Category Archives: Reading

The Power of Picture Books: Building Communities, Families and Futures – 2017 Bookbug Conference

Arriving slightly late to the 2017 Bookbug Conference in Edinburgh on Wednesday morning, I was shown to a chair. Unfortunately it was the Chair’s chair, so I went to sit on the side, which suits me best, and Chair Jenny Niven kept her chair.

My arrival coincided nicely with the start of Dr Vivienne Smith’s talk on Reading as a Playful Act, which was one of the best talks! Ever. The slides might have ‘gone bananas’ as Vivienne put it, but her research on young children’s reading was so interesting. I chanced upon super-librarian Yvonne Manning in the break and we both agreed on how great it had been.

Vivienne Smith

Basically, reading should be like playing, and none of this sounding out words letter by letter, which will not give the young reader the right experience. In one experiment, even the keen readers from bookish families chose the Lego and the dinosaurs before the book. But from another group, a couple of young children were so taken by the toy version of book character Beegu that one of them invited him to her birthday party, and the other wrote him a letter, two years later.

There is little emotion in the reading that happens at school. Reading can help your well-being, like disappearing into Pride & Prejudice every time you move house. You learn empathy from reading, and more so if you read ‘worthier’ books, where you are forced to think more. They make you likelier to vote, to volunteer, to recycle for the good of the environment, and so on.

You learn that life can be changed, made better. As Flaubert said, ‘read in order to live.’ For the well-being of society we need children who read!

I could have listened to Vivienne all day, but we had to take a break and drink tea and eat banoffee tarts and chat to people. Which was nice too.

A panel on The Power of Picture Books followed, with Vivienne again, and illustrator Alison Murray, Dr Evelyn Arizpe from University of Glasgow, Rowena Seabrook from Amnesty International and Nicholas Dowdall of the Mikhulu Trust (South Africa), chaired by Jenny Niven.

Picture books panel

They started by choosing a picture book each, one that meant something special to them. Nicholas showed us a short video of a tiny boy in South Africa reading with an adult, and his surprised and delighted reactions to what happened in the book. Evelyn mentioned a Mexican, version of Red Riding Hood, which led Vivienne to say that for this to work well, you first need to know the basic version, which is ‘cultural capital.’

Alison likes a balance between the sexes of her characters, and Vivienne said how we are ‘all so flipping middle class’ making assumptions and taking things for granted. Rowena mentioned a description of a book with an ungendered character, which still contrived to gender the character (male). Nicholas pointed out that in the townships they need books which are not about things that readers won’t know. To make picture books work well, you must read them out and read them well.

Replying to a question Vivienne said that it’s fine to be disturbed by the content of a book. It makes you think. And you have to remember that children can only take on what they understand, so a lot would simply go over their heads.

This panel discussion could also have gone on for much longer, but there was lunch to be eaten.

Mark McDonald, minister for Childcare & Early Years started the afternoon session. He didn’t have long, as his work in Parliament was ‘pressing’ this week, but he mentioned the First Minister’s reading challenge, and how reading takes you to magical places. 80% of a child’s development comes from what they do outside of school.

Mark McDonald

He talked about his children and their reading. The daughter likes Fairy Ponies, and next time Mark needs to vent about their quality he has learned not to do it to the publisher in question. Oops. His son, who is on the autistic spectrum, finally became interested in books via Nick Sharratt’s illustrations, so he is their god. (I know that feeling!)

Mark appreciates what we (that will be the teachers, librarians and other community workers) do, and ‘his door is always open’ if we want to speak to him. A yellow party bag saw Mark back off to Parliament.

Sabine Bonewitz

The next session was a talk by Sabine Bonewitz from Stiftung Lesen, the German Reading Foundation. She talked about encouraging parents to read with their children, spreading the joy of reading. Sabine had statistics to show us, she talked about their bookbags which feature a kangaroo (big steps) and finished by astounding everyone with German McDonald’s collaboration for reading, offering books with their Happy Meals.

Following this Happy idea, we all went our separate ways to different workshops. I had chosen to hear Alison Murray talk about Navigating the Story Arc. Important facts about reading picture books is that you do it in company, and that the paper can be tactile, and you might even want to sniff it. Boardbooks you can ‘eat.’

