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Fairy Tales for a New Generation

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about fairy tales. In fact, I probably have a fairy tales blog every six months or so. Why is that? Are fairy tales so important? Yes, they are. People have written whole theses on the topic…but essentially fairy tales work because they give us a view of how life is within a set structure. Within this fantasy framework we can formulate dreams and understand our deep-set fears.

Publishers aren’t just reprinting old fairy tales in new editions though. With a sense of our own changing societal rules and preoccupations, they are releasing anthologies that aim to subvert the status quo, or shine a light on forgotten tales, and writers are retelling tales with modern twists.

hansel and gretel
Hansel and Gretel by Bethan Woollvin
is my favourite fairy tale this autumn. With a subversive grin at parents everywhere, Woollvin neatly turns this fairy tale on its head by making the children the villains. In this retelling, Hansel and Gretel are a little entitled, helping themselves to sweets from a strange house. Woollvin pushes this idea, subverting who is good and who is bad, as the children’s naughty antics test the witch, even though she tries so hard to be a good hostess. In the end, of course, even the nicest witch can be driven too far. No stranger to subverting fairy tales, with past titles including Little Red and Rapunzel, Woollvin’s clever two tone illustrations highlight the pertinent points of the story, zooming in and out as if the reader is operating a film camera. Witty and wise. You can buy it here.

secret of the tattered shoes
The Secret of the Tattered Shoes by Jackie Morris and Ehsan Abdollahi
A completely different take on the traditional fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses is illustrated with great intricacy in this slightly melancholic version. Morris plays with themes of love and redemption in her poetic retelling, her soldier ‘a hollow shadow of a man’, her princess with ‘a smile like frost on glass’. Abdollahi matches the depths of Morris’s story with fully detailed illustrations, turning the characters into complex puppets, and inserting golden headpieces that illuminate the page, fruit that tempts the reader to try to pluck it, and a weariness in the eyes of her tired dancers. A supreme and surprising twist makes this a complex but worthy new interpretation. You can buy it here.

reading beauty
Reading Beauty by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Meg Hunt
My last fairy tale picture book retells Sleeping Beauty with a rhyme, transplants it to the future, and gives it a feminist feel. Lex is a booklover, but her parents remove all her books when she is 15. No, not because they feel she’s a fully fluent reader and doesn’t need more help, but because a nasty fairy cursed Lex with the promise of a paper cut, which would put her in a death-like sleep. Of course, a bookworm such as Lex uses knowledge from her books to overcome the curse, and outwit the nasty fairy, who it turns out, has a reason for her evil-nature. A fun, futuristic, humorous retelling with bold, bright, and busy illustrations. You can buy it here.

eight princesses
Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror by Natasha Farrant, illustrated by Lydia Corry
More modernity in this collection of original short stories, which takes eight princesses and gives them modern cause. There’s the princess who saves natural landscapes from urban developers, the princess who discovers being kind trumps being royal. Bookended with the tale of an enchantress and a magic mirror who long to discover what princesses are really like, the stories are told in the rhythm of traditional fairy tales, but with a firmly modern outlook, as the princesses are revealed not to care so much about their looks and future husbands, but more about being brave and determined and independent (even those who do marry). Illustrated in colour throughout by Lydia Corry, each tale feels quite distinct from the next, and yet form a cohesive whole. Perhaps a Christmas gift for Meghan? Age 8+. You can buy it here.

lost fairy tales

The Lost Fairytales, retold by Isabel Otter, illustrated by Ana Sender
It seems not all traditional fairy tales need to be reimagined or repurposed for our new sensibility. This anthology gathers tales from around the world, all of which feature heroines who demonstrate bravery and wit and none of whom needs rescuing. Instead, Isabel Otter has rescued the stories from their precarious position outside the canon of traditional tales. A story map at the beginning helpfully shows where the tales have been rescued from – so we find out that Sacred Waterfall, a fairy tale about Bending Willow, who won’t bend to her fate but shows persistence in what she believes to be right, is a tribal story hailing from what we now know as Canada, and The Shining Dragons, the tale of a fearsome orphan called Thakane who shows both immense bravery and also huge cunning, comes from Lesotho. Illustrated throughout with warmth and spirit, and with sensitivity to the region from which the stories come, this is an intelligent collection. More information in the back about story origin and thinking points. Age 7+. You can buy it here.

forgotten fairy tales
Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls with a foreword by Kate Pankhurst
Although I have qualms with books that advertise ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ on the cover, lest it should be off-putting to others, this collection also aims to firmly reclaim fairy tales with a feminist agenda. These traditional tales haven’t been retold with a twist, but rather are retold as they were, with modern language but the same storyline in order to show that traditional fairy tales featuring brave, determined women as protagonists did, and always have, existed. As attitudes change, so do the stories being told. This anthology sets text against a plain white background, with simple prose, and colour illustrations dotted throughout. The tales feel familiar – goblins, giants and castles, sisterly love and happy-ever-after marriages, but all with strong, agenda-setting female protagonists. For age 7+. You can buy it here.

folk tales for bold girls
Folk Tales for Bold Girls by Fiona Collins, illustrations by Ed Fisher

Lastly, something a little different, in that this is a compact book that concentrates far more on the text – black and white illustrations heading up chapters only. But the illustrations do something clever – they transpose real bold girls (from photographs) into the folk characters (in illustration).

