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Never Judge a Book By Its Cover

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

cathy cassidy sweet  honey

Or this for girls:

books for boys

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

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

Tom GatesSkullduggery pleasant parent agencySophie bookhansel and gretel

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

mr stinkTwits

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

Goth Girl FeteWitchworld

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

Barnaby BrocketBoy Who Swam With Piranhas

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

Daisy picture book Nick Sharratt Tracy Beaker

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

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

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory1charlie4charlie5Charlie cover2 charlie6   charlie3  Charlielatest

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

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

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

 

Harry Potter Re-Imagined

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How much thought do you give to the illustrations accompanying a book? How about a favourite book? In the same way as a film adaptation, it can be really irksome when a favourite character or scene isn’t portrayed how it appears in your mind. So the people at Bloomsbury had a huge responsibility when they decided to rebrand the much-loved Harry Potter books and commission a new illustrator.

This evening, at the first Harry Potter Book Night at Waterstones Piccadilly, I heard Jonny Duddle explain why he had been chosen. “We were all asked to illustrate the scene where Ron, Hermione and Harry all see Hogwarts for the first time. I think I was the only artist who had Harry facing outwards – looking at the reader – otherwise you only saw the backs of their heads.”

Surprisingly, before the call from Bloomsbury, Jonny Duddle hadn’t read any of the Harry Potter books…then suddenly he had to read all seven and draw the cover designs in the space of six months. Even armed with a wand he would have been hard-pressed.

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Duddle’s favourite character in the book was Hagrid. He sketches the images, then layers them digitally. While he worked on the drawings he would listen to the audiobooks of Harry Potter, scribbling down on post-its anytime the book launched into a character description. He saved space at the top of his computer screen for the most important post-it of all – the one that said ‘SCAR’. “I was really worried I would forget to mark Harry’s forehead.”

For accuracy he used his wife, his childminder, the neighbour’s child – all to pose in certain positions so that he could get the depiction of hands, or flying capes, or wands held aloft, exactly right. For Harry’s cape in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban he bought one off ebay – “a Slytherin one though, not Gryffindor, as it was £10 cheaper.”

Jonny Duddle’s definitely funny in person, and a great character on a stage – but does his work live up to expectations? That’s up to you – to my mind, his Hagrid is exactly how I imagined on first reading – and his expecto patronus is truly majestic. Wizards’ hats off to Jonny Duddle.

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See my main blog this week on why Harry Potter is still so important.

Harry Potter Book Night

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In 2007, more than 1,000 people queued outside Waterstones Piccadilly, Europe’s largest bookshop, to get their hands on the final saga in the Harry Potter series. Tomorrow night I’ll be revisiting that bookshop to celebrate the first global Harry Potter Book Night and the release of the series with the new cover illustrations from Jonny Duddle. A marketing ploy you think? Yes, indeed, it’s time for Bloomsbury to re-release the series with a new modern look, and to create a moment, a day, to celebrate the brand. For me, there’s nothing wrong with that at all – Harry Potter (or rather JK Rowling) has redefined children’s literature. She started the ball rolling for a groundswell of readers who wanted more children’s literature and wanted it recognised in its own right as a major genre.

Since 1998 when the Potter books first burst onto the scene with their modest print run, children’s books are finally being celebrated. In 2000, The New York Times created a special children’s bestseller list alongside their adult one, as Harry Potter was squeezing out so many other titles. In 2002, Phillip Pullman won the overall Whitbread Awards for his children’s book, The Amber Spyglass, beating all adult titles. In 2014 children’s book sales were up ten per cent against a book market that was generally about 2 per cent down.

What did JK Rowling do in Harry Potter that had such an effect? The magic of Harry Potter works on many levels. It invokes the age old conflict of good versus evil. It consistently and continually poses mystery – everything is a question that JK answers pages later. Why can Harry hear snakes? What happened to Moaning Myrtle? And the third component is the voice – the ability of the author to step inside a child’s head and understand the nuances of friendship, the emotions involved, and the frustration with the adult world – to eke out the bonds behind certain relationships – loyalty, trust, and empathy.

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JK Rowling is not the only writer to do this, other writers before her wrote wonderful children’s books – so did she just hit the zeitgeist head on – was she in the right place at the right time? Barry Cunningham, the man credited with finding JK Rowling, had been asked to set up a Bloomsbury children’s book list only a couple of years before the manuscript was submitted. He had previously worked with Roald Dahl, amongst others.

