Of course, I have nothing but praise for Malorie Blackman. She’s the children’s laureate, and clearly a wonderful writer. She was also given a gold Blue Peter badge earlier this year in recognition for inspiring children. Her latest book for Barrington Stoke is for those with a reading age of eight, but interest level stretches to 12 years. Actually, I’d argue with the publishers here – the novel works as a brilliant short story for adults too! Claire’s Dad works long hours in his lab, perfecting a project he has been working on for a long time. Claire feels neglected and confides her feelings by email with her friend, Maisie, who seems to be the only one who understands her. However, when Claire’s Dad reveals the project, it’s only the first of many surprises to come Claire’s way. This is a fantastic futuristic little tale full of twists and surprises, with fabulous clues dropped in, and beautiful illustrations to accompany the text – all set out in a dyslexia-friendly way. It asks powerful questions about who we are, what life would be like without feelings, and what it means to be truly alive. I hesitate to describe it more for want of giving away the suspenseful punchline. Masterly crafted, this would work as good fodder for classroom discussion on storytelling and questions of philosophy in secondary schools too. Fabulous.
Author Jane Elson has worked with young offenders and children with special needs, and she brings some of her experiences into her latest novel, How to Fly With Broken Wings. Told from alternating points of view, first 12 year old Willem who has Aspergers Syndrome, and then Sasha, a girl mixed up with boys from the gangs on the estate where she lives. Their tales collide as they make friends in a desperate attempt to overcome the bullishness of the gangs around them, and to escape the riots on their London estate. The voices are deeply authentic, reminiscent of Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Willem’s voice holds no prisoners, giving literal accounts of his thoughts and observations, from watching the looting of the sports shops during the riots when his attention shifts to the untouched library:
“I do not think the riot people wanted to read books.”
His unflinching honesty is touching to read and beautifully juxtaposed with the extreme emotions of Sasha, as the reader sees her relationship with her father, teachers and peers through her adolescent eyes. Jane Elson also manages to draw into the story the tale of war-flying spitfires, as a man arrives on the estate who tries to give the rioting youth a sense of purpose, history and pride. She cleverly weaves together the bullying of Willem as he is goaded to jump from a too-high wall: “If Finn Madison shouts jump you jump or you are dead” with Willem’s ambitions to fly, and involves Sasha with the history of the women who flew the spitfires. It’s a fascinating and refreshing contemporary story, which will certainly teach many of its target readership what life is like for other children. It also works beautifully to bridge any gender divide in book sales and readership – hence my book of the week this week.
For age 10+
With thanks to Hodder Children’s Books for the review copy.
I wrote about focusing on the book, not the costume for World Book Day here. But I don’t want to appear negative, for I adore World Book Day. It’s a day to celebrate writers, writing and favourite characters. The bus stop was quite a sight this morning with unicorns, Horrid Henrys, monkeys, including my own adorable Muggle Wump, some crocodiles, and I even spotted Where’s Wally. Kudos to me! Of course I didn’t take the bus this morning, I used my Harry Potter floo powder to get to the library.
Other than dressing up, how can we celebrate books this World Book Day? There are lots of ideas on the WBD website, and hopefully many of us will visit our local independent bookshop to spend our £1 Book Day tokens. My son has a chart to fill in from school, in which he has to ask different members of society which is their favourite book and why. And he asked me.
“One book” I shrieked. What torture! And then I realised which it was.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
This book is unique. I don’t think it can be pigeonholed as a children’s book, nor an adult book – although is often labelled as a classic. It’s historical, but not pegged as an historical novel. It’s semi-autobiographical (Louisa May Alcott didn’t correct readers writing her letters addressed to ‘Miss March’, but replied as if she were Jo.) It’s about feminism. It’s also a family saga, and a coming of age book. I suppose it was one of the first YA titles, although most children seem to read it as they reach the upper level of middle grade – about age 10-13yrs.