Alison Murray

Alison showed us a sketch of John Dewey’s shape of stories, showing how it fits almost every book; reading us her own Hare and Tortoise. Before finishing she read us her new picture book, Dino Duckling, a kinder version of The Ugly Duckling. It was lovely.

All in all, delegates will have gone home with much to think about, and lots to try on their own small ‘customers.’ As for me, I went in search of eldest Offspring, who was once much smaller than he is now.

Post kill

Please don’t send me more chocolate! It won’t make me love you or your book any more than not sending it will do, and I can’t eat it. In fact, I’m increasingly surrounded by people who will not be having any of the book chocolate I receive.

What to do with it?

It’s quite attractive when someone has had a bar of chocolate designed to match the book cover. I appreciate the idea. But I will still have to get rid of it.

And then there are the smaller, anonymous, pieces of – what looks like – chocolate. And other small sweets, which I won’t eat either. Recently there was a recipe and part of what was needed to make something, which I won’t identify here, as it was pretty specific.

Some of these books I will read and like. Some I will not. I will neither like nor dislike the book because of the freebie.

And then my mind goes off in another direction. If the blank chocolates appeared in a crime novel, alongside a book, addressed to a book reviewer… Well, there are certainly possibilities there! And, you know, if that book when sent out to reviewers were to be accompanied by chocolate… Well.

Sara Paretsky once had VI Warshawski in desperate need of something to write on, and furnished her heroine with the backs of press releases of books for review, which VI came across, for whatever reason. I quite liked that. I do all my Bookwitch planning on the backs of them.

But they are not going to kill anyone.

Closed Casket

I must admit I can’t work out what the four words are. Having finished reading Sophie Hannah’s second Poirot mystery, Closed Casket, I remembered her saying at the Edinburgh launch that four words describe the whole thing. You know, something like ‘the butler did it.’ Except he didn’t. I mean, maybe he did. I’m saying nothing.

There is an outlandish character in Closed Casket, but one I had no trouble believing in, as I’ve met someone like that myself. I wonder if there is one like that in most people’s lives?

Sophie Hannah, Closed Casket

In this second Poirot outing we meet an Enid Blyton kind of children’s mystery author. Very rich and famous, this woman changes her will, leaving everything to her dying secretary, which is a weird thing to do. And from that we have our mystery. Who will die, and who murdered them and why?

More so than in Sophie’s first Poirot novel, I felt this one gave more space to Poirot’s Scotland Yard friend Catchpool, letting Poirot work around him. They have been invited to the author’s home in Ireland, and while the house itself is fancy, the surroundings seem less attractive than we are used to in Agatha’s own books. Much less vicarage chintz for the blood to spill on, so to speak.

There is a whole cast of likeable – and less likeable – characters, and it really was difficult deciding who must have dunnit. In fact, I didn’t. I just let myself  float along, happy to let any of them be the bad guy.

Tales from Weird Street

Anne Fine, Tales from Weird Street

Anne Fine’s Tales from WeirD Street for Barrington Stoke are a lot scarier than you’d think, but aimed at a youngish age group, not as horrible as they could be. I mean, I was fine. My interest wasn’t lost through the stories being too wimpy, or anything, but neither did they have me kicking and screaming. Much.

Three children – living in WeirD Street – compete to see who can tell the scariest story. Each has a story that purports to come from someone else; a friend or relative or neighbour. So it didn’t happen to them, but to someone close and reliable so obviously this really happened.

Someone tells of the photograph that caused a boy to drown. Another tale tells of a Chinese restaurant and its ‘fortune’ cookies. And then there is a ghost who…

I would say, beware of the fortune cookie!

(Illustrations by Vicki Gausden)

The Pavee and the Buffer Girl

You can’t read and review a truly divine story too many times. Siobhan Dowd’s short story The Pavee and the Buffer Girl has just been published as a book in its own right, by Barrington Stoke, illustrated by Emma Shoard, and you want to buy it purely for those pictures! They are stunning, and the whole book is so beautiful.

