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I'm just back from Readercon 27, the annual convention that I've been to more than any other, and for which (a while back) I served on the program committee for a few years. At this point, Readercon feels like a family reunion for me, and it's a delight.
Here, I simply want to riff on ideas from one of the panels I participated in.
Friday, I was on my first panel of the convention, "Nonfiction for Fiction Writers", with Jonathan Crowe, Keffy Kehrli, Tom Purdom, Rick Wilber. It was good fun. I'd taken lots of notes beforehand, because I wasn't really sure what direction the panel would go in and I wanted to be prepared and to not forget any particular favorites. Ultimately, and expectedly, I only got to mention a few of the items I was prepared to talk about.
However, since I still have my notes, I can expand on it all here...
First, I started thinking about useful reference books and tools. One of the things I talked about on the panel was the need I have to get some vocabulary before I begin to write anything involving history, professions I'm not highly familiar with, regions I don't know intimately, etc. I will make lists of words and phrases to have at hand. To create such a list, I spend lots of time with the Oxford English Dictionary, with specialized dictionaries (and old dictionaries — Samuel Johnson's is invaluable, but I'm also fond of the 1911 Concise Oxford Dictionary), with texts from the era or profession I'm trying to write about, and with a book I got years ago, the Random House Word Menu, a highly useful book because it arranges words in a way reminiscent of the old Roget's thesauruses (the ones not arranged alphabetically), but different enough to be uniquely useful. (For that matter, an old thesaurus is highly useful, too, as you'll find more archaic words in it. My preference is for one from the late 1940s.) Finally, I'm fond of The People's Chronology by James Trager, which is a year-by-year chronology from the beginning of time to, in the most recent edition, the early 1990s. Being written by one person, it's obviously incomplete and biased toward what he thought was important, but what I find useful in it is the sense of scope that it provides. You can get something like it via Wikipedia's year-specific entries, but it's nice to be able to flip through a book, and I find Trager's organization of material and summary of events interesting. Chronologies specific to particular people can be fascinating too, such as The Poe Log.
I'm also fond of old travel guides and atlases. I still have the Rough Guide to New York City that I bought before I went to college there in 1994, and I treasure it, because it reminds me of a city now lost. I've got a couple editions of Kate Simon's New York Places & Pleasures. (For London, I have a 1937 edition of William Kent's Encyclopedia of London.) Similarly, old atlases are a treasure trove; not only do they show lost places and borders long shifted, but they demonstrate the ways that people have thought about borders, geography, knowledge, and the world itself in the past. See Peter Turchi's Maps of the Imagination for more on that.
That's it for the really useful reference stuff in general (individual projects often have their own specific needs for reference material). To see how I've put some of these things to use, check out the penultimate story in Blood, "Lacuna". Now for some encounters with interesting nonfiction...
One of the greatest joys in nonfiction reading is to be reading something just for information and then to discover it's wonderfully written. On the panel, I said that when I was studying for my Ph.D. general exam, I decided to strengthen my knowledge of Victorian England by skimming some of Peter Ackroyd's gigantic biography of Dickens. But once I started reading, I didn't want to skim. Ackroyd's sense of drama mixes perfectly with his passion for detail, and the book is unbelievably rich, eloquently written, and so compelling that it all but consumed my life for a couple of weeks.
Since Readercon is a science fiction, fantasy, and horror convention, I mostly thought about books to help such writers with their work. SF writers often obsess over "worldbuilding", which I put in quotation marks not only because I'm skeptical of the term, which I am, but more importantly because what such writers mean by "worldbuilding" varies. (For one quick overview, see Rajan Khanna's 2012 piece for Lit Reactor.) My own feelings are at least in sympathy with statements from M. John Harrison, e.g. his controversial 2007 blog post on "worldbuilding" as a concept and his brief note from 2012, wherein he writes: "Worldbuilt fantasy is over-engineered & under-designed. Whatever the term worldbuilding implies, it isn’t deftness or economy. A world can be built in a sentence, but epic fantasy doesn’t want that. At the same time, it isn’t really baggy or capacious, like Pynchon or Gunter Grass." The simplicities of SF are one of its great aesthetic and ethical limitations, even of the most celebrated and complex SF (see my comments on Aurora for more on this; see Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand and Pynchon's Against the Day for exemplary models of how to make complex settings in the baggy style; for short fiction, see Chekhov). Too often, SF writing seems to seek to replace the complexities of the real world with the simplicities of an imagined world. This is one of my complaints about apocalyptic fiction as well: when the history of the world we live in provides all sorts of examples of apocalypse and dystopia at least as awful as the ones SF writers imagine, what does that suggest about your made-up world?
Anyway, that all got me thinking about books that might be useful for someone who wanted to think about "worldbuilding" as something more than just escape from the complexities of reality. There are countless historical books useful for such an endeavor — even mediocre history books have more complexity to them than most SF, and analyzing why that is could lead a writer to construct their settings more effectively.
I said on the panel that if I could recommend only one history book to SF writers, it would be Charles Mann's 1491, which other people on the panel also recommended. While I'm sure there's academic writing that is richer than Mann's popular history, the virtue of his book is that it's engagingly written and thus a good introduction to a subject that can, in fact, be mind-blowing for a reader raised on all sorts of myths about the Americas before Columbus — some of which seem to have informed a lot of SF. (Really, Mann's book should be paired with John Reider's essential Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction.)
A very different approach to the complexities available in a single year is James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, which I didn't get a chance to mention on the panel. It's one of my favorite books about Shakespeare for reasons well stated by Robert McCrum in an Observerreview when the book came out:
The story of 1599 ... is an enthralling one that includes the rebuilding of the Globe; the fall of Essex; the death of Spenser; a complicated publishing row about the Sonnets; the sensational opening of Julius Caesar; rumours of the Queen's death; the completion of a bestselling volume of poetry, The Passionate Pilgrim; and finally, the extraordinary imaginative shift represented by the first draft of Hamlet.
Partly, 1599 is a rediscovery of the worlds that shaped the poet's development and which, in his maturity, were becoming lost — the bloody Catholic past; the deforested landscape of Arden; a dying chivalric culture. Partly, it is a record of a writer reading, writing and revising to meet a succession of deadlines.
The writer and his world, as seen via the lens of a single year.
Then there is Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898by Edward G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace, which is unbelievably rich. There are countless books to read if you want to think about how to imagine cities and their histories; this is one that has long fed my imagination.
Writers might find productive ways of working through the problems of history, subjectivity, and literary worlds by reading David Attwell's J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time, which is one of the best explorations of an individual writer's process and manuscripts that I know, and one that offers numerous techniques for thinking your way out of the traps of "worldbuilding".
On another day, if someone were to say to me, "I want to write an immersive SF story in an imagined world, so what should I read?" I would be as likely to start with Noël Mostert's Frontiers as I would be with 1491 or another book. I first learned about Frontiers from Brian Slattery, and though I have read around in it rather than read it front-to-back, its range and depth are utterly apparent. It tells of the history of the Xhosa people in South Africa. It is particularly valuable for anyone interested in writing some sort of first-contact story.
A caution, though: It's important to read people's own chronicles and analyses of their experiences, not just the work of outsiders or people distant in time from the events they write about. For instance, don't miss the Women Writing Africa anthologies from the Feminist Press. Be skeptical of distant experts, even the thoughtful and eloquent ones.