The text too is clever, simply told, and yet with a distinctive rhythm to its plainness. There is no didacticism – the tales are for the reader to disseminate. Tales from other countries abound, even some familiar tales such as Red Riding Hood retold as a non-traditional version. Collins lists her sources at the back, and this too is fascinating, with an emphasis on the reader looking up further tales and retelling them themselves. A sort of pass-it-on telling, which is the very essence of folk and fairy tales anyway. And of course they all feature bold girl protagonists. For age 7+. You can buy it here.

Friendship Picture Books

How has the first half term of school been? Has your child made lots of new friends? It’s a perpetual anxiety for a parent – whether their child has made friends at school, and the tricky dynamics of friendship continue long into adulthood. From sharing toys in reception, to peer pressure in the teen years, to sociability as adults, our ability to befriend others can be an ongoing worry:
“Why haven’t they texted me back?”

A plethora of recent picture books show us some of the pitfalls of making friends, some of the benefits of friendship, and the fun to be had in another’s company.

misadventures of frederickThe Misadventures of Frederick by Ben Manley and Emma Chichester Clark
There is so much to love about this book. Emma Chichester Clark has long been a favourite illustrator of mine, ever since Blue Kangaroo got lost on the bus, and this new book shows off Clark’s wonderful depth of expression in her characters, her warming and familiar use of colour, and the positivity that flows through scenes of childhood joy. Add to this a wonderful yet somewhat subversive story about a quirky boy called Frederick who lies in a mansion but is very bored. Emily invites him (in a series of letters) to play outside with her, but he is reticent – what if he gets hurt? Emily’s perseverance pays off, and before long the thrills of nature have made themselves abundantly apparent.

There’s a skill in a good picture book, and this one excels in every way. The growing sense of adventure and wonder of nature creeps slowly into the mansion, poking Frederick with tendrils that seek to disturb and tempt him. Emily lives the idyll of childhood – leaping freely into water (shown mid-air), riding a bike, climbing a tree.

Frederick lives surrounded by stuff, yet in much more muted colours, and all the time his wallpaper, his TV shows, his toys, remind him of what might lie outdoors. The possible bond between the children is the stream of letters (shown in text and illustration) that flow between the two like a rushing stream. There’s even a funny ending. You can buy it here.

the pirate tree
The Pirate Tree by Brigita Orel and Jennie Poh
This slightly more lyrical text reminded me of On Sudden Hill with its imaginative children who turn a simple tree into a pirate ship. At first rejected because he is new to the area, Agu is quickly permitted onto the boat when Sam realises that Agu has useful knowledge, borne from his experience of leaving Nigeria. By the end, the girl and boy have sailed the seas, discovered a deserted island, reefed the mainsail, sparred with rival pirates, and made friends.

A large amount of white space on each page allows the reader to absorb the poetical prose and textured neat illustrations, as well as fill the gaps with their own musings and imagination. Beautiful, with a stunning vocabulary. You can buy it here.

my friends

My Friends by Max Low
With a title as blatant as that, it’s clear what this book is about, but it mainly appealed to me because the illustrations reminded me of Heathcliff and Henry’s Cat (1980’s cartoons). Each page introduces a new character and their characteristics or hobbies, all with a massive dollop of humour. Pepper cooks yummy food, Olga listens to music. The trick is that on each page, the first person narrator describes how he gets involved with this new friend through this shared hobby. There’s even an imaginary friend, and also the virtues of having some time to oneself. Simple, bright and illuminating the benefit of having lots of friends who like different things. You can buy it here.

golden acorn
The Golden Acorn by Katy Hudson
A more pointed message in this longer animal story about teamwork; the book sits firmly in the ‘autumn’ canon of children’s books. The third in the series about Squirrel, Rabbit, Beaver and Tortoise, following Too Many Carrots and A Loud Winter’s Nap, this book highlights Squirrel’s desire to win The Golden Nut Hunt for the ninth time. But this year, the tournament has been turned into a team event, and so she reluctantly drags in her friends – they just don’t have the skillset to win. Of course, in the end she puts her friends before trophies. Great illustrative vignettes showing the myriad of different obstacles in the race make this a winning title – the characters’ expressions match the energy of the race.

