Christmas wishlists…

So, it’s coming up to Christmas and you’re not too sure about which book to buy that favourite niece or nephew of yours… Well, I just came across this list of recommendations from Booktrust, which includes some truly fantastic gift ideas.

The Day the Crayons QuitTake The Day the Crayons Quit as an example – when I came across this in a bookstore the other day, I just couldn’t put it down! It’s now on my own Christmas wishlist – and won’t even make it to my niece’s stocking… Illustrated by the award-winning Oliver Jeffers, it’s a clever story about what happens when Duncan opens his box of crayons one day to find that they’ve all gone on strike. It’s a laugh-out-loud funny book, which is sure to entertain adults as well as kids. A book that truly transcends the years.

Penguins can't fly!Another picture book I wanted to recommend this Christmas is the charmingly illustrated Penguins Can’t Fly by Richard Byrne. A tale of friendship between a seagull and a penguin, it shares a moral message with such titles as A Duck So Small and even Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling. Call me soft, but I really found it a sweet tale worth sharing!

And then there’s this wonderful Christmassy tale: Ernest & Celestine: Merry Christmas. If you’re looking for a classic Christmas-themed picture book, all about the magic of a homemade Christmas, then this is a great contender for a spot under the tree (excuse the pun!).  With Gabrielle Vincent’s gorgeous illustrations throughout, this newly-released hardback edition would make a truly special gift that can be shared with all the family.

Ernest and Celestine: Merry ChristmasBooktrust have a great selection of reads on their list of Christmas book suggestions, as does the rest of their website. It’s my go-to website for all things children’s-books-related, so if you haven’t stopped by there before, it’s certainly worth a look. From book awards to prizes and tips for getting kids reading, it’s an excellent resource for anyone interested in children’s books.

So, good luck with the rest of that Christmas shopping! And when in doubt, give them the only gift worth giving… the gift of stories.

Risky Business – the ingredients for a ‘great’ picture book

Last week, I attended my first event with the Children’s Book Circle –  ‘Grand Designs: What Makes a Picture Book Great’.

It was a talk by a panel of four industry experts, namely: Alexis Deacon – one of Booktrust’s ten Best New Illustrators; David Mackintosh – author and illustrator of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize short-listed Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School; Kate Burns – publisher at Orchard Books; and Deirdre McDermott – Picture Book Publisher at Walker Books.

Of course, the main question throughout the discussion, was ‘Just what makes a picture book great?’. The overall consensus was that each and every book has its own recipe for ‘great’-ness – requiring a certain democratic effort on the part of the editor, illustrator, designer, author and publisher. A pretty basic point, yes, but I thought Deirdre summed it up well when she pointed it out that, at the end of the day, it all comes down to having an ‘integrity about cutting down trees’.

Some of the initial points that came across were the need for a book that really sticks in the mind of a parent – so that they would want to rush home and share it with their child – and the fact that the ability of a book to tell a story through pictures alone is half the battle. But the best way the panel conveyed what made a picture book stand out to them was by going through their favourite books of all time…

In summary, the ones mentioned were:

Kate: Mog by Judith Kerr

MogA story about a cat who foils a robber! What Kate loved the most about this is the notion of the children sticking up for the cat throughout – the essence of family life and the great observations that go with it (such as the way the cat is conveyed licking its leg and stopping mid-lick – a perfectly realistic pose!).

David: The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl (illustrated by William Pene)

Magic FingerWho doesn’t know the story of this classic – about a girl with magic powers. Despite its long text, the creepy story and style of this particular edition of the book really stands out, with colour illustrations reproduced in black and white. In this particular version, a see-through element allows you to see a teacher being turned into a cat, as if by magic…

Deirdre: The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer

three-robbersThis is a very dark story about three robbers who scare everyone they meet, until they find a little orphan girl called Tiffany. Deirdre didn’t mention exactly why she liked this book so much, but did convey that it’s a lot to do with the images and such a classic story.