Along those lines, a nonfiction book I would recommend to any writer is Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism, which I much prefer to his more famous Orientalism. Among the highly influential writers of the theory era, Said is, I think, hands down the best stylist and the least in need of a vociferous editor, so reading Culture and Imperialism is often simply an aesthetic pleasure. But more than that, it brings to fruition ideas he had been developing for decades. This is not to say I think he's always right (what fun would that be?) -- his reading of Forster's Passage to India seems to me especially wrong, as if he'd only seen David Lean's awful movie -- but that he provides tools for rearranging how we think about imagination, literature, and politics. If you want to contribute to the culture around you, you ought to know what that culture does in the world, and think about how it does it. If you want to create imaginary cultures, then you ought to spend serious time thinking about how real cultures work. There are countless other writers who can help along the way, including ones who stand in opposition to Said, but as a starting point, Culture and Imperialism works well.
For US writers especially, I must also add Mark Rifkin's Settler Common Sense, a book I read earlier this year, and which made me want to go back to a lot of 19th century American lit that I don't have time at the moment to go back to. It's a kind of intellectual sequel to Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark (another must-read), but it expands the scope beyond the black/white binary, which, as Rifkin notes, "tends to foreground citizenship, rights, and belonging to the nation, miscasting Indigenous self-representations and political aims in ways that make them illegible."
Also well worth reading are two books by Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes and A History of Bombing, both interesting at a formal level, but also for what they discuss. These are short books, but accomplish more both aesthetically and intellectually than most SF.
Most of the books I thought of and discussed on the panel were, in some way or another, about history, since the construction of history and memory is an obsession of mine. But I had one book about science on my list, though never got the chance to recommend it: Sexing the Body by Anne Fausto-Sterling, a book that will challenge a lot of what you probably think you know about biology and gender. (On the other hand, the book has been influential enough that the common sense about gender and biology has shifted since it was published, so who knows.) Even if you are familiar with some of what Sexing the Body argues about biology, it's valuable for the stories it tells about science and scientists. Indeed, this is something that makes it hugely useful to science fiction writers, even if they're not especially interested in gender: it demonstrates some ways that science is made.
Finally, I see in my notes a list of essayists I am always happy to read: Virginia Woolf, Samuel Johnson (for the construction of his sentences), Guy Davenport, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, Carole Maso, Barry Lopez, William H. Gass, and Samuel Delany.
There are, of course, many others, and on another day I would make completely different lists and different recommendations, but these are the books and writers that come to mind now.
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In this fascinating picture book, Amy Krouse Rosenthal uses only words that begin with A, B or C to tell her story. The day begins as a young boy awakens and enjoys Apples, Bananas and Cantaloupe for breakfast before heading outside and finding Ants, Butterflies and Caterpillars. He later celebrates at a birthday party, explores a city and appreciates an artist. Older children will enjoy scouring debut picture book illustrator Gracia Lam’s detailed digital illustrations for an apron, bowling pins, binoculars, a castle, a cape, a church (and more!) that serve to broaden the appeal of the story and support the development of phonemic awareness
It is worth mentioning that Ms. Rosenthal and Ms. Lam do not limit the story or illustrations to the phoneme /K/, they also challenge readers to recognize the use of ‘C’ in words beginning with the /ch/ and soft ‘C’ sounds, as in church and city. the ‘A’ words that we detected use the short vowel sound.
We envision this picture book as a wonderful inspiration to young illustrators and writers. Great for classroom use, the clever take on the alphabet book genre could certainly be a jumping off point for children to create their own stories and illustrations using only two or three letters.
This is a picture book that will be enjoyed by children aged 3 and up but that has great potential for exciting older children and adults.
Only, I've been a little distracted. I skipped off to the city for my local SCBWI meeting - an art show, a lecture from book-wise and witty editors Mary Kate Castellani and Caroline Abbey, and then a consultation and workshop with art director, professor, and story genius Joy Chu.
This is the same Joy who guided me over the last two winters in visual storytelling classes through the UCSD online extension program.
I'm still reeling with inspiration. I could have listened for days. Months. Years.
Now I'm home, all bright and hopeful, waiting for my brain to shape so many beautiful tips and ideas into working order. Time to let the front thoughts simmer. Time to play with poetry.
We started with a poet-tree. The wildebeests and I cut out branchy trees and labeled each branch with simple word: sky, go, sea, etc. Next, we cut out dozens of leaves - in all flutters of color, because it just looks more exciting that way.
Each branch grew rhyming leaf words: sky = cry, my, pie, etc.
Because we like to make life even more thrilling, and sometimes complicated, I thought it might be fun for the older wildebeests to thread their leaves on yarn. Winnie added a button.
Pip used gold pen. She's really into gel pens lately.
And their finished masterpieces.
I'd love to meet a tree like this someday, shimmering with colors, yarns, and words! I think I'd move in.
I'll share more poetry play next time.
Until then, here are a few favorites:
A Kick in the Head, An Every Day Guide to Poetic Forms - compiled by Paul Janeczko, ill. by Chris Raschka
The Random House Book of Poetry - edited by Jack Prelutsky, ill. by Arnold Lobel
Switching on the Moon - collected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Peters, ill. by G. Brian Karas
Chicken Soup With Rice - by Maurice Sendak
When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne, ill. by Ernest Shepard
Now We Are Six By A.A. Milne, ill. by Ernest Shepard
My Crazy Inventions Sketchbook: 50 Awesome Drawing Activities for Young Inventors Written by Lisa Regan Illustrated by Andrew Rae Lawrence King Publishing 9/29/2015 978-1-78067-611-1 128 pages Ages 8+ “DO YOU HAVE SOME CRAZY INVENTIONS UP YOUR SLEEVE?! “This new doodle book will speak to the imaginative and to future ‘Shark Tank’ contestants …
For car trips, young readers, struggling readers, and sheer entertainment, you can't beat a picture book/audio book combo for younger kids.
Though schools and libraries may still keep book/CD kits in their collections, the truth is, CD players are not that common anymore. Newer computers don't come with a standard CD/DVD drive, cars don't always have them, and the only people I know who still have "boom boxes" are children's librarians.
That's why I was happy to receive a copy of a new VOX (TM)"audio-enabled" book. In my photo, the book is plugged into the wall for charging, but I did that just for show because a book with a plug cracked me up! In truth, it arrived fully charged and ready to go - no plug required. (I didn't test it for battery performance.) The audio recording and speaker are built right into the book and operated by a simple control panel - power, play, pause, volume, forward, and back. There is also a standard headphone jack. The audio is of comparable quality to any conventional children's book. The book itself also seemed as sturdy as any, and was not overly heavy or burdensome. Perhaps other companies have similar offerings, but this is the first book of its type that I've seen. I think it has possibilities, and that the days of the book/CD kit are numbered. I passed my copy along to a school superintendent who agreed that it might be a useful addition to his school's collection. I did not inquire as to the price. I was interested solely in the format.
If you can get your hands on one, it's worth checking out.
(I'm not going to review the book, Don't Push the Button!, but will merely note that it is in a vein very similar to the wonderful Press Here by Herve Tullet. Kids will likely enjoy it.)