flock
Flock by Gemma Koomen
Another celebration of nature in this whimsical picture book from a new author. Sylvia is a Tree Keeper, one of a tiny community of little people who live in trees (their heads are the size of hazelnuts). They ‘nurture and mend, gather and tend.’ Sylvia is a loner, but a chance encounter with a baby bird encourages her to rejoin her flock and find comfort in friendship. The book celebrates community spirit, and will be loved by youngsters who like their picture books full of tiny people from old-fashioned magical lands – the Tree Keepers are pictured playing musical instruments, dancing around the maypole, and celebrating with wholesome homemade food. The main illustrative treat comes not from the Tree Keepers though, but from the flock of birds, the ‘thousands of wings beating as one’. A good guide to nature as well as to neighbourliness. You can buy it here.

humperdink
Humperdink Our Elephant Friend by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Clare Alexander
The illustrations in this young picture book are less intricate, slightly vaguer and more haphazard, which lends well to the playgroup setting. With black outlines and careful choice of colour, the playgroup feels authentic and familiar – a yellow rug on the floor, coloured building blocks, and much role play; the children hail from a variety of different backgrounds. Weirdly enough, the new kid isn’t a kid at all, but an elephant. And he fits in as well as a bull in a china shop, despite the children’s best efforts. In the end of course, they discover how he can contribute to the group.

Like some of the other picture books here, the book has a gentle nod towards the benefits of nature – the children venturing into the jungle with the elephant and finding a plethora of fun activities there. It’s a magical title, adding huge excitement to normal tales of playgroup friendship, and of course giving the message that inclusivity is key. There’s a wonderful exuberance to the illustrations here – children love slides! You can buy it here.

we are together

We Are Together by Britta Teckentrup
Teckentrup has a distinctive style all of her own, and it is easy to spot her books in the library. Inside, the books all sing with a similar rhythm, a lovely rhyming poetry. And many tend to have cutouts within, giving an extra physical dimension to the book. We Are Together has all of these, and here they work particularly well. The message is unity and teamwork – the power of a group, particularly a diverse group who are supportive of each other. With references to needing support in unhappy or difficult times, with an understanding that we are small in comparison to the big world, and an absolute appreciation of nature all the way through, this is a neatly told message. The cutouts provide endless amusement and bring a smile – each page reveals the group to be larger and larger – lots of small people eventually making a circle. It reminded me of the Coca Cola advert of old, teaching the world to sing. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Two Hoots, Lantana Press, Otter-Barry Books, Curious Fox, Frances Lincoln, Words&Pictures and Little Tiger Press for the review copies.

Invisible in a Bright Light

invisible in a bright lightIt has struck me recently that the newspapers have been full of the word ‘reckoning’, particularly of course, over Brexit. A Day of Reckoning – when we look back at past misdemeanours, and try to deal with them, perhaps seeking forgiveness; a time in which we have to deal with something unpleasant that so far has been avoided. Whatever happens with Brexit, Boris Johnson will have a ‘reckoning’, a choice as to whether he fulfils his promises or not.

Sally Gardner’s new book for children aged 9-12 years, Invisible in a Bright Light, toys with the idea of a game of Reckoning – a ‘gutter of time’ moment in which we make a choice – do we go one way or another? And what consequences does that decision bring? How does it change the course of our life and, by extension, who we are?

Celeste works as a runner in the Copenhagen Opera House in the 1880s, but when she wakes one day in the costume basket, everyone seems to think she’s someone else – a ballet dancer called Maria. Celeste knows she is Celeste, even though all she can remember is a Man in an Emerald Coat and a game she must play called the Reckoning.

When a crystal chandelier falls from the dome of the opera house, she is badly injured, too injured to dance, and so begins to recuperate in the house of the star opera singer, a spoiled and nasty diva. Before long, clues as to who she really is begin to emerge, and soon the reader and Celeste see that time is of the utmost importance, and she must take part in the Reckoning Game, because everything, including her life, is at stake.

This mysterious riddle-strewn novel, set within the grandeur of a Royal Opera House, calls on fairy tales and the appearance and reality of theatres to dazzle the reader with its tale of mistaken identity, sea-faring, and performance. Gardner waves her wand throughout the novel, creating play with language, narrative, and time structures, to create the most intriguing and unique book for the age group – reminiscent in ways of I, Coriander, and yet totally original.

