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My dad was the last of his generation in our immediate family. One of the consequences of his passing has been the sorting out of all the nooks and crannies of his house, which revealed a lot of things I'd completely forgotten still existed. Not only parental items we grew up with from childhood, but also things left behind by us kids as we moved on in life. As the artist of the family I've by far been the worst offender - when I set off to art college all my school art work was consigned to my dad's loft, where some of it stayed for 40 years. Even when my parents moved house, they loyally took my old artwork with them.
Other bits and pieces were thrown, but artwork was sacred, even the scrappiest of work. To this was later added my degree course sketchbooks (though I threw away most of my finished course work when I left Manchester), bags of artwork from my London studio days, and various bits and pieces from the 21 years I lived in Japan, including every single letter I wrote home to my parents.
They kept it all. Yellowed, damp and foxed from all those years in my dad's loft, great wads of the stuff. And now it's all in my possession again.
This is in addition to my dad's creative life - the contents of his little art studio room, his oil paints and other materials, some of his paintings, boxes of books and postcards that inspired him (largely seascapes, the Impressionists and Victorian genre painters). Plus his collection of First World War books, and most importantly for me, our family archive of photos and documents - as the family genealogist I worked a lot on these with my dad's encouragement, painstakingly identifying faces, scanning and photoshop restoring, compiling and researching our family history, these are all in my safe keeping now.
So I've been buying new storage furniture for a major reorganisation.
When I left Japan I came back to the UK pretty well empty handed, in grief over my wife's death I threw away virtually all artwork except children's book illustrations, abandoned my furniture, household items and record collection, and sold off 2/3 of my books. I brought very little back from Japan, It was a new life coming back to England, I wanted to start afresh, not be burdened by the weight of a previous existence. I regret throwing so much away now, but it did stand me in good stead over the numerous times daughter and I moved house.
But now with the arrival of all this material I'm in a bit of a dilemma what to do with it all, not the family archives, but particularly my old artwork. My dad's occasional paintings are one thing, but my adolescent stumbling art attempts? Some of these ancient works are truly embarrassing, for the prosaic subject matter as much as anything - what was I thinking? It always surprised me that my parents were more interested in displaying my immature work on their walls rather than my professional illustration career. But age has given this work a resonance and unique significance I can't ignore. It's now an archive, I can't throw it away, it's history!
..... some of it I'm quite proud of actually, these were important stepping stones.
So, inspired by Neil McGregor's successful BBC/British Museum tie-up series A History of the World in 100 objects, I'll share a few bits and pieces of in a History of my Archive in 10 Objects.
It's Day 6 of the PASADENA blog tour!Bad things happen everywhere. Even in the land of sun and roses. When Jude's best friend is found dead in a swimming pool, her family calls it an accident. Her friends call it suicide. But Jude calls it what it... Read the rest of this post
Each year over one million people worldwide die by suicide. In the United States, approximately 42,000 people die by suicide each year, with a suicide occurring every 12.3 minutes. It is the 10th leading cause of death overall, and the 2nd leading cause of death for youth under the age of 24. For World Suicide Prevention Day, we’d like to tell you why this matters to us and why it should matter to you.
So, we approach the end of summer, and for me things are beginning to calm down after months of precipitous highs and lows. Amongst the highs are the release of two picture books - Will's Words in the US (distributed in the UK) I've previously mentioned, but also Yozora o Miage-yo (Look Up at the Night Sky) for Fukuinkan Shoten in Japan..... more on these titles shortly.
Yozora o Miage-yo, written by Yuriko Matsumura
I've talked about these releases on Twitter and Facebook, but the reason I've not blogged about new books, or much else at all this year is due to all the other stuff, a variety of pressures, much of it (though not all) work related, as hinted in previous posts, plus latterly these have been overshadowed by the terminal illness of my father. I'll not linger on these, other than to say that things are just beginning to settle down now.
One consequence of all this has been much rail travel between Norwich and the Midlands for one reason or another, which has seen a lot of sketchbook activity. Having been shut up in my studio with deadlines for so long, just getting out and about is nourishing, whatever the circumstances. When I travel, I tend to sketch and doodle a lot more, lately I've been taking a revived look at my creative direction and position in the UK.
Enroute to the SCBWI Picturebook Retreat in Worcestershire, June.
In June, straight after completing the last of a string of challenging picture book deadlines I was off to the Worcestershire countryside for the SCBWI Picture-book Retreat. This was a fantastic weekend held at Holland House in Cropthorne, focused entirely on creating picture books, led by illustrators David Lucas and Lynne Chapman, both inspiring speakers. There's a full report of the weekend by Helen Liston in the SCBWI journal Words and Pictures. As I've been so focused on illustrating books by other writers the last few years the weekend was particularly effective for just nurturing the neglected buds of storytelling in my own right. Though I've had my own stories published in Japan, I find myself easily disheartened with story submission in the UK, so this was just a perfect weekend.