Alexis: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

SylvesterThis is a story about a donkey with a magic pebble, who finds out that it can grant wishes. An encounter with a lion makes him wish he was a rock, and you can probably guess that he finds it hard to change back… What follows is a quirky story about – well – a rock.

What Alexis loved about the book was how the author is able to write such a crazy story but make it happen in such a believable way. As he pointed out, some of the best stories are those that start quite ‘left-field’ and, just when you expect them to revert back to a sense of normality, they start to get more and more bizarre!

Personally, this last book stood out to me – simply from the way that many of the spreads just consist of simple images of a rock going through the seasons. They’re such simple images, but they really do stick in your mind in a comic way. If there’s one thing we were all chatting about after this talk, this was it! The ability of the book to empower the reader also came across, as both Sylvester the donkey and the reader know that he has become a rock, but no other characters are aware of it. It echoes of the story Rosie’s Walk where, again, knowledge is given to the reader. As Alexis put it, the more a reader is empowered, the more a reader will invest in the text, allowing a story to resonate beyond the book.

tumblr_ks8nayzJC91qand21o1_400_thumb[1]Dangerous themes

One question that stood out in everybody’s mind about Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was whether or not a story like this would ever get published today – and this set the scene for the rest of the debate. Could a quirky, slightly bizarre story about a disappearing child (or donkey – as Alexis was quick to correct) be just too risky-a-book to consider publishing nowadays? When themes that might cause upset, such as missing children or even murder, are presented, should publishers cautious of commissioning such work?

The Sad BookDeirdre pointed out that, in contemporary culture, we have an almost sentimental and protective outlook in terms of what we’re prepared for our children to read, protecting them from all things dangerous or unpleasant.  Whereas picture books dealing directly with such themes as murder and death are more commonplace in other cultures, here in the UK we tend to mask dark themes with over-sentimentalised hints that something has happened – through countless pet deaths or grandparents going to sleep for long periods of time. Here, difficult subjects tend to only be boldly approached by such well-known people as Quentin Blake (e.g. The Sad Book)  – who already have strong track-records of sales. When such  books are otherwise published, as Martin Salisbury has pointed out, you could be forgiven for thinking they are done so as attempts to win awards for artistic sensitivity. After all, when we do come across them, they really do stand out.

Need for change?

So, should we stop ruling out books because of the presence of these darker themes, and adopt more of an all-encompassed approach to what we publish? Apparently yes – we shouldn’t be worried about allowing children to be afraid – it’s a way for them to learn about fear. It’s synonymous with the argument about difficult or long words in books – if a child never encounters these words, how will they learn them? Children have a natural curiosity to know more about subjects that adults don’t necessarily want to discuss. Alexis also pointed out the hypocrisy involved with refusing to publish these ‘dangerous’ books and yet allowing our children to continue to read books from the 50s and 60s, which already have such dark themes associated with them (take many of themes in Roald Dahl’s stories as an example).

But all of this did get me wondering: what about the market? At the end of the day, it’s all about sales. If publishers should take these inherent ‘risks’ with stories about murder, violence, death and disappearing, then it’s the parents who need convincing that these books are okay for their children. As it is they who purchase the books, it is these parents we need to consider at all levels of the publishing process. It’s easy to say that we need to be more courageous with our choice of titles to publish but if parents aren’t prepared to take buy  these books, then what gains are there for the publishers?

