Red House Children’s Book Awards

To illustrate or not to illustrate

laureate
So it seems fitting to talk about pictures the day after illustrator Chris Riddell was named the new Children’s Laureate, replacing the esteemed Malorie Blackman. No one who works or associates with anyone in the field of children’s publishing can be unaware that there is an ever-growing penchant for text to be accompanied by pictures in today’s children’s books. Although there are lots who will argue that pictures have always been essential in children’s books – I’m not denying it – there seem to be an ever-increasing number of books for children that heavily feature images to partner words.

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney with its comic drawings first published in 2007, won the Blue Peter Book Award in 2012, and regularly tops the bestseller charts. The Tom Gates series by Liz Pichon, complete with doodles and drawings, was our side of the pond’s offering, and published in 2011 to huge acclaim. It won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, a Red House Children’s Book Prize, Waterstones Prize, and also a Blue Peter Prize. Hot on the heels of that came Timmy Failure by Stephen Pastis, another US offering.

For younger children, the illustrations came thick and fast. Cakes in Space and Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and illustrated by Sarah McIntyre showed everyone what they could achieve in a chapter book rather than a picture book. Chris Riddell’s own Ottoline and Goth Girl series highlight the wonderfulness of his incredibly detailed illustrations, and more and more middle grade titles are starting to increase the number of illustrations within, such as Demolition Dad by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie.

However, many parents don’t quite share the twitterati’s enthusiasm for highly illustrated chapter books. They decry that although the books are lovely, they tend to be released in hardback first, with a steeper price point, and that their children read them in one sitting. The nice but expensive problem of the one book a day child!

So what are the pictures doing there? Just when your children had started to read independently, and with some vigour, why are they choosing books that are doodled on, illustrated and filled with drawings? Although you want the children to love reading, you also want them to increase their vocabulary, gain better comprehension skills, and expand their grammatical prowess. How do they do this by looking at pictures?

Here’s how. Let’s take two books – Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell (the first in the wonderful Ottoline series) and Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre (look out also for their soon to come Pugs of the Frozen North).

ottoline
Ottoline and the Yellow Cat introduces Ottoline, who lives with Mr Monroe because her parents are away travelling around the world. She lives in a very particular way, excels at disguises, and solves incredibly exciting mysteries. Her stories are punctuated by postcards arriving from her parents who are themselves having far flung adventures collecting magnificent things. You can purchase it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

oliver and the seawigs
Oliver and the Seawigs is about a boy called Oliver, whose parents are explorers. Just when they all decide to settle down, Oliver’s biggest adventure begins. With the help of an albatross, a short-sighted mermaid called Iris, and an island that’s alive, Oliver goes in search of his missing parents. He hadn’t warranted on the sea wig competition or the sea monkeys getting in his way though. You can purchase it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

Pictures help to set the scene. No child wants to read a long rambling description of a place before the story begins. In Ottoline, the text describes where Ottoline lives, on which floor and the type of building. The illustration cleverly shows all the other buildings around Ottoline’s, giving it context and detail. It also begs the question, if she lives on the 24th floor, why does the illustration not show 24 floors? Inside the apartment, Instead of writing all the marvellous things that Ottoline’s parents have collected, Chris chooses to draw them –so the reader is left to study each one and work out what it is – then they use their own descriptive powers and vocabulary to respond to it.

Pictures help to illuminate characters: Not just from the artist drawing them but by the artist giving more information than you would glean from the text. They add another layer of understanding rather than reinforcing your impression. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Chris Riddell’s portrayal of Mr Monroe, described in text as small and hairy and not liking the rain. Although you may expect him to be a fully formed adult human being as befits someone living with (and hopefully taking care of) a girl, the pictures show something quite different. It gives the entire story a different perspective. As do the drawings of Ottoline – one minute an everyday child wearing a hoodie, the next dressed in a Mongolian dressing gown. In Oliver, Sarah MacIntyre’s drawing of Iris the mermaid is inspired. The detail in the illustration belies more personality than you would think possible. The pictures of comical characters are helping the reader to interpret and understand visual metaphor, and in particular, irony. What can you interpret from a facial expression?

They develop plot themselves. In Ottoline, the progress of the cat burglar through the town is told in pictures while Mr Munroe’s progress is simultaneously told in both text and pictures. When the cat is caught, the illustration of the bear is very telling – the text simply says “The bear caught her in a big bear hug”, the picture shows much more about the hug!