Most of the retreat attendees, mentors and leaders at Holland House, missing chief organiser Anne-Marie Perks and a few others (photo by Candy Gourlay)
While I was there my father was taken seriously ill, and I spent the following week further north in the Midlands, in Lichfield, travelling by bus to his hospital in Burton-upon-Trent every day. I know Lichfield well, having lived there a year when daughter and I first came back to the UK, but Burton was new to me. The return journey from the hospital meant long waits in in the town centre for the evening X12 express bus, so plenty of time to ponder the sights.
Burton War Memorial
On the wall of the Leopard Inn
It was the time of that intense heat wave in July, the beautiful, lush green of summer contrasted against the declining health of my dad. On a couple of days I gave up waiting for the X12 and took the local village bus, which winds it's way through the villages of Branston, Barton-under-Needwood, Yoxall, Kings Bromley, Alrewas, Fradley and Streethay. Glimpses of the narrow boats... the half timbered cottages... I thought I knew the area, but this was a revelation. A bus crawling the bumpy local back lanes of rural Staffordshire are hardly the best for sketching, but I managed to record his man and his coiffure...
On the local No.7 bus from Burton to Lichfield, 18th July
Staying on my own in Lichfield I ate out every night, so had the chance to try a large range of eateries. The solitude of thoughts and my sketchbook was comforting, as was re-discovering the town.
Diners in the Bowling Green pub, 18th July
I grew up a few miles south of Lichfield in Four Oaks, which I also got to see during this week. I left the area in 1978 and have rarely been back since, I couldn't believe how green everything had become in the intervening years. Standing one night on the platform of my old local station, I was gripped by a sudden bond with the Midlands. It felt like everything was falling into place, every experience framed within context of the circumstances of impending loss.
Waiting for the last train to Lichfield, 11pm, Butler's Lane Station
At the end of the week I had to return to Norwich due to visiting family from Japan, but soon booked another train ticket to Lichfield as my dad's condition worsened. Unfortunately I missed his passing by one day, nevertheless it seemed like I'd already shared a journey of conclusion with my father. I felt like he was with me all the time. He'll be with me in memory forever.
Welcome to another session of Turning Pages! Synopsis: Snarky, brittle, awkward, British-Greek teen Melon Fouraki is fifteen and unmoored after her mother is hit by a bus. Despite them going away to Crete every summer, somehow Melon never was... Read the rest of this post
That we refuse to have a pet cat is an ongoing source of frustration for my kids (if you’re curious as to why, several of the reasons are covered in this article) and so when M and J discovered Poppy’s Place: The Home-made Cat Café they hungrily swallowed it whole, making notes as they read, plotting quietly with each other when ever they though I wouldn’t notice.
Isla is cat crazy, but her mum refuses to let her have one as a pet. Isla’s mum works as a veterinary nurse and the last thing she wants after a busy day at work is to come home to more animals who need looking after. But then Poppy appears in their lives…
This especially lovely cat, in need of a home, turns up at around the same time as Isla’s granny comes to stay for the first time since becoming a widow. Gentle strands exploring family relationships, the grieving process, and the adjustments that have to be navigated as family shapes change all come together in this sweet story where Isla comes up with an entrepreneurial way to persuade her mum to finally let her dream come true and have a cat at home.
And as the title alludes to… not just one cat, but a full on fantasy for many a feline fan: the creation of their very own cat café, a place where you can not only get great cake, but can enjoy a coffee with a cat purring in your lap. The experience of reading books is often about escaping into dreams you wish could become reality, and for my girls this was definitely the case with Poppy’s Place: The Home-made Cat Café!
This is a feel-good, gentle comfort-read of a story, ideal for fans of Holly Webb’s animal stories, or perhaps those who like Jacqueline Wilson’s younger fiction. Isla’s persistence and her tech savvy big sister’s kindness are great, and the way the community comes together to support a project is another charming side to this story. Both my kids are very pleased there is to be second book later in the year following the characters they’ve met in Poppy’s Place… even if they’re still getting nowhere when it comes to persuading me that we should have a cat. At least now they can live vicariously through Isla!
I wouldn’t want you to think that I have a heart of stone, even though I refuse to have pets. I really do have a soft side, and I even let it show one day after school when the kids came home to this:
The girls ordered from the menu…
Can you spot all the different feline-themed food?
