picturebooks

Picture Book Round Up: Human Relationships

When I was at school, one of my best friends had the most extraordinary hair. Tight springy curls that fuzzed out from her head like Medusa with her snakes. Now, in the school library, I’m all agog at the number of different hairstyles, the fancy braiding, curls escaping from scrunchies and bobbles. But also the different personalities of the children – just like picture books they come in all shapes and sizes. Here are some latest picture books about humans and human relationships.

miras curly hairMira’s Curly Hair by Maryam Al Serkal, illustrated by Rebeca Luciani
Mira has the same problem as my school friend. Her hair curls everywhere, and it won’t stop. She wants someone with whom she can identify, but her mother has luscious straight hair, of which Mira is a little envious. Mira tries to stop her curls unfurling in all sorts of ways, but they won’t. It’s only after a rainfall when her mother’s hair springs back to its natural curls, that Mira feels happier.

Set in Dubai, with its beauty as the backdrop to Mira’s life, this is a book that begins firmly in the domestic sphere – Mira doing a handstand in her room, Mira’s mother’s table with laptop, glasses and flowers – and out of the window the scenery of palm trees and sea, of the cityscape. The illustrations come into their own when they escape the domestic sphere, just as Mira’s mother’s hair escapes its restrictions and returns to its natural state in the rain – here the illustrations show the range of patterns on clothes, on the pavements, in the rain, and the characters seem uplifted by the fresh rain’s scene -their faces upturned. The backdrop changes to one of traditional Islamic architecture and across the pages stream colourful birds, perhaps real, perhaps imagined, as they fly through the mother’s hair, they also experiencing freedom.

The colours in this book zing – it’s vibrant, bright, the rain makes the natural landscape appear lush and sensual. This is a lovely book of acceptance of who you are, seeing yourself in others, and also understanding that there is no perfect way for hair to be – misnomers such as ‘unruly’, and ‘misbehaving’ to describe hair have no place here. Instead, a natural head of hair is to be celebrated. You can buy it here. 

the wall in the middle of the bookThe Wall in the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee
Modern fables tell us much about our own political times, and any book with the word ‘wall’ in the title conjures ideas of division and animosity, but mostly fear. Cities were originally built with walls around them to keep people out, not to keep people in. Agee cleverly uses the physical space of the book to build his wall – the wall runs along the centre gutter of the book. On one side, (verso), a young knight explains exactly the purpose of his wall – it’s to keep out the dangerous animals (tiger, rhino, gorilla and mouse pictured on the recto). And the most dangerous thing of all – the ogre.

When the knight’s side of the book fills up with water though, he’s plucked to safety over the top of the wall by the ogre. And discovers that the recto side is actually quite pleasant. Agee breaks the ‘fourth wall’ of fiction – addressing the reader and acknowledging the ‘book’ as his setting – thus eliminating all boundaries entirely. The book challenges our pre-conceived ideas of what’s frightening ‘without’, when actually the threats may come from ‘within’. And also, asks the reader if our knight is the most reliable of narrators.

Illustrations are full-page, blocky, simple yet exceedingly expressive. Text matches in its apparent simplicity, yet stimulates thought. All excellent food for thought in these wall-building times. You can buy it here. 

goliathGoliath: The Boy Who was Different by Ximo Abadia
Brighter colours here, using primary colours with spots of green and black in recognisable but also blocky illustrations that feel almost like retro jigsaw pieces fitted together, in this story of being different.

The boy, our new Goliath, is huge and red and doesn’t fit in. In despair he sets off on a quest to discover why, and it is the moon who offers perspective on the problem, explaining that it is both big and small depending on who is looking at it.

The story of perception is not new, but it is the artwork that dazzles here.

The illustrations themselves present the issue of perspective – a forceful display of shapes and lines that form images within the reader’s mind, the bold strange shape of the boy contrasted with the normality of a silhouette reading a newspaper, children with backpacks walking to school.

In the end, the boy’s acceptance of himself, leads the others to accept him too, and rather than he grow more like them, the illustrations show that they become more like him in colour and shape. Fascinating and like Goliath himself, different. You can buy it here. 

the bandit queenThe Bandit Queen by Natalia and Lauren O’Hara
Another most distinctive picture book, this latest tale from the O’Hara sisters is stylish, clever and subversive. There’s something quite delightful about renegades, naughtiness and bad behaviour in children’s books. My Naughty Little Sister and Horrid Henry of course, but also in AA Milne’s delicious rhymes, the spoilt behaviour of Mary Jane, Christopher Robin lying about his wheezles, and those two little bears who lived in the wood, one of whom was bad and the other good.

Here, a crew of bandits are incredibly naughty, making noise through the night, peeing without precision, throwing cutlery. Yet, they face a challenge when they break into an orphanage, steal socks and clocks, a picnic box, and inadvertently, a baby! She becomes their Bandit Queen, but after a while their antics begin to grate on her, and maybe she’ll have to hatch a plan to change their ways.

This clever rhyming book contains some interesting morals within, discussions about routine and learning, about friends and family. And belonging and greed. There’s a huge amount within this characterful picture book, and the illustrations are simply exquisite – with an old-fashioned feel that makes it seem like it’s worthy of longevity. You can buy it here. 

grobblechopsGrobblechops by Elizabeth Laird and Jenny Lucander
Using tales from old is another way of making a book a ‘classic’, but this modern update of a tale by Rumi, the 13th century poet and Sufi mystic, is both appealing and refreshing. It does revisit the themes of childhood fears (monsters at bedtime), and parental persuasion, but it stands out with its careful observations of how we live now. Amir is scared of the monster. The monster is illustrated with fang teeth and sticky-up hair, yet with a kind of beguiling cuteness behind the horror. (It’s all the eyes.)