Insightful readers will pick up intertextual clues of Alice in Wonderland, the Phantom of the Opera and more, and will be richly rewarded for pursuing this sophisticated read. Part historical novel, part surrealism, the writing shines as much as the chandelier that inspired Gardner, and readers enthralled by theatre stories will adore the sumptuous scene setting of costume fittings, theatre sets, rehearsals and more.

There are many contemporary children’s writers playing with the concepts of time and narrative, but Gardner does it with style and panache. You’ll have to read the book to see if Celeste wins her game, but Gardner is definitely at the top of hers. You can buy it here.

We Are All Greta

Held up by many as a symbol of hope for the future, Greta Thunberg and her #ClimateStrikes have become a familiar occurrence. Children’s publishers have a difficult task – they need to promote worthy causes, and provide a moral standard, and yet also make money – they are businesses after all. To cash in on the Greta phenomenon seems like good business sense, but at the same time, they can inform children about climate change, and show them how to be their own individual force for good.

we are all gretaWe Are All Greta: Be Inspired to Save the World by Valentina Giannella, illustrated by Manuela Marazzi
This book was first published in April in Italy, and quickly sold out of its first print run of 10,000 copies. Now translated into English, We Are All Greta hits the bookshelves here. The book is actually less about Greta herself, and more about the science behind the climate crisis and the impact that the individual can have, once they have the knowledge behind them.

And this knowledge is provided in this wonderfully concise yet informative book, which explains how long the science about climate change has been around (since Fourier discovered that CO2 can warm the atmosphere and the surface of the planet in 1824!), and the important fact that the solutions are there, if only we would put them into effect.

Of course, much collaboration is needed – across countries – but Giannella is also quick to point out how each individual can help. This really is empowerment for youth – with this slim book children will have the facts at their fingertips to convince others of the climate emergency.

The book is divided into neat chapters: sustainable development, drinking water, waste, cities, biodiversity and much more. I was ‘green’ before I read this book, now I’m armed with knowledge and intent.

It also doesn’t provoke anxiety – some have been worried that teaching children about the devastating effects of climate change promotes anxiety in the young. Quite the contrary here – told in distinctly calm prose, it simply lays out the facts and provides insight for how to act. And much of the science and data is absolutely fascinating.

Illustrations appear between chapters – but there are three or four full pages of text to each chapter. For less able readers, I would recommend reading with an adult.

All in all an excellent and massively important resource. Save the world here. For other bloggers providing extracts and giving away copies, see the links below.

gretas story
Greta’s Story: The Schoolgirl who went on strike to Save the Planet by Valentina Camerini, translated by Moreno Giovannoni, illustrations by Veronica ‘Veci’ Carratello

This slim book is much more of a biography of Greta Thunberg. Of course, Greta is still only 16, and so readers might wonder what there is to learn about her so far. In fact, the book spends much time trying to explain how Greta negotiated and persuaded. For any children learning persusasive language as part of their primary school literacy curriculum, this book is quite an eye-opener. From having science and truthful information as evidence, to being able to use your voice in a powerful way and in the right places at the right times, the author talks about what makes Greta so successful in carrying her message. Of course there’s the impact of social media, but more than this the book highlights Greta’s determination, her resilience, and her passion, as well as her supportive family.

At the back, the book lists ways in which the reader can make a difference, and has a glossary of difficult words, but I imagine most readers will be able to learn about the power of an individual, and what that takes, just from reading Greta’s story. Be empowered here.

kids fight plastic
Kids Fight Plastic by Martin Dorey, illustrated by Tim Wesson
Veering away from Greta herself, but keeping very much on message is this lively and colourful little guide to fighting the scourge of plastic pollution. Subtitled, ‘How to be a #2minutesuperhero’, the book is written by the founder of the Global Beach Cleaning Movement, and he wants children everywhere to eschew plastic at home, school, and on days out, choosing alternatives instead. Packed with colour illustrations, and laid out with colourful boxes of text, cartoons, annotations and more, this delves deep into the anti-plastic revolution.

There’s information at the beginning about why plastic is harmful, then a handy and comprehensive guide to the different types of plastic, before some incredibly well thought-out and refreshing ideas on how to combat plastic – not just recycling or reusing a water bottle.

There’s fighting plastic at the park, at theme parks, at the cinema and more, as well as information on what we should really be flushing down the toilet and why, and the impact of washing clothes. There’s even a fight-plastic party. Each ‘mission’ is labelled with how many points children could accrue by achieving these plastic-fighting missions. Fight your superhero battle here.

Beyond Platform 13: Through the Gump

beyond platform 13Three years before JK Rowling published her first book, making a tourist attraction of Platform 9 and 3/4 at Kings Cross Station, Eva Ibbotson published The Secret of Platform 13, an adventure about a magical island populated with wizards, ogres, hags and fairies, access to which is through the ‘gump’ – a portal under platform 13 at King’s Cross Station that only opens once every nine years. Although it has been 25 years since the original, Sibéal Pounder has re-opened the gump with her sequel, Beyond Platform 13, illustrated by Beatriz Castro.