Not only did the Harry Potter series rejuvenate the children’s book market, it also enticed adults into reading again. It was an easy read for grownups who had long abandoned reading for pleasure of any sort. And reading is habit-forming. Harry Potter doesn’t only reach across age ranges, it also breaches the gender divide. Although JK Rowling was encouraged to be named as JK on the cover, not Joanne Rowling, because the publishers thought that books about boys written by a woman were not going to sell, it seems it no longer matters. Harry Potter has reached girls and boys, men and women, from 8-80 yrs.

This Thursday is Harry Potter Book Night. It’s an event created by Bloomsbury to celebrate Harry Potter and introduce him to the next generation of readers. Many many schools, libraries and shops throughout the country are holding parties – it’s a great excuse to celebrate children’s books.  I’ll be tweeting from the event at Waterstones Piccadilly, and blogging again tomorrow after the event. Have a great Harry Potter Book Night for those that do.

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Friendship: Best Friends Forever

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.” Charlotte’s Web by E B White.

One of the best things children’s books do is serve as a guide for how to get out of scrapes, and behave in certain situations – they can help children navigate social behaviours. These three books (all of which are part of a series – a big draw for children), depict female characters with whom young girls can identify, and familiar situations in which they may find themselves, all crafted with a touch of humour.

Emily Sparkes

Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco by Ruth Fitzgerald
The first in a brand new series, Emily Sparkes is a sparkling new addition to children’s literature. She bubbles with witty observations on her friends, her family and teachers, and muddles along in her day-to-day quest to survive school, friendships and parental issues. Emily’s life is not out of the ordinary; she goes to school every day, her parents have just had a new baby, and she worries about schoolwork, friendships and being stuck on the bus with Gross-out Gavin. She is an easily identifiable character, with a clear compass for right and wrong and perceived ills, which stands her in good stead with all those around her.
What I find really refreshing about Emily is that she seems to be a ‘middling child’. She’s not bullied, nor a bully, not the most popular nor the least, not the most academic and not the least – the sort of child whom parents feel often gets ignored. In this, Ruth Fitzgerald proves that the ‘unnoticeable’ should be noticed, as Emily’s wit sparkles in every circumstance in which she finds herself. I particularly liked her astute observations on her parents, and I appreciated the cute illustrations – which make it seem as if Emily has decorated her own book with doodles, drawings and stickers. The Friendship Fiasco starts with Emily’s best friend leaving and relocating with her family, and a new girl starting at school, with whom Emily desperately wants to make friends. All is not quite as it seems with new girl Chloe though, and after some misunderstandings are dealt with, Emily realises that maybe her new best friend has been in the classroom all along. A great new character, with some laugh-out-loud scenes. Publishes February 3rd.

Also to be published later this year, Emily Sparkes and the Competition Calamity

Old Friends New Friends

New Friend Old Friends by Julia Jarman
Julia’s series on friendships takes on a slightly different style, as the stories are narrated piecemeal by the friends in the story – first one, then another. There’s an introduction to each character at the beginning to help the reader navigate around who’s who. This works very well and is quite clever, in that the personalities of the girls begin to shine through; the tone shifting slightly between each child, and the reader has the omniscient eye of knowing what all the girls think. It enables the reader to foresee problems and jealousies that will inevitably arise. New Friend Old Friends introduces Shazia from Pakistan, and relates how the group of friends help her to fit in and adjust to life in England. It’s a fun read with realistic characters and situations. The illustrations are animated and accentuate the girls’ differences.

Also available, Make Friends Break Friends, A Friend in Need, and soon to be published, Friends Forever

Pea's Book

Pea’s Book of Best Friends by Susie Day
There’s nothing like an eccentric family in children’s literature. Almost reminiscent of I Capture the Castle, this glorious encounter with the Llewelllyns is highly visual and engrossing. Pea’s Book of Best Friends introduces Pea and her two sisters, Clover and Tinkerbell and describes their move to London. As with the other books here, the quest is on to find a new best friend, as Pea discovers that her old best friend isn’t missing her as much as she thinks. Pea makes a list of qualities she’d like in her new best friend in London, only to realise that people aren’t usually very well suited to lists – they tend to be slightly more complicated. The roundedness of the story is what appealed to me most – as Pea finds out that not only do her sisters also need to make new friends, but so does their Mum. There are some wonderfully funny touches, and it is a very sweet, and yet slightly quirky book, and Susie Day shows great skill in honing in on a girl’s experience of school and family. This is for a slightly older age group than those above – more 8+yrs.

Also available, Pea’s Book of Big Dreams, Pea’s Book of Birthdays, Pea’s Book of Holidays

 

Thank you to LBKids Publishers for providing me with a copy of Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco.