We may not have had any real cats in our café, but we certainly had a few who stepped out from stories. Who can you spot?
If you’d like to make your own cat café at home, please feel free to use our menu template. It has endorsements from all sorts of fictional cats (Garfield says of the café: “Paw-sitively the yummiest place to eat even if there isn’t any lasagna…“), and also some cat-themed book recommendations on the back. You can download the menu cover here (pdf), and the inside (ready for you to fill with your own choice of food) here (pdf).
Except for the book covers and the silhouette cats, all the images used in the menu come from the British Library Flickr Stream, an amazing set of over a million images from British Library held material, free for anyone to use, remix and re-purpose.
Whilst dining in our home made cat café we listened to:
C Is for Cat by The Pop Ups
Walking My Cat Named Dog by They Might Be Giants
Kitty Fight Song by Joe McDermott
Other activities which might work well alongside reading Poppy’s Place include:
Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!Synopsis: It was pretty well going to be the most depressing visit to Blackheath 17-year-old Rosie Clayton had ever taken. Though she visited her grandparents in the London neighborhood from Nashville... Read the rest of this post
This book is a gem and a gift, and in order to avoid spoilers I'll say up front: Parker is blind. The dots on the cover are Braille. And now you know ...except, it's not a big secret. Really, Parker would be the first to say, "So? And get over... Read the rest of this post
Voice actress Tavia Gilbert has received another outstanding review for her performance of Maggie Vaults Over the Moon by Grant Overstake, this time from prolific reviewer Jennie Mortarotti on her blog, Narrator Reviews and Audiobooks — FULL REVIEW If you … Continue reading →
June is Audiobook Appreciation Month, so plug in your earphones and get caught listening, to Maggie Vaults Over the Moon! We’re giving away a Maggie audiobook download to one lucky listener every Monday over the month of June, beginning today, … Continue reading →
We’ve been giving away free downloads of Tavia Gilbert’s stellar performance of Maggie Vaults Over the Moon every week during Audiobook Appreciation Month. With one week to go, we’ve got one more download to give away! The lucky winner will … Continue reading →
Summary: I don't know why I put off reading this one for so long. I really love A.S. King's writing, and every time I read one of her books I'm pretty much blown away. This one's no exception. Trying to summarize it is only going to make it sound... Read the rest of this post
Thanks to superstar voice actress Tavia Gilbert, every month is Audiobook Appreciation Month here in Grain Valley, Kansas! To honor Tavia and all the awesome voice actors and actresses out there, we’ve been giving away Downpour.com downloads of Tavia’s performance … Continue reading →
So I’m a snob. A children’s literature snob. I accept this about myself. I do not embrace it, but I can at least acknowledge it and, at times, fight against it as much as I am able. Truth be told, it’s a weird thing to get all snobby about. People are more inclined to understand your point of view when you’re a snob about fine china or wines or bone structure. They are somewhat confused when you scoff at their copy of Another Monster at the End of This Book since it is clearly a sad sequel of the original Jon Stone classic (and do NOT even try to convince me that he was the author of that Elmo-related monstrosity because I think better of him than that). Like I say. Kid book snobbery won’t get you all that far in this life. And that’s too bad because I’ve got LOADS of the stuff swimming between my corpuscles. Just take my initial reaction to Jessixa Bagley’s Boats for Papa. I took one glance at the cover and dismissed it, just like that. I’ll explain precisely why I did so in a minute, but right there it was my gut reaction at work. I have pretty good gut reactions and 99% of the time they’re on target. Not in this case, though. Because once I sat down and read it and watched other people read it, I realized that I had something very special on my hands. Free of overblown sentiment and crass pandering, this book’s the real deal. Simultaneously wrenching and healing.
Buckley and his mama are just two little beavers squeaking out an existence in a small wooden house by the sea. Buckley loves working with his hands (paws?) and is particularly good at turning driftwood into boats. One day it occurs to him to send his best boats off into the sea with little notes that read, “For Papa. Love, Buckley”. Buckley misses his papa, you see, and this is the closest he can get to sending him some kind of a message. As Buckley gets better, the boats get more elaborate. Finally, one day a year later, he runs into his house to write a note for papa, when he notices that his mother has left her desk open. Inside is every single boat he ever sent to his papa. Realizing what has happened, Buckley makes a significant choice with this latest seagoing vessel. One that his mama is sure to see and understand.
