Category Archives: Picture book

Catch that baby!

Old people are said to return to thinking much more of their early days. Well, permit an ancient Bookwitch to look back on her early witch days.

I was fairly pleased about this; him learning to read, and felt that seven was a fine age, and all that. I’d obviously read to him and Daughter before this, at bedtime, and even at other times. I think.

But just as I have told myself that ‘next time round when I’m forty again, I shall do things differently’, as though that was even possible, I am feeling that next time Offspring are babies I will start their literary education much sooner.

A bit like Anne Rooney. She’s blogging on ABBA about her grandchildren. Her children too. She’s clearly someone who has been terribly ambitious and who has been able to carry through with her plans on building bookworms. I kind of envy her. Both for her stamina and her general knowledge of all that is worth bringing to a very young child. You must read her post. Because I will not steal that adorable photo of MB and her baby brother NB reading a pdf of Anne’s next book, where the older sister entertains her minuscule brother to the extent that his little eyes almost pop.

That’s early reading for you!

I did not read to Offspring before they were born. I should have. Although, there was a bath book, which got a lot of use. And board books. I hope I did all right. They can read now, if that helps. Write too.

Charcoal magic

Debi Gliori’s short event was just the right thing to appear online. Live is fine, but here we could see every last picture of her book A Cat Called Waverley, close up, and with an explanation for every image. And Debi reads so softly, that to have the whole story read to us, with extra explanations as to what we were seeing, or what might be going on, was pure bliss.

This is the way to help young readers understand that the world can be rather different from what we think, or want it to be, but without being too scary. Some scary is necessary, and personally I believe it’s best demonstrated by my favourite illustration from the book. It has everything; the sad cat left behind, the train disappearing into the tunnel, and the sheer beauty of the railway station itself.

The sentence ‘home was where Donald was’ is enough to make anyone a bit teary. It describes what most of us feel at some time or other. It’s only home if our someone is there.

Debi wrote this story about Darren – Donald in the book – who became ‘the man who belongs to Waverley’. He used to sit at the top of the very high, and the almost impossible to draw, station steps. But as Debi put it, we don’t care if she got the steps right. All we wanted was the cat and its man. They are both there.

And I’ll leave you with this view of Waverley [the station], its station hotel [as was] and the exit from the park across the road. All this is Very Edinburgh to so many of us.

Fun with Chris and Neil

It’s a comfortable affair, hanging out with Chris Riddell and Neil Gaiman. One is in Brighton and the other in New Zealand, but that’s fine. The moderator glowed over them both, but Chris had to point out that he’s less impressive than Neil. (That’s a matter of opinion, but if it makes him happy…) They first bonded over The Graveyard Book a dozen or so years ago.

And before he knew it, Neil discovered that Chris had illustrated most of his books. (You can’t leave a man with a pencil and expect him not to use it.) When it came to Fortunately the Milk Neil was almost going to threaten Chris to make him illustrate it, but luckily he didn’t have to and there was an amicable agreement for some more pictures.

Apparently Chris is the most booked up illustrator in the world (so that doesn’t bode well for when I want him to draw for me), with the wonderful Levi Pinfold coming close behind.

When it came to their latest collaboration, Pirate Stew, Neil told Chris to ‘go wild on this’ so he did. For the book fest event Neil read us the whole book, and Chris retreated from the camera and let his hand draw pictures instead. Much more comfortable for him. Neil had only the one copy of his book, but had given it away to a 7-year-old, so was forced to read from his computer, potentially changing some words here and there.

It’s mostly pirates as babysitters, and stale donuts. Your children will probably want you to read it every night.

During lockdown Chris felt it made no difference, as he’s always in his shed working anyway. But suddenly it was no fun when everyone else did it too. He even found himself wanting to see people. (I’ll come!)

Their advice to children who want to draw or write is to start now. Chris recommends a blank book to fill with pictures, and maybe a passport wallet to tuck your words into (this is what Neil did with Pirate Stew, so he wouldn’t forget).

