that bring awareness of mental health, and I’ve highlighted a couple of others here.

Like so many other ‘issues’, sometimes the best books are those that nudge a child towards the issue rather than focus the entire book on it. Flour Babies by Anne Fine is an excellent example – when the children in school have to look after their own ‘flour sacks’ as babies, and learn many things in the process. Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot by Horatio Clare talks about the difficult subject of parental depression all wrapped within a beautiful nature adventure story, Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho Yen and A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill also deal with depressive parents, but again, next to well-told stories. The protagonist in The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson has OCD, but the book reads as a mystery.

By opening up a book with a fictional cast of characters but with very real problems, it’s hoped that children can find a way through, discover a path they may not have thought of, see a light in the dark. Have a look at The Empathy Lab here, for more ideas.

 

The Very First Spring Picture Books

As the days gradually get longer, and there’s the promise of new beginnings in the air, thoughts often turn to nature. Here are two new picture books that are positively brimming with the idea of spring and natural light, and both feature insects – one anthropomorphed as male, one female.

The Weaver

The Weaver by Qian Shi
Just published this year, The Weaver is one of those special picture books that appeals to the very young with its tone, and yet transmits a message that is for all ages. Stanley the spider is born, and after catching a lift on the wind, starts to build a collection of precious things in his web. But unfortunately, the weather plays havoc with his plans, and blows away his possessions. It’s what he’s left with though, that really touches the heart.

This is a powerful story, illustrated with clean simple lines and colours, which instructs us about the impact of memory. In a world in which we attempt to capture everything on a mobile phone, or through a lens, this is a great reminder that our brains are the best receptacle for what’s precious.

Illustrated pitch perfectly, with a friendly spider who is almost cartoon-like in his demeanour, with expressive legs/arms that Shi has manipulated so that the reader sees the spider’s emotion through the shape of his body and placement of legs as well as his mouth. But it’s also the nature surrounding Stanley that works so well – the simple shapes of plants, the clever fading on the web for effect, and of course the shiny front cover.

Just like Stanley’s collection of objects, this is a book that makes an impression on the memory and will last for some time. A great start to the year. You can buy it here.

Firefly Home

Firefly Home by Jane Clarke and Britta Teckentrup
Another picture book for the very young, this too speaks to the reader, and even asks for interactivity, but there is more than just a simple story in this clever book. Florence is a firefly and she’s lost. The reader is asked to help her find her way home, but every time Florence sees a bright yellow light on the page, when the reader turns over, Florence is disappointed – it’s not the light she’s seeking. Once a moon, once a lighthouse, then a train, then city lights.

None is the home Florence is looking for, and the author makes it very clear that the bright lights of the city are too bright for Florence. This light pollution is making wildlife lose its way. At last, there’s a happy ending and Florence is reunited with her family.

The dazzling yellow in the illustrations works wonderfully – both in the way it shines through a hidden space, but also in the big reveals, when light spills from the top of the lighthouse, or dazzles the reader in the bright city. And Florence, as with Stanley, is endearing and rather human – in that her body language is expressive, her large eyes especially so. By the end, the reader will feel they had a part in helping the firefly, and will probably want to read all over again. Amazing colours in the blue of the sky, the yellow of the lights, and fantastically simple shapes of the buildings and flowers. You can buy it here.

American Big Hitters

Two picture books that snuck into the publishing schedule last year, but which have recently come to my attention are both by big hitting American authors, who both dabble in the children’s book market, as well as writing adult fiction. Here, their individual writing styles shine in two profoundly different takes on the picture book and what it can do.

the bad mood and the stick
The Bad Mood and the Big Stick by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Matt Forsythe
There’s nothing new in the idea of a child in a bad mood who passes it on (see my 2015 blog here), but Lemony Snicket is a master at putting his own spin on a premise, especially adding a tongue-in-cheek quirk. What’s more, the illustrations are sensational – from the cover onwards. The little girl on the cover, holding her stick, looks so mad and grumpy, one really feels as if she might wield it at the reader. But it’s the grumpy cloud above her (with matching facial expression) that appeals to the reader too – like the grey cloud above Eeyore, this one looks hard to shift.

Curly is the grumpy girl, and she has her reasons. The bad mood has been with her since she saw an ice cream shop, but was not given an ice cream. The reader sees her with her arms crossed, the bad mood hovering above, and her mother and brother strolling happily ahead. Of course, within pages, Curly has passed the bad mood to her mother (Yes, you’ve guessed it, she poked her brother with the stick, giving her momentary delight and causing her parent stress). The book continues as the bad mood passes from person to person.