The danger with this book is determining whether or not it slips into Love You Forever territory. Which is to say, does it speak more to adults than to kids. You get a fair number of picture books with varying degrees of sentimentality out there every year. On the low end of the spectrum is Love You Forever, on the high end Blueberry Girl and somewhere in the middle are books like Someday by Alison McGhee. Some of these can be great books, but they’re so clearly not for kids. And when I realized that Boats for Papa was a weeper my alarm bells went off. If adults are falling over themselves to grab handkerchiefs when they get to the story’s end, surely children would be distinctly uninterested. Yet Bagley isn’t addressing adults with this story. The focus is on how one deals with life after someone beloved is gone. Adults get this instantly because they know precisely what it is to lose someone (or they can guess). Kids, on the other hand, may sometimes have that understanding but a lot of the time it’s foreign to them. And so Buckley’s hobbies are just the marks of a good story. I suspect few kids would walk away from this saying the book was uninteresting to them. It seems to strike just the right chord.
It is also a book that meets multiple needs. For some adult readers, this is a dead daddy book. But upon closer inspection you realize that it’s far broader than that. This could be a book about a father serving his time overseas. It could be about divorced parents (it mentions that mama misses papa, and that’s not an untrue sentiment in some family divorce situations). It could have said outright that Buckley’s father had passed away (ala Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas which this keeps reminding me of) but by keeping it purposefully vague we are allowed to read far more into the book’s message than we could have if it was just another dead parent title.
Finally, it is Bagley’s writing that wins the reader over. Look at how ecumenical she is with her wordplay. The very first sentences in the book reads, “Buckley and his mama lived in a small wooden house by the sea. They didn’t have much, but they always had each other.” There’s not a syllable wasted there. Not a letter out of place. That succinct quality carries throughout the rest of the book. There is one moment late in the game where Buckley says, “And thank you for making every day so wonderful too” that strains against the bonds of sentimentality, but it never quite topples over. That’s Bagley’s secret. We get the most emotionally involved in those picture books that give us space to fill in our own lives, backgrounds, understandings and baggage. The single note reading, “For Mama / Love, Buckley” works because those are the only words on the page. We don’t need anything else after that.
As I age I’ve grown very interested in picture books that touch on the nature of grace. “Grace” is, in this case, defined as a state of being that forgives absolutely. Picture books capable of conjuring up very real feelings of resentment in their young readers only to diffuse the issue with a moment of pure forgiveness are, needless to say, rare. Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan was one of the few I could mention off the top of my head. I shall now add Boats for Papa to that enormously short list. You see, (and here I’m going to call out “SPOILER ALERT” for those of you who care about that sort of thing) for me the moment when Buckley finds his boats in his mother’s desk and realizes that she has kept this secret from him is a moment of truth. Bagley is setting you up to assume that there will be a reckoning of some sort when she writes, “They had never reached Papa”. And it is here that the young reader can stop and pause and consider how they would react in this case. I’d wager quite a few of them would be incensed. I mean, this is a clear-cut case of an adult lying to a child, right? But Bagley has placed Buckley on a precipice and given him a bit of perspective. Maybe I read too much into this scene, but I think that if Buckley had discovered these boats when he was first launching them, almost a full year before, then yes he would have been angry. But after a year of sending them to his Papa, he has grown. He realizes that his mother has been taking care of him all this time. For once, he has a chance to take care of her, even if it is in a very childlike manner. He’s telling her point blank that he knows that she’s been trying to protect him and that he loves her. Grace.
Now my adult friends pointed out that one could read Buckley’s note as a sting. That he sent it to say “GOTCHA!” They say that once a book is outside of an author’s hands, it can be interpreted by the readership in any number of ways never intended by the original writer. For my part, I think that kind of a reading is very adult. I could be wrong but I think kids will read the ending with the loving feel that was intended from the start.
When I showed this book to a friend who was a recent Seattle transplant, he pointed out to me that the coastline appearing in this book is entirely Pacific Northwest based. I think that was the moment I realized that I had done a 180 on the art. Remember when I mentioned that I didn’t much care for the cover when I first saw it? Well, fortunately I have instituted a system whereby I read every single picture book I am sent on my lunch breaks. Once I got past the cover I realized that it was the book jacket that was the entire problem. There’s something about it that looks oddly cheap. Inside, Bagley’s watercolors take on a life of their own. Notice how the driftwood on the front endpapers mirrors the image of Buckley displaying his driftwood boats on the back endpapers. See how Buckley manages to use her watercolors to their best advantage, from the tide hungry sand on the beach to the slate colored sky to the waves breaking repeatedly onto the shore. Perspective shifts constantly. You might be staring at a beach covered in the detritus of the waves on one two-page spread, only to have the images scale back and exist in a sea of white space on the next. The best image, by far, is the last though. That’s when Bagley makes the calculated step of turning YOU, the reader, into Mama. You are holding the boat. You are holding the note. And you know. You know.