Risky business

I Want My Hat BackThen I came full-loop… Publishers need sales, and it’s part of the process to take risks at times. Harry Potter was published because someone chose to take a ‘risk’ with it. It’s a risky business full-stop – there are no fortune-tellers for what will and won’t work in the publishing industry. So is it just what we need? To prevent too many formulas from impeding on the publication of future classics along the lines of Sylvester and The Magic Pebble? As pointed out by the panel, picture books are still very young and we are still defining what they are. But as we have become more and more sure about what they ‘should’ be, the genre has also become more dependent on a myriad of set ‘formulas’ for success. This isn’t necessarily a good thing: in a crowded market there isn’t as much room for straying away from the norms, and we’ve become more and more polarised about what’s published – nothing too scary, nothing too old-fashioned, nothing too crowded or too weird. But is one book among many worth that risk? This debate really did get me thinking…

Take John Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back – a superb bestseller that has become well-known in the children’s picture book world. And what are the major themes of this book? Murder, theft, loss, revenge… And the fear that publishers show when faced with such a theme is evident: the title was turned down by many publishing houses due to the scene with a rabbit being comically murdered, before it was finally accepted in its entirety by Walker Books. But have parents bought this book? Yes – quite a few! So here we are – an example of one ‘risk’ that really paid dividends for Walker.

Is there an answer?

So, perhaps we didn’t quite get a straightforward recipe for what makes a picture book great (were we really expecting one?). But what this talk did provide for was some interesting thoughts about the ingredients that should be considered in the process – and the need for publishers to take the risk with something that doesn’t necessarily conform to the usual recipe now and then. If we forget this and move towards too many standards of formalisation for what we publish, I fear we would be taking the biggest risk of all…

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In case you were wondering what the panel would pinpoint as their favourite contemporary books, they were:

David: The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

– A great example of how text can be used in a simple and clever way and supporting the consensus that ‘design should feel invisible’.

Kate: Emily Brown by Cressida Powell 

–  A bit of a cheat here, as she was recommending one from her own publishing house, but apparently it’s a story you can read time and time again.

Deirdre:The Tiny King by Taro Miura

– An example of what Deirdre meant by a book that can tell its story through pictures alone – full of fantastic, emblematic images.

Alexis: Mr Chicken Goes to Paris by Leigh Hobbs

– purely off the top of his head, but worth a look!

Collectable memories of Pooh

On a recent visit to my parents’ home in Wales, I found myself in my old room which, admittedly, given the lack of space in my current London flat, acts as a bit of a shrine to my childhood – filled to the brim with old keepsakes.

ImageAmongst the pink drapes, wind-chimes, old sorry-looking bears and never-to-be-opened-again files of school notes, is a lone shelf that sums up what inspired me to read as a kid – my collection of Winnie the Pooh books. And I don’t mean the different types of Winnie the Pooh spin-offs that have been published over the years, such as I Love You Winnie the Pooh or The Trouble With Bees (although I did spot Eeyore’s Book of Gloom in there somewhere…) but simply the original tales in their many different packages.  There’s even a special edition copy that I found on a shelf in Singapore and lugged in my backpack through Australia, New Zealand, India and Nepal to get home. Yep – I have to admit it – I’m definitely a bibliophile when it comes to Pooh!

Looking at these all lined up on my shelf, I wondered why it is that I’m attracted to collecting these beautiful representations of my childhood. I suppose right there are two answers before I’ve even started – they’re beautiful, and they remind me of my childhood. But I keep trying to put my finger on why I feel I have to own them in so many different designs, when they are simply the same stories over and over…?

I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that it’s a mix of fear and lust. Lust for the myriad of designs; for the myriad of colourful bindings that encase what to me, are some of the most precious words in my memory. Eeyore’s solemn words of despair on one page, Piglet’s shrieks of comical fear on the next, all interpreted in a different way by the publisher who packages it. Some have black and white pictures and simple, plain bindings; others have shiny jackets and colourful illustrations on quality paper; while others are encased in decorative slipcases as if they were meant to serve as pieces of art.

And fear? Well the fear part comes from the fear of my favourite words ever disappearing from a paper page. No – I don’t mean that the words will physically fade in my copies, neither do I mean that digital books will replace printed books (we’ve all been exhausted by THAT debate), but that the pretty editions I see on the shelves or find in a second-hand shop will one day go out of print, or be shifted off the shop shelves to make space for a newer version of the timeless classics. When there are so many interpretations of the same books out there, I develop a sort of Pokemon-fever – I just have to ‘catch’ them all…

But what of the kids of tomorrow? With the availability of digital apps and ebook formats of their favourite titles floating around and existing as codes of text on the ether, will they care to collect their favourite books just for the sake of it? Will the ability to click and instantly access the books they want, no matter the packaging, be more attractive to them than the idea of keeping something forever?