Or you could turn pirate and break into Chris’s shed and steal his sketchbooks. (This would be a bad thing to do.)

Rapping a picture book

I took my imaginary preschooler to hear Hannah Lee read her book The Rapping Princess (who can’t sing!) while illustrator Allen Fatimaharan showed us how to draw Princess Shiloh by means of eggshaped eggshapes and hosepipe shaped arms.

It was a good little performance and I loved the story and the pictures in the book. However, my preschooler felt that the 13 minutes spent on waiting through endless photos and coughs from earlier book festivals was a wee bit on the long side.

(Even the goat sings better than the Princess…)

Hannah rapped her poetry and I enjoyed both her very green top and the drawing by the mysterious hand on the left. I have seen Allen draw before, so knew it’d be good. I was relieved to see he didn’t quite manage to finish in the time it took Hannah to rap (since I would hate for perfect pictures to be drawn at an impossible speed).

Once Hannah had solved Shiloh’s singing problems, Allen had the stage to himself, showing how to get the Princess’s hair right and everything else. I’d like to think lots of young viewers were sitting on the ready with paper, pencil and eraser.

A Cat Called Waverley

Debi Gliori’s new picture book, A Cat Called Waverley, is a piece of art, as well as a sweet animal story. And also a comment on how harsh life is – can be – today.

Drawn mostly in black and white, with a few ginger touches, plus some yellow in places, we meet newborn kitten Waverley. At first he’s rather like Six Dinner Sid, with many friends in many places in Edinburgh. He likes Donald the best.

But, as happens far too often, his Donald has to go to war a long way away. Waverley follows him as far as he can, which is Waverley station. Life in Edinburgh changes for the worse, and war isn’t much fun either.

And then, like his famous dog peer before him, Waverley waits for his human. The people at the station are kind, but they are not Donald.

And… well, read the book.

What I, the adult reader, love about A Cat Called Waverley, is that it’s possible to have a traditional picture book for children, which combines some glorious art with a commentary on some of the less attractive things about life today, while also showing the goodness of many humans. This still happens. I hope we can hope.

‘Something stinky’

My two favourite translators being boys notwithstanding, I am all in favour of girls. Yesterday five of them got together in an online event for the British Centre for Literary Translation’s Summer School Event – Translating Children’s Books. It was Very Interesting.

Extremely well chaired by none other than Sarah Ardizzone, we met two pairs of small publishers and their translators, from Arabic and from Swedish, learning how the journey from original book to its English version had gone. And you need to keep in mind that US publishers might not appreciate the word poo. Regarding any other censoring in translating, Arabic is already very sanitised, so nothing to remove, according to Sawad Hussain.

Sawad had discovered an interesting sounding YA book on Twitter and eventually found her way to the author, before making contact with Neem Tree Press publisher Archna Sharma. Archna finds that not even being able to email her author, but having to go via her translator whenever she needs to make contact, makes for a different experience. As did applying for a PEN Translates grant, with Sawad’s help, and which she’d now happily do again.

Greet Pauwelijn, from Belgium, who runs her one woman publishing company Book Island, had come across a Swedish book by Sara Lundberg and gone looking for a translator from Swedish, eventually being introduced to B J Epstein. B J was ill and pregnant at the time, but immediately felt she needed to be involved with this book, The Bird Within Me, which has the most gorgeous illustrations. And you can translate with your baby in a sling.

One should not adapt down to children, either language or topic. And children can be most useful to test words on to see if you’ve got it right. Do they get bored, or do they want to read the book again? It could even be useful to pay a teenager to check that you’ve got the style right for how young people talk. Arabic can be quite stilted in books, so needs to be ‘rewritten’, but you also need to get the language of today right.

The cover for the Arabic novel had to have a new cover to work, preferably one dripping with blood. Greet, on the other hand, would never change an illustration as she feels pictures and words go together.