Note: As always on my blog, I review books and materials for educational purposes only, and receive nothing of value other than the review copy, its associated marketing materials, and the occasional thanks or consternation of its author or publisher.
I found out the Toledo Imagination Station is on the finalist list for the 2016 National Medal for Library and Museum Service. One of the other finalists is The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (I would love to visit this museum). Today is Very Hungry Caterpillar Day. What could be more appropriate for this day than a book …
Sure, imagination is powerful. But can it really change the world? Indeed, it is tempting to answer “no” here -- to disagree with Glaude about the transformative power of imagination. After all, imagination is the stuff of fancy, of fiction, of escape. We daydream to get away from the disappointing monotony of daily life.
Before you check out Apples and Robins, an amazing picture book if there ever was one, check out the winner of two Tristan Hunt and the Sea Guardians author signed books. Each reader who commented was assigned a number, beginning with the first comment posted. (reverse order of there placement). Using Random.org ‘s generator, the …
You know, a world where book-inspired play is taken to a whole new level.
Not just me and my kids and a book or two, but rather whole schools, even whole towns, with libraries’ worth of books and stories.
I promise I’d be a benign ruler. And one of my first cabinet appointments would be Dr. Matt Finch.
Matt knows a lot about taking playing by, with and out of the pages of a story to a whole new level; I first came across Matt in teen zombie battle. Always a good place to find future members of one’s dream team, don’t you think?
Shortly before Christmas last year Matt and I finally managed to meet up in person and when we did so he let me in on a new project of his – an incredible multi-player game he’s devised that gets kids and grown ups really excited about books, whether drawn from a library’s collection or with a bookseller’s stock. I knew straight away I wanted to somehow make this game happen wherever possible and so I’m truly delighted that today I get to tell the world about it, and share it with you all.
But first some more details!
Playing by the book: So Matt, what’s your elevator pitch for the game?
Matt Finch: It’s an all-ages roleplay version of events like the Frankfurt Book Fair. Children form teams which are mini publishing companies. They explore a collection of books, then compete to acquire titles which they create posters and marketing materials for.
We’ve also run this activity with adults too, at workshops and training sessions. If anything, the grown-ups are even more competitive.
Photo: Susie Bishop, Pencombe CE Primary School
Playing by the book: In your experience of running this game, what do the kids get out of it?
Matt Finch: Kids get to really explore and engage with a wide range of books, not just in terms of content but also design and other physical qualities.
There’s a bit of relay racing and simple money management as they try to beat other teams to the books they want. They then get to respond creatively to the books that they’ve chosen. Older children often think very strategically about the business of marketing.
It’s a rare chance to blend reading, creativity, and real-world business skills.
As part of the game, players have to browse lots of books and decide which ones they’d like to stock.
Playing by the book: And what about the adults facilitating the game? What’s in it for them?
Matt Finch: Libraries, schools, or booksellers who host the game get to engage communities with their collection in a new and inspiring way. When children’s publishers or booksellers get involved, it’s a chance to see how their target market engage with your stock – and what kind of marketing materials they would create for their books.
Whenever we’ve played this game we’ve tried to assign one adult to each team. We tell the children that the adult on their team is not their boss or their leader, but an extra resource for them to use. By changing that dynamic, adults get to work alongside the children in a different way, supporting but not directing…even taking orders from children when necessary!
Playing by the book: I’m sold! Take me to your game!
Players enter a bidding war for the books they most want to stock
Playing by the book: But before I run off and round up some people to play the game with me, I’ve a couple more questions.
Why is playing with books so important?
Matt Finch: Books are hardly the only gateway we have into other worlds and other ways of knowing, but they’re one of the most established and reliable. That kind of ancient magic needs to be explored freely, irreverently, and enthusiastically.
A game like the Book Fair lets children consider the book as a physical object – they even get to sniff them. It also encourages children to reflect on their personal response to a book and how others might respond to that book, too.
Playing by the book: What process do you go through when designing play opportunities which feature books?
Matt Finch: It’s great to incorporate literacy into even the most boisterous play activities. During our live zombie sieges in Australia and New Zealand, the ‘survivors’ had the chance to evaluate fiction and non-fiction as survival aids. In another session for younger children, time travel adventures began with spotting anachronisms in mocked-up newspapers.
In our biggest trial of the Book Fair game, with 100 kids from three schools, we actually folded the activity into a day-long adventure with ninjas fighting bandits – and setting up a bookshop as part of their quest.
For me, play begins with storytelling, and books are just one of many excellent hooks on which we hang the stories that inspire play.
Photo: Susie Bishop, Pencombe CE Primary School
Playing by the book: Did you “play” / act out books as a child? If so, what do you remember doing?
Matt Finch: Oh, all sorts of bizarre stuff got mashed together. By the end of junior school, it was intense. French Resistance stories out of Commando comic blended with Larry Niven scifi which was probably too old for me – with guns that shot slivers of anaesthetic crystal to knock out baddies! Take that, Nazis!
I also played with Star Wars toys, except they were never Star Wars characters. Lando and Leia were the heroes, Luke was a Space Nazi (spot the recurring theme) because he had blonde hair and a single black glove.
And it wasn’t just books. There are embarrassing photos out there somewhere of me and my brother dressed up as Agnetha and Anni-Frid from ABBA. It was about crossing the lines from everyday life to make believe, through any and all points of contact.
Playing by the book: What’s the last book you’ve read (for adults or children) which inspired you to do something, whether that was a trip to visit somewhere, a creative response, cooking new dish or….??
Matt Finch: I’m currently talking to Brisbane’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Writers’ Festival about possible partnerships and that led me back to eccentric rocker Julian Cope’s book The Modern Antiquarian, a guide to the stone circles of Britain.
It’s totally indulgent and bonkers, but experts were forced to agree that he’d done his homework and researched the book well. It’s a kind of deranged gazetteer to these ancient neolithic sites, and another example of how books are a gateway, at any age, between mundane life and weirder worlds. You only need to skim it once and you’ll be hankering to visit your nearest stone circle.
Playing by the book: Matt, just for you, here’s my favourite stone circle:
The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney
Maybe this is where my cabinet and I will hold our inaugural meeting when I finally take over the world. Yes. I rather like that idea.
Huge thanks to Matt (left) for setting free his Book Fair game into the wide world. Do download it and see how you could use it in your library, your school, your book group. Matt and I would love to hear about the adventures you have with it.
A joyous celebration of a child’s imaginative, intrepid and open-hearted take on the world, Where My Feet Go by Birgitta Sif (@birgittasif) follows one young panda recounting what they’ve been up to that day.
From exploring outside and playing in the sandpit to using their parent as a climbing frame before bedtime, we read and hear that Panda has had a very happy day getting up to all sorts of adventures, traversing jungles and even meeting with dinosaurs. Yet the illustrations show a slightly different story, one apparently much more like a normal day that anybody might experience, involving puddles, sticks and feeding the birds. This funny mismatch between words and images is bound to create conversations and spark listeners’ own re-imaginings of the world around them.
