politics

Illustrating Politics

Chris Riddell was the Children’s Laureate from 2015-2017, and as well as touring the country and promoting children’s literature and libraries, he also writes and illustrates his own books. I’ve looked at the Ottoline series on here before, but wanted to draw your attention to two recent publications, which may deviate slightly from the ‘normal’ children’s books I like to recommend.

If you remember, there was a lot of chatter at the end of 2016 about what an awful year it had been, politically and otherwise. And the situation has become ever more unstable with the somewhat strange goings-on around us in 2017. So it’s an interesting, and yet altogether sensible premise, to have a book that mashes together political commentary with the goings on in children’s literature from the last two years. Riddell is, of course, as well as being a children’s author, the political cartoonist of a national newspaper, and Macmillan, his publishers, have released a book of his illustrations from the past two years – including personal musings, published political cartoons, illustrations from children’s books festivals, cartoons advocating saving libraries, and random images from children’s books.

Politics and kids’ literature? Do they go together? Yes, because one of the things children’s books do best is to provide a passport to the wider world – to get children to open their eyes to different things, be it how people lived in historical fiction, how other cultures live now, or just how other people react to events (both familiar and strange). The children’s books I’ve covered in the last six months have talked about politics, leprosy, bullying, refugees, outer space, Tibet, maps, depression, dressing up, the environment, the pleasures of doodling, butterflies and so much more.

So Travels with my Sketchbook is a complex book – it’s very much a testament to Riddell’s time as Laureate, and will be much treasured by people within the book world, but it is also interesting as a sign of our times, and a call-out to children to illustrate or doodle more, and so will be fascinating to see how it sells and to whom? Are we more politicised and more interested in children’s illustration than we used to be? I think we are. You can buy Travels here and Chris Riddell is kindly donating all profits to Booktrust.

And if we are more politicised, are our children? I would actually wager yes to this, judging by how many children read a newspaper, watch the news, or scroll through news items on social media, and by how aware they are of their rights. In which case, an interesting addition to their library would be My Little Book of Big Freedoms, illustrated by Chris Riddell.

In partnership with Amnesty International, this is a simplified text from the Human Rights Act. Each of the 16 freedoms or rights are highlighted with an interpretative illustration, from a polar bear hugging children to exemplify ‘togetherness’, to a rather beautiful elephant with a girl resting on his trunk representing ‘solidarity’.

The saccharine and rather over-simplified text takes on a more fatidic and powerful tone in 2017, seeing as we have a president whose finger rests on the twitter button, and a hotchpotch political situation in the UK. Illustration can be an outlet for those children who want a way to express questioning and even rebellious thoughts and feelings, and yet who cannot express how they feel about a political situation in an adult sphere or with the appropriate vocabulary, perhaps for want of anxiety about how their views might be taken. It may be that if our youngsters take such a book to heart, the next generation may turn out better political leaders than the current crop. To purchase, click here.

Q&A with Catherine Barter, author of Troublemakers


I had the recent good fortune to not only review Catherine’s debut novel, Troublemakers, but also to chair a panel conversation between Catherine and Keren David, author of The Liar’s Handbook, among others. For those of you unable to attend, I also sneaked in a cheeky Q&A with Catherine so that I could share it with you here. Troublemakers is an unusual YA novel – it’s contemporary, about politics, and very apt in the current political climate. Set in London, it’s a coming-of-age novel that speaks of activism, terrorism, and family relationships.

I understand that you worked for an organisation campaigning for the rights of garment workers. Have you always been involved in political activism of some kind?

That’s right, I used to work for a brilliant organisation called Labour Behind the Label. I mostly did office admin – answering emails, stuffing envelopes, that kind of thing. I’m much too shy to be any good at direct action or street protest, so where I’ve been involved in activism it’s mainly been doing boring, behind-the-scenes things.