They help to provide mood. This can be adding comic elements, or perhaps just creating an impression of darkness or sadness. This is something that children are only just learning – as it’s more of a feeling than a physical description. It can be hard to portray. The Ottoline pictures of the city give an impression of a deserted place with an element of mystery and fear. (see the shadowing/the light/tall buildings). Whereas the comical illustrations in Oliver and the Seawigs, despite all the danger Oliver is in, give tones of adventure, mystery, unexpected surprises and fun rather than darkness. Particularly the sea monkeys. You must find a copy and see them!

They can give a different viewpoint from that given in the text. Oliver and the Seawigs is written from Oliver’s point of view. So, without the illustrations, we wouldn’t be able to see the face of the Rambling Isle on which Oliver sits – by the fact that he is sitting on its head, and can only see so much by peering over the top. Our omniscient illustrator shows us what lies beneath the surface.

Pictures expand on the imaginative creative process. In the same way as you use your own life experiences to mentally picture what’s happening in a story that you read, so you can use the pictures provided in the same way. Just like text, they are a starting point from which to jump off – what might happen next? What colours would you add to the black and white, or one tone illustrations? What extra details would you add? Even the page numbers are illustrated differently in Ottoline, which prompts questions as to why.

Pictures assist struggling readers. Of course, for struggling readers, pictures are hugely helpful. They can extrapolate buried meaning, explain difficult vocabulary, and give visual clues to what’s happening in the story. In Oliver, Philip Reeve describes “two big glass globes dangled in cradles of knotted rope, like earrings, or baubles on a Christmas tree.” His text description itself is wonderful, but Sarah provides a beautifully detailed illustration to help the reader. Barnacled rails, megaphones and all sorts of difficult words are illustrated too.

Pictures are our aesthetic way into creative text Lastly of course, pictures provide and inspire a love of the visual. They make the book more interactive. Illustrations give us an aesthetic appreciation of books, they introduce us to an appreciation of art and creativity. Many of my fellow booklovers have been known to stroke a book for the beauty of its cover…the illustrations play such a huge part in this.

I feel like I’ve only highlighted the icing on the cake, but I’m hoping you’ll see for yourself in the books when you read them.

Encourage children to race through the books with searing excitement by all means, but also encourage them to spend some time imbibing the wonder of the illustrations. I would urge all adults to embrace the narrative – whether it’s told by text or illustration or both. Illustrated books, comics, graphic novels can all be scintillating ways into literature for children, all can help with developing understanding of narrative, inspiring children’s creativity, and sparking a love for books. Chris Riddell wants to promote visual literacy – if we all carried a sketchbook as he suggests, we might all take in more of the world around us – the excitement outside our windows. Chris said yesterday, ‘I write because I want to give myself things to illustrate’. I implore you to let your children pour over the illustrations in the same way as they pour over the text. The two are intertwined.

Red House Children’s Book Awards 2015

RedHouse Logo

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.
crayons

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.

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.

Split Second

The overall winner is The Day the Crayons Quit

Day Crayons Quit winner

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.

Blackman and HillStuart Hill and Malorie Blackman pose laughing for a photograph

Pamela Butchart and Thomas FlinthamThomas Flintham and Pamela Butchart show off their shortlisted book

Freedom to Draw

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

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

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

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

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

The Dot

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

The Day in the Crayons Quit

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

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

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

 

 

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

Penguin or Owl?

So first there was snow – and then there were penguins. I’m not sure when penguins became synonymous with Christmas, but this year they certainly have – from the John Lewis advert to the Penguins of Madagascar, Penguins have arrived in London in time for Christmas.

owl or penguin
When I was little I had a small soft toy called Owly. It was loved and cherished (see its somewhat battered state now), but it was only recently that someone pointed out that maybe it’s a penguin. So I thought – that’s a great premise for a book – the penguin with the mistaken identity. In the meantime, here are some books that have already been written:

Penguin Polly DunbarPouting Boy
Penguin by Polly Dunbar
My overall abiding love for this book is one illustration that depicts a facial expression, in which a close member of my family is THE expert. Penguin tells the story of a boy called Ben who receives a penguin as a present, but the penguin will not communicate with him, no matter what Ben does. Finally Ben is eaten by a lion, the penguin saves him, and the penguin suddenly has a great deal to say. The book is packed with witty illustrations, a zany storyline and a winning outcome. An old favourite. Penguins are often used as a way to explore and develop friendships in picture books – I wonder if that’s because they are often depicted huddling together? Two perfect examples of penguin friends are Fluff and Billy Do Everything Together by Nicola Killen and Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers.

