Tag Archive for Boyne John

Growing Readers: FCBG Conference 2016 Part Two

Sunday morning’s conversation at the FCBG16 began with a question. Prue Goodwin, doyenne of the dissemination of children’s literature, asked about the title of the conference. Were we growing readers (adjective) or were we growing readers (verb)?

The answer of course, is both. But more than that, because we are promoting reading for pleasure we are actually growing humans. Piers Torday (The Last Wild Trilogy) was keen to point out, in his inspirational lecture, that the benefits of reading for pleasure stretch beyond the educational, social or literary – that the key to books is humanity.

One of the reasons children’s literature retains such a resonance after childhood – the influences of Harry Potter or Aslan or Pooh stretching into adulthood – is that these books are read whilst we are growing our imagination, our cultural heritage, our background, our consciousness, our moral compass. When we were young.

daniel hahn boy top mountain

In Daniel Hahn’s excellent Sunday morning interview with John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), both writers spoke about the moral imperatives growing from Boyne’s war books for children. The posing of moral dilemmas, and the resulting conversations and controversies. Boyne’s latest children’s book, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, investigates the susceptibility of young children to brainwashing – it’s about a boy residing in Berghof with Hitler’s servants. It explores character – that people aren’t born good or evil, but that they can be swayed, and lends itself to a discussion of when bad actions become a personal responsibility. These are big questions for children’s books – but that’s exactly what authors need to be doing – asking children these big questions, while their brains and imaginations are still forming. What better time to develop a moral compass than in childhood?

The Last Wild

Piers Torday’s The Last Wild trilogy also poses some pertinent and tough questions. At what point do we sacrifice our comforts for the sake of the environment? If we know that it’s possible for a creature to become extinct in the next ten years (such as elephants in the real world) what action can we and should we be taking? If we show children a fictional world in which all animals are extremely rare and on the brink, and the world as we know it has changed, then it can be an inspiration that shapes their lives. It can start the ball rolling in their formative years and get them thinking about real world scenarios – as well as entertaining them with a brilliant story, and evoking emotions that they will never forget.

And that’s the key – authors are posing questions to children and growing them into thoughtful people. As someone once said, children who read become adults who think. Children’s literature can start to build a moral compass, and from that children learn to have moral courage.

And it’s not just text that lends itself to this purpose. Once again the topic of illustrations arose with author SF Said and illustrator and author Jane Ray. In an ever visual society, children need to recognise the importance of decoding the visual, just as much as decoding text. Images are given just as much prominence in the adult world as text – in newspapers, websites, and obviously television where the image dominates. Any child watching the news learns to disseminate the information firstly in a visual format, and then with text.

phoenix

SF Said’s Phoenix is a thrilling and captivating science fiction novel, but it is also a story about humanity. It too inspires feelings and thoughts about moral courage, self-sacrifice, fighting for what’s right. But Dave McKean’s images are an integral part of the story – helping to tell the narrative, complementing the text.

urashima

So it’s puzzling to many in the children’s books world that images are dismissed by many adults as being ‘babyish’. The illustrator Jane Ray made the point that unfortunately “when something is expertly and simply done it looks easy – the value is reduced” in the eyes of the adults. Of course anyone looking at Shaun Tan picture books, or even my book of the week today – The Journey by Francesca Sanna – can see that expertly produced picture books can be equally read by adults and can be as influential and challenging as full blown 300 page texts.

In the end, the best children’s books are so influential because they teach empathy and humanity not by instructing but by inspiring. Authors and illustrators nourish children’s imaginations, morality, and ethics by osmosis. All wrapped up in a beautiful story.

 

Never Judge a Book By Its Cover

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

cathy cassidy sweet  honey

Or this for girls:

books for boys

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

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

Tom GatesSkullduggery pleasant parent agencySophie bookhansel and gretel

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

mr stinkTwits

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

Goth Girl FeteWitchworld

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

Barnaby BrocketBoy Who Swam With Piranhas

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

Daisy picture book Nick Sharratt Tracy Beaker

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

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

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory1charlie4charlie5Charlie cover2 charlie6   charlie3  Charlielatest

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

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

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