Where have all the children’s non-fiction books gone?

Once upon a time I used to work for a large (mainly reference, ie. non-fiction) publisher as a children’s book editor. In that time I also contributed some writing to the process, and produced a shelf full of beautifully illustrated/photographic, valuable, information-packed exciting non-fiction books for children.

From an egotistical point of view, sadly, none of the books seems readily available, in fact the publisher (bought out by one huge media conglomerate) now focuses on educational titles and content online. (Educational titles are not the same as children’s non-fiction, for those not in publishing).

In fact, when I look for good quality children’s non-fiction titles in bookshops, I can’t find much.

There’s no media space given to it – when was the last time you read a review in a newspaper of children’s non-fiction?

Actually, you may well answer Christmas. This is the only time – it’s when a few high quality, beautifully packaged (for gifts) titles do the rounds. I can reel off the ones produced for this Christmas – some were amazing – although one bestseller had a grimace-inducing grammatical error in it.

The main argument you’ll hear is that children nowadays don’t look up stuff in books! They use the internet. Even in school, the children tell me they all look up things on websites. Excuse my scepticism – as a young editor I also trawled the internet to provide safe, quality content, ‘internet-links’ for the ‘internet-linked’ books that we published. The worthy websites were few and far between, and they certainly don’t appear at the top of the Google search results. The reason is that to produce a quality non-fiction book we had highly skilled writers explaining concepts in tight, concise, careful language. The books were fact checked by consultants, and editors, rechecked and rechecked. Then consideration was given to picture content, explanations and labels. It took time and skill.

“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Not unlike a school librarian (also in sharp decline), we editors/publishers of non-fiction meticulously gathered fact-checked accurate information, and presented it in an attractive, accessible, inspiring format to stimulate children’s curiosity.

And yet I know first-hand that for many boys (and some girls) non-fiction is the essence of their love of books. In the school library the boys head for the non-fiction section. In the public library they decry the lack of modern non-fiction titles. As a reviewer, I have a lovely stream of fiction entering my house, and yet every day my son asks ‘did any non-fiction come today?’ He’s desperate for it, and he’s not alone.

As well as producing a generation of book lovers, I also want children to know that they can trust books to give them the correct information, that ‘google’ isn’t the answer, but merely the question. I want children who can analyse different types of text in front of them – fiction, information, instructive, newspaper report, review, commentary, discussion. I want children who know that they can escape into other worlds through fiction, but can also make sense of their own world through non-fiction. It is costly for publishers to produce, but with some help they can do it. Let’s celebrate it more in the general media, let’s give it airtime, newspaper columns, blogposts, shelves in bookstores. Let’s hand our children the key to the future. It starts with a few expert checked facts.

Four Fabulous Non-Fiction books

story of stars

The Story of Stars by Neal Layton

The Story of Stars uses pop-ups, cut outs and a range of devices to actively involve smaller children in the mystery of the universe. It takes one topic and runs with it in the most exciting way possible, exploring facts through creativity. Although some of the concepts are very difficult, even explaining to young children that people lived thousands of years ago, and without computers!, the book introduces basic definitions, such as supernovas, white dwarfs etc, and explains the history of humans’ relationship with space, as well as posing a whopping discussion point at the end of the book. Perfect to share with young children looking for their first interests, and slightly older children to accompany school learning. (You can’t get pop-ups and cut-outs on the internet).

lift the flap general knowledge lift flap gen know inside

Usborne Lift the Flap General Knowledge

Children adore general knowledge. They love reciting facts. They have competitions to see who knows the most facts about countries/animals. Listen to them – their knowledge can be quite astounding. Usborne books do a tremendous job producing quality non-fiction. Just published, Usborne Lift the Flap General Knowledge is an irresistible treasure trove of knowledge, with fact flaps just waiting to be lifted to find out more underneath. There are sections on entertainment, living things, science and timelines. It even labels the ends of the ship for those who aren’t sure. (The bow’s at the front, stern at the back!) It’s engrossing and illuminating, and above all, just a fun book to dip into.