Little Women tells the story of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, during the American Civil War. Their father is absent, fighting in the war, and their mother is left to raise the girls alone. As they grow from children into adulthood, they face dramas of friendships, illness, arguments, breaking free from constraints of domesticity, and explore first love. The book highlights the wonder of storytelling, as well as espousing moral virtue over materialism, but the wonder of the book for many lies in the depth of characterisation of the four sisters.
They are each so well-defined that, as with Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore, you can remember the character traits of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy long into your own adulthood. Meg, the beautiful compliant daughter; Jo, the non-conformist hot-tempered tomboy; Beth, the shy, quiet creature, whose sacrificial death can be read as the death of the era of quiet domesticity; and finally Amy, the vain and self-centred baby of the family, who nevertheless excels at art and pursues her passion for it no matter the cost. It teaches such important lessons subtly – women’s access to education, overcoming shyness and having confidence, practising small kindnesses, charitable acts, and the importance of a sense of humour too. Little Women was even mentioned in that long-running television comedy Friends, when the girls ruined the story for Joey by telling him what happens to Beth in that devastatingly sad chapter, Dark Days. I don’t think there’s any other book from which I can remember the actual chapter titles. The description of Christmas with the Marches made me long for an American family Christmas just like theirs, and even made me consider calling my mother ‘Marmee’. It’s a beautiful re-read, and works wonderfully as a ‘read-aloud’ too. I implore you to revisit it – and then give it to your children.
So I chose my one book. However, the fun of being a children’s book blogger and writer is that I don’t have to choose one book. I blog twice a week (sometimes more) about all the amazing books there are for children to read. And I have to read the books to enable me to blog. I interview the authors and tweet with other writers. It’s a privileged and rewarding task. Every day for me is World Book Day.
A new fantasy series of the ilk of Michelle Paver, but in a much simpler vein for a younger reader. Set in a time of castles and kings, forests and earthy magic, the book focuses on the whisperers – guardians of the wild, people who have been chosen for their ability to communicate with an animal and protect the landscape and villages in which they live. This first book in the series focuses on two whisperers – Alice and Dawn, and their respective animal companions, Storm a wolf, and Ebony a raven. They have to fight against the evil presence of the Narlaw – dangerous entities who suck the life from human beings and leave them in a sleep-like trance. The book explores the natural landscape, with long adventurous journeys through woods and streams, in deep ravines and up high cliffs. A group of feisty females dominate the novel, from the whisperers who teach their new apprentices, to the princess in the castle, and the past Queen who won the previous Narlaw war. For a more experienced reader there are clear echoes of the Dementors from Harry Potter in the guise of the Narlaw, and other devices pulled from children’s literature – but this is a good starting point for a young reader wanting to access fantasy novels. An easy-to-follow plot, intertwined with some excellent vocabulary and great imagery. Looking forward to reading more in the series. Published 2nd March, 2015.
Abi Elphinstone’s debut children’s book, The Dreamsnatcher, is a bit special. It’s my Book of the Week this week, and you can read the review here. The Dreamsnatcher wasn’t sent to me by a publisher for promotion or review, I merely stumbled across it when going through the entries for next year’s Red House Book Awards. The blurb appealed and I read it before ‘testing’ it on the children. It had quite a hold. Then Abi and I started tweeting and she kindly agreed to be interviewed on my blog.
MinervaReads: You’re obviously very influenced by reading the works of Phillip Pullman. What other influences would you cite – for me the gypsy qualities in Moll were also reminiscent of The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden?
Abi: Ha! Yes, I adore Phillip Pullman’s books. Northern Lights, together with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, were the books that made me believe in magic and Pullman even wrote me a little note wishing me luck in my writing when I started out six years ago.
I learnt how to write action scenes from reading Michelle Paver’s books, particularly the brilliant Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, and The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden inspired me to create a Romany gypsy girl with spirit. Oh, and Moll’s slightly ‘off the wall’ nature comes from reading about truly unique heroines like Mina from David Almond’s My Name is Mina and Sophie in Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers.
MinervaReads: The natural imagery and surrounding landscape are key to your story. Do you see this as a growing trend in children’s literature – and did you purposefully set out to make the setting vague and unknowable so we don’t know which country Moll is from?