I’ve always been quite political, and my family talked politics a lot, but I think I got particularly switched on to it in my teens. When I was about sixteen I had that Naomi Klein book, No Logo, which a lot of people were reading at the time, and I got quite caught up in the idea of fighting back against global capitalism. Not that I exactly knew what that meant (I’m not sure I actually got to the end of No Logo), but I could tell it was important!

And then the Iraq War began the year that I started university, and I went on one of the marches against it, as did a lot of young people that year. So that was my first introduction to that kind of mass movement activism. You care very passionately about things when you’re a teenager, so I think it’s a good time to get interested in politics and activism.

You co-manage a radical bookshop (Housmans). What’s the most rewarding part of the job?

I love when young people come in to the shop looking for copies of old radical classics, things like bell hooks’ Ain’t I A Woman or Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. You get the feeling they’re just getting started on their political journeys and they’re putting in the groundwork by reading all these big, difficult, important books. And they’re really excited about it. I love seeing that.

Did the attacks on Housmans in the past in some way inspire what happens to Nick’s coffee shop in Troublemakers?

Hmm! I actually never thought about that link, but maybe on some level it was inspired by that. There’s definitely a bit of Housmans in Nick’s coffee shop, and working in the shop has made me aware that any business which has its politics up-front makes itself vulnerable to some extent. We do still get far-right people coming in to shout at us sometimes, and I can imagine Nick’s coffee shop with all its activist posters in the window would get the same.

When did you start writing Troublemakers?

I can be very specific! It was March 2011, when I took a six-week course at Writers’ Centre Norwich. I was feeling very liberated after finishing a PhD and wanted to start doing something completely different from academic writing.

Did you always want to write YA?

No. I didn’t know a lot about YA until I started writing Troublemakers. Then I sort of fell in love with writing from the perspective of a teenager and realised that YA was the right home for the kind of story I wanted to tell. Which was really exciting.

How did you feel to be shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award?

I was so happy. I can remember that whole day really vividly. It was gratifying because after I was longlisted, and before I submitted the full manuscript for the next stage, I’d worked really hard to fix all the problems that I knew the book had. I was still rewriting until the last possible moment, because I knew I could make it better. So I was thrilled when all that work paid off.

This is your debut novel. Tell me your route to publication.

After the shortlist was announced, the organiser of the Bath Novel Award, Caroline Ambrose, contacted literary agents to let them know about the books and authors on the list. As a result of that, a few agents requested to see my complete manuscript. Two of those offered to represent me–but one of them wanted me to write a different book, and one of them wanted to work on Troublemakers. So that was an easy decision! I did quite a lot of editing with my agent, who then sent the book out into the world, where it found a home with Andersen Press.

You wrote a PhD on Sherman Alexie. What attracted you to him?

I’d never heard of Sherman Alexie until I read one of his short story collections for a class on ‘multi-ethnic American literatures’. Then I got completely hooked. His writing is very funny and very sad, very immediate and sometimes flawed and all the more alive and interesting because of that. It’s very layered and political, too, and writing about his fiction was also a way to write and think about American history and politics and storytelling traditions. So all of that was very appealing. And he’s also written one of my favourite YA novels ever, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

What are you working on next?

It’s still in a bit of a fragile, embryonic stage, but I’m working on a story about four friends in a desolate Norfolk seaside town in winter. So it’s a completely different setting from Troublemakers, which has been fun to write.

Thank you so much to Catherine for agreeing to answer yet more questions. I encourage you all to read Troublemakers, it’s one of the best YA published this year. You can purchase it here.  

 

Troublemakers by Catherine Barter

Astute, intelligent, gripping, and thoroughly enjoyable, this is the best YA novel I’ve read this year.

Fifteen year old Alena has been happily brought up by her older brother, Danny, and his boyfriend, Nick, since her mother died when Alena was a baby. But nerves are now on edge as London is threatened with a bombing campaign. Danny starts work for a controversial politician who promises to protect London, at the same time that Alena discovers that her mother was a political activist, and that her history may not be all that it seems.