Whimsical, upbeat and wide-eyed, Panda (who could be either a boy or a girl, for the gender is never mentioned, opening out this heartwarming story so really anyone can identify with Panda) reminds me a little of Charlie’s Lola. Sif’s subdued palette and the natural story arc heading for bedtime make this a calm, relaxing and uplifting read about a child’s ability to think big and embrace adventure, reminding us adults to open our eyes to the joy and delights we might otherwise overlook in the everyday world around us.
Inspired by Panda’s adventurous feet we decided we’d try making plaster of paris casts of our footprints. I made a batch of playdough which, when cooled, the kids stepped into:
(If you’ve never made homemade playdough before it’s super easy. For this activity we used 4 cups of flour, 2 cups of salt, 8 tablespoons of Cream of Tarter, 4 tablespoons of oil and 4 cups of boiling water, mixed all together over a low heat on the hob, until the ingredients combined and came away from the edge of the pan without sticking to our fingers when we touched it.)
In an old icecream tub we mixed up some plaster of paris as per the instructions on the packet and then poured the thick gloop into the impressions left by the kids’ feet in the playdough.
After a couple of hours the “feet” were dry enough to be taken out of their moulds. The playdough is perfectly fine to re-use to make more casts – we reused ours 4 times and it was still good for more play.
We left or “feet” to dry out completely for a couple of days before painting and decorating them.
Now (perhaps slightly channelling Hans Solo given all the Star Wars stuff that is in the air at the moment), J’s feet are of on an adventure of their own…
Whilst making our footprints we listened to:
Dirty Feet by Bobs & Lolo
Foot Stomping by The Flares
500 miles by The Proclaimers – it’s all about walking! My very favourite cover of this classic is the crazy accordion fuelled version by Billy McIntyre and his All Star Ceilidh Band (you can hear a sample here)
Other activities which might work well alongside reading Where My Feet Go include:
Updating your dressing-up box with a few new (old) pairs of shoes. There’s nothing like experiencing what it’s like to be someone else when you literally put your feet into their shoes. Charity shops, jumble sales, old relatives, older siblings/cousins are all good sources of shoes for dressing up in.
There’s a land far away where imaginary friends come into being and wait to be imagined by a real child. But what if a real child never imagines you? Might you remain stuck, forever in limbo?
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat (@dsantat) follows one imaginary friend as he decided to take action into his own hands venturing bravely forth to seek a real friend to play with (and to name him). The real world is a strange place, with muted colours and tired people failing to see joy or find fun around them. But then our still un-named imaginary friend recognises a flash of colour in the rush-hour crowd – an old imaginary friend from the land of their birth, and follows the creature. Will this lead him to a real friend? And just how do you make friends when you’ve not had a friend before and don’t know where to start?
Santat’s tale about our desire to find friendship, the difficulties we can encounter along the way, and the joy and joint adventuring it can bring is full of charm and hope. It’s gentle, optimistic and beautiful. It also happens to be award-winning, and not just any old award: Almost exactly a year ago, The Adventures of Beekle won the most prestigious picture book award in the US – the Randolph Caldecott Medal.
UK publishers, Andersen Press, are now bringing this gorgeous book to the UK market. Yes, it’s true that those of us with UK/Eire addresses can get hold of just about any US book thanks to online ordering, but many brilliant US-published children’s books never make it main stream here (i.e into schools, into public libraries, into highstreet bookshops) because they aren’t published by “local” publishers and are therefore not straightforward for organisations to order (or even to find out about). I find this especially frustrating with graphic novels and children’s non-fiction, genres in which I think the US is a world leader.
Why do some books make it across the Atlantic when others don’t? To my eye there is a decidedly American flavour to the illustrations in The Adventures of Beekle, something to do with the slightly soft focus, polished animation feel to the imagery. Differences in illustration fashion clearly aren’t necessarily a problem. And yet if we look at which Caldecott winners have made it to the UK, we see that it’s surprisingly few; of the past 20 winners, I think only 5 have been picked up by UK publishing houses.
As it happens, the 2016 Caldecott Medal winner us being announced TODAY (January 11). Will it be a book that makes it across to the UK?
[I do encourage you to follow the announcements of all the ALA Youth Media Awards, of which the Caldecott is just one. If you’re on Twitter, you might use #ALAyma to find out about the winners. You can also watch the announcements as they are streamed live http://ala.unikron.com/2016/]
Either which way, The Adventures of Beekle is a delightful, heart-warming story about friendship, courage and reaching out. I’m really pleased that thanks to its UK publishers it will now find its way into many more homes, schools and libraries on this side of the pond.
Especially taken by the illustration below of a tree full of leaves / stars, we were inspired to set up a piece of guerilla public art in the name of Beekle and everyone who could do with a bit of good cheer:
Using air-drying clay, some cookie cutters and letter stamps we created a whole host of starry leaves to hang in a tree by our favourite playground. We stamped each tree with a friendly, encouraging message, hoping to raise a smile amongst those who come across the starry leaves.
…we threaded them with string…
…visited our favourite playground…
…and hung up our good wishes to all.
We’re hoping visitors to the playground will find the stars and take one they like home, spreading Beekle good wishes around the local community!
So there’s this book that you think is award-winningly brilliant. That hits every button. That leaves you feeling whole and happy and now bonded in a quiet but lifelong way to the story.
Then along comes another book, with a very similar premise and it’s hard to give this second book the mental space you rationally know it could deserve. When a first book seems perfect in every way, even the optimist that I am finds it hard to have hopes for a second book that purports to cover similar ground.
It doesn’t help when that first book is exquisitely produced and illustrated, with rich, thick paper and fabulous illustration, the sort that rarely graces and enriches novels for young people. And the cover of second book is reminiscent of a hugely popular series, great for encouraging readers to gobble up books but which has no pretensions to being anything with any literary, philosophical or high aesthetic value (which is of course fine, but here I’m highlighting how two potentially very similar books appear to be very different).
Nevertheless, you sit down and make a stab at the second book. Then your 11 year old daughter steals the book mid-read and won’t give it back till she’s done. As it turns out, she really likes the book, and a swift, unbroken two hours later – she returns it to me saying that I really HAVE to read it. I complain that I was reading it. That it was her that stopped me (even thought deep down I know that my own expectations / hopes / fears for the book had been preventing me from really getting going with it).
But now, thoroughly chastised by my daughter, I give myself over to this second book.
And I fall down a rabbit hole.
And I find myself holding my breath with slightly anxious anticipation. Each page turn could yet prove my initial fears right, feeding disappointment I had almost become resigned to expect. And yet each step towards the end actually brings wonderful warmth, and a growing sense of doubly delicious delight because I really had not expected or allowed myself to hope for it.
This second book turns out to be exceptional.
Incredibly beautifully written, with wisdom and wit in equal measure, this book manages to be both highly philosophical and hugely funny at the same time. It works as a compass for its readers to discover something of who they are and how they (choose to) fit into the world. It revels in the power of the imagination. It asks lots of questions and delivers immense satisfaction without ever providing all the answers. A paradox, perhaps, but one which speaks of the huge skill and unpatronising attitude of its generous author.