The whole book is told in dialogue between child and father, Amir at first suggesting how monstrous the monster will be and the father explaining how he will defend Amir against him, but gradually the talk becomes more about how to occupy the monster called Grobblechops, even suggesting that he may need sympathy, perhaps suffering loneliness or envy of Amir.

Parents too will enjoy the attention to detail – the father’s laptop, his need for ‘evening time’ with his wife, the domestic scenes. With humour throughout and also such compelling illustrations, the reader feels totally drawn into the tale. In essence, warm and comforting for those with night-time anxieties. You can buy it here. 

Animal Picture Books

There seems to be a glut of super-talented authors and illustrators bringing a range of stories to life this summer in picture books. It’s hard to choose when there are so many good books. Themed on animals, and with some clear references to great picture books of the past, I’ve narrowed it down to seven.

a mouse called julianA Mouse Called Julian by Joe Todd-Stanton
Since the stunning views of Epping Forest inspired the illustrative detail in Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge series, a fascination with underground burrows and attention to detail has pervaded children’s illustration. Todd-Stanton’s new picture book is also about a mouse and his burrow, illustrated to near-perfection with its perspective on size – the giant matchsticks, safety pen and chiselled pencils. And as the perspective widens outside Julian’s burrow, the picturebook excels.

Julian avoids other animals, but when a fox tries to sneak into his burrow, it gets stuck in the front door. At first horror strikes both animals, but gradually a mutual friendship grows.

This plot idea may be borrowed from Winnie-the-Pooh, but Todd-Stanton’s clever vignettes of Julian on his everyday travails, through burrow and fields, plays on the reader’s expectations of country life, predator and prey. Julian is seen walking with a stick of blueberries across his shoulder, in the pose of Dick Whittington with his bindle stick. The illustrations open out to full page little animal terror, as the reader sees the eye of the fox, huge against the leaves and dandelions, which themselves tower over Julian.

This is a tale, in the end, about perspective. Perspective of size, of danger, but also of companionship and the loyalty of friendship. There are unexpected twists, a sublime amount of suspense for the young reader, and simply exquisite illustrations. A gentle rhythm to the short text amplifies the satisfactory ending. Exquisite. You can buy it here.

in the swamp by the light of the moonIn the Swamp by the Light of the Moon by Frann Preston-Gannon
More borrowing from the children’s literature cannon in this paean to The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, as Preston-Gannon uses the same rhythm to tell her tale of a frog and his orchestra of animals. Singing to himself in the swamp, his song feels incomplete until the other animals join in. It is only at the end, when even the smallest voice is heard, that the music sounds right.

With collage illustrations highlighting the different textures and bold colours of the swamp, from the flora at the front of the picture to the depth of water and colourful fish, Preston-Gannon shows an intense attention to detail, making the scene feel like the liveliest and most comfortable swamp – the frog’s legs dip into the water, the mice sing with every whisker and flick of tail.

In the end, the reader discovers that it is only with the complementary sounds of all the creatures that the song sounds good – a promotion of inclusivity, but particularly of the little bug – the smallest voice of all – showing that there must be space for the extroverts to listen to the introverts and let them in.

Young readers will find the little bug on every page, and delight in her final ‘brightness’ of song. Lyrical, accessible and bright. You can buy it here.

ducktective quack
Ducktective Quack and the Cake Crime Wave by Claire Freedman and Mike Byrne
Humour and detective skills galore in this wonderful caper by the author of Aliens Love Underpants. Someone is stealing all the cakes in town, and together with Ducktective Quack, the reader needs to work out who it is. In rhyming text, and with successful word play (‘fowl play’ at the police station), the book takes the reader through a humorous investigation of the town, from the crime scene to the portraits of suspects, questioning and solution. A yellow post-it on each page encourages the reader to find clues.

But it is the clever rhyming and busy illustrations that win an audience. A perfect read-aloud, with cute messages about sugary foods being bad for teeth and health, the illustrations of the different animals and their professional lives will make any reader chuckle, even the grownups. Look out for the incongruities too – an old-fashioned telephone, an American mailbox, an electric toothbrush, a takeaway coffee cup.

Timeless and placeless, this is one sugary treat. You can buy it here.

i am a tiger
I Am a Tiger by Karl Newson and Ross Collins
Say something with enough conviction and people will believe you? A tale for our times indeed. This bold, simple picturebook, again with a starring role for a mouse, shows that with enough confidence you can be anything you want to be. Mouse believes itself to be a tiger, and convinces others of this ‘fact’ by way of a series of strong(ish) arguments and behaviours. When a real tiger comes along, mouse has to convince tiger that the tiger himself is a mouse, before explaining what all the other animals are (with some witty surprises).

This is an excellent book, highlighting confidence, truth and debate, all the while managing to amuse. Phenomenal facial expressions take this book to another level. You can buy it here.

my dog mouse
My Dog Mouse by Eva Lindstrom
Old-school illustrations in this translated-from-Swedish slowly paced gentle book about friendship and ownership. There’s a special attention and a special relationship between the unnamed narrator who is taking an old dog for a walk, illuminated in the poetic language of the text ‘ears flap like flags’, ears that are ‘as thin as pancakes’, but mainly in the soft charming shaded illustrations that move as slowly as the child moves in his slow walk, ‘Step, pause, step pause.’