There’s risk in this, of course. Writing a sequel to a late author’s original book, which was shortlisted for the then Smarties prize, is an adventure of its own, but Pounder pulls off the sequel with aplomb, not only staying true to the original characters, but creating her own stand-alone read.

The island is under attack from the Harpies, intent upon ethnically cleansing the island of hags, ogres, wizards and more. Odge and Prince Ben hatch a plan to recruit a mist-maker to save their island, but when they pluck nine-year-old Lina from Vienna in a case of mistaken identity (her fluffy rucksack looked very much like it belonged to a mist-maker), they have to work out a different plan to overcome the Harpies.

Although set mainly on a mysterious island with mythical creatures (veering into London territory occasionally), this is a superb satire, as well as a pacey adventure. Sibéal Pounder (of Witch Wars fame), neatly digs into our current psyche and preoccupation, with subtle references to corrupt societies, banishment/immigration, sly politics, and the struggles of feminism, all with a huge dollop of humour. With moral messages about collaboration and standing up for what’s right, a huge understanding of children, and lashes of sharp wit, this is both a great little adventure and a huge amount of wicked fun. Below, Sibéal gives her readers five ideas of books to take with them on holiday, I mean, through the Gump!

FIVE BOOKS TO TAKE THROUGH THE GUMP

THE EXPLORER by Katherine Rundell
Rundell lists Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea as a key inspiration for her Costa-winning future classic, and The Explorer would be at the top of my pile of books to take through the Gump. It also has useful information about eating tarantulas should you find you get peckish…

DIAL A GHOST by Eva Ibbotson
Along with The Secret of Platform 13, Dial a Ghost was up there with my favourite Eva Ibbotson books. It tells the story of a young boy who orders a haunting only to find he’s sent a lovely family of ghosts, not the terrifying one he requested. Reading up on ghosts is essential when going through the Gump – they guard the gumps and are very important to everyone on Mist.

THE TRAIN TO IMPOSSIBLE PLACES by P.G. Bell
This is essential reading given you’re travelling to an island with trolls. The story begins when Suzy finds a grumpy troll building a railway through her house. It will give you plenty to talk about with the residents of Thwompburg should you stop by for a bite of cheese at Han’s famous eatery Hans-ome Cheeses.

RETURN TO WONDERLAND by Robin Stevens, Pamela Butchart, Patrice Lawrence…
This compilation of Wonderland tales from best-selling authors is fabulous, and a great collection of short stories to accompany you on a journey through the Gump. Each focuses on a different character from the Wonderland universe – from Patrice Lawrence’s story about the hedgehog croquet ball to Robin Stevens’s innovative story about the real Alice’s sister Lorina Liddell.   

RUMBLESTAR by Abi Elphinstone
Elphinstone’s magical tales will make you crave adventure, so her latest gem, Rumblestar, is a must to get you in the mood for an adventure on the island of Mist. It features a harpy villain, which is important reading given harpies lurk beyond the Gump!

With thanks to Sibéal Pounder, Clare Hall-Craggs and Macmillan publishers for the early review copy. I highly recommend Beyond Platform 13 by Sibéal Pounder and Eva Ibbotson for ages 8+, and dare adults not to read and chuckle too. You can buy it here.

A Q&A with Jon Agee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What comes first, the illustrations or the text?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shooting the Messenger

Kenen Malik wrote an interesting article this weekend about politics. And how inherent truths are lost if we pay more attention to the messenger than the message (with regards to the hospital incident with Boris Johnson last week, and the fact that the message of under-resourced hospitals was lost in the face of BJ’s ridiculousness and the political activist label attributed to the father).

And then I turned the pages to read the book reviews in various newspapers, and became rather incensed that reviewers too were more engaged with the messenger of the book than the message. One review of the Zadie Smith collection of short stories admired the contents and her intelligence, but another felt disappointed in it, having higher expectations of Smith. Is it right to view a book through the prism of the identity of the author rather than the new text that has been written? In the book review section for children (and I am thankful there were children’s books reviews), the reviewer also focussed on the authors. One of whom had written her last book for the target readership more than fifteen years ago. Is this relevant? Certainly not for the children, who weren’t even alive at that point.

And it is this obsession with identity with which I struggle. The argument comes into play again with cultural appropriation. How dare a person without a certain background write about it, is often the exclamation. And yet, if there is inherent truth in the message delivered, does it matter who wrote it? We don’t level the accusation at historical novelists – we accept the inherent truth in the landscape they have created if it feels authentic – if they have the facts and details honed.