DK Dinosaurs

DK Dinosaurs: a children’s encyclopedia

Dinosaurs, transport, animals and space. The coolest subjects for little boys, only to be trumped by volcanoes and earthquakes as they get older. Information on space and transport changes continuously, but dinosaurs more or less stay the same. This is an all-encompassing massive reference title with everything inside. Divided into classifications, the encyclopedia introduces prehistoric life – where life began and the timeline of life before honing down into invertebrates, early vertebrates, dinosaurs, birds and mammals. Each section introduces the type of life before breaking it down into species and giving key facts – habitat, period, size etc. The pictures are stunning – it’s visually easy to read and appealing. There’s a detailed index and glossary and the text is clear and precise.

make a universe

How to Make a Universe with 92 Ingredients by Adrian Dingle

This book isn’t newly published, but is an excellent example of how to present non-fiction in a new, interesting, and fascinating way. The book essentially talks about the periodic table – but not how you or I ever learnt the periodic table. It breaks down every day things into its core elements using illustration and fun text and educates at the same time. For example it explains what you would need to make your own human being, how fireworks work, and what makes a safety match safe. With super headings such as ‘really cool science bit’, ‘Alfie (and his brother) go boom’, and ‘who’s the daddy?’, this is a science book that’s definitely not just for geeks. Thoroughly enjoyable and refreshing.

 

For Holocaust Memorial Day

“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Elie Wiesel

Teaching children about traumatic events in our collective history can be difficult, and when picking a book on the subject it’s more important than ever to judge content more than appearance. There is fierce debate on how old children should be before they are taught about the Holocaust or other genocides. Teaching the historical context of the Nazis, of death and what’s morally right and wrong can all be taught much earlier, but it’s hard to teach the meaning and mechanics of mass murder before secondary school. Even some adults have a hard time grasping the enormity of it. The national curriculum dictates that the Holocaust should be taught in key stage 3 – Year 7, 8 or 9, which is the first three years of secondary school (ages 11-14).

“Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory” – Jane Yolen

Firstly, I’ve chosen three works of fiction. They are all picture books, but that doesn’t mean they’re for small children – in fact they are best for age 10+ yrs. I’ve chosen them for their exploration of the Holocaust from different viewpoints, and as starting points for serious discussion about the Holocaust. None of them should be read in isolation, but rather explored after an initial insight into what did happen to the Jewish people during the Second World War.

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass by Meg Wiviott, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon
This is a cat’s eye view of Kristallnacht. Benno is the neighbourhood cat, who visits Sophie on Shabbat, and is fed schnitzel by the Schmidts after church, and gets titbits from the kosher butcher. All is seemingly well. Then gradually Benno realises that there are fewer scraps, and the neighbourhood people are growing ever more impatient, and that there are now new black boots stomping along the pavement. Then Kristallnacht happens, Benno’s paws are sore from the broken glass on the pavement, and Benno doesn’t see Sophie and her family any more, nor Professor Goldfarb. It’s a simplistic animal tale of a neighbourhood changing, but the masked horror of the Holocaust pervades the story. The implied disappearance of the Jewish people of the neighbourhood leaves it up to the reader to imagine what may have prevailed that night. The Afterword explains Kristallnacht in a little more detail, telling what that night was about and what did happen to the Jews in Germany. However, the last paragraph is a little emotive, which is a shame for a page that should remain factual. However, it is a clever introduction to the build-up of the Holocaust in Germany.

Star of Fear

Star of Fear, Star of Hope by Jo Hoestlandt, illustrated by Johanna Kang
Another simplistic story, which belies the terror underneath, is Star of Fear, which tells the narrative from an old lady’s point of view – looking back on those things that she couldn’t comprehend as a little girl. Helen remembers growing up in France after the German invasion of 1942. She remembers her childhood friend Lydia, and the yellow star Lydia was forced to wear on her clothes. It’s a story about friendship, and how little girls can say things to their friends that they don’t mean – and ultimately live to regret. Helen regrets more than most, as in a spontaneous angry outburst she tells Lydia that they are no longer friends, little knowing it was the last time she would ever see her…it is supposed that Lydia was taken away by the Nazis the next day. The simplicity of the text and pictures adds to the poignancy.

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The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro
Published last year, The Whispering Town tells the story of the Danish Jews through the eyes of a little girl. The Danish story itself is quite remarkable. As a nation Denmark actively resisted the Nazis’ plan to round up the Jewish people, and managed to smuggle a huge percentage of their Jewish population to safety in Sweden. They relied upon the goodness of their people, and The Whispering Town shows how the shopkeepers and neighbours all helped the hidden Jews in one cellar in Gilleleje to escape by boat from the harbour. The illustrations depict the Nazis as menacing, gun-wielding soldiers and the Danish people with simpatico faces. Cleverly, the Jews hiding in the cellar are simply white pen lines on black – a shadow almost. The colours throughout are muted – pale greens, much black and grey – other than the stark red of the Nazi symbol on the soldiers’ shirtsleeves. This may be a story of hope and salvation, but the events happened in a terrible time. My feeling is that it’s important to teach children that there is hope despite the horror of six million Jews and many other people losing their lives during the Holocaust. It is vital that children understand there are pockets of goodness and humanity. If a whole nation can rise up against the Nazis, then it is possible for goodness to overcome. This link describes the Danish efforts well.