There’s a longing and poignancy to the text, a kind of nostalgia for the enduring time of childhood, and a wry sadness as the narrator proclaims that they wished the dog belonged to them, in beautiful contrast to the title of the story. Will leave children pondering. You can buy it here.

little bear's spring
Little Bear’s Spring by Elli Woollard and Briony May Smith
There is a great depth of understanding of nature in May Smith’s illustrations throughout her picture book output, and this is different only in that it concentrates on the real natural world rather than fairies. Little Bear is coming out of hibernation and Woollard and May Smith track his slow awareness of the new world and the change from winter to spring as he learns whom to trust and whom to befriend.

The use of light to show the sunshine and the passing of the days, shadows cast, and patches illuminated, as well as the textures of the landscape; tree bark, animal fur, rippling streams is magical, and particularly, of course, the double page spread of first blossoming flowers – a carpet of colour and sensory delight. The story is gently told with a good mix of descriptive vocabulary and character-driven dialogue all told in rhyme. You can buy it here.

big cat
Big Cat by Emma Lazell
A case of mistaken identity, a stylistic throwback nostalgia to the 1970s, and an acknowledgement of great picture books from the past combine in this zany intergenerational story book. Isobel and her grandma find a cat in the garden – a big cat – whilst looking for grandma’s glasses. He moves in, but like another well-known big cat, eats a lot of food. When grandma finally finds her glasses, she’s in for quite a surprise.

With a messy, scatty illustrative style, busy chaotic scenes, and a wonderful chattiness in the text, there is a huge amount of fun to discover in this lively picture book. Look at the other cats protesting, Grandma attempting to text on her mobile phone, and her overloaded kitchen (how many mugs does one person need?) A Big amount of fun. You can buy it here.

Refugee Week Books

Refugee Week starts this week, with the slogan ‘Different Pasts, Shared Future’. It’s a theme well worth bearing in mind in our current climate, especially if you read this article in The Observer from 9th June, which pointed to the increased number of war refugees, and the growing threat of climate change that will result (and already is) in an increased number of climate migrants.

One hopes that the next generation will use their passion and skills to solve some of these issues, be it understanding different political, ethnic and religious tensions, or coping with the displacement of people due to changing climate. Even, one hopes, to reverse some of these changes, but ultimately to accept the global movement of people.

Teaching tolerance starts young. Two picture books that provoke thought and understanding about accepting others’ differences, and learning to embrace others in new communities, are aimed at the very young – The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros, and Quill Soup by Alan Durant and Dale Blankenaar.

migrationsBut firstly, there is the striking little Migrations: Open Hearts Open Borders with an introduction by Shaun Tan. This postcard sized-book is a selection of illustrations from children’s book illustrators around the world. The illustrators submitted images for a travelling exhibition (visiting London, Worcester, South Africa, Korea), to express support for human migrants. Each illustrator submitted an illustration of a bird on a postcard, and a message on the reverse.

The book highlights the intense difference in style between children’s illustrators – from those well-known in this country, such as Chris Riddell and Petr Horacek, to the lesser-known Marija Prelog from Slovenia. She has etched a beautiful red-breasted bullfinch, whose claws and facial expression look it to be in some kind of distress – the ‘clouds’ in the sky resembling shadowy human figures that might be swimming or struggling through the air. It’s a powerful arresting image. Myungae Lee from Korea has colourfully crafted birds as a series of balloons held by people on the ground with their arms raised – turning the postcard vertically to use the space.

Divided into themes: Departures, Long Journeys, Arrivals, and Hope for the Future, the book is both inspirational and thought-provoking. Migration, of course, is tied up with ideas of journey, destination, flight and discovery – just like children’s fiction.

And also like children’s fiction, it has hope pulling the strands of the journey together, a dream of something better. Each journey and illustration is an individual act, but very much part of a whole. The idea – to have to leave one community but to join or form another community in a better, safer place.

You can buy it here.

The idea of community is threaded through the two picture books – both asking for acts of kindness in welcoming strangers.

the suitcaseThe Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros is the story of a funny little creature who arrives in the book after trekking over quite a jaggedy mountain, pulling a suitcase.

He looks pretty fed up and tired. The animals at his destination ask him what’s inside his case, but they know he’s fibbing when he explains that as well as a teacup, there is a table and chairs, a house and more. When the stranger curls up and goes to sleep, weary and vulnerable, the other animals break into the suitcase to sate their curiosity.

The inherent message is making amends for doing something wrong, welcoming a stranger, and gaining an understanding of what that stranger has been through. There is an intense lesson of empathy here, which children will gain through the osmosis of reading.

The arrival of the creature at the destination is illustrated with pages of simple colours in a landscape of mainly white space. But the journey is depicted by the landscape dominating the page – from the high mountain to an abundance of waves that threatens to drown the book. A struggle before final acceptance.

Effective in its simplicity. You can buy it here.

quill soup

There’s an old folk tale called Stone Soup, shared commonly in European communities (although it has other global variations) in which a hungry stranger tries to convince the townspeople to share their small morsels of food with him, and in the end makes a meal for the whole community. Sharing is best – breaking bread with strangers who become new friends.

This is the essence of the story in Quill Soup by Alan Durant, illustrated by Dale Blankenaar, but in this retelling the stranger is a porcupine called Noko, and the story has been replanted to Africa – the village populated by an array of African animals including meerkats and monkeys. The style is unique – vivid colours dominating each page, intricate patterns and silhouettes, in active, highly populated scenes, so that a child is almost seeking the animals in the jungle – picking out their shapes and eyes in a teeming patterned landscape.

An excellent retelling that not only teaches about welcoming strangers and sharing resources, but for a Western readership, it shows cultural diversity in the actual design of the book. You can buy it here.