One thing’s for sure, Eeyore doesn’t really have the answer: “This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.”

 Winnie the Pooh

A real treat of recent releases

I thought I’d wrote a quick post about some picture book titles that I’ve come across in the past fortnight and thought would be worth a shout-out. So, if you’re looking for an Easter present for this weekend that will last a little longer than ten seconds before it’s devoured, why not pick up one of these treats?:

The Disgusting SandwichThe Disgusting Sandwich by Gareth Edwards (Alison Green Books)

A hungry badger races to get his paws on a sandwich, but it repeatedly escapes him at every step… This is a fantastically illustrated book with extra little stories in the pictures, providing that priceless re-readability  – allowing you to see new things each time you read it. There are lots of little interactions between different animals – from foxes to squirrels – all taking place in one park. I love the way the sandwich is portrayed in such a gruesome, stinky way, and how the ending is icky enough to make children and adults giggle. And you’ve really got to feel for the poor badger! If you’re looking for a squirm and a chuckle, then this is perfect.

Look out, ladybird!Look Out, Ladybird! by Jack Tickle (Little Tiger Press)

This title’s about a ladybird who’s learning to fly and finding that she’s more than just a little bit clumsy at it! The words are great in this book – they’re the type of imaginative, rounded words that children want to repeat. I liked the use of such phrases as ‘tickled Tiger’s tum’ and ‘bopped your banana’, conveying the way the ladybird is clumsily falling through the air, and the zig-zag movement of the words on a page. The story shows that it can be tricky learning something new, but you always get there eventually… and the little wink from the ladybird at the end is a nice touch!

Oh no, George!Oh no, George! by Chris Haughton (Walker Books)

A book about a dog called George who’s trying extra hard to be good but is tempted by everything around him. It’s a great little tale about a dog and his owner, which I’m sure young children will be able to relate to their own pets. The pictures in this title are fantastic – even though I found the illustrations on the pages where he does something naughty a little bit unclear and crowded with colour (just me being picky), the body language really makes the story. And the ending is superb – it just sums up how much can be conveyed through a picture alone. A definite favourite of mine.

 If you have any ideas of titles you would like me to consider for review or recommendation on here, or just a title you that was great and want the world to know about, feel free to get in touch: spotunderthetree(at)gmail.com

Please note: Any books I recommend on here are purely down to my personal opinion – I have no obligation to any particular publisher to advertise their work. This blog contains nothing but my own words, unless stated.

Pop-up books: for better or worse?

During my last weekly-but-increasingly-frequent Waterstones visit, I spotted a title I’ve had my eye on for quite some time: Playbook Farm, published by Nosy Crow.

Playbook Farm, Nosy Crow

Playbook Farm

In case you haven’t heard of it before, it’s a ‘pop-up book and play mat in one’ that was published in September of last year. So, it essentially works in the same way as a board or picture book but also folds out into a 3D model that children can use to play with on the floor.

I’ve always been amazed by the intricacies of pop-up books. I remember trying my hand at making my own pop-up cards as a child (usually Blue Peter-style!) where the characters would all stand up in front of a painted background as you open the card, creating a little model. Even as adults, there’s no doubt that seeing something transform in front of your eyes is just as amazing as it is for children. The only difference is that us adults might tend to have a ‘wow’ moment and a secondary ‘how did they do that?!’ moment, whereas children probably hold on to that ‘wow’ moment for that little bit longer…

guess-how-much-i-love-you-1

So now, seeing the excellent types of 3-D masterpieces that can be created from layers of paper, complex mechanics and repetitions of images (just look at some of the images by Playbook Farm’s creator on this post!) not only amazes me but makes me wonder about the whole ‘how did they do that?!’ bit and – in a publishing mind-set – leads me to also wonder about the role of such masterpieces.

