Tag Archive for Tan Shaun

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.

Children’s Mental Health Week

Children’s Mental Health week in the UK runs from February 5th to the 11th. One publisher has sent me a story specifically for this week, and there’s a gathering number of voices who are publishing books that speak to children’s mental health issues.

But reading any good narrative enables the reader to step into someone else’s shoes, to experience their story, and hence gain some empathy on another’s state of mind. But as well as that, some books relate more directly to the reader’s own experience – if the characters are going through a situation that they too are experiencing, the reader can see how the characters react. How do they deal with the darker side of life, how do they overcome their obstacles? In turn, the reader may review their own situation. The book may not offer a solution, but it can show readers another way of thinking about things, perhaps a different way through their dark time.

Someone asked me recently what comes first – if readers learn resilience through books, or if they come to certain darker books with resilience, enabling them to read the books without fear. It’s a tricky one. Some resilience is innate – there are children who accept scary books quite readily, others who approach them with horror, but some resilience is garnered through the reading of difficult situations and issues.

Most of all, books offer a safe space in which to experience the darkness of life, and also show how others perceive a similar darkness. Reading, funnily enough, can be less isolating.


Michael Rosen’s Sad Book
, illustrated by Quentin Blake
is a great example. Rosen wrote the book as a reaction to the death of his son – which is stated within the first few pages. But he also talks about a general sadness that can come over any of us at any time.

The book also explores ways in which Rosen tries to overcome some of the sadness, by thinking about good things he has done that make him proud, or remembering that other people are sad sometimes too. It’s good not to be alone. Talking through the sadness helps him as well.

This is a deservedly award-winning book, which prompts all kinds of emotions, both through the simplicity of the book, but also through Quentin Blake’s astonishingly emotive illustrations.

The book takes the reader through the different layers and types of sadness, from that which settles like a weight, to the sadness at the edges of the happiest things. Emotions are not isolated – they come in a tangled heap, sad with angry, sad with frustration, and sad with happy.

But most of all, this is not a book to which a child needs to bring their resilience. They will find it in the pages within. You can buy it here.


One newer book on the scene is Night Shift by Debi Gliori. This small formatted picture book is targeted at a teenage audience. Even its size and beautiful production (fabric cover) give away this book’s topic – depression can make you feel small, and anything that relieves it can be beautiful.

Gliori draws on her own experience of depression to illustrate this book, showing the illness in the form of a dragon in her charcoal-like illustrations. At first the dragon’s steam is a fog rolling in at night, but soon it pervades the day. Gliori highlights the physical effect of this mental illness in all its debilitating forms, but all beautifully drawn onto the normal day of a teen girl.


Gliori then goes on to highlight different ways in which the girl tries to rid herself of the feeling, from talking about it, drawing it, living with it. One of the most startling pages is the one in which she addresses the platitudes that are given to her: “chin up”.

There is a resolution at the end – her own way of finding a small beauty that helps the fog to lift, the dragon to fly away. As in Rosen’s book, it’s the skill of the simplicity of the language to convey the feeling, and the essence of sharing and hopefulness despite the darkness. You can buy one here.


Another starkly compelling and moving picture book is Small Things by Mel Tregonning, completed posthumously by Shaun Tan. The title is ironic of course – what the protagonist deals with here is not small at all. This wordless black and white graphic novel deals with one small boy’s misery at school – excluded from sports and friendships. His schoolwork is suffering too, and slowly the reader starts to see strange shapes and shadows that invade and penetrate the boy’s world. These take over, keeping the boy up at night, eating away at who he is.

The illustrations are painful to take in sometimes – the small boy’s sadness manifested in his large head and eyes, the anxiety and angst all too clear, the shapes and his disintegration fairly horrific. But when he shares his feelings with his sister and then confides in his parents, things start to change. Finally, he sees that he is not alone in the strange creatures – gradually, the boy sees that others have the shapes to deal with too, and so feel as he does and a bond is formed. It’s not a complete resolution, but a path forward.

The book comes from a place of pain, but the idea is that it provides solace to those who otherwise may not have reached out. Wordless, it screams louder than most. It’s available here.