Abi: Having grown up in the wilds of Scotland, I think I’m naturally drawn to stories set in remote landscapes – and whenever I go walking in the highlands or swimming in the Fairy Pools on Skye, I can’t help but feel there is so much magic buried away up there. I’m not sure if there is a trend emerging with children’s writers focusing on natural landscapes but I adore any book that does, like The Black North by Nigel McDowell and The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse most recently. I’ve got plans for a series about an Inuit girl called Eska and a grizzly bear cub next but as with The Dreamsnatcher, I won’t give specific place names. I deliberately wanted my setting to be vague (even though I did much of my research in the New Forest) because that way children can dream up the story anywhere.
Abi at the top of a mountain in Skye
MinervaReads: How did you get published? And did it take a long time for you to write The Dreamsnatcher?
Abi: From the ages of 24 – 28, I wrote three books. I sent each one out to a smattering of literary agents and I think I racked up 96 rejections in total. I guess that’s what happens when you dash out stories that don’t matter that much to you… A few agents said they saw ‘glimpses of brilliance’ and ‘raw talent’ in my work but that my plots were unoriginal and my writing style was amateur. So I kept writing, I went to literary festivals and writing workshops, I read more and more children’s books, and most importantly, I re-worked my ideas and style until they were the very best that they could be. I wrote The Dreamsnatcher over the course of a year and I literally threw everything at it because it was finally a story I wanted to tell: I watched wildcats prowl in the New Forest, carved wooden flowers with a Romany gypsy and wrote every spare second I could until there were literally no words left inside me! Then I sent off The Dreamsnatcher to one agent, Hannah Sheppard – and she signed me. Although the rejection process was painful, it taught me a lot about humility, determination and creativity.
MinervaReads: Some of the imagery (the burning of the hand at the beginning) is quite unsettling and frightening. What’s your view on the use of frightening imagery in children’s books?
Abi: Yeah, I scared myself when writing about Skull quite a few times! But I think that as long as you offer children hope – and virtues like bravery, friendship, tolerance and kindness set against the evil you present – then you can go quite dark. I mean, Tolkien totally terrified me as a child but Frodo and Samwise Gamgee taught me to be brave – and I think that kind of lesson is worth being scared rigid by Black Riders for.
MinervaReads: The character of Moll is so well defined. Have you always had her in your head as a sort of alter ego or did you mould her as you wrote the story?
Abi: Hehe. Moll is basically me: ‘a ball of misdirected enthusiasm’ (that’s how my brothers describe me). She’s energetic and adventurous but hopelessly headstrong and pretty impatient – and she almost always says the wrong thing at the wrong time. But she means well and she’s fab with a catapult. Moll was the easiest character to write because I just kept scribbling down what I’d do and say in the situations she got into. It was a LOT of fun.
Abi, as a child
MinervaReads: One of myy most treasured possessions is a set of the His Dark Materials trilogy signed by Phillip Pullman to my children. What’s your most treasured possession?
Abi: My teddy. It goes everywhere with me. He even went on my honeymoon. Wow, that’s embarrassing seeing that sentence in actual typed letters on my computer screen. Oh well.
The cover for The Dreamsnatcher was designed by Thomas Flintham
It’s awards season. Sandwiched between the BAFTAs and the Oscars, and following hot on the Costa Book Award, was yesterday’s Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ Red House Children’s Book Awards 2015. There were no designer frocks, no red carpet, and a distinct lack of paparazzi, but the event was a warm embracing ceremony, with excited children lining up to have a chat with their favourite authors, and to get their much cherished books signed. For the authors, not only were they shortlisted for the national prize voted for by children, but they were also presented with a portfolio of feedback – pictures, poems, reviews and letters all from their readers. I’m sure these are just as precious as any metal trophies.
The shortlist was as follows, for Younger Children: Dragon Loves Penguin by Debi Gliori (review here), The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (review here), Go to Sleep or I Let Loose the Leopard by Steve Cole, illustrated by Bruce Ingman, and That Is Not a Good Idea! By Mo Willems. The winner is The Day the Crayons Quit.
