Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Words and Pictures

A blog post from Bridget Carrington

When my children were small, picturebooks (so now you know which I prefer), were just emerging from their thick, yellowish paper with smudgy, stark, limited colours, into the glorious products we know today. Because they’re picturebooks, I think we often regard that element more highly than the words, but three picturebooks I’ve just read show how both parts of the book should interrelate and enhance the other.

I thought the days of overtly moralistic writing had long vanished, until I picked up Diana Mather, Avril Lethbridge and Mary-Ann Mackenzie’s Please Bear’s Birthday (Maverick ISBN 9781848860674). According to the blurb, ‘the series teaches children the importance of good manners through nice and naughty bears’. Oh dear, these adjectives don’t inspire enthusiasm – even KS1 readers would recognise their weak and non-pc nature I think – and neither does the book, despite this being the Daily Mail ‘You Magazine’ Book of the Week. The lengthy rhyming text lumbers along with all the grace and effortless ease of William MacGonagall, while the illustrations do nothing to help, unexciting, humourless and truly reminiscent of picturebooks of the past.

Compare this with two other Maverick publication, Julie Fulton’s Mrs MacCready was ever so Greedy (ISBN 9781848860650), with pictures by Jona Jung, and Giles Paley-Phillips The Fearsome Beastie ISBN9781848860667), illustrated by Gabriele Antonini, and you see what twenty-first century rhyming picturebooks can and really should do.

Fulton’s text is more accomplished than Paley-Phillips’ which falls into the all too common trap of over-inverting and contorting word order so that it scans (and in fact it doesn’t always) and so that the rhyming word ends up at the end of the line. Generally Mrs Macready’s story has a far smoother, natural rhythm and rhyme, and the cautionary tale which emerges – exercise as well as eat, or else the consequences will be dire – is handled in a humorous, non-moralistic way so totally absent from Please Bear. The illustrations are big, bright and funny, and the whole book fits together seamlessly, promising to become a favourite with young readers who like to join in as the text is read to them. In contrast, although clearly a twenty-first century text, Antonini’s style of illustration in The Fearsome Beastie reminds me of a 1950s American cartoon, with children, houses and streets which are more US then UK. The author acknowledges Roald Dahl as an influence, and certainly the poetic style reminds me of Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, while the illustrator was clearly a fan of Sendak as well as Hanna Barbera.

Sharon Rentta’s A Day with the Animal Doctors (Scholastic ISBN 9781407116440) certainly lives up to its advertising, ‘a hilarious trot round the wards’ it certainly is, as Dr Terence the baby tapir goes to work with his mum. Unlike Please Bear, every page is buzzing with activity, with lots for children (and adults) to find in the pictures, as well as a text which offers information on clipboards drawn onto the pages, and a thoughtful, funny look at why we end up in hospital. This makes a lovely book for bedtime reading, as it invites additional questions from young readers, and can also be ‘read’ without any of the words. How nice that Mum’s the doctor and that the nurses are male and female, and that the elderly animals are being cared for so thoughtfully. My favourite pages are the animal babies in their cots, and the children’s ward, where the patients ‘often need to do a lot of Bouncing’!

Altogether an interesting collection, inviting reflection (can’t stop myself rhyming now, though clearly I’ve not got the hang of scansion either!) on what makes a successful picturebook. It’s not just the pictures, nor yet just the text… there needs to be that special something which knits it all into one highly entertaining whole.

Can the Wardstone protect you?

Having had the lighthearted fun of a birthday celebration Armadillo reviewer Simon Barrett now brings you some dark horror, a theme that must appeal to him for he is currently deep into Lindsey's Barraclough's Long Lankin (brilliantly reviewed by Louise Stothard ina recent edition of Armadillo Magazine) and declared it was most certainly not a book to be read after dark, but before we get too immersed in that let us delve into the phenomenon that is:

The Wardstone Chronicles
Joseph Delaney’s seminal series The Wardstone Chronicles which began with The Spook’s Apprentice was always intended to take up a lot of bookshelf space. It is a credit to the strength of the story and the empathy between readers and characters that the Bodley Head has just published the eighth book, The Spook’s Destiny.

Tom, the Spook’s Apprentice, has certainly grown-up since the first book and has travelled far beyond the boundaries of his home, the County. Whilst the dark has at times seemed invincible, Tom, his family and his friends have always shown the courage to win through.

As a Religious Education teacher with an interest in philosophy, the Wardstone Chronicles provokes two enduring questions for me. Is the universe a dualism of two separate, distinct entities: light and dark? Can the means justify the ends?