In the same way that the Reflecting Realities report last week (a survey that looks at the representation of ethnic minorities in children’s literature) mentioned that what’s important is what is portrayed within the text. It looked at the content of what children read rather than the identity of the messenger. In fact, it cleverly pinpointed where the content feels less than truthful – the report spelling out key traits that were an indication of failure, an ‘erasure’ of the minority as the report called it. For example, the lack of specificity in a foreign country thus implying it could be anywhere, the short termism of the ethnic character (meaning they disappear from the text), a disproportionate use of the name Jasmine as the only cue to denote an ‘ethnicity’.

It is probably easier to write a ‘true’ picture of something if it resonates with one’s background. There is a reason they say ‘write what you know’. So maybe there is an argument for saying that those from BAME backgrounds are more able to write those characters. In fact, in some recent books about Jewish refugees from Europe in World War II, I have been quietly disappointed in the lack of depth to their cultural difference – it is mentioned that the character is Jewish, but beyond that there seems little recognition of their deeply held culture – which remains even if the character isn’t practising to any great religious extent. A person of Jewish descent, no matter how secular or assimilated, probably still has remembrance of customs, and smells and language and all sorts of things that I didn’t see portrayed. Perhaps from an author with a Jewish background, the nuance and layering may just have pulsed through. But a thorough author of any cultural or religious background could have written it with integrity if they had finely tuned research, or maybe a consultant on board.

So again, I come back to the fact that most writers can write of ‘another’. Writers don’t all have to write autobiographical fiction. Wally Lamb nailed the experiences and emotions of a young girl in She’s Come Undone, yet he isn’t a girl. Hilary Mantel has honed her portrayal of Tudor England, yet she very much lives and breathes now.

For the average reader, the identity, sexual orientation, gender, race of the author isn’t crucial. (Access to publishing for different minority groups is a whole different matter). What is crucial is what lies in the text. Does it read authentically, does it contain a deeper truth?

Of course, for some, it is precisely the author who holds the key to the book purchase. Who hasn’t, in the past few months, pre-ordered Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments before the reviews, and before the Booker longlisting, simply because of her name? Which adult purchases the latest David Walliams for their child on the book blurb alone? Of course not. We all have favourite authors, and strive to read their books – but should we read them in light of who the person is, in light of our expectations of that author? Are authors expected to have an upward career trajectory – each book better than the last? Or can they just be different? And should they even be compared? Should each text be a standalone affair?

But as a reviewer, there’s a fine balance between getting excited for an established author’s latest book, (because there is a memory that this is an author one has read before and liked and so the style might be similar), and seeing a debut as someone who could be the next big thing, a new discovery. Think how much more excitement and intrigue and surprise there would be if all review books were sent out without authors’ names attached – just a text, on its own, to be judged free from preconceptions. What treasures reviewers might unfurl!

Taxi Ride with Victor: A Guest Post from Sara Trofa

taxi ride with victorImagine a character who has always wanted a certain job, but when he gets it, he can’t quite master it. No, I’m not talking about Boris Johnson, but rather Victor, the main character in Taxi Ride with Victor by Sara Trofa and illustrated by Elsa Klever. This title, shortlisted for the World Illustration Awards in 2018, beautifully pairs crazily outlandish illustrations with the simple tale of a taxi driver who always gets lost, but always brings happiness, as his passengers find unexpected, but fun adventures at their surprising destinations.  

The book is as zany as Victor himself, a taxi driver navigating outer space, and holds a raft of characters with numerous eyes or limbs, and a cloud come to life. Even the narrator is a three-eyed gray blob of a creature. This is a bright and unique picture book about finding friendship and embracing activities and places one might not expect to encounter, as well as making the reader think about their own value and contribution to society.

Below, author Sara Trofa explains her inspiration for the text.

When I write, most of the time I start from a character rather than from a topic. I note their personality, how they look and behave, what they want and what their problems are. Also, I give them a name. It might sound silly, but I can’t continue if I don’t give them a name (baby name books and websites are great for that)! Of course the name might change or not even appear in the final text, depending on the narrator’s voice and other aspects, but  in my head they need to have a specific name. It’s like part of their personality. Victor has had several other names before in my story process. “Victor” was also my grandma’s oldest brother’s name.

So Victor came to me like that: a taxi driver who doesn’t take you where you ask.

Then the most exciting part comes: considering all the possibilities for the character and their behaviour. Slowly the plot takes a specific direction and I start seeing the actual meaning of what I’m creating.

Victor’s mistakes are a great opportunity to discuss relationships, not only with other people, but also with ourselves. Why do we make mistakes? Why is it so difficult for us to accept them? What are the consequences and how can we deal with them?