Siobhan Dowd and Emma Shoard, The Pavee and the Buffer Girl

(Here is the link to when I first reviewed it, many years ago. I can’t believe time has passed so quickly.)

It’s a story about Irish travellers, and if I didn’t know that Siobhan could turn her hand to anything, I’d ask how she could know what it’s like for people like Jim and his extended family. It’s as though she had been there. Maybe she was.

More poignant than ever, this brief tale about outsiders unwanted by a community is very touching. Jim and his cousins have to go to school when they stop to live in a new town. They are not welcomed, and Jim’s younger cousin is severely bullied, and eventually the group of travellers decide they will be better off somewhere else and they leave.

Before that, Jim has made friends with a girl in his class at school, another outsider who doesn’t quite fit in, and whose home life is dreary.

In the current climate where reading and libraries are so threatened, it’s humbling to learn that none of the travellers know how to read, but would love to be able to. Jim’s mum is so hopeful when she asks if he will teach her, if he learns anything. It makes you want to cry.

Siobhan Dowd and Emma Shoard, The Pavee and the Buffer Girl

The Scarecrow Queen

Starting with the third book in a trilogy is not something I often do. If only one book from a trilogy is to be read, I tend to prefer the first, while also risking ‘having to’ continue, because once started you will want to finish.

Melinda Salisbury, The Scarecrow Queen

I only came across Melinda Salisbury a few months ago, when I heard much good about her first book, The Sin Eater’s Daughter. I was aware there was a second, but before I knew where I was, I found the third one, The Scarecrow Queen in the post, and after some agonising over time, I decided to jump straight in and begin at the end.

Which is not always a bad thing. It took me a while to learn who’s who (especially as Melinda doesn’t go in for the sometimes so tiresome explanations to help new – or forgetful – readers), but from then on it was almost as if I’d not skipped the first two.

A very bad Prince has ousted a good King and is now busy killing and controlling the people around him. This is fantasy, and he has golems and clay dolls at his disposal. He holds some of the good characters prisoner, while others are busy picking up the pieces from a devastating attack elsewhere. Twylla is the sin eater’s daughter and she is trying to get back to free her friend Errin, who is an apothecary, so that they can attempt to stop the Sleeping Prince.

This is a perfect fantasy for teenagers, with some strong female role models among the main characters. There is fighting and there is romance, and a lot of backstabbing as you hope you know who is on your side, while discovering who can’t be trusted.

Melinda avoids a too sugar-sweet ending, having kept the reader guessing throughout. I suspect the future will bring many more great books for her fans to enjoy.

Unfold and open

I turned The Street Beneath My Feet this way and that way. Charlotte Guillain’s and Yuval Zommer’s unusual picture book is large. And it unfolds. You turn it sideways and let go and gravity does its part. You obviously have to hold on to the top – that’s the side – of the book. It’s only the bottom that you let fall. I think.

Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer, The Street Beneath My Feet

It begins with a street and then you follow the falling pages down, down, past cables and drains, tiny creatures, leaves, the odd skeleton, ‘Ming’ vases [bits of], underground trains, caves, rocks, and eventually to the rather hot middle of our planet.

In Heather Alexander’s Farm, with illustrations by Andrés Lozano, we meet life on the surface of the Earth, and it’s like Advent come early; there are 70 doors – or lift-flaps – to open. 100 questions are answered as you look at the pictures of farm life, and as you open all those doors. “What is the hen doing?’ or ‘Why are these fields smelly?’

You will have to read the book to find out. It’s one of two current releases in the Life on Earth series. The second one, also by Heather and Andrés, is Human Body.

Lots more pictures and doors; another 100 questions and 70 more lift-flaps to peek behind. I think makers of books have worked out that readers like to open doors, so the flappier the merrier.

Heather Alexander and Andrés Lozano, Human Body

If I could only memorise all the information in here, I’d know a lot. As it is, I have to re-read when I’ve forgotten. But those doors will open more than once, so that’s OK. If you ask ‘How do I smell?’ I’d have to say ‘awful.’

And ‘Why do I have to sleep if I’m not tired?’ ‘Because your mum said so.’

All in all, these three books will provide masses of knowledge. And unlike me, I suspect that younger readers will be able to remember most of it afterwards.