I like it when a picture book wins me over. When I can get past my own personal bugaboos and see it for what it really is. Emotional resonance in literature for little kids is difficult to attain. It requires a certain amount of talent, both on the part of the author and their editor. In Boats for Papa we’ve a picture book that doesn’t go for the cheap emotional tug. It comes by its tears honestly. There’s some kind of deep and abiding truth to it. Give me a couple more years and maybe I’ll get to the bottom of what’s really going on here. But before that occurs, I’m going to read it with my kids. Even children who have never experienced the loss of a parent will understand what’s going on in this story on some level. Uncomplicated and wholly original, this is one debut that shoots out of the starting gate full throttle, never looking back. A winner.
There’s something beautiful about grieving on the internet, all of us offering up our losses to each other, hoping to be touched and understood by each other when we’re at our lowest and most vulnerable, and there’s also something strange about expressing grief here. No matter how true and deep our sadness, when we offer it up online, it can get confusing. It can feel less real, but also more final.
My heart is heavy with sadness and love, for an old friend and his family, and for all of us.
It's happening again! Books with similar themes end up on my list right next to each other.
The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin is narrated by Suzy who can't believe that her oldest friend could just drown. "These things happen" is NOT an acceptable explanation. Suzy becomes convinced that a rare jellyfish is responsible for Franny's death.
Suzy is a fact person who inundates the reader with math and facts about jellyfish and the people who study them. But this book also chronicles the all too frequent trauma that occurs when one person outgrows another - as Franny outgrows Suzy by the end of 6th grade. This relationship break makes Franny's death so much harder for Suzy to accept.
Her search for someone who can understand the horror of jellyfish - as she sees it - leads Suzy to start out on a dangerous and possibly illegal journey.
Her parents, her older brother and an unexpected friend help Suzy to move into a life without Franny.
Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff Ok. In fifth grade, Trent killed someone during an ice hockey game. Total accident. Trent's parents and older and younger brother seem to think Trent should move on. Trent's Dad, especially, has little patience for Trent's surly attitude. Dad's new wife is expecting their first child any time now. So, it was an accident. Get over it already. (Not actual words from the book.)
Trent reacts to the guilt and the anxiety he feels by making sure he gets into trouble at school, and with his Dad. He even refuses to enter into prank wars with his little brother.
Luckily, Fallon, a girl at school with a noticeable facial scar befriends Trent after she peeks into his Book of Thoughts and sees the pictures he draws there - pictures of what the boy he killed might be doing at that very moment. Fallon wants Trent to draw a picture for her.
How Trent manages to make things worse and then how he manages to make them better - with the help of sympathetic outsiders - makes an engrossing and emotional read.
These books have totally different styles, despite their similarities - see below. Jellyfish is awash with facts and musings on facts - the type of book that will lend itself to STEM curricula. But there is an immediacy to Suzy's pain, even as she carefully plans her science report and her journey, and her need to find explanations for her friend's death.
Sun, on the other hand, concentrates on Trent's emotional struggles. Trent speaks in a matter-of-fact voice, referring to the accident almost casually. And all the time he is seething and unable to see that he is till a worthwhile human being.
Here is a list of other similarities: New friends: Both of the new frends have problems of their own that they seem to have overcome. Older brothers: Aaron - yeah, both of them. Nice teachers: Suzy likes her science teacher right away. Trent hates everyone but his homeroom teacher really is pretty old.
Read 'em both, except you might want to read other books in between. OK?
Sebastian Faulks’ new novel is quite simply superb. Tackling themes he has explored before Faulks delivers an original novel that is haunting, beautiful and profound that will resonate all the way through you. Dr Robert Hendricks is a veteran of the Second World War who lost his father in the First. These two wars have […]
The relationship in dysfunctional families between kids and parents isn't something often directly discussed in YA novels, but this one, from the first paragraph, is all about what happens when a kid is accustomed to taking care of a parent.... Read the rest of this post
The best thing about reading is the opportunity to observe, discover, and reflect about somewhere else, and someone else, and maybe begin to imagine yourself in someplace else, with another situation. Some of the very best "old-school" YA novels... Read the rest of this post
Summary: Full disclosure: Amber Keyser is an author I met at a past KidLitCon; her editor Andrew Karre at Carolrhoda Lab I also know from KidLitCon (a different one) and I'm in contact with both of them online. They sent me my review copy of The Way... Read the rest of this post
Prolific voice actress Tavia Gilbert and first-time author Grant Overstake share the spotlight in a 4.5-star review of the audiobook version of Maggie Vaults Over the Moon. The reader and writer make “a great duo” according to reviewer Kira Moody, … Continue reading →