The Wardstone Chronicles began with the opposing forces of light and dark. This is perhaps typified by the character of the Spook himself, shunning all compromise with the dark and those who would use the dark. The universe however has become far more complicated. Tom’s best friend Alice was unwillingly trained as a witch, but willingly uses magic, sometimes for dark purposes. Even Tom’s mother is a reformed creature of the dark. More compelling in the series is Tom’s own nature, in which a sliver of darkness now exists deep in his being. In the latest book, Joseph Delaney hints that there is more to the universe than light and dark. Tom meets the Old God Pan who intriguingly refers to a shadow world, separate from the dark.

Can the dark be used to fight the dark? This question has come to dominate the books with the servants of the dark co-operating in the fight against the dark. This fight is epitomised for me in the character of Grimalkin, the Witch Assassin who has saved Tom in the past, and fights alongside him to try and bind the Devil in The Spook’s Destiny. The Spook is of the mind that the means must justify the ends and only light should be used to destroy the dark. Tom and Alice challenge this, and the world might have ended before now, if they hadn’t. I am eagerly awaiting Joseph Delaney’s next story, one that promises to reveal much more about Grimalkin....

Only to be read after dark if you dare ...

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Hay Diaries Part 4 ...

Saturday 4th June – Trumps, time travel and trudging

At the crack of 10am – in the Starlight Tent

When an author begins an event by inviting the audience to shout BOGIES, you know you are in for a treat. David Roberts is the children’s illustrator responsible for The Troll and Tyrannasaurus Drip by Julia Donaldson, some super retellings of fairytales and, most filthily, Dirty Bertie.

Bertie was the star today. And the challenge was on to see if anyone in the audience could ‘trump’ him for dirty habits. They certainly had a go. One girl who is probably in with a shot is a girl that approached David Roberts at a previous book signing and said ‘I like to pick my nose’. She then proceeded to demonstrate, and was about to EAT it, when she saw David’s shocked face. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘would you like some?’

After reading the first Dirty Bertie book, David Roberts gave some tips on drawing Bertie. You can see my very average attempts here:

The audience helped David to create a picture. It started as Bertie eating some candyfloss, but gradually more and more horrible things – bugs, worms, dog poo, a plaster, a lobster (?!) – were added and it looked a lot less appetising.

The ‘interesting’ imaginations of some audience members were also revealed when David asked for ways to prevent your parents from moving house (as Bertie does in one of the books) and one girl immediately replied ‘go to the toilet on the bed’. I’m quite glad I don’t live with her.

Overall, this event was very funny, and perfectly aimed at its 5-7-year-old audience, while allowing parents to laugh secretly at the toilet humour too. There were also some drawing tips to pick up for those of us who aren’t artistically challenged. And even those who are can have a go…

1.30pm – in Sarajevo 1914/Elizabethan England

I appear to have time travelled. I think that Johnny O’Brien, author of the Jack Christie adventures, is to blame. His event, like his books, is centred around how fun it would be to actually find yourself in another time.

The hero of the books, Jack Christie, finds himself at some of the major turning points in history and must decide whether to intervene. The first – in Day of the Assassins – is the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which was the trigger (geddit?!) for the first World war. Through some super role play involving audience volunteers (who made worryingly good assassins) Johnny showed us how the Great War was actually caused by a sandwich.

Johnny told us he is quite keen on the gruesome side of history (and, as a Horrible-Histories-reared child, so do I). From the books he read us a rather violent encounter in the trenches and later an eye-witness encounter of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

4:00pm – On the sad trudge home, being rained on

My whirlwind visit to Hay has whirled and winded (and now rained) and I am on my way home. I bid goodbye to the cat and she watched me go with a cool and steady hatred.

But I leave with a feeling that there is much to be excited about – there are still kids who love reading books and authors who love writing books and events where these people can come together and bang on about how much they love books. To me, that is rather exciting.

Roll on next Hay!

Friday 3rd June part 2 – Zombaliens attack

2:30pm – the Starlight Tent, in grave danger

Guy Bass, creator of Dinkin Dings (who is scared of everything), was so kind as to save his audience’s lives, by teaching them how to defend themselves against Zombaliens.

He started by asking what everyone was scared of. Answers ranged from my teacher, my Mum (someone in the audience’s, not mine), spiders, DEATH, needles, and a rat. A specific rat.

This is nothing compared to Dinkin’s list of 47 most feared things in the first book, Dinkin Dings and the Frightening Things (which everyone must read).

There are, Guy said. three things you need to know about Zombaliens:
1. They want to turn everyone into a Zombalien
2. They disguise themselves as humans
3. They use lemon juice and furniture polish to disguise their true smell (gone-off milk and old ladies’ knickers)

A volunteer named Bruce was called on to test Dinkin’s Zombatron6000 Zombalien defeating hat (complete with plunger for pulling off the human disguise mask) and Bruce performed some top-quality sneaking on Guy Bass.

