Tag Archive for O’Hara Natalia

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. 

Sisters Working Together

A deliciously dark fairy tale, Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia and Lauren O’Hara tells the story of a small girl who is afraid of her shadow, and plots to get rid of it. With delightfully descriptive phrases such as ‘wolfish woods,’ combined with the onion turrets of Russian architecture, the book has a distinctive style. Throughout, the author and illustrator manage to give a warmth to the snowy landscapes with the innocence of dotted pastel illustrations, and a subtle simplicity within the text. 

The menace in the tall trees matches the menace Hortense sees in the stretch of her shadow, but in the end her happy ending comes when she sees that the shadowy figures in the background can be more frightening than her own shadow. Without her shadow, she is smaller. With it, despite its darkness, she grows in stature and confidence. With an allusion to Peter Pan via a sash window guillotine, and the hints of fairy tale, this is a picture book that comes from the literary canon that preceded it. 

Author Natalia and illustrator Lauren are sisters. They were born in the North of England to an English father and an Eastern European mother, and now live in London. MinervaReads asked Natalia and Lauren to discuss working together, where their ideas come from, and writing alternative modern fairy tales. The sisters, being sisters, interviewed each other. This is their conversation.

Natalia: In a way, Hortense and the Shadow was your pick, because I came to you with six or seven story ideas and asked which you liked best. What attracted you to the story?

Lauren: It felt by far the most personal of the stories you’d come up with, and also the weirdest and least commercial. Those are qualities we both seem to be attracted to. It also seemed like it didn’t have a bat’s chance of getting published – I remember us saying we’d cut our teeth on this one, and do something commercial later. Actually it was kind of liberating, feeling like we could just play and learn because nobody would ever want to publish this book.

Natalia: It surprised me when you said just now that Hortense and the Shadow was a personal idea. What do you mean?

Lauren: I don’t know if I can put it into words but there’s something about that story that always spoke to me on a personal level. It had a message about self-acceptance I loved. Remember, that was the time when I was coming out of that dark period in my life, and working hard to accept myself and my flaws. And both of us struggled with low self-esteem when we were children. I think we were just lucky that we’re not the only ones who’ve had experiences like those, so it felt personal to some other people too.

Natalia: We talked about Hortense being a kind of modern incarnation of the fairytale princess and about gender quite a bit when we were making this book. What did that mean to you?

Lauren: Well if you remember, when we very first started working on the book there was a moment where you considered making the hero a little boy. But I remember us both feeling that wasn’t the right solution at all. Because this story has a message about accepting your darkness and holding onto your imperfections. I think of course that’s important for everybody, but with the world being how it is, it’s a crucial message to give to little girls.

Natalia: Who are your favourite illustrators of fairytales, and why?

Lauren: I think the first illustrated fairytale I fell in love with was Errol Le Cain’s The Snow Queen. His illustrations for that book are just so evocative and magical. The beautiful snowy landscapes and talking animals and flower-filled gardens… I remember copying out some of the illustrations when we were little, and I feel like they worked their way into my head and found their way out again when I was illustrating Hortense and the Shadow. As you know I also love Jiri Trnka, Lisbeth Zwerger, Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen…

OK my turn! Were you ever surprised by how I interpreted your writing?

Natalia: Not really. When you showed me your first drawings the feeling was more like – “Oh there it is!”. You were developing a new style because you were illustrating for the first time, but at the same time what delighted me was how you were channeling the books and illustrators we loved as children – Jiri Trnka, Errol Le Cain, Mirko Hanak. Probably because of that your illustrations felt familiar to me.

Lauren: Do you think our Eastern European background influences the kind of stories we tell?

Natalia: How could it not really? There are subtle ways it influences us, like the mood of melancholy and nostalgia that comes from being born into a family like ours, where every generation until ours, people had to go into exile to escape horrible political events. Then there are more obvious ways, like the fact your illustrations look a lot like the hand-me-down mid-century Soviet books we had at home. Or the fact I love to write strong female protagonists, which is quite common in Slavic fairy tales where the princess often rescues the prince. So yeah, I think it’s everywhere, just like our English heritage is everywhere.

Lauren: Why do you like writing fairy tales?

Natalia: Fairy tales often seem simple and sweet, but underneath they’re full of complicated emotions and ideas that can take many readings to uncover. If it’s a fairy tale, people have an expectation that all that depth is in there and they don’t mind digging for it. Fairy tales grow up with you; they give you darkness and complexity when you’re ready for them. That’s why I love fairy tales, and why I believe they’re full of magic.

Photo credit: Charlotte Knee Photography. You can buy a copy of the book here