Father’s Day 2019

It’s Father’s Day today. Apparently consumers spend half as much on Father’s Day as they do on Mother’s Day. (Global Data Retail Analysis). Whether this is because consumers regard fathers as less important, or there are fewer of them, who knows. If we look to children’s books, the traditional classics tend to show women as the primary caregivers – The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Where the Wild Things Are, The Cat in the Hat. I’d argue that although fatherhood has come a long way, it’s often the woman who is still the default parent, the ‘emergency contact’ in heterosexual relationships. However, the children’s book world is changing things, and here are two picture books that neatly celebrate the father/child relationship.

the way to treasure islandThe Way to Treasure Island by Lizzy Stewart
The compelling hook of this picture book is not so much the riff on ‘Treasure Island’, that trope of children’s literature that presents an adventure and a quest for treasure, but instead it is the growing and tender relationship between the characters of Matilda and her father (seen on the front cover in their boat). Introduced Roald Dahl style: ‘This is Matilda, and this is Matilda’s dad’ the reader learns that although they have a very close relationship, they are very different types of people. (As the obsessively tidy mother of a messy daughter, empathy is easy here).

Nicely turning things around and playing with the reader’s expectations, here the child is neat and tidy, the Dad is depicted as messy and noisy. Matilda is beautifully drawn – she has a distinct personality from the beginning – her big red glasses a focus of her face, her eyebrows a mirror of her Dad’s, and the simple way they are drawn executes her mood wonderfully.

From the beach the pair set sail to follow their map to get the treasure. The journey is as important as the destination here, the quest being about the discovery of how wonderful the natural world is. The endpapers mirror this with their depiction of a shoal of fish, and some of the most splendid, colourful, detailed and interesting full page illustrations in the book are the depictions of nature – the underwater vista, the flora and fauna on the island. For those who have sampled Lizzy Stewart’s first book, There’s a Tiger in the Garden, some of the more jungley scenes will ring familiar.

Of course, in the end it is the combined strengths of the pair, their different skills and personalities, that enable Matilda and her dad to find the treasure. The treasure, of course, is not monetary – it is in fact the natural beauty surrounding them – this ‘discovery’ page is a glorious celebration of the natural world’s colour, and the reader will admire the illustrator’s ability to depict the moment of discovery and achievement.

A glorious book, vibrant with story, messages and illustrations, and a true celebration of enjoying the journey one’s on with the people one loves. Exemplary. You can buy it here.

raj and best holiday everRaj and the Best Holiday Ever by Seb Braun
Another Raj and Dad adventure book, following earlier picture book Raj and the Best Day Ever, takes a familiar theme of the Dad wanting to prove that he can really treat his son to a fantastic day, but admitting near the end that a bit of help would come in handy.

I admit that camping isn’t my thing, but Braun depicts the anticipation of a camping holiday beautifully, even the long journey with petrol stops is portrayed with humour, but it is the arrival at the campsite that makes it most appealing. Each tent a different colour against the blue/black background of night-time, and illustrated as if lit from within by torchlight. Raj and his Dad take a birds’ eye view of the campground from a high point, and it is indeed a high point in the picture book.

There are some clichéd moments to follow – Dad finds it hard to put the tent up, and to cook breakfast, he loses a paddle canoeing, takes an ambitious trek with a tired child, all the while refusing help from the annoyingly smug family of bears in the adjacent tent – who have clearly achieved camping perfection.

The ending is as expected – they join company with the bears for a jolly singsong round the campfire, and of course it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship and the end of the ‘best holiday ever’. Raj and his father are depicted as tigers, and other anthropomorphised creatures populate the landscape, in spreads that are packed with things to find – a pig paragliding, a donkey backpacking, the frog taking a dive, not to mentione concerned-looking fish. There is humour throughout, look out for the pile of books on the title page, including one entitled ‘Managing Expectations’.

A heart-warming story, bound to be a ‘best book ever’ for some youngsters on Father’s Day. You can buy it here.

Detective Geniuses: Introducing Sophie Johnson

sophie johnson detective geniusWhat do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a perennial question asked of youngsters, and Sophie Johnson is the most winning picture book character to help answer it.

In her first foray into the book world, she was a ‘unicorn expert’, but now she is trying her hand at detecting.

In the Sophie Johnson picture books by Morag Hood, illustrated by Ella Okstad, (strapline: Meet Sophie Johnson: outgoing, optimistic and oblivious), there is a perfect match of text and picture, the two working harmoniously to give a greater whole. Indeed, despite Sophie’s bragging of her expertise in her chosen career, the pictures give a slightly different perspective.

That doesn’t detract from Sophie Johnson’s awesomeness. In the latest book, Sophie Johnson: Detective Genius, she is enthusiastically looking for the thief who has stolen Lion’s tale. She doesn’t have the time to train her assistant, Bella the dog. But maybe Bella doesn’t need as much training as Sophie thinks.

A riotous, clever, and thoroughly enjoyable picture book, I fell for Sophie as soon as I saw her. Her character’s personality, oozing warmth and exuberance, is infectious. The zesty conversational prose instantly sucks in the reader, and the illustrations are endearing, vibrant, colourful, and full of familiar domestic details, as well as wit and energy.

Here, author Morag Hood gives us Sophie’s favourite detectives:

Top 5 Detective heroes:

My name is Sophie Johnson and these are my top 5 Greatest Detective Geniuses Ever in the Whole World (apart from me).

Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

People always call him a ‘classic’ detective (which I think is probably just a nice way of saying he is really quite old now) but Sherlock is a genius just like me. He can solve any mystery and he doesn’t let silly things like manners get in the way of him cracking a case. He also has a hat which looks a bit like mine so he must be pretty clever

Basil The Great Mouse Detective (Disney)

In some ways Basil is just a smaller, mousier version of Sherlock Holmes, but I think he has a lot more fun. He also has a snazzy outfit and a dog assistant just like me. Although his assistant is called Toby and he does actually help a little bit, unlike my assistant Bella who just barks at things.

Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)

This man does have a very funny moustache, but Poirot is actually quite good at solving cases most of the time. He can spend a bit too much time thinking rather than doing, but we can probably forgive him for that because he did live ages ago.

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong (Murder Most Unladylike books by Robin Stevens)

Finally, a detective with a good assistant! Although actually I think they are probably just joint Detective Geniuses. They prove that girls like me are even better than grown ups at crime solving. I’m sure I will solve all kinds of mysteries once I am at school.

Dr Mark Sloan (Diagnosis Murder)

He is a detective and a doctor and he sometimes wears roller skates and sings.

With thanks to Morag Hood for letting us read Sophie’s detective choices, and S&S UK for the review copy. Sophie Johnson: Detective Genius by Morag Hood and Ella Okstad is published by Simon and Schuster and is available to buy here. I suggest you do!

Finding the Dugong Inside You: An Empathy Day post by Candy Gourlay

empathy dayEmpathy Day was founded in 2017 by not-for-profit Empathy Lab. This year it falls on 11 June. Using research that shows empathy is a skill we can learn, it aims to inspire and promote empathy.

And where better to start than with reading, particularly children’s books.

As founder Miranda McKearney OBE says: “Reading helps young minds to imagine lives beyond their own…Books are scientifically proven to help us develop empathy. 

This year, author Candy Gourlay has explained what empathy means to her for MinervaReads:

candy gourlay

Ten years ago my debut novel Tall Story was published. It is the story of two siblings who have never met, one in the Philippines and one in London,  separated by years of failed visa applications.

I filled Tall Story with Filipino characters, sewing Filipino folk tales and quirks into the narrative, including the national passion for basketball despite our diminutive stature.

I also infused Tall Story with loneliness – my loneliness: having left my family behind in the Philippines to start a new life in London, in the same way that my hero Bernardo is left behind when his mum becomes a nurse in London.

It is not a loneliness unique to me.  For the past 20 years, my country has been experiencing a migration phenomenon. Eleven percent of our population leave home every year to work abroad.

So imagine my surprise when my English husband’s uncle – a former Royal Marine – said that he felt Bernardo’s story was like his own.

Uncle Ian had spent most of his childhood at boarding school while his parents had worked overseas. Several times, when his parents had visited him at boarding school, he had changed so much they had failed to recognise him.

Uncle Ian had found echoes of himself in a left-behind Filipino boy.

Echoes

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” the novelist Mohsin Hamid said, in an interview.

Hamid was talking about writing, not reading.

#ReadforEmpathy may be today’s hashtag … but it might as well be #WriteforEmpathy because to write a book that inspires empathy requires much empathy from the author herself.

is it a mermaid
The Dugong in Me

EmpathyLab, the empathy, literature and social action programme for four to 11 year olds, has compiled a Read for Empathy list of 45 diverse books for 2019.

This includes Is It a Mermaid?, written by me with achingly beautiful illustrations by Francesca Chessa, and nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal.

Is It a Mermaid? is about a dugong (sea cow) who declares that she is a mermaid despite the objections of a little boy named Benji. When I read this aloud, the comedy of the situation has the children hooting and laughing. How can this fat, grey sea creature even begin to look like a mermaid?

But midway through the story, Benji goes too far and the dugong bursts into tears. As I read, I am always amazed by my audience’s reaction. The children’s faces become serious and sad as they realise that, like Benji, they have been unkind.

The moment never fails to move me. Because that dugong who thinks she is a mermaid? She is full of echoes of my own experiences:

That time when my sister and I were playing at fashion modelling and an aunt fell about laughing. “Oh she’ll never be a model, she’s too fat!”

That time I said I was trying to become a children’s author and an acquaintance laughed scornfully saying, “Not another one! Too many people think they can become authors!”

That time when I was left out of a game by some cousins, claiming, “Only boys can play this!”

Better People

“The more we read the more empathy we show to our fellow human beings,” the literary agent Jonny Geller declared in his TedxTalk What Makes a Bestseller?, citing research that makes a connection between fiction and increased empathy. “Reading makes us better people.”

The 11th of June is Empathy Day and book lovers (readers and makers alike) will be banding together to create a #ReadingforEmpathy sonic boom, with chat and book recommendations. Join us in showing how books can transform readers.

Reading makes us better people.  Let’s make it happen.

With thanks to Candy Gourlay for her guest post. To read my review of her latest novel, Bone Talk, click here. To buy Is It a Mermaid click here, and you can watch the book trailer here.

A Wonderful World

its your world nowPart address, part instructional, but above all picture book, It’s Your World Now! by Barry Falls is an insight into what happens when a person becomes a parent. Their eyes are opened to the wonder of the world and its possibilities for their child, but also perhaps to the pitfalls and dangers.

In a swooping, vibrant, non-patronising way, Falls has poured these feelings into a picture book, and both celebrated the world itself and the potential of the individual within it. 

The rhyming text gives lessons to the child, just three. That the world is full of wonders, that sometimes things won’t go your way, and that the love of the parent is everlasting. With collage-style illustrations, partly reminiscent of Oliver Jeffers, a reader will be as enthralled with the mass of detail depicted as the careful positioning of the text – interspersing pictures, hanging on planets, but also set on a blank page. Doubts creep in – there is no certainty, except for parental love.

For any child this will be a treasure trove of discovery, for parents a partly whimsical partly true depiction of how they feel.

