Category Archives: Picture book

We’re all bookbugs

They invited me along to the Bookbug annual conference yesterday, at the George Hotel in Edinburgh. It was really quite nice and very enlightening in many ways. They are Scottish Book Trust, and the Bookbugs are the youngest readers. You might recall that in Scotland all babies are given a bag of books to encourage reading and help them interact with their parents.

Karyn McCluskey started off by being cheerful. They are quite cheerful here, I’ve noticed. There was the sunshine to make you smile, and and the fact that reading prevents murders (if that’s not too gruesome a thing to mention). Karyn introduced the acting Minister for Children and Young People, Fiona McLeod, who is only ‘acting’ because the ‘real’ minister has been packed off on maternity leave. It’s better to start reading early, rather than putting more people in prison later on.

Next up was Dr Kate McKay, senior medical officer, child health. She herself is a product of how going to the library as a child has led to professional success in adult life. She reckons that the use of digital books will change the pathways of the human brain. Kate is also a fan of the five Rs; reading, rhyming, routines, rewards and relationships. Chaos leads to stress, and early adversity in life causes bad health in adults.

It’s important for a baby to interact with its mother, and this is something which can’t happen if the mother is drunk or drugged. By supporting girls, they become good mothers, and this in turn is good for society. And laughing is healthy. Children laugh more with their parents, and laughing a lot makes for a longer life.

The morning session ended with Margaret Clark, senior health promotion officer in Lanarkshire. She talked about the book bags, and how if you start early you stay active for life. And if the Nordic countries can do it, so can Scotland.

Then the whole roomful of – mostly – bookish ladies fought for lunch, and plates of very sweet cakes, and I believe even the water dispenser ran dry. After which we quickly returned to the conference, because Nick Sharratt was there to talk to us about his books. Dressed in one of his signature stripey shirts [red and white], Nick charmed the socks off everyone. He claimed to be nervous because it was such a large room…

Nick Sharratt

He pointed out he doesn’t have children of his own, and that he’s never become an adult himself. There was a photo of a very young Nick on a swing, drawing. He still draws, just not on a swing. Showing us lots of illustrations from his hundreds of books, he then read a few to us. And he wore his purple wig and sunglasses, which was so 1970s.

One of the books was What’s in the Witch’s Kitchen, and that’s something I’ve often wondered myself. Nick feels we should learn to relax with picture books. They are not purely for the very young. When he started writing his own books, he began by rhyming and using very few words. Food is important in his books, as long as it’s not butterbeans.

Split page books allow for plenty of interaction between adult and child, as well as offering many combinations of crazy things. Nick showed us similar books made by child fans, and they are truly inspirational. At the end of his hour long session we had a coffee break and people queued up to have their books signed. I couldn’t help wondering which would prove to be the longest; the coffee break or the queue.

The queue won and was eventually shown the door so we could get on with the panel discussion on digital books. Chaired by Tam Baillie, the speakers were Tom Bonnick from Nosy Crow, Lydia Plowman and Andrew Manches from the University of Edinburgh, and Jim McCormick.

On the whole the panel were in favour of digital even for the very young, and according to Lydia a surprising percentage of pre-schoolers have tablets; often an older hand-me-down. She reckons not to worry about it, though, and to remember that the adult is still boss, and that the adult is a role model, so cut down on the continual staring at your own phone or other screen.

Other thoughts include how easy it is to share digital material, in a positive sense. The quality of teachers is important and so is the relationship between school and home.

I had somehow expected to hear that digital would make it easier to access reading, but the debate seemed to go in a different direction. We had a Q&A session, and for the first time during the whole day we could hear a few small squeaks from the conference’s youngest participant, a – very – young man [I’m guessing from the pale blue] who mostly enjoyed being breastfed and playing with finger puppets. Lovely baby!

Tam Baillie let us finish with a song; Three Craws. The Scots are as crazy as the Nordics they admire so much…

A Birlinn rendezvous

There is a certain freedom – not to mention a sense of adventure – in standing at a railway station as a train comes in, and you’ve got a trainload of alighting passengers to choose from. Who to go and ‘have coffee’ with. Well, to be truthful, I had already googled Sally from Birlinn, so I had an idea of who to look out for, and she knew to find a short, fat witch. And she did.