Crossing the boundary

When it comes to the first ‘how do they do that?!’ question, I won’t go into detail, but simply point out the long, complex processes involved in creating all pop-up books  – each one needing to be printed by specialist printers and assembled by hand. As pointed out by the paper engineer Andrew Barton: ‘the result is one of the last hand-made, mass-produced, complex products that you can buy today.’

Playbook Farm is just one example of what can be achieved by this term ‘paper engineering’. Here we see the idea of a picture/board book being transformed into something fully immersive and – dare I say it – crossing the boundary into the realm of toys (although, I did wonder when I first saw Playbook Farm how durable the ‘play mat’ concept would be beneath the feet of young children – even the recommended 36 months plus….). Such an innovative title hints at the ways publishers could think creatively to give books that upper-hand if ‘competing’ with the interactive element that digital apps might be able to offer – even for such publishers as Nosy Crow themselves, who also develop their own digital book apps. Yet, one might conversely think that the interactive element of the pop-up book could itself be compared to the ‘bells and whistles’ of the digital book apps that publishers have received so critically in the first place…

Giraffes Can't Dance

On the one hand, many pop-up books – similarly to digital book apps – could draw reluctant readers to pick up such a book due to their incongruity and surprise elements. But when it comes to anything more than looking at the pretty pictures, the idea of them promoting any hands-on learning or enticement to really get into reading has been debatable for quite some time. This is not just in the case of non-fiction pop-up titles, but for pop-up picture book titles aimed at early years, where they might be trying to teach basic morals or such simple concepts as ‘a cow goes moo’. Yes, they might see something in 3D, but are they associating what is going on with what it represents? With the emphasis being on the pop-up elements, might what is going on in the text be completely missed?

The science-y bit

A few researchers have in fact looked into this in the past. Most notably, a series of experiments determined that when children ‘have been encouraged to manipulate and play’ with something, they find it harder to understand that what they are playing with is actually a symbol of something else – known as ‘dual representation’. Furthermore, the cognitive effort it takes to manipulate the flaps and pop-up elements of the book can make it harder for them to additionally process what is being said by an adult or the book itself. Overall, they suggested that to get information across to children, ‘less is more’.*

Lost and Found

So it makes you wonder, are the pop-up elements worthwhile if what is going on in the text of a book might be missed as a result? And what about the titles that were originally straightforward picture books and are re-released to become pop-up books? We’ve seen how complex a production process each book has to go through – why go through that all if it is at the expense of the overall story or the message of a book?

The New York Times put it well:

“Why mess around with an established picture-book favorite – one that seems to land on every newborn’s bookshelf? Because the pop-up version isn’t a mess-up, but rather a beautifully produced, restrained amplification of the original” [sic]

In my personal opinion, similarly with digital book apps, it’s all about variation and knowing when to use different formats. If you’re really trying to teach a child what a duck is, perhaps you’re best off showing them a simple picture book about ducks. But if you want to amaze and entertain your child, then pop-up books are a fantastic novelty to do just that.

i-am-not-sleepy-1

Playbook Farm itself was engineered by Corina Fletcher, who has also produced some intricate pop-up versions of such well-known titles as Giraffes Can’t Dance and Guess How Much I Love You for many different publishers. Personally, I see the art in all her work and want to buy her work for myself, just as much as I would for a child!

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* It’s probably worth pointing out that it’s of course a completely different scenario if you’re working with pop-up non-fiction titles for older children and adults.  Some of the earliest moveable books were aimed solely at adults and used in the medical profession to illustrate the anatomy of the human body – clearly the 3D element has its use when you are cognitively developed enough to automatically understand ‘dual representation’.

All photos © Corina Fletcher: http://www.corinaandco.com/