So almost 500 words into my review I should tell you the book’s title and author I guess. Fortunately, it’s worth waiting for:
How do you work out precisely who you are? Or who you want to be? This is at the heart of Confessions of an Imaginary Friend, and applies equally to the real children in the novel as to the eponymous imaginary friend Jacques Papier (to say nothing of the living, breathing reader…). And this gently philosophical novel has a huge heart; it reminded me of R. J Palacio’s Wonder in its thoughtful, gentle exploration of kindness and (un)selfishness. Cuevas writes lightly but richly, with pace (lots of very short chapters help to create this) and a strong sense of style, not shying away from startling descriptions and evocative language, the beauty of which you don’t often find in novels for the pre-teen crowd. It delights me to see that just before Christmas, Confessions of an Imaginary Friend was named the Big Issue’s Kids’ Book of 2015.
Teachers could do so much with this book. Its quick chapters and laugh out loud humour make it perfect for a class read-aloud. Its language and genre (a memoir) offer many opportunities for readers to enrich their own writing. The playfulness of the book ensures that younger children (say 7+) will have fun will it, whilst older children (say 10+) may equally enjoy chewing over what it means to be real vs imaginary, present vs invisible, and how the boundaries are not always as clear cut as we may think.
I’m not sure that there’s any such thing as a book which appeals to each and every possible reader. Certainly, the bittersweet contemplation of some of life’s bigger questions in Confessions of an Imaginary Friend won’t appeal to all in equal measure (though I do wonder if perhaps an attempt to reach a slightly different audience is behind the drastically different style of the UK cover as compared to the US edition) but my 11 year old and I really loved this book and hope it reaches many homes during 2016.
Inspired by Jacques Papier’s musings on words which don’t exist, M set about creating a list of her own new words to fill some of the lexical gaps she’s wishes didn’t exist. Together we designed a little dictionary cover for her to use:
(You can download it here – A4, and then fold it in half and half again to create a mini dictionary you and your kids could fill in with your own missing words.)
M set to creating the words she misses in her life, finessing their presentation by looking at OED dictionary entries for the format, and getting help from her Dad with phonetic transcriptions (he teaches these things to university students).
Whilst playing at being imaginary lexicologists we listened to:
Imaginary Friend by Secret Agent 23 Skidoo – the lyrics of this go so well with the early chapters of Confessions of an Imaginary Friend.
What words do you wish existed? What words have you adopted from other languages because they express something for which there is no word in English? What words have you / your kids / your parents made up over the years which are now firmly part of the family patter?
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Anna is a girl with an inspirational can-do attitude. She decides she wants to find gold with her friend (a crocodile) and refuses to be put off or to give up, simply because the task might be risky or hard to achieve.
Issues which might seem like problems to some are acknowledged by young Anna, but they never put her off her stride. Instead, her positive take on life, her ability to see opportunities rather than obstacles and the power of her imagination enable her and Crocodile to have tremendous fun looking for (and indeed finding) gold, even if (or partly because?) it is dangerous and difficult.
Together the friends search high and low, sailing the seven seas and facing terrible monsters before finding a chest full of treasure in a sunken wreck. But having found the treasure do they keep it? What is more valuable to them? Piles of gold to have and to hold or the wonderful experiences they’ve shared by together being brave, hopeful and believing in themselves?
In some regards, this outstanding picture book echoes Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch, both conveying an inspiring message that anything is possible if you allow yourself to really go after your dreams. Both also happen to feature black girls, though in neither instance is this what the books are about. Their messages are much more universal – about having fun, about self-belief, about letting your imagination take flight to fruition.
Schwarz’s tale is full of humour, both in her words and imagery. The looks of determination and delight on Anna’s face, the unassuming dead-pan delivery of her decisions, her friend’s (mostly) calm absorption of Anna’s apparent impetuosity – all will make you smile.
Schwarz also uses colour brilliantly to intensify the adventure these two undertake. Monochrome real life is contrasted with a richly vibrant hunt for treasure.
Courageous, joyous and imaginative, Anna is a hero to enliven us all. This funny manifesto for adventuring with friends, for embracing challenges, for not giving up on looking for gold, whatever form it takes for you is outstanding. I can’t think of a better way to start my reading year, or yours.
Of course we were chomping at the bit for our own treasure hunt having read How to Find Gold but first we had to ensure there were plenty of gold coins to find in amongst the hoard of jewels.
We took inspiration from our box of coins from around the world, choosing those with designs on them which we especially liked.
We then placed these coins under gold confectionery wrappers (thin golden tin foil) in order to transfer their designs to the foil.
We also designed our own coins, using golden embossing paper and kebab sticks.
Next up we melted lots of chocolate and dropped dollops onto the foil (flipped over, so the gold side was face down).
An hour or two in the fridge later and we had our first glimpse at how our hoard of golden dubloons was coming along…
All that was left was to wrap the edges of the foil around the hardened chocolate to complete our chocolate coins and amass our amazing pile of gold:
Making our own treasure was definitely as much fun as finding it!
Being brave enough to try doing something difficult or risky. This is a tricky one of course. But the kids and I have talked about what we could try that is a bit tricky, a bit dangerous but which might be quite an adventure and we’ve agreed that this weekend we’re going to try jumping off the high diving boards at the swimming pool for the first time!
If you liked this post you might like these other posts by me:
Saturday was an exciting day. My Ohio State Buckeyes won the border battle against University of Michigan. I was not expecting the trouncing Michigan took in their, no, in Ohio State’s win. Score: 42 to 13. By all rights the Bucks should have had 45 points, but instead of a field goal, they ran out …
Title: how to
Written and illustrated by: Julie Morstad
Published by: Simply Read books, 2013
Themes/Topics: how to guide, imagination, whimsy, wonder
Literary awards: Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award (2014), Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize (2014)
Suitable for ages: 6-9
how to go fast
This imaginative ‘how to’ book explores … Continue reading →
Oddrey Joins the Team Written & Illustrated by Dave Whamond Owlkids Books 8/15/2014 978-1-77147-061-2 32 pages Age 4—8
“When Oddfrey decides to join her school’s soccer team, she brings a new and unexpected approach to teamwork! On the day of the big game against the Quagville Crushers, nothing is going right—until Oddfrey comes up with a slightly unusual idea. Never afraid to be herself, Oddfrey devises a plan that gives her teammates the strength to be themselves, too. When they all use their individual talents to work together as a team, the results are extremely satisfying—and highly exuberant!”[book jacket]
Review Oddfrey Joins the Team is the third Oddfrey book (Oddfrey, Oddfrey and the New Kid). According to the publisher, Oddfrey “marches to thebeat of her own drum.” With a daisy sprouting from the top of her head, Oddfrey certainly looks odd. I like Oddfrey for a few reasons. First, she likes sports, although her idea of “sports” is sometimes odd. Oddfrey prefers to combine different sport to make a new game. For example, she kicks a basketball into the hoop, rather than shooting it, and bounces a football off her personal sized trampoline, rather than throw the ball to her helmeted dog. Oddfrey’s dog—spotted with big, beautiful, and excited eyes—sticks by her side, always ready to join in her fun. Which brings me to the second and third reasons I like Oddfrey: she does her own thing and she has a pooch for a pal.