Here, Barry Falls explores The Challenge of Making Something Meaningful: 

barry fallsI’ve always loved the idea of making picture books for young children.

The freedom that they provide as a storyteller and image maker has always been hugely appealing to me. I can hardly think of another format that allows for such an intense and seamless integration of words, pictures, ideas and story. I say intense because, well, they’re short… but a good picture book bursts with flavour. Most picture books can be read in a few minutes, but if they’re made with real passion and love, they can provide years of joyous succour to the little hands and little minds that encounter them.

Making It’s Your World Now! was such a learning experience for me, but also a pretty emotional one. The origin of the story was a desire to give something meaningful to my baby daughter, who was only about a year old when I started working on the text. I think that’s why it ended up being quite an expansive text; it was an attempt to make really big feelings into something with some shape and a meaning that we can both grow into as we read it together. As a parent of three kids myself, I spend a lot of time reading children’s books, and I always enjoy it more when I feel like the text speaks to me in some way. In that regard, I really hope that the life lessons that are described in the book are something that parents who read the book to their kids will identify with.

As an illustrator, I’m always tempted to dive right into the visual side of any book that I’m working on, but something that I’ve learned over the course of the last couple of years is that getting the text right first is key. I love to write in rhyme, and one of the things that I love about it is that it leaves no room for error. You have to get the meter and the rhythm of the words to work perfectly together, otherwise the joy of the rhyme completely disappears. As someone who is an illustrator first and foremost, I found this really helpful as it forced me to really put the hours into the text so that I knew that it really worked before I even picked up a pencil.

Once I had my text to the stage where I was happy with it – with the help of a patient and insightful editor of course! – I was able to focus on the images. In some ways this was the easy bit. After years of developing my style as an illustrator, it is second nature for me to build pictures to go along with stories, but the whole process feels very different when it’s your own story. The possibilities are endless, and the creative freedom can be a little overwhelming. Added to that, I don’t usually make images for young children, so building the visual style of It’s Your World Now! involved a LOT of trial and error, especially when it came to rendering the characters that appear throughout the book.

A good example of how I work to build an image, and particularly within It’s Your World Now!, is the cover of the book. The big sycamore tree on the cover is a microcosm of the book itself – it bursts with life and introduces readers to the visual style and preoccupations of the story. The text includes abundant references to the many things that there are in the world, and the joy to be had in exploring them, so it feels right to me that the visual style of the book should be joyfully busy.

I’ve always treated my images as collages – they don’t have an overt cut’n’paste feel like a lot of classic collages, but essentially that’s what they are. I’ve always loved the work of Peter Blake, so he is an inspiration to me – not just in the busyness of his images, but in the warm, nostalgic palettes he works with. Another huge influence is Henry Darger, an outsider artist who built complex scenes using found images torn from children’s colouring books and layered into heartbreaking, expansive vistas.

As for me, I start each spread with a rough sketch, which I use as a very loose starting point. Everything is then created individually – the plants, the animals, the characters, the objects – and then placed into context with one another in Photoshop. Some are drawn, some are painted, some are photographed and manipulated digitally. This allows me to play with scale and proportion, and to clash colours and textures in fun and visually provocative ways that aren’t always anticipated in the sketches. In the old days this would have involved an awful lot of photocopying, cutting and gluing, but now working digitally makes it so much more immediate.

At times, the improvisational nature of creating the artwork feels a bit like playing music, and is very different from the discipline and constant rewriting of the text. One of my colleagues said that the artwork of the book was quite trippy, which, as a Grateful Dead fan, I decided to take as a compliment.

Working on, and completing, my first picture book, was certainly a trip for me. And now that I’ve taken it once, I hope to get the chance to take many trips in the future. Hopefully the readers of It’s Your World Now! will hop on board with me.

With thanks to Barry Falls, and Pavilion Children’s Books for the review copy. It’s Your World Now! by Barry Falls is published by Pavilion Children’s Books, £6.99 paperback and is available here.

Grumpycorn: introducing…NARWHAL!

A guest post by Sarah McIntyre

grumpycornIt’s that age-old conversation when you say you’re a writer, and the person you’re conversing with replies by saying ‘I’ve been thinking about writing a book too,’ or worse, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a book, I just don’t have as much time as you.’ Writing a book is incredibly difficult, but luckily in children’s picture books, author and illustrator Sarah McIntyre makes it LOOK super easy.

Her latest, Grumpycorn, is a tongue-in-cheek story about a grumpy unicorn who wants to be a writer. He has all the equipment (a fluffy pen, moonberry tea) but none of the inspiration, refusing help from friends. In the end, of course, he succumbs to his friends’ assistance. With vibrant rainbow colours, as befits a unicorn, sumptuous descriptions of food, a McIntyre trademark mermaid and more, this is a bright and brilliantly fun picture book. Below, Sarah McIntyre describes introducing Grumpycorn’s friend, Narwhal.

Who doesn’t love narwhals, the unicorns of the sea? In my new Scholastic UK picture book, Grumpycorn, Unicorn loves the idea of being a writer and coming up with the most fabulous story in the world. But he just doesn’t have an idea for his story.

…And then Narwhal shows up! Narwhal is FULL OF IDEAS for Unicorn.

But instead of being grateful, Unicorn acts like a total diva and is very mean to poor Narwhal.

Oh no! How could anyone say this about a Narwhal. Nasty Unicorn!

But Narwhal is surprisingly unruffled by this treatment. He’s used to Unicorn being a poseur and very silly, and goes off to do much more fun things with his friend, Mermaid.

At the end of the story, it’s Narwhal who is a surprise hero. He figures out that writing a story isn’t about coming up with the most fabulous idea ever, it’s just to start writing. And he starts by jotting down what’s happening right in front of him.