When she attends Danny’s place of work, and sees something not meant for her eyes, Alena faces a small dilemma, with seemingly huge consequences.

I can’t work out if I loved this book for the fact that it was like no other YA I’ve read, whether the depth of the characterisation is so perfect, or whether the book whips along with clear succinct prose at a lively pace, or possibly just all three.

Alena’s voice is likable, sympathetic, startlingly real and full of emotion without once resorting to melodrama, but it is the fully-fleshed out surrounding cast that blew me away. Danny and Nick are both lovable despite their flaws, both intriguing characters, written with understanding, depth and a clear view of their motivations and desires, so that although the reader only hears Alena’s voice telling the story, we fully understand everyone around her too. This takes some skill.

What’s more, published at the most relevant time – did Andersen Press know about the election before Theresa May? – this is a political novel for our times. It manages to capture a mood of a resilient yet frightened city, constantly threatened by terrorism, as well as delving into the world of politics and journalists – exploring theirs and our sense of morality, and finally looking into the world of activism – questioning the strength of ordinary people – what change can the public effect, what issues matter, and what can one person do about it?

Of course there are insightful touches about Danny and Nick’s relationship – seeing how a parenting partnership works from the teen’s point of view, as well as the prejudices Nick and Danny come across as gay men in contemporary London.

Added to this is Barter’s emotionally intelligent writing of Alena’s investigation into her past. The poignancy of her grief for her mother, and her questioning of whether you can miss something you didn’t have in the first place.

And what Barter does with aplomb is to develop the idea of a mass crumbling of everything that you’ve held dear from one tiny split-second decision. By having Alena’s dilemma buried right in the heart of the novel, the reader already has a bucketful of feelings about the characters, so not only does it explode the text, but also subtly makes the reader wonder what they would do if put into the same situation.

The book made me nod in agreement, sigh with exasperation at some of Alena’s actions, laugh, cry and desperately want the characters as my friends. We all need a Nick in our lives for sure. This is an excellent pertinent coming-of-age book for our times, written with masses of empathy and pathos and, to my delight, sprinkled with a few Bob Dylan references.

Buy it, read it, then give it to everyone you know. This is what reading is for. You can buy it here.

The little journos

When I was at school I wanted to be a journalist. Whether it was from watching Press Gang with Dexter Fletcher and Julia Sawalha or from voracious reading of Mizz and J17, I’m not sure. I don’t remember reading any children’s books particularly about journalism, but I liked the investigative side of Nancy Drew. and the diary technique of Z for Zachariah, Adrian Mole and so many others – and it seemed as if the writing buzz was the course to pursue. I worked on the school newspaper, then the university one (where Minerva Moan was born), and finally did a journalism postgrad before reality slapped me in the face and I fell into children’s publishing.

My love for the media buzz never died though, so I’m delighted to bring you three stories that play with ‘journalism.’

completely cassidy

First up, Completely Cassidy: Star Reporter by Tamsyn Murray. The second in this series, the first of which I reviewed here. I don’t tend to review another in the same series within a nine month period, but Cassidy’s voice resonated with me the first time and I was intrigued to see if the second in the series retains the same spark. It does. Cassidy falls into journalism rather than pursuing it, and stays with it to impress other people rather than for her own love of reporting. She starts an online petition in favour of girls wearing trousers to school (mainly to cover up her own mishap with some fake tan), and the editor of the school magazine asks her to join. Of course, with Cassidy things never quite work out according to plan, and before long she’s desperate for a decent story.
The great thing about Tamsyn Murray is she really gets modern school children and their world (there’s a mystery blogger who’s causing havoc/borderline online bullying), and she has a wicked sense of humour, which shines through the text. It’s tame enough to be a light, engaging read, and yet with such a strong voice that the reader just wants to read more and more Cassidy. I liked that her use of journalism in this book invokes the moral dilemmas associated with telling a good story. Being a journalist isn’t that dissimilar from being a young teen – it’s all about deciphering what is the right thing to do. Highlights included Tamsyn mentioning the PTA in a good light, and also to Antonia Miller for her fabulous little illustrations throughout, particularly the poison pen! It’s also refreshing to read about a girl with no big issues in her life – her parents are together, she has annoying siblings, she goes to a run-of-the-mill school – and yet, as for all of us, and particularly children finding their way in the world – even the simplest of lives can be complicated and hard to navigate at times. Age 9+. Click here to buy a copy of the book from Waterstones