I also like Oddfrey because she thinks outside of the soccer sidelines. I only know the basics of soccer: run back and forth after a ball and kick the ball into opponent’s net, which happens less often than one would think. Maybelline—new kid from book 2—asks Oddfrey to join the school’s soccer team—the Picadilla Bees. Maybelline is the star of the team, mainly because she hogs the ball, leaving the other kids to run back and forth. Oddfrey approaches soccer as she does other sports: in her own way. The players are confused and the coach is dismayed, as Oddfrey combines soccer with ballet. Between sending her shoe flying on an attempted kick, balancing on top of the ball, and cart wheeling down the field, Oddfrey does score a goal—GOOOAL!!!—by butt-bumping the ball into the net. Yes, Oddfrey is her own little gal.
The next game is the BIG GAME against the Quagville Crushers. The Bees practice hard. Milton karate-chops the ball down the field (Maybelline: “Just kick it!”). Earl head-bumps the ball (Maybelline: “Use your head, Earl!”). Maybelline gives everyone advice—where is the coach?—even to her friend Oddfrey. Following rules is not in Oddfrey’s skill-set. Poor Maybelline-the-Star, she cannot get it together in the BIG GAME. The Bees are falling fast to the Crushers. Oddfrey puts on her thinking cap and realizes the team name “Bees” must mean something—and it does. Oddfrey uses this to get her team buzzing. What is “Plan Bee,” you ask. Well, you know I can’t say, but read Oddfrey’s new story, Oddfrey Joins the Team, to find out. You’ll do a lot of laughing as you find the answer and read—and see—the exciting conclusion.
The illustrations are action-packed, with details running from spread-to-spread. But you don’t need to like soccer to enjoy Oddfrey Joins the Team. Oddfrey’s pals are interesting in their own right, and the story has less to do with soccer and more to do with ingenuity, friendship, teamwork, and . . . well, if I said the last feature, you might figure out the ending. Both girls and boys will enjoy Oddfrey and her stories. Older kids will also find much to love and enjoy about Oddfrey. Humor runs in both the illustrations and the text, making Oddfrey Joins the Team fast-paced, deliciously funny, and a great story hour book. Oddfrey’s individuality, imagination, and ingenuity are great traits for a character, real or human. Having read Oddfrey Joins the Team a few times, I am ready to skip to the library, Oddfrey-style, and read the first two books in Oddfrey’s, I mean Mr. Whamond’s quirky series.
I’m sometimes called the Bread-Bike-Book Woman by people who recognise me in the community but don’t know me by name; I go everywhere by bike and my basket is nearly always full of either baguettes and or books.
Shop assistants will ask what I’ve borrowed from the library, or let me know when the fresh bread is cheap at the end of the day. It’s a sobriquet I’m quite at ease with
Tom McLaughlin‘s The Cloudspotter is actually called Franklin, but because of his passion for watching the sky and imagining what he can see high above him, everyone calls him after his hobby.
To some, the Cloudspotter might appear isolated; Indeed, he doesn’t have many friends.
But what he does have is bags and bags of imagination. He can look at the sky and imagine stories galore in which he’s a hero, and adventurer or an explorer. Simply put, he’s very happy with his head in the clouds.
One day, however, Scruffy Dog arrives on the scene. The Cloudspotter doesn’t want to share his adventures and poor Scruffy is sent packing. But could it be that Scruffy wasn’t trying to take anything away from Franklin? Perhaps he was trying to offer him something? Something kind and full of heart, to make adventures and exploring, on earth or in the sky, even more enjoyable?
Tom McLaughlin’s quiet and thoughtful story is a lovely celebration of the power of imagination to provide comfort and joy, as well as solace. The Cloudspotter also acknowledges that it’s quite OK to be a bit different, to daydream. It shows how when friendship comes knocking it’s about doubling – rather than halving – fun and games through sharing.
All in all a delightful book to encourage us all to be open to spotting more adventures in the world around us.
After sharing The Cloudspotter with my girls, I prepared somewhere comfortable to do a bit of our own cloud spotting…
…we lounged around and saw lots of scenes like this…
…then we went over to the paint station…
…and started covering large sheets of paper with various shades of blue, mixing in PVA as we went. The large sheets of paper were strips of wallpaper lining. The PVA (glue) was mixed in so that we could start sticking “clouds” onto our skies as soon as the paper was covered:
We used a mixture of cotton wool and toy stuffing for the clouds, exploring the different ways these materials stretch and becoming wispy.
Whilst our sky scenes dried, it turned out that cleaning up after painting was almost as much fun as creating our art!
A few hours later, our skies were ready to go above beds, enabling hours of relaxing cloud spotting. Here’s what the kids can now see as they lie with their heads on their pillows:
What can you see in our clouds?
Music to spot clouds by could include:
Blue Clouds by Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower
Baby Cloud by Caspar Babypants
Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell
Other activities which could be great fun to try out alongside reading The Cloudspotter include:
If You Were a Dog Written by Jamie A. Swenson Illustrated by Chris Raschka Farrar Straus Giroux BYR 9/30/2014 978-0-373-33530-4 40 pages Age 3—6
“If you could be any kind of animal, what would you be? Would you be a sod that goes ARRRROOOOOOO? Or maybe you would be a sharp-toothed dinosaur that can CHOMP, STOMP, ROAR! Perhaps you might want to be a hopping frog that goes BOING, BOING, RIBBET! But maybe you would want to be the best kind of animal of all. Can you guess what that is?”[inside jacket]
Review Using sparse text, including exuberant onomatopœia, and characteristics specific to the animal on the spread, Swenson asks young children how they would act if they were a dog, a cat, a bird, a bug, a frog, and a dinosaur. Each two-spread animal begins its question with a recognizable formula:
“If you were a . . . would you be a . . . ?”
For example, the first animal is the dog.
“If you were a dog, would you be a speedy-quick, lickety-sloppy, scavenge-the-garbage, frisbee-catching, hot-dog-stealing, pillow-hogging, best-friend-ever sort of dog?”
The following spread always asks one final question:
“Would you howl at the moon? Some dogs do.”
Youngsters will love the questions, especially each of the activity-type characteristics in If You Were a Dog. While not written in rhyme, the text flows nicely. The individual characteristics are ordered such that the similar suffixes following each other. Raschka’s illustrations are child-like in form, yet lively, and capture the text and the reader’s (listener’s), imagination. Young children will not only contemplate how they would act based on the given charactersitics, but are bound to come up with their own. I like anything that activates and stretches a child’s imagination and If You Were a Dog fits that bill nicely.
The final three spreads in If You Were a Dog acknowledge that we cannot become any animal we want, but we can imitate those around us. Besides, kids are told, the best animal to be is yourself.
IF YOU WERE A DOG. Text copyright (C) 2014 by Jamie A. Swenson. Illustrations copyright (C) 2014 by Chris Raschka. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers—an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, New York, NY.
Full Disclosure: If You Were a Dog, by Jamie A. Swenson & Chris Raschka, and received from Farrar Strauss Giroux BYR, (an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group), is in exchange NOT for a positive review, but for an HONEST review. The opinions expressed are my own and no one else’s. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
By ViiiZ* Quirk Books 8/20/2013 978-1-59474-652-9 160 pages Age 8—12 + . “You’ve never seen a doodle book quite like this one!” ”Wait, you can talk?”