For Younger Readers, the shortlist was Baby Aliens Got My Teacher! By Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Thomas Flintham, The Bomber Dog by Megan Rix, and Demon Dentist by David Walliams, illustrated by Tony Ross. The winner is Demon Dentist.
For Older Readers, the shortlist was Noble Conflict by Malorie Blackman, Prince of the Icemark by Stuart Hill and Split Second by Sophie McKenzie. The winner is Split Second.
The overall winner is The Day the Crayons Quit
And this all made me think. What are awards ceremonies for? Why do we do it? Of course, there is massive attention paid to the books/films/artworks which win awards, all of which drive value or sales, and so it’s a marketing person’s passion to be on the shortlisted or winning team. But for an author, what does it say? For how do we judge a good work of fiction? Being in a bookgroup, or chatting to anyone else who reads, it’s clear that what suits one doesn’t suit another. I love the Bronte sisters but I don’t love Dickens. Reading fiction is obviously completely subjective. On what criteria is it that we judge books when we give them awards? Similarly, what criteria makes a child’s piece of creative writing deserve an A rather than a B grade? There might be a checklist, but it’s totally dependent on the judges isn’t it?
One of those million dollar questions bandied about by authors and such, is ‘Would you rather write a bestseller or win the Booker prize?’ Of course winning the Booker might make you a best seller, but how about the Nobel Prize for Literature? Ie. would you rather be read by millions, or read and judged to be best by a few?
The Red House Children’s Book Award is great because it’s voted for by the readers – so it kind of ticks both boxes. Even then, pitting books against each other in an age range is hard. Whether it’s fantasy against contemporary, or funny against historical, are we right to rate them against each other, when some children don’t even like one of those genres?
The author SF Said recently raised the question of whether children’s books should be considered for the top book awards too – not just judged for the Carnegie Medal. Is it right that there’s a women author only prize? (Bailey’s, previously the Orange). The Booker has just started accepting novelists from the US as entrants as well as the original Commonwealth-only criteria, but should it even be judging different genre books against each other at all. It aims to judge ‘the best novel in the opinion of the judges’. Therein lies the rub. The judges.
In conclusion, we each make a judgement when we read a book, so why not celebrate our opinions with award ceremonies. They grab that elusive media attention – they pull people in to reading books, they drive sales of books. We’ve been telling stories since the Bible and before, and we will continue to do so. And if the RHCBA brings together children’s authors and their readers and celebrates children’s books, as the culmination of the Imagine Children’s Literature Festival, then I’m all for it.
Judge away. Tell everyone which are your favourite children’s books. The children who accompanied me had a fantastic time meeting authors they admired, and hearing readings and seeing live drawings. I came away from the event with recommendations for even more great children’s literature. And some beautiful autographs too.
Thomas Flintham and Pamela Butchart show off their shortlisted book
Lightly straddling the realms of adventure and fantasy, Abi Elphinstone’s debut novel teases out memories of a canon of beautiful children’s literature that has gone before her, as she builds a world of gypsies and dark magic set entirely in woods in a mystery land. Our likeable protagonist Moll is a 12 year old gypsy, raised entirely in a wagon-filled clearing in the woods, unknowing of the world outside (she has never seen the sea or imagined other countries). This landscape allows Abi Elphinstone to explore the wild elements of Moll’s upbringing, filled with animals and birds, and herbs and potions.
The oracle foretells that Moll, along with Gryff, her wildcat, will be the sole defenders against the power of the dark magic of the Dreamsnatcher. The author’s energy enthuses throughout the book; she manages to pack action into the story – Moll never seems to sit still for a minute, the book is crammed with some extraordinarily restless vocabulary; Moll is forever springing forward or leaping or unfurling, with her heart hammering. It’s a whirlwhind of an adventure, and pulls the reader along.
The scenes of the dark side of magic – Skull and the dreamsnatch – are chillingly portrayed, the imagery is dark and scary, but Moll and her friends are so beguiling that the book balances beautifully between the dark and the light. The author employs devices borrowed from Pullman, Barrie and Rowling in her use of imagery, relationships and evil. This book is highly engrossing, with a dark imagination. I would recommend it for an advanced middle grade reader. Once read, you won’t be able to wait for the next in the series; it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve read since the His Dark Materials trilogy. Published 26th February 2015.