Our society tends to value a person for their contributions and for their “usefulness”. What could the social value of a taxi driver be if he doesn’t take you where you ask to go? If he doesn’t provide the service that he is supposed to?

Starting from there, I wanted the other characters not just to accept Victor but to actually be able to see his true value and to enjoy the unexpected outcomes of his “mistakes”.

Also, sometimes we think that we are what we do, specifically what we do as a job. But Victor is much more than a taxi driver. He gives a bigger gift to his passengers and that is possible only because the passengers are open to the possibilities of the final destinations to which he brings them.

How sad it would be if they just let themselves be mad at Victor? Or if Victor gave up after the first “failures”?

So I wanted all of them, Victor included, to be able to be surprised and to welcome the unexpected.

The readers’ point of view is also something unexpected and marvellous. Isn’t it exciting when somebody reads your story in a new way, different from what you’ve planned while writing it?! Of course the readers are re-tellers of the story, they get to create their own version of the story and that’s such a generous gift for the author.

I wrote a story about mistakes, acceptance, being together, helping each other, not giving up. Victor’s readers will tell me what else this book is about and I can’t wait for that!

For other new picture books on friendship and unexpected journeys, visit MinervaReads in October for an autumn picture book roundup. In the meantime you can purchase Taxi Ride with Victor here, and find Sara on twitter @SaraTrofa. With thanks to Prestel for the review copy, and Sara for her guest post.

Keeping a Level Head

stretch your confidence

How do you keep a level head when all about you are losing theirs?

Some children find it easy to navigate the web of school and friendships, family life and personal development. But for those who are struggling, and even as a guide for those who already have a level head, two activity books publishing this autumn lead the reader through a series of activities to foster self-confidence and growth mindset: Find Your Power and Stretch Your Confidence by Beth Cox and Natalie Costa, illustrated by Vicky Barker.

In fact, some of the nudged behaviours inside are often those suggested to adults undergoing CBT therapy. Resilience, self-confidence, problem-solving, can all be taught – they are all behaviours that we can learn to harness and use in our everyday lives. These books for 6-9 years provide activities and ideas to start learning those mindsets early.

find your power

Find Your Power explores a child’s emotions, and looks at how children perceive their value in the world. The first pages look at how children see themselves, from simple things such as name and place within the family, to understanding about ‘wonder’ generally and the world around them, and then applying that sense of wonder and exploration to one’s self. There is problem-solving with mind maps; understanding the strength of one’s brain with new challenges; being kind; and understanding feelings…and much more.

Tools for sleeping well and calmness abound in Find Your Power, but Stretch Your Confidence helps a young person to overcome nerves and identify strengths. There’s understanding about friendships, emotions and grit and resilience, each page using activities from brainstorming to step-planning.

Each book is highly illustrated with lots of colour, is simple to follow, and yet requires thought – which changing one’s mindset automatically does.

The authors are well-schooled in their topics. Beth Cox is the co-founder of Inclusive Minds and Everybody In, promoting diversity within her industry of book publishing. Natalie Costa is the founder of Power Thoughts, a body empowering children to tap into the power of their minds. She has worked in education for over 10 years.

To test the ease of use of the activities, I undertook a task from Stretch Your Confidence. Sometimes a situation can make me feel nervous, or I can feel anxious about something and that anxiety can take over all other thoughts. To combat this, finding a simple distraction is often a way out – it leads the mind to start thinking about something else and the overwhelming anxiety dissipates – it becomes a worry that is fleeting instead of remaining.

The page suggests some ideas for distracting yourself – in a crowd or at an event you might want to count all the people wearing glasses, or find five things that you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear etc.

The book then suggests writing an action plan for one’s own distractions when feeling nervous or anxious. There are twelve lines to fill in.

My list is below. The first few I use when I’m in a crowded place or party. The next few are for when anxious feelings are dominating my headspace. Here are some of my ideas:

  1. Sing a song in your head to which you know the lyrics (this is particularly good whilst at the dentist)
  2. Think of the next meal you’re going to eat (although this may result in just making you feel very hungry!)
  3. Come up with a plan for a kind activity to surprise a friend
  4. Count the lightbulbs in the room
  5. Prepare something interesting to say in conversation
  6. Start thinking about how you would report on the event later
  7. Go for a run/take exercise
  8. Take a friend/child/dog on a walk and look closely at nature
  9. Do some gardening (nature is particularly helpful to soothe a worried mind)
  10. Bake a cake or cook a meal (following a recipe is a good distraction)
  11. Listen to an interesting podcast
  12. READ A BOOK

At the end of the page, the book asks the reader to think about a time in which something went well, and recall how it felt. This is an excellent exercise to promote memory recall, and can flood the mind with positive emotions.