.jonny jakes

Jonny Jakes, on the other hand, rather like myself as a youngster, lives for the buzz of the story. Jonny Jakes Investigates: The Hamburgers of Doom by Malcolm Judge, came through the post and I read it without knowing any spoilers, so was hugely surprised with the turn of events. Of course, the title is a great play on words – hamburgers for harbingers, although I’m not sure how many children would understand the joke. Jonny Jakes runs the secretive school newspaper under a pseudonym so that he can craftily write sneaky stories about all the teachers and goings-on at his school without being rumbled. This would be story enough for me, but then, out of the blue, his headmaster quits and is replaced by an alien. Rather than get the scoop of the century though, Jonny is pipped to the post by his new headteacher, and Jonny is determined to investigate exactly what sort of head this alien will turn out to be. Written in diary form, the plot twists and turns and gets wilder and sillier, as befits the title. It turns out the headmaster is hypnotising all the students with his special sweets, and fattening them with hamburgers in order to eat them. Accompanied by gross descriptions of the aliens, and accounts of revolting smells, this book is not for the faint-hearted, but I’m sure will be embraced with much amusement by many children. The denouement is wild and fun and action-packed. There are inspired illustrations by Alan Brown, and it’s as far-fetched and imaginative as you would expect. Children – enjoy! 9+. To purchase, click here.

ivy and bean

The third reason for getting into journalism other than aforementioned peer approval and the buzz of the story, is money. Ivy and Bean: No News is Good News by Annie Barrows is a charming story in the long-running American series about two friends, Ivy and Bean, who, in this particular episode, decide to produce a community newspaper so that they can sell it to raise some money. The funniest element to me about the story is that they want the money to buy cheese. Not that they like the cheese, but they like that red waxy packaging in which the individually wrapped cheese comes…and their mother refuses to buy it for them. During the course of the small story we discover what a subscription to a newspaper is, how to earn money up front, and, just like Cassidy, when publishing a story can be morally ambiguous – especially if the story is embellished, embarrassing or just plain fabricated. Ivy and Bean is a series of books for newly independent readers, and although very American in phrase and tone, strikes a lovely chord here too, as it develops a cute friendship and showcases endearing childhood naivety. Sophie Blackall’s illustrations complement the stories well – it’s a good addition to any young reader’s bookcase. (An interesting fact – Annie Barrows co-wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society – see what a bit of investigating can throw up!). 6+ years. To buy a copy of the book click here.

 

 

Tom with a ‘Laugh’ in His Name: An Interview with Tom McLaughlin

Accidental Prime Minister mr tiddles

In the same way that our politicians are touring the country to garner our votes, Tom McLaughlin, author of The Accidental Prime Minister, is touring the country to inspire children to read and write and draw. For Tom, inspiration starts with a blank piece of paper. “Books can spring from a doodle, or a mood – a moment you’re trying to create, and then you wrap a picture or a narrative around that. When I’m writing I think about drawing, and when I’m drawing I think about writing. I tend to plan out my books like a spider chart – mapping it out pictorially.”

Of course, Tom didn’t start his career writing books – he started, somewhat aptly for someone promoting The Accidental Prime Minister, drawing political cartoons. “It’s similar to what I’m doing now; drawing pictures and writing jokes, but of course with a book you get much more time to think about and play with ideas. Also, the world is quite a miserable place, and with a book it doesn’t have to be based in reality – so you can have the queen wearing roller skates!” This suits Tom well, as he’s never far away from a joke, inspired by anything from TV to podcast, Monty Python to John Oliver, Father Ted to The Daily Show. He even has the word ‘laugh’ in his name, a fact his publisher has highlighted by colouring it a different colour on the front of The Accidental Prime Minister.