Sally was coming all the way to me, to talk about the many good children’s books Birlinn – who are an Edinburgh based publisher – are about to let loose on the world this year. I walked her to the Burgh Coffee House, as she confessed to earlier youthful trips to the Rainbow Slides in Stirling. What’s more, she came here from Linlithgow, and the less said about this lovely place and me, the better. (Actually, Sally has more or less sold me on the town, now. It has a good bookshop just by the station, apparently, so as long as I manage to get off the train in the first place…)

Joan Lennon, Silver Skin and Joe Friedman, The Secret Dog

So, Birlinn. Sally brought me books by Joan Lennon and Joe Friedman, which both look promising. She talked me through their whole 2015 catalogue, and plans include a Peter Pan graphic novel, books by Alexander McCall Smith about the young Precious Ramotswe, history by Allan Burnett, the Polish bear Wojtek, Lynne Rickards and the ever orange Tobermory Cat by Debi Gliori. There will be poetry and there will be naughty young lambs.

The books all have some connection to Scotland, be it setting or author or anything else. I knew it already, really, but it’s worth saying again, that Scotland has books all its own. It’s not just an appendix to England. If Norway can have a publishing industry, then so can Scotland.

There was a bit of gossip, too, and a secret that can’t be mentioned. And after that Sally ran for her train back to the big city, hoping that someone else would have done all the work by the time she got back to the office.

The Great Big Book of Families

It’s Mother’s Day, but it’s a bit of a nonsense, really. Let’s make it Families’ Day instead and talk about The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith. Much more fun, and no need for bath salts, or dinner out in an overcrowded restaurant.

As Mary and Ros show us, a family can be anything. All you need are two people who belong together, somehow. They show us many different types of family constellations, and I’m sure there are many more.

My own, and by that I mean the one I was born into, was a two person family. Sometimes I find that any group bigger than that is pretty large. All I needed was Mother-of-witch.

Now that I ‘have the right’ to celebrate Mother’s Day (I don’t, much, though) from the opposite perspective, it feels rather unreal. Somehow I can only see mothers as an older person; not the one I am.

Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith, The Great Big Book of Families

But one thing Mary and Ros (mainly Ros, I suppose, as it’s an illustration) have got right for our family is this lovely picture. That’s me, and – erm – someone close to me. And if the hair wasn’t wrong, it could also be me and Mother-of-witch. The spiders skipped a generation.

To stop being frivolous – although I don’t see what’s wrong with a bit of frivolity – this book is another fantastic collaboration, ready to show young readers that they are normal and everything is fine, and you don’t need to be like those others who might seem to be ‘the real thing.’ (You know, the kind of family the Government have in mind as the only acceptable life form. Which always makes me wonder what’s wrong with single people.)

Happy People’s Day! Please pass the shower gel.

(PS. I was a very good daughter. Obviously. Sometimes. I rose at dawn and went into the woods to pick a bunch of lily of the valley, before serving breakfast in bed and/or homemade dinner and nice, wobbly cake. Not all in bed, or at the same time.)

Best Scottish

Oh, how I wish I could have been there! Now that I’m finally here, I mean. But I gather that the 2015 Scottish Children’s Book Awards managed without a witch (this one, anyway) and celebrated the three winners in style on Wednesday, at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh.

With three categories, there were three celebrations, and three shortlisted authors for each (except Alexander McCall Smith who’d gone off to Dubai).

Ross Collins and Sean Taylor

The Bookbug Readers were lucky, in that picture books being relatively short, all three books could be read out on stage. There was also live drawing on stage, and singing. Very jolly. And the winner was Ross Collins, for his illustrations of Robot Rumpus, written by Sean Taylor.