We were introduced to the frightening things (Edgar the skeleton, Herbert the monster and Arhur the ghost – Dinkin’s frienda and the only things he’s not frightened of) and more volunteers (for simplicity Guy called them all Sophie) took on the roles of the frightening things. With some sound-effect-help from the audience they performed the arrival of the frightening things from the first book.

I almost ran screaming in terror from the tent, but managed to keep in my seat long enough to get a sneak preview of Guy’s next book, Stitch Head, which is about a mad professor’s first invention.

Guy read from the new book to round off a fantastic event – he is basically a stand up comedian in a children’s writer’s body. I queued up afterwards to get my Dinkin book signed and told Guy it was nice to meet him in person as opposed to on Twitter. Then I said

‘Tomorrow I’ll be back to following you all day’

Which probably sounded a bit scary.

In true half-term style, I was back in time to watch Home and Away and give the cat lots of food to make it like me. It remains unimpressed.

The Hay Diaries Part 2 ....

Friday 3rd June part 1: Mumbling at a dame

11:30am – In a big tent
Am definitely in the right place. Everyone is a girl. Everyone has a Jacqueline Wilson book. I am very excited.

Once they’d seated Jacqueline’s legions of fans-o’clock – In a big tent Jacqueline Wilson entered the stage to thunderous applause and plenty of whooping. You only had to look around the audience to see the range of ages she covers. From 8-year-old new fans, to teens, to old girls like me who remember Tracy Beaker when she was first around (along with leggings and Take That).

‘How many of you like writing?’ she asked the audience, and lots of hands shot up. The advice – get notebooks and start writing. She shared her school reports with us – encouraging at primary school, where she was often asked to read her stories to the class. At secondary school her English teacher didn’t seem to see it the same way. Red pen covered Jacqueline’s work, with ?s by any slang and phrases such as ‘I don’t like your tone Jacqueline’ and, hilariously, ‘Highly inappropriate – see me’.

Jacqueline’s route into writing began with a job at DC Thompson on a magazine for teenage girls. They had wanted romantic short stories, but rather than writing about handsome heroes and moonlight kisses, she wrote a story like this: A girl goes to a party, boys ask all her friends to dance and no one asks her. She spends the night nodding her head to the music and taking plenty of trips to the loo to pass the time, before going home, telling her mum she had a great time, getting into bed and crying. It is a classic Jacqueline Wilson tale. Luckily they liked it, and put her on course to write many more.

Via making up horoscopes, how Tracy Beaker avoided being called Tracy Toilet, and seeking out a suitable oak tree in Richmond Park for four children to hide in, we came all too quickly to the end of the talk. Q&A revealed that Jacqueline is most like a mixture of the twins in Double Act, she almost got a tattoo when writing The Illustrated Mum and if she wasn’t an author she would be a second-hand bookshop owner (because ‘nothing is as wonderful as holding a real book’ – said to a huge cheer).

12:30pm-hours later! I meet Jacqueline Wilson – or stare at her and mumble while she signs a book. Still counts.
As always, she stayed and signed books for hours. I had the chance to get a copy of Hetty Feather signed for our fab competition winner http://sites.google.com/site/armadillomagazine/competition2
I may have mentioned loudly that I was getting a book signed for someone else, just to ensure it was clear I was an adult. (Being 5ft1 and going to lots of children’s book events means I can often be mistaken for a child…)

It also gave me a chance to chat to some Jacqueline Wilson fans in the queue. Mary, Laura and Ffion were queuing behind me. Mary told me her favourite Jacqueline Wilson book is Girls in Tears, while Laura chose The Longest Whale Song and Ffion went for Cookie. Mary explained what it is about Jacqueline Wilson that her readers love so much. ‘She covers every issue. Reading her books is addictive, because there’s always a really good storyline and you can’t stop reading once you get into it.’ I also met a quartet of Jacqueline Wilson fans – May, Lucy, Laura and Sophie – who told me their favourite of the books.

May: Hetty Feather
Lucy: Diamond Girls
Laura: Best Friends
Sophie: The Worry Website

With different favourites from each person I spoke to, there quite clearly is a Jacqueline Wilson book for everyone. When I finally got to the front of the queue and my big moment came, Jacqueline signed my book and it was my chance to speak to a life-long hero. I said: ‘Thank you! It was…Bye!’

Oh dear.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Just when I was getting ready to write all about the brilliant books I have read recently and cheer you all up after this miserable (but good for the garden rain), Liz Bankes has written a wonderful series of Hay Diaries, so sit back and enjoy the installments over the next few days and before you know it I will be back with even more books up my sleeve!

The Hay Diaries

Thursday 2nd June: Things I didn’t see

2:45pm – On the train
As I journey to the Hay Festival I thought I’d depress myself by looking through the Hay Fever programme at all the things I’d already missed. (I did this while eating Burger King chips with my hands if that makes it any more tragic). Here are my top five things I didn’t see:

1. The Etherington Brothers – creators of Monkey Nuts
I didn’t find out how to make comics, draw monkeys and be hilariously funny.