Cover illustration by Thomas Flintham
I couldn’t resist a small Valentine’s Day post this week. But we are talking kids’ books so I’ll be very gentle.
First Love: I Love You, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark
This has to be defined by love for a soft toy. Whether it’s a teddy or a monkey, for many of us our first true love was with a ball of fluff. To honour this I have chosen I Love You, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark. For those of you who don’t know the series, Blue Kangaroo is Lily’s favourite toy. In I Love You, Blue Kangaroo, Lily receives a stream of soft toy presents from an array of family members who have come to tea, to stay, or for her birthday – and gradually Blue Kangaroo gets edged further and further away from Lily at bedtime as the new toys take over. Then, one night Blue Kangaroo is pushed out of bed altogether and takes refuge with Lily’s little brother. Lily attempts to retrieve him:
“Mine!” cried the baby.
“No!” shouted Lily.
But Lily’s mother is aghast that Lily is pulling Blue Kangaroo from her baby brother’s arms when she has so many other toys. In the end Lily’s choice is easy – she hands over all the other toys to the baby, retaining only one:
“He can have all of these,” she said,
“but nobody can have Blue Kangaroo!”
This picture book reveals the beauty in allowing us to latch onto something special and keep it for ourselves – not everything has to be shared. Sometimes an attachment to one other object or person is what gives us security, passion and self-awareness. With up to 70 per cent of young children in the Western World having some sort of attachment to a toy or blanket, it’s good to see picture books celebrating this.
Friend Love: Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by AA Milne
I can think of few other books for young children that teach friendship as well as Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne. In the first story, this is demonstrated by Christopher Robin’s devotion to Pooh – helping him to obtain honey without ridiculing his plans, and assisting the madness by marching up and down with an umbrella in bright sunshine pretending it’s going to rain – Christopher Robin does not lose patience at all. Then, friendship is demonstrated in Pooh Bear’s loving generosity and kindness for Eeyore, as Pooh tries to lift Eeyore’s depression by bringing him birthday presents and building him a new house. In fact the entire population of 100 Acre Wood show their love for each other in their attempts to rescue their friend Eeyore from falling into the river, and their solidarity in their expositions to the pole, and their gradual acceptance of their ‘new’ friend when Tigger joins the wood. The epitome for me though remains the friendship between Pooh and Piglet. In every adventure Pooh attempts to motivate Piglet into overcoming his shyness and timidity, whether it be tracking woozles or tricking Kanga. In fact, it is the thought of helping Pooh that enables Piglet to summon the courage and rescue Pooh and Owl during a blustery day.
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
Age range 5-105 yrs
Parental Love: Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Of course, before realisation dawns at puberty that our parents aren’t perfect, we may well in some cases idealise our parents, and certainly strive to please them. One of the very best examples of a father/son relationship in children’s fiction has to be the classic Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl.
Danny lives with his Dad in a gypsy caravan at the garage where his father is a mechanic. One day he discovers his father’s love for pheasant hunting, and together they hatch a plan to outwit the horrible land-owner, Mr Victor Hazell, who doesn’t permit poaching on his land. Although an adventure story, the essence of Danny, Champion of the World is the relationship between him and his father. Danny almost hero-worships his father, and joins him in somewhat criminal activity which is life-threateningly dangerous, and yet in Danny’s eyes his father can do no wrong. Not only that but they have a strong emotional dependence upon each other, as Roald Dahl has written out the mother figure and any close friends. The story hinges on the moral choices that Danny makes, and the guidance and advice he gets from his father.
“My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.”
Age range: 7+ years.