usborne holocaust

After a wealth of discussion of story, it is worth consulting some reference too. One such title that sets things out clearly and easily for children is Usborne: The Holocaust. In a matter-of-fact tone, but with excellently precise vocabulary, Susanna Davidson sets out the narrative of the Holocaust, encompassing the roots of anti-Semitism, the Nazi definition of whom they defined as being Jewish, the treatment of other minority groups, the advancement of Germany through Europe, the increasingly harsh treatment of Jews and minorities, before going on to address ghettos, and the final solution. It also covers small acts of defiance in the face of certain death, both from Jews and non-Jews, which is really important. It’s simple to understand, crams a mass of information into short digestible chunks, and does its very best to explain a seemingly inexplicable event. Despite its conciseness, the book does contain graphic information on the killing of Jews, including shooting at mass graves and the death camps. It also quotes people from the time, and includes graphic images, including the painting ‘Gassing’ by Auschwitz survivor David Olere. There are many photographs too, including those of a survivor at the liberation of Belsen. Be warned, this is not a book for young children, but would do well to accompany those studying the Holocaust at Key Stage 3. The afterword throws up some questions that children may ask afterwards, and doesn’t try to answer them, but instead finishes on the note that the Holocaust is not something that should ever be forgotten.

DK Holocaust

I’ve not included a comprehensive review of DK Holocaust, a title that I worked on myself, as sadly, it appears to be unavailable at most good bookstores. However, if you can get a copy it’s an all-encompassing examination of the Holocaust for older children, which I worked on with the superb writer Angela Gluck Wood. I can self-promote shamelessly as I receive no royalties.

Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27th.

 Usborne Holocaust was very kindly sent to me by Usborne Publishing

Silly Stories for Six and Over

Did you know that 70 per cent of children aged 6-17 years say they want more books that make them laugh? Here are some books I think the youngest in this age bracket might like:

Stinkbomb and Ketchup Face
Stinkbomb and Ketchup Face and the Badness of Badgers by John Dougherty, illustrated by David Tazzyman
This is a gigglefest from start to finish. A self-reflective story that follows Stinkbomb and Ketchup-face as they take part in a silly adventure on the small island of Great Kerfuffle, engaged in a quest decreed by the king to rid the kingdom of the ‘bad’ badgers.  John Dougherty applies wit and endless humour as he employs clever storytelling devices to lead you on a trip through funny chapter headings, allusions to characters realising they are only playing a part in a story, and playfulness on the words themselves. It’s a perfect short read for older reluctant readers, or a good contained story for newly independent readers. The humour is not too juvenile – more witty – which is very refreshing in children’s ‘funny’ stories, and you will have to rein yourself in from wanting to read bits aloud! The story is also suitably matched to David Tazzyman’s illustrations (those familiar with the Mr Gum stories will recognise the illustrator’s style). A brilliant read – with two more in the series already published, and another to come in July 2015.

Pigsticks and Harold

Pigsticks and Harold and the Incredible Journey by Alex Milway
Alex Milway brings to the table a cross-over link between picturebooks and chapter books for first readers with this wonderful full-colour chapter book about a self-important pig and a reluctant hamster and their ill-judged adventures. Pigsticks decides to make his mark and explore to The Ends of the Earth, but realises he’ll need an assistant to carry his gear and cook. Hamster inadvertently gets the job, and they set off on their adventures. The language bears out the characteristics of the pig and hamster brilliantly, and there are numerous laughs both from text and picture. There’s also a lot of cake. Beautifully produced, and wonderfully manageable, this is also a treat to be read aloud and savoured as there are plenty of little in-jokes for adults too. It feeds into the current trend in children’s publishing for more illustrations alongside text, never a bad thing with so many talented illustrators such as Alex Milway in the mix. If there weren’t already a hugely famous pig out there, I would say this lends itself beautifully to a television cartoon too. A second in the series was published in November 2014, Pigsticks and Harold and the Tuptown Thief.