2. Geraldine McCaughrean and Candy Gourlay, chaired by Sarah McIntyre
I didn’t get to find out how these quirky, humorous writers put spark into their writing (but they in turn missed out on my contribution to Q&A – WHY ARE YOU ALL SO GREAT??)

3. Fiona Dunbar – Ghostorama
Phantom science teachers, dead celebrities and creating a spooky mystery to solve… *cries*

4. Patrick Ness and David Almond – A Monster Calls and My Name is Mina.
Do I need to explain?

5. Julia Donaldson and friends – A Jolly Jamboree
It is one of my life’s ambitions to meet the Gruffalo. [and you can add to that a chance missed of meeting the new Children’s Laureate!]

7:30pm – In a tent selling cider
(The tent was a cider selling tent – I didn’t just start selling cider to people.)
So, after my train ride I accidentally got on three buses and at some point arrived in Hay. As the Hay Fever events had finished, there weren’t many children around, but I heard many a word of praise for Andy Stanton and his Mr Gum event from many an adult. (There’s a number 6 for my list)

I had a look around the Hay Fever courtyard, where all the children’s books events were taking place. There was the Starlight Stage – venue for most of the author events, the Make & Take tent, the Mess tent for cooking events, and a giant wall book about planet earth.

There’s only so long you can walk around a festival before you accidentally spend all your money and so I went to my Hay house, where I was cat-sitting for my uncle.

I was a few hours later than I thought I’d be. The cat was not impressed.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Its Official ...

... we have a new Children's Laureate for 2011-2013 and it is Julia Donaldson.

A hushed expectation greeted Viv Bird of the Book Trust as she took to the podium to make the first speech of the event this morning in London's Kings Cross.

Yet the audience were not to be let off lightly, first there were the speeches to listen too, from Ed Vaizey, minister for culture to representatives from sponsor's Waterstones, the Publisher's Association and the last Children's Laureate Anthony Browne, until Floella Benjamin, chair of the Laureate selection panel, herself a children's author of over 20 books and strong campaigner for children's book and human rights, took to the podium and ... welcomed all her 'playschool babies.' Floella delivered her own moving and interesting speech before revealing that Julia had been the choice of the panel to take on the role of Children's Laureate for the next two years.

We heard, from each speaker, how important books and reading are, particularly in the current climate with library closures and competition for children's attention with new technologies. Despite this we were assured that reading remains a fundamental cornerstone of every child's education and that Julia plans to reinforce this, after she recovers from the awe she feels. Explaining that she was impressed by Anthony Browne's effort to tour Scotland, visiting six schools in a week, she plans, as the first Scottish based Laureate, to better that whilst also promoting reading for children throughout the UK. Her primary aims, she explained, will be to bring books and reading to children through drama and music as well as furthering the work done with deaf children, being partially deaf herself.

An exciting two years await Julia and the team at Armadillo wish her all the best whilst looking forward to her work and initiatives in her new role. we too will be continuing to work to further the importance of children's reading and ensure libraries in the community and our schools remain open for all.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Just follow the dotted line..........

I love books that engage me, both visually and imaginatively. Perhaps that is why, as an adult, I still see the beauty of picture books alongside those with no pictures at all. When authors of more adult titles include little sketches on random pages or themed chapter headings it adds something very special and unique to the story. Picture book authors and illustrators no doubt find it a continual challenge, albeit and exciting one, to find new ways in which to engage the reader in the story they are telling.

Peely Wally a new title from Kali Stileman (Red Fox, ISBN 9781849410823) manages to do just this. How? By enticing the reader in with the tempting suggestion that they ‘Follow the dotted line and see where it goes.’ The trouble then is does one follow the line, read the story or do both? It is a good challenge for young readers and encourages considerable engagement with the story. The bright, simple and child-like paintings that fill the pages of the book yet show Stileman is clearly not afraid of white space, help to tell the story of Peely Wally and her adventurous egg! When Peely Wally lays her small, spotty and perfect egg it is in for a big adventure and the reader, when they turn to the end is in line for a wonderful surprise. A clever story, simple, engaging, colourful and with a captivating technique for engaging the reader.

On the other hand Rachel Bright lives up to her name with her third picture book for Puffin. Mine! (ISBN 9780141332130) Not only does she fill each page with a block of colour, differing for each double page spread but this is then covered with some fantastically bright and colourful pictures of the characters and their story. The text is fun, moving about the page, encouraging the reader to follow it around whilst they follow the story. So to the story which finds the twins Frankie and Fifi arguing over Funny Bunny for they are two and he is only one. This is a wonderful story which explains the importance of grandmothers, oh and of course sharing!