I think Narwhal is the character in the story who is most like me. This is exactly how I started this story, writing that I didn’t know what to write. And sometimes when people are mean to me, I sort of forget about what’s happened and get on with things – or at least, I think I’ve forgotten it. But then those things will percolate in the back of my head and turn themselves into ideas for stories, drawings or comics. I really like Narwhal, and I hope you will too.

For all my books, I create activities and how-to-draw guides, and this book has sparked lots of activities! You can download this How-to-Draw-Narwhal sheet from my website, and check out lots of other Grumpycorn activities here.

With thanks to Sarah McIntyre and Scholastic. You can buy a copy of Grumpycorn here.

Klaus Flugge Prize Shortlist: Kate Milner summarizes

klaus fluggeLast night the shortlist for the 2019 Klaus Flugge Prize was announced at Foyles, Charing Cross Road.

The Klaus Flugge Prize is awarded to the most promising and exciting newcomer to children’s picture book illustration, and the winner will be announced on 11 September.

This year the shortlist is all-female, and the books are particularly interesting for their mix of traditional themes of family and imagination with very modern commentary on the right to self-expression, and the structure of contemporary society.

More and more picturebooks are taking a stance with social and environmental messages. Here, last year’s winner, Kate Milner (My Name is Not Refugee) introduces the six shortlisted titles:

shortlist klaus flugge

The Extraordinary Gardener by Sam Boughton

Joe, the hero of this charming story, starts with a pip from an apple core and ends by greening the whole city; a message that feels very timely. The final fold-out spread is a riot of colour and life. There is so much to discover here, this is a city that anybody would love to live in. Sam Boughton has an extraordinary facility for turning apparently casual mark-making into glorious cityscapes as well as believable domestic interiors.

Looking after William by Eve Coy

This delightful book is a real evocation of the warmth and humour of family life. The little girl at the heart of the story has decided to look after her father for the day, and Eve Coy has caught the tone of a child mimicking the adults around her perfectly. The charming illustrations are full of empathy, generosity and wit. They really bring William, his little daughter, his cat, and their home to life in a way that will beguile parents as well as children.

The King Who Banned the Dark by Emily Haworth-Booth

It seems obvious that the way to make sure no one is ever afraid of the dark again is to keep the lights on all the time; but, of course, the citizens of Emily Haworth-Booth’s town soon start to miss the dark. There is so much invention and humour in this little yellow and black and white kingdom, from the rather troubling light inspectors to the light bulb hats worn by all the dogs. This book is a rollicking roller-coaster ride with some big themes and good jokes. The vibrant energy of the illustrations exactly match the funny, anarchic text.

I Can Fly by Fifi Kuo

Despite his best efforts, the young penguin at the centre of this story can’t fly but, with a little help from his father, he can swim. Fifi Kuo has beautifully captured this busy and determined little bird and the amazing landscape in which he lives. It truly feels freezing cold. The image of this little penguin lost in the vast, freezing ocean is chilling, and rather heart stopping. It is a relief when Dad comes to the rescue.

Julian is A Mermaid by Jessica Love

The little boy at the centre of this warm and delightful story is really a mermaid. Jessica Love has represented this little boy in the real world of trains and city streets, and the more colourful world of his day dreams, with such delicacy and tenderness. He springs to life on every page, and so do the vibrant characters around him. With the help of his wise and wonderfully drawn old Grandma, he does find his place among the mermaids.

Red And the City by Marie Voigt

The city that Marie Voigt has created for her Red Riding Hood to get lost in is, at the same time, wonderfully sinister and totally familiar.  This is a world of cash machines and advertisements and fast food; and, always lurking in the shadows, watching her, is the wolf. The reader is very glad that Red Riding Hood has her loyal and sensible little dog to keep her out of real trouble. Both are delightfully evoked. The imagery is simple but so eloquent about the thoughts and feelings of this intrepid pair.

An In-depth Read: Indonesian Children’s Literature: When It Rains…

when it rainsThere’s a magic to life that children see, but adults are quick to forget. Perhaps this is why we like to revisit children’s stories so often and see things through a child’s eye. When it Rains by Rassi Narika, translated by Ikhda Ayuning, Maharsi Degoul and Emma Dai’an Wright, starts as a grumble about all the things we cannot do when it rains. But the book soon branches into what joy awaits if we look for positivity – even in the rain.

The narrator, Kira, and her friends, explore in the rain: they see the colours of umbrellas, the animals that enjoy the wet, and the joy and safety and privilege they have of coming home to a hot shower or bath and warm towels to dry them. This is a lovely experience picture book for a very young reader, and encouragingly has a wonderful map of the adventure at the end for readers to peruse. It doesn’t look too dissimilar from the map I might draw of my surroundings here, and yet this picture book heralds from Indonesia.

Many times, I’ve looked at the UK book market and marveled that the books we see here aren’t the same as in any other country – even those that share the language. American friends are constantly baffled that so many titles are different – but the sharing of cultures and stories is becoming more widespread. Below, author Rassi Narika, gives us a glimpse into Indonesian Children’s Literature, and how the future of children’s books there looks bright:

Inside pages from When It Rains by Rassi Narika

Indonesian children’s literature is a bit tricky. It’s there, but at the same time it feels weirdly invisible. When I was studying in the UK, I saw how important children’s books were. In bookstores, children’s books were displayed prominently and there would be storytelling sessions for kids a couple of days a week, and universities even ran courses in children’s literature – I never thought that this could be a thing. I enjoyed seeing this all so much and wished we had the same environment in Indonesia.