The last book is the one sent to me by a publisher for this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week. It’s a book that aims to explore and teach mindfulness. Mind Hug: The First Story by Emily Arber and Vanessa Lovegrove shows a boy upset by the influx of noise inside his head, the buzziness of everyday life, but also the thoughts that can erupt from nowhere. Then his father shows him how to breathe and to dismiss the overcrowding. It doesn’t work at first go, but the boy tries again. In the end he shares it with a friend, who shares it again.

The idea, like mindfulness, is relatively simple, and the premise good. Unfortunately the text is a little all over the place, with some rhyming, some not, and a rhythm that comes and goes. You can buy it here.

But it’s not just picture books that bring awareness of mental health, and I’ve highlighted a couple of others here.

Like so many other ‘issues’, sometimes the best books are those that nudge a child towards the issue rather than focus the entire book on it. Flour Babies by Anne Fine is an excellent example – when the children in school have to look after their own ‘flour sacks’ as babies, and learn many things in the process. Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot by Horatio Clare talks about the difficult subject of parental depression all wrapped within a beautiful nature adventure story, Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho Yen and A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill also deal with depressive parents, but again, next to well-told stories. The protagonist in The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson has OCD, but the book reads as a mystery.

By opening up a book with a fictional cast of characters but with very real problems, it’s hoped that children can find a way through, discover a path they may not have thought of, see a light in the dark. Have a look at The Empathy Lab here, for more ideas.

 

Using Pictures for Narrative

Rules of Summer Quest

One of the things that I frequently speak to parents about is using narrative as a way into reading. For those reading age children we label as ‘reluctant’ readers (and I grimace here), sometimes the key is not to thrust prosaic text upon them and hope they will eventually read it, but to reach out to them through love of narrative before text. Because in the end, some of the skills we glean from reading, such as empathy, we get through understanding narrative. We want children to be able to pick apart a narrative – to deconstruct what’s happening, what might happen, what if something happens, and why it’s happening. Narratives are all around us, whether they be in a fairy tale app, a soap opera on the television, an advert trying to sell us something, or the story of our day. One brilliant way to discuss narratives with children is to use a picture book that leads by illustration, or one that doesn’t have any text at all. You can take your time to decipher what’s going on rather than turning the pages as soon as the words are read, which we, as parent readers, have a tendency to do all too quickly.

Two books that lead by pictorial narrative are:

Quest

Quest by Aaron Becker
This is the second wordless picture book by Aaron Becker, the first being Journey, and although Quest is seen by many as a sequel to the first, it works equally as a stand-alone title. I’m loathe to explain too much of the narrative here, because the beauty of the book is to look at the pictures and without saying anything let your children have a go at telling you what they see, what they think is happening, and their predictions. You’ll be surprised how different it can be to your own perceptions. For those who want a brief guide before borrowing/buying the book, it depicts two children in a fantasy landscape who draw on the magic of their tools to transport them across their world and to seek answers so that they can rebuild the kingdom and restore the rightful king to his palace. It’s a fantasy adventure, drawn with depth and imagination. The front cover is typical of that within; images of the boy and girl on each spread with their purple bird in a mystical place with nature and man-made structures colliding, and magical things happening. My favourite picture is that of the children swimming underwater accompanied by their bird and finding their own Atlantis beneath the ocean. As expected, the pictures are detailed, use colour and light in intriguing ways, and draw in the eye to numerous things on each page. The action is non-stop – each picture has motion and plot development – and there’s a map/guide to which my readers kept flicking back. A true adventure in pictures. To buy the book from Waterstones, click here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