“Photo Doodles combines kid-friendly photographs and cool creative challenges into the perfect canvas for anyone capable of wielding a crayon. Young artists and designers can complete dozens of fun and playful pictures of everything from roller coasters and soda cans to book covers and palaces. Perfect for sketching, scribbling, and coloring outside the lines, Photos Doodles will unleash the aspiring artist inside children of all ages.”[front jacket]
Review Photo Doodles is a fun-filled book for those kids—and adults—who love to doodle, but may not know how to get started. Similar to writing prompts, each spread contains a one sentence prompt to help you with ideas to doodle your way to a fun, satisfying end. Here are two of those prompts:
“Who (or what) is at the other end of the rope?”
“What outfit will the puppy wear today?”
With 160 pages to doodle and color, it seems the options are endless. From decorating a sea of umbrellas to filling in storyboards with your own story. There is even one many students will find hard to resist:
“It’s your turn at the blackboard . . . what will you write?”
How about “No more math problems,” or maybe “School’s out early today: Leave at noon,” or maybe you would use your turn to make tomorrow a teacher conference day—“Students stay home!”
There are plenty of open spaces in Photo Doodles or those kids and adults who can doodle and draw with ease and loads of pages with images to make colorful and expressive, rather than drawing from scratch. A total of 200 pictures await your crayons, colored pencils, markers, or other artistic medium. While marketed for the middle grade set, younger children will enjoy many of the easier prompts in Photo Doodles and adults will love the range of images and prompts.
I enjoyed playing with PhotoDoodles. I love to draw, but have a hard time getting started. Photo Doodles made getting started easy and the images and prompts got me thinking of ways to doodle other than the normal doodles in the margin of a page.
Coloring books for adults are in every corner of every bookstore online and off, but doodle books that prompt you to create imaginative scenes and messages, like Photo Doodles, is not as common. I think kids of all ages will enjoy Photo Doodles as much as I have.
Full Disclosure: Photo Doodles: A Creative Sketchbook by ViiiZ, and received from Quirk Books, is in exchange NOT for a positive review, but for an HONEST review. The opinions expressed are my own and no one else’s. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Eddie wants to get a really special birthday present for her mum so she turns to her friends to help her out. Whilst they’re generous and kind, what they offer her doesn’t initially appear to be of any use. Dejected, she almost gives up, but then a bit of good luck and Eddie’s can-do attitude save the day.
Detailed street and shop scenes, mostly in soothing earthy tones, all wonderfully reproduced on sumptuously thick paper provide lots to drool over. From the cakes in the bakery to the curiosities in the antique shop, Alemagna’s illustrations provide hours of happy browsing.
The neon pink of Eddie’s coat brings a splash of freshness and modernity to otherwise somewhat (charmingly) nostalgia-imbued scenes, and Eddie herself exudes spunk and verve, from her unkempt hair, to her approach to finding a way to make things work.
A quirky, winsome tale exploring how we find out who we are and what we’re good at, The Marvellous Fluffy Squishy Itty Bitty will encourage its readers to be brave, bold and unleash their imagination.
You can get a really good idea of what this lovely book is like by watching this charming book trailer:
And if you’d like to see Beatrice at work, here’s a time lapse video of her drawing characters from this book:
Won over by the simple charm of Eddie and her marvellous fluffy squishy itty bitty we had a whole day re-living the book. First we made little handbags out of sheets of foam, pipecleaners and ribbon; Everywhere Eddie goes she has a little red handbag. For our handbags I prepared holes for sewing with a simple hole punch.
We made lots of our own FSIBs (Fluffy Squishy Itty Bitties), using two different techniques: one is based on a fork, and the other loo rolls. Both are easy for kids to make themselves, with perhaps just a little help depending on the age of the kids.
Our largest FSIB was turned into a piece of headgear mirroring the gift Eddie’s mum finally receives. I do love book inspired hats, and this is no exception!
Our FSIBs played Hide and Seek whilst we made sticky toffee buns; Eddie’s baker friend gives her a warm sticky bun when he’s unable to help with her original request.
A Little Bitty Tear by Burl Ives. A rather sad song, but Ives is a master.
With A Little Help From My Friends by The Beatles
Other activities which might work well alongside reading this book include:
Reading some Pippi Longstocking stories. Opposite the title page of The Marvellous Fluffy Squishy Itty Bitty there’s a quote from Pippi Longstocking: “Children need a little order in their lives. Especially when they can order it themselves!“. This seems to me like a glorious opportunity to introduce your kids to one of the most amazing characters in all of children’s literature.
Starting a stamp collection. They’re a fabulous way into geography and history as well as each being perfect miniature pieces of art. The American Philatic Society has some tips to get you going. Alternatively, use pretty stamps as paintings in dollhouses, or as illustrations in mini home-made books.
Eddie has to do some washing at some point in the story and turns to her local fountain so why not use this as an excuse to find out where your nearest public fountain is and visit it. Or be inspired to create your own with sprinklers and a paddling pool by looking at these amazing fountains around the world.
If you liked this post you might like these other posts by me:
When a Dragon Moves In Again Written by Jodi Moore Illustrated by Howard McWilliam Flashlight Press 9/01/2015 978-1-936261-35-2 32 pages Age 4—8 “If you build a perfect castle, a dragon will move in, followed by. . . a baby?! Preparations are in fll swing o welcome a new family …
To be only a few months post graduation, and in receipt of several publishing deals with a variety of publishers says something about how lots and lots of people think there is something special about Barrow. This month has seen the publication of his brilliant and beautiful Have You Seen Elephant? (with Gecko Press), and a two book deal with Hodder has also been announced.
In the joyously absurd and richly expressed Have You Seen Elephant? we watch a young boy and an elephant play hide and seek. Despite what you might think, the elephant is exceptionally good at hiding, creating lots of opportunity for laughter and delight. Brilliant comic timing with just a few finely honed words suggests that Barrow is as good at writing as he is at illustrating.
And his illustrations? His gorgeously textured artwork feels truly alive. His ability to capture light in his muted palette is especially effective. His restrained use of colour works as a powerful juxtaposition to the wonderful outrageousness of the story.
Two aspects of Have You Seen Elephant? really fill my heart with delight. First, the playfulness of the book – the willingness of the reader to suspend reality, and play the game (“not seeing” what we can all see). A sort of self delusion of the most enjoyable type – something which reminded me of some of Hervé Tullet’s work eg Press Here – where readers joyously suspend belief to enter into the spirit of the book. I asked Barrow why he thought we (both adults and children) enjoy pretending so much?
“I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that you have to enter a state of self-delusion when reading Have You Seen Elephant? I tried to make it as ambiguous as possible. Can the boy really see the Elephant and is just playing along to spare the Elephant’s feelings? Can the adults see the Elephant? Is the boy really that bad or the Elephant really that good at Hide and Seek? I don’t know the answer! I’m hoping that the ambiguity gives the audience the option to read the book in any way they deem fit to. I think the enjoyment comes from the ability to recognise the absurdity of the situation. It’s fun to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride!”
A second aspect that made me truly happy was how Barrow chose to depict the little boy who looks for Elephant. Books with non-white characters, where the story isn’t about diversity, are sadly still quite unusual. I wondered what sort of debates (if any) Barrow had with himself and /or his publisher for this book, Gecko Press, about this.