Alex McCall

Robots are clearly the thing, as the winner of Younger Readers category, first time novelist Alex McCall won with Attack of the Giant Robot Chickens. He’s only 21, and looks, well, younger still… There was a book quiz to entertain an audience (and I’m sure I’d have won that. If I’d been there) of visiting school children from all over Scotland.

Cathy MacPhail

The winner of the Older Readers category was Cathy MacPhail with Mosi’s War, which didn’t surprise me at all. Cathy wins a lot, and for a good reason. Her audience were also treated to a book quiz, which I’m sure was great fun for all those involved.

I might as well say this again; I feel Scotland is very lucky to have the Scottish Book Trust.

Translating the Peripheries

Remember Maria Parr? I read her Waffle Hearts a couple of weeks ago, and here she was, at the NRN conference, along with fellow Norwegian (well, half, anyway, and a quarter Dane and a quarter Swede, unless I misunderstood the maths) author Harald Rosenløw Eeg and Danish Merete Pryds Helle. They had come to talk about their writing, as well as take part in the discussion on reading translated children’s fiction.

Maria Parr

Maria read from Waffle Hearts (with her translator Guy Puzey right there in the room) in English, and then in Norwegian. I didn’t understand a word of the latter (well maybe a little, since I had actually read the book) as Maria’s accent is very hard to understand.

Harald Rosenløw Eeg

Nordic mix Harald came next, saying how Jostein Gaarder paved the way with Sophie’s Choice twenty years ago, showing that you can do anything you want. He didn’t feel he wrote YA, but simply wrote to please himself, in a Catcher in the Rye way. He’s grateful for the Norwegian state support to writers, which in effect means they get a sort of minimum wage. Harald read from his untranslated Leave of Absence, a novel inspired by a forgotten rucksack on the Oslo underground, which he’d finished just before the 22nd July 2011. His book felt too close to reality, so he changed a few things after the Oslo bombs. He said he speaks Nynorsk (New Norwegian) but writes in ‘Ordinary Norwegian.’

Merete went from ordinary adult fiction to what she calls digital fiction for children. She has tried a variety of techniques or media, and has settled on apps for iPads. She showed us one ‘book’ featuring children from all the Nordic countries, where the reader would start by choosing their language, and then the characters would meet and talk to each other, and you could learn to recognise different languages.

Merete Pryds Helle

By asking an IT friend what you can do with iOS 8, Merete then wrote stories to fit the technical frames, which could mean (does mean) that the reader might need to shake their iPad violently in order to make the pine cones fall off the tree. Or you could light up the forest by showing your iPad something yellow. Very effective. She had a more traditional looking picture book, where the child can see themselves, and get to choose what happens next (like meeting pandas in China, or ending up on a pirate ship).

If you’d asked me beforehand, I’d have said this didn’t sound like anything that I’d be interested in. If you ask me now, I’d have to say it looked brilliant.

The discussion moved to films, and Maria said she was lucky with the Waffle Hearts film. Harald reckons you have to let others do their work, and that once there is a film, you will never get your characters back. Merete does choose the illustrators for her digital books, but not the voices. And her multiple choice advent calendar has four endings, but also two set days when the choices end up the same, to restore order.

As for language and dialects, that’s a big deal in Norway, while Merete reckons there are barely any regional accents in Danish. People use social accents more, and switch to mainstream Danish when it’s required. Maria is always asked if Nynorsk is important to her writing, which she thinks is strange, because it is simply what’s natural and normal. Harald’s children are better at English than the ‘other Norwegian.’

Guy Puzey

After a break for air – and more cake – we continued with the translation side of things, where the authors and Guy were joined by translator Kari Dickson, who volunteered that she has done ‘a lot of crime.’

Kari Dickson

Too few books in the UK are translations. 2% here as opposed to maybe 30% in Europe. And as Daniel Hahn discovered when he counted books in a bookshop recently, children’s books fare even worse. Kari feels it’s important to read foreign books to help a better understanding of other people and countries.