Superhero school

Superhero School: The Revenge of the Green Meanie by Alan McDonald, illustrated by Nigel Baines
From the author of Dirty Bertie comes a new series about a superhero school. Stan Button is an ordinary child who receives a summons to a special school for an interview. Before long he’s enrolled and participating in superhero lessons with his superhero peers. Unfortunately for them, the Green Meanie is on the loose, and battle commences. Almost everyone in the story is inept – from the headmistress to the dinner lady, the students to the baddie, which makes the whole enterprise slapstick and in the end it’s more common sense and teamwork that overpowers the baddie than superskills. This is a good first reader, with the typical bottom jokes that children of this age find so humorous. I must warn though – this book strongly suggests that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist (which some children this age may find upsetting and surprising!) More are promised in this series later this year.

Fish Fingers

The Fabulous Four Fish Fingers by Jason Beresford, illustrated by Vicky Barker
For slightly more advanced readers, this first in a wacky series about four children who are granted their wish to be superheroes is a riotous read from start to finish, packed with groanworthy jokes and laughable antics. Our fabulous four fish fingers, Chimp, Nightingale, KangaRuby and Slug Boy, otherwise known as Gary, Bel, Ruby and Morris, take on evil duo Jumper Jack Flash and the Panteater to stop them stealing all the sweets in the village of Tumchester. What sets this funny story apart from others in the market is twofold: firstly Jason’s inventiveness, which seems to know no bounds, and secondly, the heart behind the book. Each character is imbued with the authors’ immense sense of fun and jauntiness, but there is also incredible feeling, from Ruby with her fear of rabbits, to Morris, aka Slug Boy, who always seems to get the short end of the straw, but inevitably manages to rise above. The underlying theme of the book is teamwork, as the four children discover that you can’t actually become a superhero overnight but need to practise and work as a team to overcome the enemy. Another in the series was published late last year, Frozen Fish Fingers.
13 storey treehouseinside treehouse2 inside treehouse

The 13-Storey Treehouse, by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, publishing UK 29th January
First published in Australia, Andy Griffiths’ treehouse books are now making their way to the UK. This is one of the most fun books I have read and I know several Year 3 students in my library who will adore this book and fall about laughing. Actually reading it was not unlike listening to banter between my husband and my son, as the book relates the dialogue between Andy and Terry as they think up what to write about for their latest book. The book is also stuffed full with cartoons, which are full of life, zesty and zany. Andy and Terry live in a 13 storey treehouse complete with lemonade fountain, man-eating shark pool, theatre and library and giant catapult (all simply illustrated). There are pages of detailed cartoons, and pages of simple ones, interspersed with lively laugh-out-loud text. The children who read this were enthralled by the idea that if they didn’t write the book, Andy and Terry would have to revert to working in the monkey house. They were also taken by the fact that the main characters were also the names of the authors. A fabulous laugh – it’s a joy to know there are more titles yet to come.

 

The Fabulous Four Fish Fingers was very kindly sent to me by Bounce marking on behalf of Catnip Publishing.

Libraries: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

My local council is proposing to close my public library. I’m not alone – this is happening all over the country. My blog isn’t political though, so I’m not going to explore our campaign, although if you’re interested please go to the links at the end.

According to the National Literacy Trust a child who visits a library is twice as likely to be a fluent reader as one who does not. There is a flush of excitement on the faces of the children who come into my library for library club. They are keen to read, to push open the doorway to their imaginations, to discover mindblowing facts and to share them with me. We learn new words, read incredible stories, laugh at jokes, and gasp at information. This week in the library we discussed the word ‘shone’, we giggled that mice park their boats at the hickory dickory dock, we discovered that you can have a trip to the moon, a pet monster, pirates and a genie’s lamp all in one story (Monstar Marks a Wish by Steve Cole, illustrated by Pete Williamson), and we learned that the study of clocks is called horology.

The author SF Said says that libraries are cathedrals of books, temples of information. My library constantly surprises me. It’s a treasure trove of inspiration and creativity.

My favourite books celebrating libraries are as follows:

Homer the library cat

Homer, the Library Cat by Reeve Lindbergh, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf
A delightful rhyming book that explores the sense of peace that can be obtained in a public library space. Homer the cat is spooked by a loud bang from the bins and rushes off to find his owner, ‘the quiet lady’. He finds noise everywhere throughout the town, until he reaches a beautiful building, within which he can hear his ‘quiet lady’ and some children. The library in this book clearly has no budget shortage – a large building with marble floors, and a dedicated librarian for storytime. Homer soon discovers the joy of the library – the comfort of the storyteller’s chair, the colourful books, the playful children, the quiet of storytime and snacks:
“The boys and girls loved Homer.
Homer loved them back.
He slept right through the stories
but woke up for the snack.”