You can buy Find Your Power here, and Stretch Your Confidence here.  With thanks to b small publishers for my advance copies.

Back to School September 2019

language of the universeSurprises abound in nonfiction, and my first subject of the day is Maths, but not as you know it. The Language of the Universe by Colin Stuart and Ximo Abadia is subtitled ‘a visual exploration of maths’, and I wish my maths had been this visual at school.

Bursting with colour, from the stunning peacock and gold foil on the cover, the book explores maths in four sections – the contents page colour-panelled for visual ease – maths in the natural world; physics, chemistry and engineering; space; and technology.

Chapters and topics include ‘Finding Fibonacci’ with its huge whirly flowers; to understanding prime numbers through cicadas; to ‘Getting to Grips with Geometry’ with the white-spotted pufferfish, and the book cleverly links everyday school maths to real world visuals, thus helping the brain to remember the concepts.

Levers, Pythagoras, floating, circuits, and more are covered in the Physics section, but things get really interesting in the final section on Technology, where cryptography and data are extrapolated so that the reader can draw a line from maths in the classroom to technology in today’s world. Maths is in everything and everywhere. This is for both the keen inquisitor, and the reluctant maths scholar – it definitely shows you maths in a whole new light, and colour! You can buy it here. For 8+

so you want to be a viking so you want to be a roman soldier?
I always loved History, and these handy guides will show the reader how to navigate their way into the past through a non-fiction narrative. So You Want to Be a Roman Soldier? By Philip Matyszak, And So You Want to Be a Viking? By John Haywood, are repackaged texts from prior books but now updated in a new format with wacky illustrations by cartoonist Takayo Akiyama. Of course any books like this are bound to be compared to Horrible Histories, and there is an element of that humour, but this is written as a guide rather than a history.

There are interactive quizzes, tips, destination suggestions, shopping lists for kits, and so forth, all zanily illustrated in two-tone colours. ‘Climbing the Ranks’ section in the Roman soldier book, and being the ‘Top Boss’ are particularly good pages. There is lots of modern slang mixed in with Roman jargon, and I felt more Caesar-like as the book progressed. Books include maps and glossaries. You can buy them here. For 7+ years.

why we became humans
Stepping back in time further, and reading up on Natural History, you might want to look at When We Became Humans by Michael Bright, illustrated by Hannah Bailey. This information-heavy book moves from apes through first tools, shelters, and migration to hunting, trading and cities, covering a variety of monumental firsts, including cave paintings, buildings, right through to the printing press and population boom – of huge topical discussion at the moment.

The illustrations are intelligently rendered, to sit nicely alongside the text, which doesn’t plod with data, but rather stimulates discovery and thought. There is great analysis in here, the text explaining how writing created history, among other wise words. With maps and charts, anatomy, geography and more, this is a fascinating exploration of human evolution for 8+ years. You can buy it here.

animals at night
Are you studying rainforests or habitats in Geography? Animals at Night by Katy Flint, illustrated by Cornelia Li is a follow-up to Glow-in-the-dark Voyage Through Space, but this time comes a bit closer to home. With spreads on Woodland, Rainforest, the City, Desert, and more, it thoroughly covers the different biomes at night. Colourful paragraphs caption the exquisite landscape illustrations, which themselves are created with digital technology using hand-painted textures. The porcupine’s prickles feel 3D, the rattlesnake stretches back into the desert behind it. A tear-out poster glows in the dark illuminating creatures of the deep sea. Awe-inspiring and aesthetically attractive, you’ll learn something too. You can buy it here. Age 6+.

why do we wear clothes?
Creative arts/textile management more your thing? This book sadly arrived after my blog on fashion books, but is a worthy addition to this ‘back to school’ list, particularly for those primary schools focusing on the ‘All Dressed Up’ topic from the International Primary Curriculum.

Why Do We Wear Clothes? By Helen Hancocks, in association with the V&A Museum is a treasure trove of colourful fashions with a bit of philosophy tacked on top. This isn’t a comprehensive tome on fashion, but rather a primary-school-age book of wacky facts, and an opportunity to glimpse different cultures and fashions.

Crinoline cages, whites at Wimbledon, the bicorne, icons of fashion, umbrellas and colours – it’s all within and summed up in a sentence or two. A good straightforward glossary and guide to fashion ‘people’ at the back rounds off a fascinating book. Some quirks abound – the text asks questions of the reader, and there’s a tiny print credits section, exploring items in the V&A that inspired the text.

Overall, this is a bright and vivacious book with a fun mishmash of information. For age 6+. You can buy it here.