Fluff and BillyLost and Found
Fluff and Billy tells the tale of when play between friends gets rough leading to hurt and falling out – before there is forgiveness and friendship again. It works well to read aloud to a small child because the book is littered with repetition. Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is fast becoming a children’s classic. The book tells the story of a boy who opens the door one day to see a penguin standing on his doorstep. He spends much of the book grappling with what to do with the penguin – until realising at the end that the penguin just wants a friend. Jeffers’ illustrations are beguilingly simple – less is more in fact. Jeffers said that the illustrations are deliberately simple so that children, wherever they are, can fill in the gaps with their own individual landscapes. Characters too – the penguin is a few simple lines – it almost seems as if the characters of the boy and the penguin are more expressive the less detail they have. Jeffers’ text also shines with a simple clarity – basic plotlines mixed with truisms and pathos:
“He ran down to the harbour and asked a big ship to take them to the South Pole. But his voice was much too small to be heard over the ship’s horn.”
So much expressed so simply – the vastness of the ship and the world as compared to a small boy asking for help.

Blown Away
The new addition to the ‘penguin’ canon of literature, and published in August of this year is Blown Away by Rob Biddulph. I implore you to find and read a copy. Rob Biddulph’s blue penguin may be more ‘Hampstead Heath’ inspired than normal Antarctic penguins, but, like Jeffers, his penguin is simply drawn – Biddulph too remarking that children can put their own emotions into the animals, so simple black dots for eyes work best. With rhyming text, Biddulph explores what happens when Blue the penguin gets blown away on his kite, picking up cargo along the way, and finally setting down onto a jungle island. But does he want to stay?
“’How nice,” says Blue,
A lovely spot,
Although it is
a bit too hot.”
The beauty of this book lies in the small details. Every page is lovingly created so that your eyes pick up the story and the animals’ emotions almost by osmosis – the rhyming text is lovely to read aloud, but the extra touches on the illustrations won me over. A charming Christmas present that’s not just for Christmas!

Dragon Loves Penguin
My last picture book is Dragon Loves Penguin by Debi Gliori, shortlisted for the 2015 Red House Children’s Book Awards. I coordinate the testing in my area for this award, so know very well how popular this book has proved with young children. It celebrates diversity, and is even relevant for those attempting to explain adoption to the very young – in essence it’s about mother’s love. When an egg is abandoned, a dragon without its own egg adopts it, but when it hatches it’s a penguin! Despite the differences, the mother dragon loves the penguin as her own, and the love makes the little penguin brave enough to see off her dragon peers who can’t accept her differences, and also to escape an erupting volcano. Yes, this little picture book is packed full of action – and has adorable illustrations – rarely has a penguin chick looked quite so cute.

The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out
For slightly older readers, in the Jill Tomlinson series of animal books is The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out. Beautifully told so that the reader learns about penguins at the same time as digesting the story. Jill Tomlinson’s strength is her ability to weave fiction and non-fiction seamlessly here, with some magical lines:
“The trouble was, not all adults were good at answering questions, or would try.”

The Emperors EggUsborne Beginners Penguin
For those children who want to find out even more, and for adults who can’t tell the difference between an owl and a penguin here are two great non-fiction titles for early learners.The Emperor’s Egg by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Jane Chapman, is part of the Nature Storybooks series – telling the story of the Emperor penguins. It’s an excellent starting point for a young child wishing to find out more information. It’s not patronising, but is written as if the child is having a conversation with the writer about penguins. Asking questions of the young reader, particularly ones that make them think, is a lovely way to write a non-fiction book. No wonder this won the TES Junior Information Book Award. The Usborne Beginners series has a book on penguins; I like this series for their gentle introduction to non-fiction. Helpfully containing a glossary and an index, and with short chunks of text throughout for easily digestible facts. It also covers many different types of penguins. Usborne have also had their facts checked by experts in the field, which sadly, is not true of all children’s non-fiction in the marketplace.