Category Archives: Picture book

Balloon to the Moon

There are a lot of crazy people in this world. There always have been, and that’s lucky, because where would we have been if no one had crazy ideas and tried them out?

Gill Arbuthnott and Christopher Nielsen, Balloon to the Moon

Gill Arbuthnott has traced the early days of space flight, which seems to have been balloons, several hundred years ago. Who’d have thought?

Even then, they started cautiously by sending a sheep, a duck and a chicken, rather than humans, up in a balloon in 1783. And after that there was no stopping them.

This book is illustrated throughout, by Christopher Nielsen, and I rather like his snakes and ladders approach to showing how what happened and when. It all began with kites in China in the 5th century BC. And here we are, two and a half thousand years later with a Chinese space probe on the ‘wrong’ side of the Moon.

In between there were many men, but also quite a few women doing daring things, and various dogs and monkeys and other animals.

It’s funny how it’s possible to get excited about a thing – in this case space exploration – over and over again. No matter how many books, it’s still fun.

I thoroughly recommend this book to, well, almost anyone. You don’t have to be a child. Like Gill, I was a child in 1969, and it seems neither of us has outgrown this fascination for space. I feel sorry for those who didn’t experience these milestones in real time. But here’s this book, anyway. In case you are young.

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Remembering Judith Kerr

Now that we don’t have Judith Kerr to come and do events, we can have events about her. Because we need them.

Judith might have looked like a little old lady, but in Tuesday’s panel we learned that this was a woman who could out-party those much younger than her. I think Daniel Hahn rather envied her her stamina in that department. And Lindsey Fraser remembered a time when Judith’s train had been late and she needed a whisky, a bit early in the day, but someone sourced the requested tipple.

Her arrivals in the yurt always caused a certain kind of murmur among those present, those who were more famous than Judith, richer, younger; even more important. Everyone had some kind of relationship to her. Catherine Rayner said it felt like meeting the Queen. And like meeting the Queen, it was impossible to talk to her. She tried, but could never get the words out.

Catherine’s friends would ask ‘is she any good?’ as though Judith’s simple picture book drawings meant she couldn’t do proper art. She showed us some of Judith’s sketches, and they were certainly proper art. As was Mog’s scared face in the book about Mog’s nightmares. And those pictures of birds with teeth!

The first book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, often caused people to read hidden meanings into what the tiger symbolised. According to Daniel, Judith said it’s a book about a tiger who came to tea. As for Mog and the translation into German there was a discussion with the translator that Judith lost. Mog would be a boy in German. And then she gave Mog kittens.

Judith Kerr 2

After Judith was widowed she kept drawing, sitting at the same table she’d worked at for fifty years, saying ‘if I didn’t draw, I’d probably have taken to religion.’ Her husband was the one who suggested the plot for her first Mog book by saying ‘couldn’t she catch a burglar, or something?’

Tom Morgan-Jones talked about Judith’s last book, Mummy Time, and brought out so much more meaning from it than I’d seen. It even had those horrible teeth in it, again. He read most of the book, showing how it works on two levels; for the child, and for the adult reader.

Like Tom, Eilidh Muldoon never met Judith. And as everyone seemed to say, she also found the Tiger really scary. When Goodbye Mog was published, she was too old for picture books, but has since discovered how good it is to read them as an adult. The pictures in this last Mog are dreamier than the early Mog illustrations, and this could in part have been due to the same ink not being available.

Goodbye Mog

It’s not only Mog’s death that has helped readers deal with bereavement. Kate Leiper has experience from working in care homes for people with dementia, where she used to show them My Henry, which is about an old lady in a home, who dreams about her dead husband coming back for her. This was written after Judith’s husband died.

As Daniel said, you can have quite dark stuff in picture books. It’s all about condensing, according to Catherine. You put a lot in and then take more and more out. Judith would never use words about that which you could see from the pictures. And in Mog in the Dark – the nightmare book – she only used 50 [different] words.

This was a wonderful panel event; one which made us love Judith Kerr even more. As someone said, she had faith in human nature. And she considered herself British from the start of WWII. That’s worth remembering now, when we remember Judith. The piece from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, read by Lindsey, about the family fleeing Germany, approaching the Swiss border by train, and being so very nervous. It’s all coming back.

Blast Off!

It’d be easy to believe an event like Sheila Kanani’s about how to become an astronaut, aimed at young children, wouldn’t be of interest to an adult. And that’s where you’d be wrong.

Sheila Kanani

I have no wish to change careers and travel to Mars, unlike some of the children in the audience, but just hearing about what it could be like and what you need to learn, was Very Interesting. I knew Sheila does a lot of outreach in her job for the Royal Astronomical Society, but I hadn’t paused to consider what it might entail. Or that she’d be so good at it.

Chaired by Sarah Broadley, the session offered tables for the children to play at astronaut training with oven gloves, long colourful strips of rubber, pink rulers, headphones, Russian codes. And scissors. There were not enough tables, so more had to be found. The balance between the sexes was good, and you could tell these were young human beings who’d thought about space and travelling to Mars.