Except that’s not the whole story. Snicket uses the catchphrase ‘You never know what is going to happen’, as the book veers off into completely different territory – with the stick as a catalyst, and one particular person breaking the bad mood chain. In the end, Curly gets an ice cream, but the bad mood seems to be hovering again.

The illustrations work well – a multi-coloured bad mood that sets the colour palette for the book, infusing everything with a candy-hued blend and a dominant pastel orange. The cast of characters are shown with a range of emotions – even the animals. This means that the moodiness isn’t isolated; it can spring upon somebody suddenly, but it can also mix with other emotions, providing a contrast, or be diluted itself. Emotions are complex things, but also fleeting…You can buy a copy of the book here.

her right foot

Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Shawn Harris
A second title from the end of last year, also American, also by a big-name author. But this, as Dave Eggers explains, is a factual book about the origins of the Statue of Liberty. The pace is fast, the author chatty and self-referential, addressing the reader using the second person ‘you’ as he assumes the reader has a basic knowledge of his topic while he quickly documents how the statue was conceived and built.

But the main thrust of the book, reached halfway through, is the foot of the title, which is shown to be walking. At this point, Eggers wants the reader to use their knowledge to think about the meaning behind this. Why is the Statue of Liberty mid-stride? The story leaves the factual behind and crosses into the territory of extrapolation and discovery. If the statue is for freedom, and she is walking, then she is continuing the fight for freedom, for liberty.

Embracing the culture of immigration, of building a nation for freedom, Eggers has created a picture book manifesto for how he views the United States. In our current political climate, this is a pertinent point well made, and the second half of the book shows the mix of immigrants to the States since the Statue of Liberty was constructed, and the ongoing fight for tolerance and acceptance.

The illustrations throughout show a myriad of peoples, as well as places, but feel poster-like in their construction, and display a sense of humour that matches the author’s. Although the book feels a little preachy in places, it’s a good jumping off point for discussion. And remains timely in 2018. You can buy it here.

 

 

The Ice Sea Pirates: A Sneak Peak at Illustrations

I’m delighted to showcase The Ice Sea Pirates by Frida Nilsson, illustrated by David Barrow, on the blog today. Nilsson’s latest book, The Ice Sea Pirates, is a classic children’s adventure story about a girl called Siri who dares to trek the ice seas and face down fearsome leader of pirates Captain Whitehead, in order to rescue her sister. This is a survival story set in a wild landscape of our dreams and nightmares – seas that freeze over with extreme cold and lash ships to pieces with their ice shards – a troop of pirates who capture children to work down a mine – ferocious wolves who wander the ice looking for prey.

But above all, this is a hugely compelling read with a sympathetic, staggeringly brave and wholesome main character, and a gripping narrative. It’s no wonder the book has been nominated for five Swedish book awards, and won three of them. Now, available in English, translated by Peter Graves, and softly and warmly illustrated by David Barrow, this is really a sumptuous read.

Nilsson draws clever parallels between wolf cubs and children, explores boundaries of nature and nurture and protection of the young. She also shows the ability of children to see the larger picture, as well as delving into themes of family loyalty, and the wonder of mythical sea creatures. This is a daring and intelligent tale, sprinkled with humour. More than anything though, it is the imaginary harsh Arctic landscape of small islands dotted in the freezing sea that dominates, and creates an adventure that’s both beautiful and challenging. Frida Nilsson explains the role of nature in the novel:

“The scenery is very important I think, in order to convince the reader that I am “telling the truth”. That doesn’t mean that the description of the scenery most be very long. In fact, I heard a Swedish writer say once: the longer and more thorough the scenery is, the surer you can be that the writer was never there for real. To describe the scenery in a short and vigorous manner is not easy.

The Ice Sea Pirates is a fictional world with, of course, strong impressions from the Arctic. I went to Tromsö (northern Norway) with my mother once. She worked at the hospital there and I had the days all to myself to wander about and go to the local museum, where they had exhibitions about whale- and walrus-hunting. A lot of my ideas for the book come from that trip.

My home town of Mörkö, Sweden, wasn’t a direct influence for this book, but the beautiful scenery is an inspiration for me and my writing.”

Frida’s text is complemented by the softly drawn, mesmeric images from illustrator David Barrow. Below is a selection of the images, which Gecko Press have been kind enough to let me share.




You can buy The Ice Sea Pirates here.