Rules of Summer

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan
Shortlisted for the 2015 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal, and by highly acclaimed artist Shaun Tan, this is a stunning picture book. For those who are aware of Tan’s work already, it delivers on your expectations – the right amount of surreal fantasy, emotional landscapes and sense of foreboding. In fact, much of Tan’s work could be taken to be fairly nightmarish for a sensitive child – so do beware.
Each page (even the cover and endpapers) depicts two boys, one who is clearly older than the other. The book starts with a simple line: “This is what I learned last summer”, and then proceeds to state the rules learned, accompanied by Tan’s distinctive surreal imagery. For example the rules include: “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline” and “Never be late for a parade”. Throughout the book it is clear that our focus is on the relationship dynamic between the two boys. At first they seem playful, but the mood changes as friction grows between the two. In fact some of the images are particularly menacing. After a while it appears that the small boy is prisoner, and only after a considerable time lapse does the bigger boy come to help, with the rule: “Always bring bolt cutters”. At the end there seems to be some redemption and forgiveness, although the last line is particularly ambiguous: “That’s it”. At this point the two boys are shown watching television together with drawings on the wall of things that have previously seemed to be real and menacing in the landscapes – perhaps Shaun Tan showing that they were merely figments of the boys’ play landscapes. On the other hand, Tan has stated that the whole book doesn’t necessarily have a linear narrative, and that each picture is a standalone story. What is clear is that the book shows the relationship between the two boys – be they friends or brothers. It asks the reader questions: what is the dynamic between the two, from whose point of view is the landscape drawn? And with whom do you most identify – the bigger or the smaller boy? The title also asks questions. What are rules? Are they useful or not? Are they self-imposed or dictated from afar? Are they rules from life experience or simply rules in a game? Only one thing is for sure, this a childhood world we are inhabiting. The images come from the children, and there are no adults present, merely other shapes or beings.

I haven’t said much about the actual pictures – this is because they need to be seen! But the use of colour and light is magnetic – from the yellow heat of the title page, to the dusky sky at nightfall, to the intense shadows created by the sun in the backyards, to the illuminated fantasy land in “Never forget the password.” The muted pastel greys and whites when the smaller boy is taken prisoner are haunting, whereas the vibrant fruit of the still life near the end is warming and intense. Most of these could be artworks hanging on your wall. In fact, I’ve visited The Illustration Cupboard in London and viewed some of Tan’s artworks just so. They are stunning. To buy the book from Waterstones, click here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

Once you’ve read one of these with your children, it’s amazing how much enthusiasm they’ll find for the next book – and then you can gradually start introducing a little text as well – through picture books, comics, graphic novels and illustrated books. Then the magic of the text will start to become apparent as well, as the reader begins to create their own pictures in their heads from the words on the page. And then the reader takes their own flight of the imagination and the seed of wonder of books is sewn….

 

Is My Child Old Enough?

Harry Potter Goblet of Fire  Anne Frank

So here is one of the most startling problems with helping children pick something to read. Age-appropriateness. The question comes up time and time again from adults: “My eight year old child loves Harry Potter, but we’ve got to book three, and I think they get darker after that – should I continue or wait till she’s older”, and “How old should my child be to read Anne Frank?” etc.

Even when you go to a good bookshop, it’s not like clothes where they’re shelved by size – books are only very roughly broken down into categories by publishers, and even then there’s huge overlap and vagueness, and some books don’t sit properly in their ‘marketplace’ at all. You’ll quite often see labels (even on my site), such as picture books, early readers, middle grade, young adult. What do these mean?

Picture books are what they say on the tin! Ie. They’re books with pictures on every page – almost always a larger size than your standard book, and mainly for a young age group. I say mainly because in the breadth and depth of the picture book world, the age range is huge. Many will read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle to their children from birth, but The Arrival by Shaun Tan is best aimed at those aged eight and over. For The Sunday Times this was a picture book, in Publishers Weekly it was a graphic novel. In most bookshops I’ve seen it in the picture book section. The Arrival is a stunning book about having a sense of belonging, and explores issues of migration and displacement and refugees, but it’s not for pre-schoolers. Saying that, neither is The Promise by Nicola Davies (a book I hope to review on this blog shortly).

Early readers are those first titles that a child can start to read independently once they gain literacy fluency. However, even then the age at which they reach this point can vary hugely. Middle grade is roughly defined by the publishing industry as books aimed at readers aged 8-12 yrs with a protagonist of 10-13 yrs and a focus on friends, family and the immediate world. Young adult is generally perceived as being for readers aged 13-18 yrs, with older protagonists (14-18 yrs) who spend more time than the MG protagonists thinking and reflecting on what is happening and the meanings of things. These books may also contain romance, sex, profanity and violence. There is often some blurriness in the top end of MG and the bottom end of YA, and a huge debate over when young adult becomes part of the ‘grown up’ canon of literature.

Fastest Boy in the WorldFastest Boy in the World back

Some publishers started putting age labels on the back cover of their books to assist purchasing, and still do. My copy of The Fastest Boy in the World by Elizabeth Laird says 7+ on the back, which I do pretty much agree with. Although, again it depends on the individual child! In 2008 the Publishers’ Association found that 86 per cent of adults support labelling books like this, and staggeringly 40 per cent said they would buy more books if they had age labels! (Again, this points to people buying more books if only they knew which ones to buy!)