“The little boy’s depiction actually came about fairly unconsciously. I was looking for a protagonist for the story and therefore experimenting (doodling) in my sketchbook. I only had two prerequisites for the character. One, it had to be a boy. Two, as he was never going to actually be formally introduced in the text, he had to have instant “personality”. I looked over the studies I had drawn and he was an instant winner!
It was a bit like casting for an acting role. With fewer parameters set, it meant the potential field was wider open. When he walked through the door I felt he had enough character to take the starring role! And Julia at Gecko agreed. To flesh him out a bit, I created a whole back story with his family. Considering we never actually find out his name he has a fairly comprehensive family tree!
I am a huge fan of Ezra Jack Keats’ picture book character, Peter, so perhaps that was a subconscious influence. I think a worthwhile picture book should be a reflection of the world we live in. And the world we live in is pretty diverse! “
I was so impressed with Barrow’s début that I wanted to find out much more about his path to becoming an illustrator. I asked him to share 8 books (children’s or otherwise) that reflected key points in the path that led him to where he is now. His selection of books is varied and really interesting – I can guarantee there will be at least one that you want to go and find out more about!
So over to David:
The first book I have any recollection of is The Runaway Roller Skate by John Vernon Lord. According to my parents I was mildly obsessed with every detail (and there is a lot of detail). I would read it to them rather than the other way around which I’m sure they were thrilled about every night. It’s probably where my fixation with poring manically over illustrations comes from.
I remember the first book where the images made me think “Wow”, was The Hare and the Tortoise illustrated by Brian Wildsmith. Again, I can recall obsessing over every image. The animal characterisations, the intense patterns, the vibrant colours! I can even remember the smell of the pages.
I was an avid collector of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy series when I was at school. I never was particularly interested in the gaming element of the books. I would rarely use a die to “test my luck”. What I really loved were the brash covers especially those of Ian Miller, but even more so the black and white line drawings inside.
I was an overtly harsh critic of the illustrations and remember being disappointed if I thought certain books weren’t up to standard. How precocious of me! This was probably the first time when I considered illustration to be a fairly cool job. Drawing dragons and orcs all day? I could do that. But then I was lured in by the bright lights and excitement of becoming a graphic designer…
Straight after University, resolute in the fact that I definitely didn’t want to be a graphic designer despite spending 3 years studying it, I got a job working for an education library service. The job entailed logging all the books that came off the mobile library. Basically, it meant I and my colleague spent all day reading picture books. I’ve had worse jobs.
It was a brilliant opportunity to revisit and reconnect with books and authors from my childhood. One such author was David McKee. Humour is a massively important thing generally in life, but in picture books the master of funny for me is McKee. The quiet tragi-comedy of Not Now Bernard is classic, but my favourite of his books has to be The Sad Story of Veronica Who Played the Violin: Being an Explanation of Why the Streets Are Not Full of Happy Dancing People. It’s basically a shaggy-dog story but with the most brilliantly downbeat punch line ever. I remember doing a full-on belly laugh when I read it in the library. Luckily nobody shushed me.
When I worked as a production manager in commercial print I was involved in the manufacture of many books. It was here I developed a greater understanding of their anatomy, but more importantly a massive appreciation for their actual physicality. There is nothing quite like the feel (and smell) of a beautifully constructed book. For me, the best books utilise their tangible nature; they use the whole experience of holding a book, the physical action of turning a page, to enhance the content.
An amazing example of how the construct of a book is intrinsic to its story-telling is Leon and Bob by Simon James. It is large and tall in format and as a result makes the young protagonist Leon appear tiny on the page in this exaggerated adult environment. It is a tale of a boy’s loneliness and through the design and layout which expand upon James’ wonderfully understated illustrations; the reader can recognise Leon’s solitude. Even the endpapers are used to emphasise the themes of the story. It starts with an empty urban park, really setting the scene before the story has even begun, and ends with a joyous game of football between the two new friends Leon and Bob. This understanding of the physical quality of books and how this can augment story-telling has now become vitally important to me.
I was introduced to the work of Jean-Jacques Sempé during a presentation by the fantastic illustrator, Helen Stephens. She was showing some of Sempé’s New Yorker covers as something that had inspired her work and I was fascinated by his charming, lively, infinitely detailed vistas. I immediately went out and bought A Little Bit of France (although any of collections are equally brilliant).
Sempé is amazing at creating a sense of place in his illustrations. They are always gentle, domestic, quiet reflections. He can convey beauty in everyday life and is another master of quiet humour. His work has become a big influence on the way I attempt to portray ordinary situations in a hopefully unordinary way.
I am a recent convert to world of graphic novels, and like everything else in my life, I am now mildly obsessed with this form of storytelling. Through my compulsive research I have discovered artists such as Brecht Evens and Jorgé Gonzalez who are producing some of the most visually stunning and exciting works around in my opinion.
A particular favourite at present is King Kong illustrated by Christophe Blain. A mixture between a graphic novel and a picture book, it has some atmospherically stunning artwork. It uses muted colours and strikingly simple compositions that really enhance the dramatic sense of scale. It has made an impact on how I compose a page through simple shapes. Unfortunately, it’s out of print and on the rare occasion it does come up for sale it costs a small fortune. So you’ll have to take my word for its magnificence!
When I was making Have You Seen Elephant? I remember seeing The Storm Whale by Benji Davies. I was positively blown away by its quality. It was everything I admired in picture book making. Charming characterisation, flashes of quiet humour, tender domesticity drawn wonderfully with a beautifully muted palette. It became an inspiration and an aspiration to create something as subtly enchanting as that.
David’s book choice and biography are both so interesting, don’t you think? Even though he had already been so generous I had to ask him a couple of final questions – about whether as a child he ever “lived” (or “played”) any books that he had read, and what was the last book he had read which inspired him to go and do something as a result of the words and/or images it contained.
As I mentioned before I used to collect the Fighting Fantasy series by Jackson and Livingstone. I have a memory from about 8 years old, of being in the garden and making my Mum read out Forest of Doom whilst I acted out the turn of events. If I was attacked by a Barbarian, I would physically fight the imaginary foe. If I fell down a trap door, I would mime the falling and inevitable bone-crunching landing. I think my Mum was quite embarrassed by my RADA-esque improvisational skills so we didn’t do it for very long. Which was a shame. But it is my most defined recollection of being totally engrossed in my own imagination. I’ve tried to retain that ability to fully surrender myself to my imagination. Only now I do it in my sketchbook. And perhaps when no-one is watching I’ll have a go at that Barbarian.
I recently bought a massive compendium of Myths and Legends by Anne Terry White which makes for great bedtime reading and has really fired up the old creative juices. When I get a spare minute I intend to do some personal illustration work, perhaps even printmaking, and try and depict a few of the classics. The illustrations in this particular tome are by Alice and Martin Provensen so I’ve set myself a real challenge rivalling any of their masterpieces!
My huge thanks go to David Barrow for taking the time to generously answer all my questions today. I can only urge you all to find a copy of Have You Seen Elephant? without delay! I really think Barrow is destined for even more great things.
Katrina McKelvey started life in a little country town in New South Wales, where she was fortunate to be able to soak up the charming facets of nature. Nowadays, Katrina is soaking up the well-deserved praise for her gorgeous debut picture book, ‘Dandelions’. Having had embraced the pleasures and joys through her roles as mother, […]