Otto the Book Bear

Otto the Book Bear by Katie Cleminson
Otto is a bear, but like Homer the cat, also on the prowl for a place of refuge, acceptance and books. Otto the Bear lives within a storybook, and is happiest when the children are reading his book, but he also comes to life when they’re asleep. Sadly, one day the children move away and Otto is left behind. The story follows his adventures as he struggles to find a safe, welcoming sanctuary. He finally discovers a “place that looked full of light and hope.” Of course, it’s a library, and Otto discovers books, other book creatures like himself, and of course many many readers. Simply told and illustrated, this is a heartwarming story to introduce the youngest audience to a love of books.

library lion

Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
This exquisite, slightly longer picture book, pitched at an older age group, features a library’s set of rules: no running, quiet at all times etc. One day a lion appears in the library, but he doesn’t break the rules and he appears to want to help the librarian, and so he becomes a regular fixture, helping small children to reach books, providing a back rest during storytime.

library lion inside3library lion inside2

Until, the day when he does break the rules of the library, and not able to overcome his own shame, he leaves. The librarian and the people in the library are distraught – he broke the rules for good reason, and so in the end he is sought, found and welcomed back. The soft images are suffused with light, warmth and pathos – this is a stellar example of library envy – you almost feel you want to jump into the book. There is also a distinct cleverness in this book – for although a picture book – the portrayal of the librarian is so strong, that you really feel you know Miss Merriweather’s character by the end of the book.

the librarian of basra

The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter
Another lady librarian, this is a careful depiction of the true story of Alia Muhammad Baker, a remarkable woman who did all she could to save the wonderful books in her library from destruction as bombs rained around her in Basra, Iraq. In fact she saved 70 per cent of the books in her library, at considerable danger to herself. This is a great story for children aged 6 and over to explore the impact of war, to discover that one should stand up for one’s beliefs, and have courage in the face of danger. Ultimately, it speaks to everyone about the power and importance of books, and preserving culture and history. It tells the story incredibly simply, leaving out lots of details, but the scarcity of words adds to the atmosphere and lends itself to being read by children – the true circumstances of the war would be too cumbersome at this age. Illustrated with bright bold acrylics, it also gives children a sense of a culture from a different part of the world. There is an author’s note at the end to give background information.

photo posted on post-gazette.com

It’s a shame that so many booklovers and librarians nationwide have to now battle with their councils to keep public libraries open. I’ll leave Neil Gaiman to have the last word on libraries:

“If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”

2014 Seighart Report on Public Libraries

Save Barnet Libraries information

Save Barnet Libraries petition

Reading Aloud: the key to nurturing passionate readers

Do you read aloud to your children? The recent Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report, Jan 2015, suggests that reading aloud to your children all the way through primary school, well beyond when they become an independent reader, has a link to their general love of reading. For 41% of children who are ‘frequent readers’, the critical factor is that their parents kept reading aloud to them after the age of six.

What do I mean by frequent readers? I mean those who read for fun five to seven days a week, infrequent readers only read for fun less than one day a week. Frequent reading makes a real difference. “Enjoyment of reading has a greater impact on a child’s educational achievement than their parents’ socio-economic status” OECD Reading For Change, 2002, 2009. “Children who read for pleasure make more progress in maths, vocabulary and spelling between the ages of 10-16 than those who rarely read.” Institute of Education, 2013.

In fact parental involvement in reading is one of the biggest factors in determining if your child will be a lifelong reader. If you read aloud to them frequently before they started school, they are 60 per cent more likely to be frequent readers, and this will continue if you have books at home, make frequent trips to the library, discuss books they are reading, and are seen to be reading yourself.

What may surprise you is that generally we’re not reading aloud to them. The Scholastic report tells us that 52 per cent of children aged 0-2 yrs are read aloud to 5-7 days a week, and 55 per cent aged 3-5 yrs, but only 34 per cent aged 6-8 yrs and 17 per cent aged 9-11 yrs. And yet across all age groups, 83 per cent of kids say they loved or “liked a lot” those times when parents read to them aloud at home.

But they love reading independently

Reading independently is terrific, but the data implies that reading aloud encourages reading independently. It is also a simple way to push your child ahead. Parents invest in tutors, music lessons, day trips – spending time reading to them likely has an equal or bigger impact. Not only will they get something out of it, but so will you. It’s a phenomenal bonding time – children aged 6-11 yrs pointed to this being a huge factor in why they enjoyed being read to. In an age of disconnect, with fewer shared family meals, and more time spent alone on electronic devices, reading to your child is a great way of communicating. Of course, it takes time to read regularly with your children but the rewards are worth it, so it’s all about prioritising.