In real life you have to be at least 27, speak Russian and have a good idea of what to do when your helicopter is crashing. And if you make it all the way, you have to go to the toilet using a tube contraption thing, and for those of you who have wished upon shooting stars, you might not want to know that it could have been astronaut poo entering the atmosphere.

Before the hands-on play, we’d turned a water melon into Jupiter, with poor little Mercury represented by a peppercorn. Earth is a cherry tomato.

Sheila Kanani

Sheila, whose favourite planet is Saturn, wants to make people more enthusiastic about space science. She asked if anyone felt that it was a waste of money to invest in space research. One or two did, and they were gently told maybe they were in the wrong tent…

So, for anyone who wants to be a space vet – for the animals in space – or any of the other jobs ‘up there’ you know what to do. Start with Sheila’s book How To Be An Astronaut, and then get to work on your dexterity while wearing oven gloves.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

The Race to Space

There is more than one book about Apollo and space out, now that it’s been fifty years since Apollo 11. Clive Gifford’s The Race to Space, with illustrations by Paul Daviz, is perhaps a little more serious than When We Walked on the Moon. It starts much earlier and covers most of what went on in space for several decades.

Clive Gifford and Paul Daviz, The Race to Space

I have to admit I’m still upset about poor Laika, whose sad demise we weren’t told about back in the day.

As the title suggests this covers the race to get into space first, and then to get to the moon before ‘the others.’ It’s not a long book, so each chapter is brief, but you do get a very good picture of the space adventure we enjoyed in the middle of the last century.

It has more serious facts than the other book, so might require someone older, or at least, someone really keen on space, to read. But that’s fine. We are all at different stages in our fascination for space.

I reckon I would have liked this book even more, back when I was 13. But I like anything about space, and there will be many more like me today, who will really want to read this. And some will move on to do much more still.

An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Castle Legends

First I went for the story set at Stirling Castle, and it was quite satisfying. I knew the tale before, but this was a lovely, and humorous re-telling about the man who tried to fly down from the castle. (Don’t try this!)

If you’d asked me, I would have – almost – thought that Theresa Breslin couldn’t possibly manage another host of Scottish stories. She and illustrator Kate Leiper have already produced a couple of gorgeous collections, and here they are with An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Castle Legends.

It’s everything you’d expect it to be. What you’d want it to be. From the wonderful cover by Kate, to every last little story by Theresa, set in different castles all over Scotland, and taking place at varying times in history.

Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper, An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Castle Legends

I especially like the sepia coloured map of Scotland, with sepia coloured ‘postcards’ of the castles, at the front of this rather large volume. It is a little hard to hold, actually. For us small ones, anyway.

And also the show-stopping night skyline of Edinburgh. Some of us would pay to put that on the wall. I can understand how Kate might have sat in some suitable spot to capture that, but I wonder how she got the selkies and the various monsters and other creatures to pose for her?

As for the stories, well, they are what you know Theresa can tell. I’m sure they are all quite true, but she does do nice things with her characters. The stories are mostly short, so make for easy reading at any age.

I didn’t know that thing about Nessie. Or Walter Scott’s great-many-times-granny. As long as you have the arms for it, this is a great book. And if you don’t, it is actually greater still. You might need a child, but I managed just fine on my own.

Incredible Journeys

Because I am a bit of a fool I looked at Levison Wood’s book Incredible Journeys and decided it was one of those worthy, but slightly boring large, factual picture books. I.e. not for me. But I did that dutiful looking at it, nevertheless.

Good thing, too!

It actually seemed really rather nice. (Yes, thank you, Sam Brewster for the pictures.) And it was about exploring. Travelling. Learning about many people who had had visions and set about doing something.

For us old people there is less that is new, but for a reader who has not known about Edmund Hillary or Amelia Earhart or Captain Cook, this should be fun. Not to mention interesting. Actually, I’d never heard of Ibn Battuta. Have you?

It’s nicely written, and I’d like to think that there are many little future travellers and explorers who will enjoy this book. I kind of got the feeling I used to have with my beloved Junior Readers’ Digest (please don’t judge me! Or this excellent book) which I read and read until they almost fell apart. I hope children still do that, even with so much else available to them.

Levison Wood and Sam Brewster, Incredible Journeys

Judith Kerr

With the death of Judith Kerr on Wednesday, we have lost another star in the children’s books world. When the great ones like Judith reach such a high age, I always want to wrap them in cotton wool, to protect them and make them last longer, while being very grateful they have made it this far.

But by all accounts Judith didn’t need the cotton wool, continuing to live life as she always had, getting about on her own. I first saw her in Edinburgh ten years ago, and found her seemingly frail, but most entertaining. Then when I discovered I was sitting behind her in the audience at Waterstones Piccadilly five years ago, I was astounded to realise that she was just like anybody else, going to events she wanted to go to and mixing with people.

Judith was one of the ‘older greats’ that I would have loved to meet and maybe interview, but somehow I never felt quite grown-up enough.

I hoped she would go on for much longer, but 95 is a respectable age. Especially if you’re not ill or needing looking after.

I very much hope her end was like that of Mog, and that they are together in some magical place.