He likes satire, and clever comedy, although admits that in writing for children, he does include plenty of fart jokes too. In fact, I was never sure during the interview quite how much Tom was joking: “If I were PM for a day I would make it compulsory for all cars to be fitted with dogs. Because there is nothing nicer than walking down the street, and seeing a car with the window down and the dog poking its head out, tail wagging in the wind. It just cheers me up. It would just make the world a better place…oh and world peace – that one as well.” In all seriousness, Tom does think that children need to have some knowledge of what’s going on around them. “I think it is important for children to know about the world. As a family, we always used to sit down and watch the news together. Knowing about the world can only make you a better and more rounded person.” Although he admits that writing The Accidental Prime Minister wasn’t a ruse to get children into politics: “It was never meant to introduce politics to children – that was a by-product of what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about the most famous boy in the world, and I was trying to think of how to do that. Should he invent something or be rich? But I wanted him to be powerful and to have a voice – and that’s how the politics thing came about. I liked the idea of him being PM by mistake, although I had to bend the constitutional laws slightly to do that.”

story machine

Tom is following this with The Accidental Secret Agent, although with different characters. He’s also busy creating more picture books as well, following in the footsteps of The Diabolical Mr Tiddles and The Story Machine. Tom told me how he enjoys working within both media: “I like the illustrative quality of picture books, there’s something really beautiful about creating that world. With The Story Machine it was all about creating a mood – although it’s hard because you have to agonise over every single word – it’s not like writing a novel in which you can just go for it.” Surprisingly, as he is dyslexic, Tom found he liked the ‘going for it’ with novel writing despite remembering reading and writing being difficult as a child: “It knocked my confidence for six. I hated the idea of reading in front of people, in front of the teacher. It was terrifying and you felt kind of stupid. I was put on the table with the slow learners and told I was lazy. I was tested for dyslexia, so the school knew about it, but didn’t do anything. I think things are better nowadays.”

Even doing readings of his own books makes Tom nervous: “I still mess up reading my own books – so for The Accidental Prime Minister I read the same passage because I’ve sort of learnt it off by heart. Also, I have good days and bad days and that’s really weird.” He’s learnt certain techniques to help though, and admits writing is easier than reading. “I audio book stuff, and listen to the radio, and I’ve learnt to think about something else while I’m reading – almost like not looking at the words too intently – reading slightly above the line I’m reading so that I’m looking at it out of the corner of my eye – that makes things a little easier.” The strategies help him, and encourage him to speak out about it to children. During our school visit, he told his audience about his dyslexia, and how it hasn’t held him back as an author: “You can still do anything. What’s important as an author is not so much the pictures and words as having an idea and having something to say.”

Tom also treats his keyboard like a piano; music inspires him. In fact, music resonates throughout The Accidental Prime Minister because the chapter headings are all song titles – London Calling was originally the title of the first chapter – although this was dropped in the end, and it became ‘I don’t like Mondays’: “Being at home in front of the computer 12 hours a day drawing or writing you need something, so I listen to a lot of music. If I’m writing I tend to listen to quite spiky, anarchic jazz because it’s like playing the piano on the keyboard. You don’t want any words though when you’re writing. I used to have classical music but you ended up feeling quite sleepy.” Perhaps the sleepiness inspired his next picture book, The Cloudspotter, publishing 18th June. The cover has a dreamlike quality – and the book is inspired by using the shapes of clouds to make images. Judging from his talent at changing mere pen strokes into full-blown political caricatures of the children at this latest school visit, Tom’s pictures and jokes look likely to win him many votes.cloudspotter

Quick Fire Round:

Ears or eyes: eyes

Majority or coalition: coalition

Tea or biscuits – Earl grey tea

Jetpack or parachute – jetpack

Cat or dog – cat

Computer or paper – blank piece of paper

Countdown to the Election

General elections throw up a lot of questions. Who shall I vote for? Is our electoral system the right one? Why are television debates so long? It can be hard to answer the questions, and harder still when they are asked of you by your children!