For those children who are excellent independent readers already, it’s a perfect opportunity to introduce texts that they might not reach for themselves – fiction for avid independent non-fiction readers, or more complex texts where you can explain the nuances of the plot and define the stretching vocabulary, especially for those stuck on ‘series’ books. You can discover the new books published for children that you couldn’t read when you were a child, or rediscover the classics you did read as a child.

Here are a few great texts to read aloud to the different age groups.

Nora Nora inside Nora inside cake

Nora, the girl who ate and ate and ate by Andrew Weale, illustrated by Ben Cort, is a treat to read-aloud. A book that rhymes screams to be read aloud, and children adore guessing following words once they pick up on the rhythm and rhyme. There are some special words that ‘Boom’ out the page, and of course, it makes children laugh – a key strategy in encouraging children to love books. I can never make it through to the end without children giving me the two punchlines in the book, one…
“They all went down in one huge SLURP!
Then Nora did a great big…”
If my three year old guessed what came next – I’m sure you can…I won’t give away the final punchline, but suffice to say, it’s a winner too. The energy just bounces off the pages – resonated by the author and illustrator, whom I had the pleasure to meet at the Southbank Children’s Book Festival a couple of years ago.

wheres my teddymister magnolia

Two other beautifully funny and clever rhyming books for very young children are the much loved Where’s My Teddy by Jez Alborough – which manages to conjure the dark and frightening while still being loved by small children everywhere – and Mr Magnolia by Quentin Blake, serving up the most delicious rhymes and images. We still can’t talk about boots without invoking Mr Magnolia.

momo and snap

There are other stories that were written to be vocalised. Momo and Snap are NOT friends by Airlie Anderson has no words. Simple sounds and grunts illustrate the story of a crocodile and a monkey making friends.

the book with no pictures

Of course the most recent addition to the canon of ‘must be read loud books’ is The Book With No Pictures by B. J. Novak. It does exactly what it says on the cover – there are no pictures in this book, and the joy only comes by reading aloud. The fun that can be had by doing different voices and playing with words and language in the simplest form is exemplified by the author’s video of him reading his book to a class of kids. Here’s the video.

Enormous CrocodileEnormous Crocodile inside

My favourite Roald Dahl book to read aloud for the 5+ yrs audience is The Enormous Crocodile. (I would encourage you to buy or borrow the colour illustrated version). I think even the shyest reader can manage to inject some menace into the Enormous Crocodile’s dialogue, and there’s a special delight to be had from reading the tremendous vocabulary out loud:
“’Oh you horrid hoggish croc!” cried Muggle-Wump. “You slimy creature! I hope the buttons and buckles all stick in your throat and choke you to death!”’

Once children start reading independently most will visit Enid Blyton. I wouldn’t personally read aloud all her books (!), but it’s nice to read the first in a series, then you can explain words such as ‘sanitorium’, which today’s children may not understand.

Inkheart

The great stories and tremendous subtleties in some older children’s literature can be enjoyed equally by parents and children (eg. Harry Potter, Narnia stories). Inkheart by Cornelia Funke manages to convey beautifully the ‘wise adult’ narrator, and the ability of the author to empathise with childhood feelings within one phrase:
“Sometimes, when you’re so sad you don’t know what to do, it helps to be angry.”

Revisiting the classics with your child at this age is truly rewarding. Many of the titles are fairly inaccessible to a young independent reader due to the old fashioned vocabulary and references, but together they can be digested more easily, examples include Black Beauty, Heidi, The Railway Children. You can read my blog on classics here. Be wary though, some read alouds can result in adults’ tears; I found it very hard to stumble to the end of Charlotte’s Web as I was crying too much!

Goodnight Mr Tom

A more difficult book is Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian. I wholly recommend this as a read aloud text. Whilst many children from age ten should be able to cope well with this book, the issues thrown up deserve some time and discussion. Issues of grief, parental responsibility, displacement and suchlike, need exploring, and it can be hard for children to give voice to the emotions raised by the book. Reading aloud enables the parent to see the child’s reaction at each stage and probe for feelings as you go along. Of course, not every book can be read aloud, but there are arguments for fluent readers to be read to with more difficult texts as they start reading on their own, so that they can see books can be discussed and issues that come up can be raised with their parents. Even some young adult titles deserve reading aloud so that the concepts within can be fully raked over. Examples for me would include Nothing by Janne Teller, Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess, and The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks.

Nothing

 

For reference:

Scholastic report
New York Times Article

Freedom to Draw

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

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

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

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

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

The Dot

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

The Day in the Crayons Quit

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

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

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

 

 

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