Sister Love: Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Much middle grade fiction focuses on sibling tensions, jealousies and anxieties, but one of the truest forms of sister love is portrayed when the girls have actively chosen their own sisterhood. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield is a classic chidren’s book, slightly dated and old-fashioned, but nevertheless with a great sense of story and theatre. It tells of three orphans, Pauline, Petrova and Posy – adopted by an eccentric fossil collector. They decide to share a surname – Fossil – and thus impose sisterhood on themselves. The three sisters are very different people with different ambitions, and through the book they demonstrate sisterly love by working hard and sacrificing certain things in order that their other sisters can benefit. Pauline wants to work in the theatre, Petrova with cars, and Posy in ballet. The sisters like to insist that they have no family heritage to live up to as they are all adoptees – they have no ties that bind, and each birthday they make a vow to make something of the Fossil name themselves – unfettered. And yet, a clear component of their confidence and achievements is the support network of being one of three. What’s also lovely about this book is that the children are surrounded by adults who take an interest in their lives and want to spend time with them. Noel’s older sister Ruth illustrated the book when it was first published. Age range about 7+yrs.
Animal Love: The Last Wild by Piers Torday
I wanted to include this book in my Valentine’s Day selection for two reasons. Firstly, because I really do love it – like a friend or like a Desert Island Disc book, and secondly because it fits in well under animal love in an unexpected way. This isn’t a book that is about a boy who loves animals – it doesn’t feature a trusty dog or a cuddly rabbit pet. This isn’t a typical ‘animal’ book – it’s an outstanding adventure story set in a dystopian landscape. It’s about courage and the environment and our relationship to it, and also about communication.
The Last Wild is a highly original story of a boy called Kester who is mute, but realises he can communicate with animals. This is particularly startling as he lives in a time when all the animals have been wiped out by a terrible virus. The Last Wild tells how a flock of pigeons and a particularly confident cockroach lead him to the last surviving group of animals in a desperate attempt to get him to help them save themselves. Kester’s (and the reader’s) love for animals grows as the story progresses. By the end we too love the animals, even the cockroach, because the animals have demonstrated their qualities to us – their loyalty, their strength, their bravery, and their fight for justice. I don’t want to give too much away – it’s a fast-paced, creative, brainstorming triumph. Buy it for every child you know aged about 9 or older.
There was a discussion this week among several bloggers/authors/interested partners about the place of romance in middle grade fiction. Most agreed that really there was no place for it, and that romantic love belongs in the Young Adult genre, not any younger. In much middle grade fiction, there is a ‘friendship’ that develops between a boy and a girl, or a tag team of boy and girl who attempt to solve the mystery/adventure together. One trilogy that cropped up time and again as one which features a form of romantic love is that of Will and Lyra from His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman, and of course there is the kiss in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (although many would argue that Harry Potter ventures into YA territory and away from MG the further into the books one ventures). Quite often in middle grade books romantic love is introduced when the protagonist has an older sister or brother and it is through them (as an aside almost) that we witness love. But generally the argument is that middle grade is for finding your own identity – your own place in the world. Only once we graduate to young adult fiction do we start to become entangled in that messy web of romantic love.
Image: Book Heart from OnlyImage.com
This is a stunningly impressive debut novel. Mike Revell tells the story of 11 year old Liam who moves to a new area so that his mum can be near his grandma, who is suffering from dementia. Liam struggles with the consequences of the move – a new school, his mum’s new friend, as well as with his elder sister’s advance into adulthood. Liam stumbles across an old stone gargoyle in the abandoned church behind his house, and after finding his grandmother’s old teenage diary, discovers that the gargoyle is magic and can make stories come true. Liam harnesses this power of storytelling to right the perceived wrongs in his life, from fixing his grandmother to dealing with the bullies at school, but before long the storytelling becomes more dangerous and powerful than Liam had imagined.
The novel is told in the present tense, giving immediacy and tension to the story, and sweeps the reader along. At the same time, Mike Revell conveys an 11 year old’s feelings and emotions sensitively as Liam witnesses the deterioration of his grandma from dementia, and the frightening fallout effects on the whole family. At no point is the story too bleak though, as Liam is an intensely realistic and likeable protagonist, with an inspirational teacher, a loveable dog and enough support to carry him through. This is a well crafted and deftly written book. Definitely one of the highlights of 2015.
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:
Or this for girls:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.