This became a hugely contentious issue. Doesn’t labelling a book as aimed at a certain age group limit it commercially, or in a perverse way just make it more attractive to those younger children for whom it isn’t intended? As I child I always wanted to watch films that were certified with a 15 certificate when I was under the age limit. We are drawn to the prohibited. It also makes the books less attractive to those older than the age label. And soul destroying to those who struggle with reading. A publisher such as Barrington Stoke allows you to search their website by reading age ability but also by content age, separating out the two. An interesting idea, and helpful to struggling readers.

And then there’s the school reading schemes – Cecelia Busby drew attention to the Accelerated Reading scheme on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure blogspot. The Accelerated Reader schemes labels books by ‘reading levels’, but it’s not done by a human, but by a computer – which then becomes a vocabulary and syntax exercise prone to error (in my mind anyway, as it deemed that a Daisy Meadows Rainbow Fairy title was more difficult to read than Alan Garner’s The Owl Service).

It’s the same argument that I’ve pointed to again and again. If you use a computer to give you reading choices, rather than a person – you’re going to be using an algorithm which, no matter how enlightened, has not actually read the books. Because what it boils down to is content. It’s all very well that an eight year old is a proficient reader, but just because they can read Forever by Judy Blume doesn’t mean they should.

Many parents believe that The Diary of Anne Frank, studied by many in Year 6 at school, needs to be read with an understanding of the context in which it’s set (the Holocaust). Of course you do, but there’s also plenty in the book about growing sexuality too – don’t forget Anne was 13 when she was given her diary and then went into hiding and wrote the diary for the next couple of years while she became aware of her own body. She writes extensively about exploring her vagina:
“There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can’t imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!”
It’s nothing revolutionary, and quite understandable for a 14 year old, but not something I personally want my nine year old reading just yet. I think they will simply appreciate it more when they too are approaching or going through puberty.

In fact, this leads me to one excellent way of judging a book’s suitability, which is the age of the protagonist. Most children want a protagonist with whom they can identify or in many cases, wish to be like. A protagonist the same age or a year or two older is about right. Harry Potter starts his sequence of books aged 11 and each year progresses through school, ending at aged 18, and I would suggest that children would get more out of the books if they read them at roughly the same ages. Many children aged seven do start reading Harry Potter, and if they can cope with the dark content of the later books, many read all the way through, but I would argue (contentiously I know), that reading them a little later would make for a better understanding and appreciation of the book. It’s simply a life stage – I know I read Madame Bovary totally differently at the tender of 18 yrs and single as to how I read it in my thirties, several years after having got married. It’s all about point of view.

Some believe that children will automatically self-censor – ie. if they read a book with content that’s too advanced for them, they won’t enjoy it and will stop reading. Author Patrick Ness doesn’t think age labels work:
“I don’t think it works, if it’s got an 18 certificate then younger children will look at it when their parents aren’t around … children are great self­-censors: they know what they can read and they know what they want to read.”
My argument with that is that it can put a child off a book forever, as they feel they already attempted it and it was dull – and then never return. If they have dismissed a book at the wrong age by misunderstanding the nuances and underlying content, they may never go back to it. My absolute horror would be to give my children Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy at too early an age, so that they turn round and tell me it’s ‘dull’. So, I’m not suggesting censoring, just reaching out for the full breadth of children’s books that are available for your child at any given age, and not pushing them to read ‘higher’ up the literacy level until they are ready and willing, and you are somewhat aware of the content.

It’s impossible to read every book before your child, so there is no easy solution. You can talk to someone like me of course, although even I haven’t read all the books in the world! You can read about the book and do some research, and accept that at some point you will be caught out. When my daughter was six she was a proficient reader and was given a library book by an innocent librarian – it was only when my daughter asked me what ‘snogging’ was that I realised the content was inappropriate. My advice: don’t rely on a computer, do talk to as many people as possible about your book choices, don’t push your child onto the next ‘level in the hope of advanced literacy skills’ – there is plenty of amazing content out there for your child – and do take the more advanced books and read them aloud to your child so you can discuss issues when they arise.