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.

Because non-fiction matters, too

Last week, Warwick Davis, of Star Wars and Harry Potter fame, visited a primary school in Deptford as part of the Get London Reading Campaign. When talking with the children about reading, his main approach was to urge them to read absolutely anything they can get their hands on – whether fiction or non-fiction.

A Great Approach

The fact that he highlighted non-fiction – or fact-based books – stood out to me as an approach that perhaps isn’t used regularly enough to entice kids to read. It’s not just books and stories we need to be getting them to read, after all, but absolutely anything that gets them responding to the power of words. If non-fiction texts are what capture their imagination, then fantastic.

Guinness Book of Records 2013Warwick mentioned that he wasn’t a fan of fiction as a child – something which I’m sure many children can relate to. “Even if you’re not so into reading, it doesn’t have to be fiction. Comic books, Guinness Book of Records, that’s what I grew up reading because I love facts,” Warwick said.

Boys in particular have been seen to find non-fiction a much more appealing alternative to fiction – for numerous reasons. For example, boys love to swap facts with each other, so facts and information conveyed in an imaginative way can really appeal to their mindset. Non-fiction books also allow for dipping in and out of a book (or website – or whatever the format), allowing them to pick the bits that interest them and not feel like they have to read entire passages in one sitting.

The Best Non-fiction

In the past, despite the availability of factual books in schools and libraries, they were frequently books that spelled out facts in painstaking detail – not necessarily in an appealing way. They just covered topics required by the National Curriculum. Nowadays, however, attractive covers and glossy images entice children in, with more of a balance between images and texts. The best non-fiction books address more than just what we think they should know – they address children’s interests and curiosities. They develop their vocabularies and build their knowledge of the world, sometimes strung together with narrative (although these are few and far between…)

National Geographic Kids In the past few years, however, many publishers and booksellers seem to have begun to forget the importance of fact-based books in young people’s lives. Children’s non-fiction authors do not tend to receive the same amount of attention that fiction authors receive, and the lower marketing budgets frequently allocated for them means that such books are much less likely to be reviewed.

A Worrying Decline…

Just last year, 26 authors wrote to the Guardian about a worrying decline in non-fiction books for children: “Once, there were hundreds of such books available, covering every topic imaginable – but, almost overnight, it seems, the market for them has almost vanished. Not, we think, because children don’t want to know about the real world.”

The reason for it, they suggested, was the ‘dearth, or even death of school and public libraries’, along with high street retailers cutting back on stocking fact-based books that aren’t character based or tied into TV series. And then there’s the fact that the internet now provides so much information. But what about those who want the convenience of a book to dip in and out of, or who need enticing in by a shiny package? What about those who, as schools begin to focus more on reading for pleasure in the National Curriculum, would rather pick a non-fiction book when their friends dive for the fiction shelves?

Publishers and bookstores, these authors say, really need to “start to take risks again” with this genre, which seems to be getting left behind.

National Non-fiction DayMore To Be Done…

Some effort is being made to highlight the place of non-fiction in children’s lives. The Society of Authors has developed an award, the ALCS Award for Educational Writing – awarded for outstanding examples of traditionally published non-fiction, and we also have National Non-Fiction Day, which is celebrated every first Thursday in November (a Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ national event).

Nevertheless, there’s definitely more that needs to be done. If we want kids to be engaged with reading, the main thing is that we look to ways to feed their interests:  whether that’s books or websites – fiction or non-fiction. And the most important thing is that, when they do decide what they want, these texts are readily available and accessible for them – no matter the content.

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…


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!

A Town of Books: Hay Festival 2013

I was lucky enough to get to spend a weekend at the Hay Festival of Literature this bank holiday, which has become something of an annual event for me and my family. In fact, it started with just myself and my partner, Rich, stumbling across it on a trip into the countryside.  Every year since, our group has grown and grown in size.Hay festival

The Town of Books

There’s something fantastic about the feeling of being at a festival of literature in a little village that is already adorned with streets and streets of quirky little bookshops. Having visited Hay-on-Wye outside of the festival season, I’ve seen how essential these bookshops are to this ‘town of books’ throughout the year (it’s especially entertaining to spot the ‘Kindle-free zones’ around each corner). But even though there might be a fair few tourists browsing the shelves on any given day in the year, there’s this sense that the books really get to shine and come alive when the crowds descend in May. Pristine bindings of Folio titles get to dazzle briefly outside their boxes before being snapped up, and dusty, second-hand copies of much-thumbed classics find themselves being loved all over again. The whole place comes alive with a shared passion for words.

In the past few years, my partner and I have developed our little routine of which shops we must visit and how long to leave between each event for browsing the labyrinths of the Cinema bookshop or the caverns of The Children’s Bookshop and Rose’s Books. Coming home empty-handed is never an option, and my personal challenge to find the most battered and fragile, yet perfectly quaint copy of Winnie the Pooh is still underway…


The festival events themselves are like the icing on the cake. And to top it all off, there’s not one – but two festivals spread around the town. I find myself hurrying to book-signings or basking in the sun on the grass in between talks about voyages to Antarctica and Julia Donaldson’s picture books,  before nipping across town to ‘How The Light Gets In’, to be engrossed in an hour-long debate about  the philosophy of forgetting. If your mind doesn’t boggle at the masses of information and inspiration it accumulates each day, you’re doing something wrong…

Hay-on-WyeA highlight for me was a talk by screenwriter and Pixar story consultant Bobette Buster on our last day, who talked through her formulas for what really makes a story. She used examples from such Hollywood films as E.T. and Toy Story to demonstrate that every great story has a set of key ingredients. For example: the chance to take a personal journey with the main character; a clear distinction between enchantment and disenchantment; a juxtaposition between two sets of ideas – perhaps two characters in opposition to one another (hmmm… Buzz and Woody ring any bells?); a transformation from something ordinary to extraordinary; wake-up moments to understand the experience a character goes through to transform; and a story within a story.  It was dense, interesting talk from an excellent speaker – all based around her new book, Do Story, of course.

Young talent

My only regret this year (aside from missing out on Quentin Blake’s mid-week session!), is that I wasn’t able to time my visit with the announcement of the winners of the 500 Words competition for BBC Radio 2, which took place last Friday. I listened instead to the live radio broadcast of the winning entries on my commute to work, as they were read out by such famous voices as Michael Palin and Michael Ball. I was so engrossed that I had to negotiate with myself to peel my feet from the train station platform and risk losing my radio signal by getting on the tube. You can read the shortlisted and winning entries here.

I hope these talented kids get to come back to Hay-on-Wye year-on-year.  If there’s one place at one specific time of year that can inspire someone to open up their imagination, grasp every piece of knowledge from around them and put pen to paper to create something fantastical  – then the Hay Festival is certainly it!

Edible books!

Well, it’s been a a little while since my last post… and it certainly feels like it shows – as I must be out of the loop to have missed out on this year’s International Edible Book Festival!

Edible book festivals have been taking place around the world in April every year since 1999, where competitions are hosted in different countries but are judged by  But I’ve just come across this slightly more local online version of the event, hosted by blogger playingbythebook, which focuses more specifically on children’s books-themed entries. A pinterest page documents all the entries from the previous ‘festivals’ and is filled with tummy-teasing pictures of glorious cakes – all themed around books! I can’t think of anything better in the world than combining these two of my favourite things…

So, I just HAD to draw attention to it, and post a couple of the pictures here for you to see… And if you want to see the winners (based on overall creativity, not necessarily how perfect a cake it is!) you can follow this link.

Wow. Just WOW!