A couple of years ago, I started working on a children’s book called Terbang (Fly). I was going to self-publish it through an independent publishing initiative called Seumpama, which I co-founded with a friend. I wrote and illustrated my first book while nervously wondering if anyone – other than family and friends – would ever be interested in buying it. We didn’t really know what we were getting into. Our initial idea came from thinking about how my friend couldn’t find any Indonesian children’s books that she wanted to read to her young daughter. So, we did some research to try and understand why this was.

When It Rains

We found that, despite having the biggest share of the book market, with 22.64% of the total sales at the biggest chain bookstore in Indonesia (from 2013 data published by IKAPI, The Indonesian Publisher Association), Indonesian children’s literature was barely recognised by the literary scene. At book events, there were few talks focusing on children’s, and for whatever reason, I could only name a handful of notable Indonesian children books or authors. I felt it wasn’t getting the attention it deserved from the industry and its readers.

Perhaps it’s a mindset: adults thinking that children’s literature is just for children, so they stop paying attention as they grow older and until they have their own offspring. Or perhaps it’s something more fundamental that is preventing the scene from thriving. Four years after my first book, I find myself utterly compelled by this challenging journey; the combination of frustration and excitement at finding a new playground and experimenting with its complexities.

The ‘research’ I did at the start of my writing and publishing journey was brief and hardly captured the big picture. But one thing I realised was that the market share of children’s book sales was not representative of growth in Indonesian children’s books, especially in terms of quality. In big chain bookstores, translated children’s books and Japanese comics were highly popular; you’d see them everywhere and you’d see more varieties of their titles and stories too. I used to read these too when I was a child. Now I wonder if this was because I preferred them to Indonesian books or if it was because of the limited range of local books.

I remember feeling like something was missing when I skimmed through the books from local publishers. I thought that most of their stories were predictable; they always ended with a moral, and promoted stereotypical values in their narrative.

There is nothing wrong with talking about morals and values, of course. It is necessary to introduce them to children. But children have the right to be part of more diverse and rich conversations too, and they were not getting that from the books available to them. Despite diversity being embedded in our nation’s official identity, with ‘Unity in Diversity’ as Indonesia’s national motto, Indonesian children books weren’t really providing that. They didn’t feel inclusive to a variety of children’s perspectives, backgrounds, ideas, and interests. It also bothered me that most of the stories focused more on what the adults had to say, rather than celebrating children and allowing them to be part of the narrative.

Nevertheless, there has been an exciting change in Indonesian children’s literature these past couple of years. Waves of independent literary organisations have been springing up and pushing for Indonesian children’s literature to be a more versatile and collaborative playing field.

One of the prominent names is Litara Foundation. Litara is an independent publisher that has been a real breath of fresh air to the scene, introducing good books and giving local contexts a more contemporary approach. They have published some of my favourite titles, with themes that were quite unheard-of in most Indonesian children books. Srinti is my favourite book from Litara. It is about the post-disaster trauma of a girl who lives in Yogyakarta, Central Java, where earthquakes had devastated the area. The journey to find Srinti, a doll that was lost under the debris of the earthquake, is a journey about experiencing loss as told from a child’s perspective. It is a hard topic to deal with, yet it’s a conversation in which children should be included.

Other publications from Litara Foundation explore issues of cultural diversity, like in Cap Go Meh, which is the name of a celebration at the end of the 15th day of Chinese New Year. The title also refers to a local cuisine that is central to the Eid-al Fitr celebration. It’s very refreshing to find books where children become the centre of their own experiences.

I think celebrating childhood should be a significant part of children books, and the Na Willa series, by Reda Gaudiamo, is a perfect example for that. This is my other personal favourite and is hands down one of the best works of Indonesian children’s literature today. It brilliantly captures the voice of Willa, a little girl who lives in Surabaya, East Java, in the ’60s. The amazing thing about this book is that regardless of where you live and whichever era your childhood was, Willa’s story feels extremely close to heart.

The book was inspired by Reda’s own childhood experience and her feelings as a young girl when facing issues of multiculturalism, racism, bullying, family, and friendship, as well as simply encountering things in everyday life that excited her – like the little chicks or her favourite food. The book captures the innocence of children and at the same time gives voice to their wisdom in seeing the world. I love that Reda is giving a platform to children that allows them to be part of the cast of an imperfect world. (The Adventures of Na Willa has been translated into English by The Emma Press, who also helped to translate my book, When It Rains. They did an amazing job translating it).

What’s also exciting is that this momentum has extended to other aspects in children’s literature. It’s now easier to find community-based children’s libraries, and children’s storytelling events are taking place in coffee shops. I’ve seen a higher quality in the Indonesian children’s book selections in mainstream bookstores, and independent bookshops are giving more space to children’s literature. I have met academics who are sharing their findings with the public, like Herdiana Hakim who’s currently doing her PhD in Children’s Literature at the University of Glasgow and spreads the word about Indonesian children’s literature through her blog Si Kancil. Also there are communities like Ayo Dongeng Indonesia (Let’s Do Storytelling, Indonesia), which runs the annual Indonesian International Storytelling Festival.

The scene is still growing and there’s a lot of work to be done. I’m looking forward to there being more books and authors and illustrators who depict children’s perspective and capture stories in which children’s voices are heard. We need to form a better infrastructure, educate institutions, and get more attention. We need to claim physical spaces to allow Indonesian children’s literature to thrive and be part of society. The challenges remain but the possibilities are endless, and those who share the passion are finding their way to meet up and continuously build the scene.

It is definitely an exciting time to be in.

With thanks to Rassi Narika for her fascinating article. You can buy When It Rains from The Emma Press here