They chatted about how they work, how to change a crocodile into an alligator (apparently it worked better), swapping ideas for how to do things, and wondering what it will be like when the time for publicity comes, visas, travelling, even language for authors who are not confident in English. There was also a mention of readers ‘prejudging translatedness’ if brought to their attention. B J always mentions it to her children, whereas Sarah Ardizzone said something about ‘lowering the othering’ in case translations are seen as a possible deterrent.

The last question of the afternoon – and it could have gone on for a long time – was on bad language, sex and death. You can see how that would be really rather interesting. B J can get annoyed, and is a reluctant gatekeeper, but as already mentioned, there is generally nothing for Sawad to remove from an Arabic original.

Small in the City

He is so small. Well, I suppose the title gives that away; Small in the City, the Kate Greenaway Medal-winning picture book by Sydney Smith.

The illustrations are gorgeous, snowy, cold, mysterious. We see a small person travelling through the city, in the snow, but we’re not quite sure why. The words are encouraging someone, maybe the boy himself, maybe someone else. Someone he’s looking for, telling them not to be scared.

It’s – probably – a North American city, and the snow definitely feels like something you ‘only’ get on the other side of the Atlantic. And the boy is dressed up warmly against the cold. You can barely see him. He looks so small.

This would be good to read with a child. You could discuss what or who the boy is looking for, and why. There is a lot going on in the pictures, although it quietens down towards the end.

Thinking differently

The Incredibly Busy Mind of Bowen Bartholomew Crisp is the loveliest picture book by Paul Russell and Nicky Johnston. It sounded good before I had it here to read, but it’s miles better in every way now that I have read it.

Bowen doesn’t think like everyone else. Not as fast, nor about the same things. But he is intelligent, and not only does he think in his own way, but he realises that other people don’t see the same things he does, or in the same way.

What colour is the ocean? I mean really? And you can’t be expected to look at a great work of art and have an opinion in no time at all. Or not send your tortoise into space? (He didn’t, because Grandma intervened.)

But after all those experiences with teachers and other adults who don’t get him, there is one person who does. His mum. Either she’s a bit special too, or she has learned from experience how to think like Bowen. The two of them get on very well, but I’m afraid I still don’t know if dinner will make itself?

It’s a thought, though, isn’t it?

Monsieur Roscoe On Holiday

I love Jim Field, the UK’s fifth bestselling illustrator. I also like languages and agree with him that children learn fast and that we should start early. So here is his bilingual picture book about Monsieur Roscoe, who is a dog, going on holiday with his goldfish. And everything is in both English and French.

Monsieur Roscoe has a great holiday and the goldfish looks as if he’s enjoying himself too.

But would I have read this aloud to Offspring when they were small? No. I never learned French, and I believe therein lies a small problem. Not with me. But there are many parents who didn’t, or who are anything but confident enough to tackle two languages on the edge of the bed. Many adults are not linguistically minded, and of those who are, French isn’t necessarily the first foreign language, the way it was.

Jim has a French wife and a bilingual daughter.

I am the witch who wrote to her child’s headteacher asking for the child to be excused French and to be allowed to replace it with Swedish, ‘because she will never have any use for French’. While Swedish has been far more useful, it was a mere ten years after that fateful letter that a certain someone moved to Geneva.

So languages are very useful. All of them. But it’s hard to know who is best to teach them. The natural way is best. But we can’t all be natural.

Back to Monsieur Roscoe and his happy goldfish. It’s a lovely book. Obviously it is. Read it for yourself, but think about as to whether you feel you can read it with your little one.

Overseas medal winners

This year’s Carnegie Medal has gone to Jason Reynolds; someone I only heard about four years ago, from a fervent admirer. I have since seen Jason at an event, and I reckon he’s OK. His winning book, Look Both Ways, sounds interesting, so I know what I have to do…

The Kate Greenaway Medal winner is Canadian Sydney Smith with Small in the City, where one ‘small’ illustration has me in raptures, and I definitely know what I have to do.

And I could be wrong, not having read either book, but they seem to have something in common. Besides medals, I mean.