We were asked about the first translated books that we were aware of reading as children. Astrid Lindgren came first for many, and both Harald and Maria loved Saltkråkan. Roald Dahl is big in Norway. Merete didn’t read Lindgren, but Laura Ingalls Wilder and Agatha Christie (at age 7-8), and Dickens, and she feels Danish children’s fiction is too harsh and doesn’t like it. Guy enjoyed Babar, and discovered Pippi Longstocking at university.

Others mentioned more Lindgren, Paddington, Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas. There was the young Swede whose mother made her her read books about Africa and Vietnam, with not a single Donald Duck anywhere…

And then the peripheries where we live re-appeared in the debate, except for Merete who pointed out that Denmark is the centre of the world, and how her characters dig all the way to China.

Translating picture books is like writing the book from scratch a second time, because the translator has to work out how to make the original shift into another language. Harald’s opinion was that the translator might as well write their own stuff, as he won’t be able to read it anyway.

Squeaking wet snow is a problem. A lot of Nordic fiction describes things that the receiving language and country might not have. London is well known to most, but what the hamlet in Waffle Hearts looked like will be almost unknown, even to people in Oslo.

The session ended with the Norwegian authors saying we need real books to relax with on long journeys, and Merete disagreeing and saying how she would have loved an iPad as a child.

So, we’re all different, but we would benefit from reading each other’s fiction, travelling in our minds, making us feel calmer.

Katie Morag

I’m probably the last person to know that Katie Morag is now on television. Oh well. I know now.

But it can’t possibly be as good as the books! We used to read Katie Morag a lot at Bookwitch Towers, when Offspring were tiny. Now that I’ve recently unpacked the books, I’ve seen with my own eyes quite how many Katie Morag books we actually have. I was suprised, but I shouldn’t have been, really, as Mairi Hedderwick knows how to make a good book; great story, wonderful illustrations.

The Isle of Struay

And now we have The Katie Morag Treasury, which means lots of old stories in one volume, with six bonus folk tales, as told at Grannie Island’s Ceilidh. I approached those with some level of suspicion, which was silly of me, because they were fantastic. Too.

I have come to the conclusion, however, that Katie Morag isn’t for children. It’s for us oldies. We love all the romance of living on a remote Scottish island, with a boat once a week, and bad weather all the time. And drop dead beautiful scenery all around. We like the idea of living quietly, with the Aga and the friendly neighbours, living off the sea and the tatties grown in our back garden. A little dancing at the ceilidh every now and then.

Sheer romance, the well-worn, old-fashioned way.

I’d never stopped to notice Katie Morag’s mother openly breastfeeding her baby. But I did now. I suppose it’s very New Age, but life on the Isle of Struay is a dream come true. I wasn’t concentrating on the stories, which are very good, because I could ogle the cottage interiors and the perfect but rough landscape. The scones (I’m sure there were scones) and the public toilets and the tearoom and the sheep, and you know… everything.

Katie Morag

The good thing is that children like these stories too. And there’s some pretty decent morals to those folk tales. I’m a firm believer of inviting a smelly goat to come and live with you. And what’s some spinach-stained clothing between friends?

Height matters

We are slowly putting books onto the ‘new’ shelves. The Resident IT Consultant couldn’t wait, so got working on his four last boxes, the contents of which I had, in a moment of excessive generosity, said he could put on ‘my’ shelves. As long as he put them in double rows. They are only IT books, so can be obscure at the back, at the bottom.

That’s what I think. Anyway, with my crummy eyesight, I can’t see book titles at awkward distances, nor can I bend down to browse in stupid places. The latter has less to do with eyes than knees, though. So my books are going to be in the best spots.

I was hoping he would see the light, and perhaps get rid of a few more books while doing this final sorting. I stood and watched as he worked, since I had a short break from kitchen duties, when he got to a rather tall book. It wouldn’t fit. Wondering if I needed to offer it to share with my picture books on a taller shelf, I never had time to say anything before he muttered, ‘well if it doesn’t fit, that might be a good reason to get rid of it.’ And with that it went on the discard pile. Oh, the happiness of it!

For me. I expect the book was less impressed. Let that be a lesson to you. Make books too enormous, for no obvious reason, and out they go. Possibly never in, in the first place.