There is so much to cover when explaining politics that I wanted some books to help children navigate the political landscape. Actually I found very few books on politics for children. There are many that serve an agenda, such as highlighting conflict or understanding refugees, but very few that simply define what politics is, what an election is, and how the system works. In the end I chose just three books.

the election

The Election by Eleanor Levenson, illustrated by Marek Jagucki
This picture book for young children explains what happens when two families support two different parties in an election. The parties are simply drawn and illustrated – one is spotty and one is stripy. The book defines an election, campaigning, debating and voting in simple language. The pictures show typical families in an attempt to illustrate that the election is something that affects everyone; there are drawings of a lady in a wheelchair, a person cycling, and people of different ethnicity and age. For the adult reader there are certain jokes contained within, such as a political reference to the Acropolis, the industrial revolution, and more mundane observations such as a Dad about to fall on marbles and various poses of people looking at their mobile phones. It’s not subtle, but it serves its purpose very well, and is the only book of its kind to illustrate a British election so succinctly and simply. Buy it from Waterstones here.

whos in charge whos in charge inside2

Who’s in Charge? How People and Ideas Make the World Go Round
This non-fiction gem explains the idea of politics from power and the different types of leadership through political ideas, the building of society, the economy and people’s rights. For me it works well because to explore politics, you need to have some understanding of history – and that’s what this book gives as well. It illuminates ideas of democracy, theocracy, monarchy, anarchy, and dictatorship, as well as giving definitions of the state, a citizen, government, a politician, and isms. From the timelines showing how different civilisations were borne, to the introduction of monarchies and leadership, populations, and land as a way of explaining how different political systems were thought up and needed, to illustrating the different ideas of the state in a ‘rainbow of ideas’ from communism through to fascism, the book also explores capitalism, the economy and local politics. The beauty of the book is that it speaks in generalisations, rather than homing in on specific countries, leaders and governments, so that the child gleans a view of what is possible and why politics exists without forcing any agenda or giving room for pre-imposed political leanings.
whos in charge inside1
What’s more this isn’t a dry book at all, the graphics are exciting and playful – from a local politics jigsaw to a monopoly board of capitalism, flow diagrams, venn diagrams, comic strips, quizzes and a mix of illustrations and photographs. The foreword is by Andrew Marr, and it is great for reading through cover to cover, or just dipping into for a particular topic. This served its purpose very well too. You can buy it here.

Accidental Prime Minister

The Accidental Prime Minister by Tom McLaughlin
Lastly, I wanted to have some fun with politics. After all, I grew up on Spitting Image – there was no greater vehicle for getting people young and old interested in politics. Tom McLaughlin’s book manages to introduce the idea of politics for a 7+ readership with some serious points, but mainly with laugh-out-loud humour. It tells the tale of Joe, who makes one great speech that goes viral, and he ends up as prime minister. There are slight misrepresentations – most of our prime ministers were voted in, not just handed power – but the book makes some serious points amongst all the silliness. It begins by bringing politics to street level – Joe’s ambitious speech starts because the government want to close his local park, and he wishes to keep it open. Other serious points include those adults who are just in politics for the ego-trip, the ‘spin’ that can be put upon events, and the randomness of war – but essentially the book is packed full of humour – because what would happen if a twelve year old were in charge? There are jetpacks, bouncy castles, a Queen who rollerskates, ice cream and whoopee cushions, and the author’s delight in writing this satire comes across with his very 1980s pop song chapter titles, including Fame, Parklife, Don’t Stop Me Now, as well as his parody of Thatcher’s famous speech: “Where there is grumpiness, may we bring giggles”. A riotous laugh. He also illustrated it himself with some winning cartoons. Grab yourself a copy before the election, click here.