Tuesday, 16 December 2014

A Christmas List of Picture Book Trivia by Moira Butterfield


To keep Mr Wolf from my door I’ve been compiling fact books this year, and writing history books, too, as well as creating board books and picture book material, and even writing poetry. So my bloggy Xmas present to you reflects my eclectic year. It’s a lucky dip of facts to be enjoyed with a seasonal glass (or mug) of something warming to hand. I may use it as my excuse to decant my home-made damson gin, just to see if it's ready for Santa.




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Children have not changed so much over the centuries, it seems. Given the chance, they will let their imaginations take flight. Here's a description of children playing in medieval times, taken from an English sermon of the period:  

'with flowers...with sticks, and with small bits of wood, to build a chamber, buttery, and hall, to make a white horse of a wand, a sailing ship of broken bread, a burly spear from a ragwork stalk, and of a sedge a sword of war, a comely lady from cloth, and be right busy to deck it elegantly with flowers.'

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 Stories exist as long as there is someone to tell them. In Anglo-Saxon England ordinary people could not read or write but they loved stories. Storytellers called 'scops' would travel from village to village to perform, accompanying their stirring adventure tales of heroes and monsters with a lyre, to add a bit of musical rhythm and atmosphere. The Anglo-Saxons also loved telling riddles, mostly full of filthy innuendo. Here’s a clean one:
When I am alive I do not speak.
Anyone can take me captive and cut off my head.
I do no harm to anyone unless they cut me first.
Then I make them cry!

 Here is the answer: 


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If you are ever asked to write some unattributed work here's an idea from  Cynewulf, a monk from the 800s who was the first English author that we know of to write his own name on his work. He interwove symbols representing the letters of his name into the manuscripts of his religious poems. 
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The earliest known children’s picture book, according to the internet,  is The Orbis Sensualium Pictus, or ‘The Picture World of the Senses’, published in 1658 and written by Czech educator John Comenius. On the title page he describes his book:  

‘The pictures of all the chief things that are in the world, and of men’s employment therein’. 

It opens with the sentence: ‘Come, boy, learn to be wise.’ You can read a translation and see the lovely woodcuts on the internet:

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The earliest recorded lullaby is: ‘Lalla, lalla, lala, aut dormi, aut lacta’  - meaning lala, lalla, lalla, or lie down, or milk. It was set down in an Ancient Roman manuscript, as sung by a Roman nurse.
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Online retailer Amazon made J.K. Rowling's ‘The Tales of Beedle the Bard’ the world’s most expensive children’s book when it bought a copy at auction for £1.9 million. I wonder what they do with it. Do they read bits out at management meetings, I wonder? Is it trapped in a glass case, to keep it away from children? Oh the irony ... etc etc.

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People are always claiming different historical meanings for children's nursery rhymes. The village of Kilmersdon near Bath, where I live, claims to be the home of the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill, for example. The story goes that a local unmarried girl got pregnant (presumably somewhere up the hill). Then her lover, Jack, was killed by a boulder that fell on him at the local quarry. Jill had the child but died and the child was raised as ‘Jill’s son’ (Gilson is a local surname). However, apparently this could all be nonsense and the rhyme could be to do with Charles the First slapping tax on a half-pint of ale (once called a 'jack’). It could be none of the above, frankly, but the village claims it, so there. You can walk up ‘Jack and Jill Hill’, tumble back down and then go and have a half in the local pub, so everyone’s happy. “Proper job,” as they say around these parts. 

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Here's a photo of the front of our office. I share it as a co-operative with other freelancers, and this front window is kept permanently decorated with all sorts of toys and stuff by maestro cover designer and children's illustrator Steve Wells, for the delight of passing people.  This is his Xmas display. 


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A Harvard professor and and Winchester University psychologist recently announced news of their researches analysing the thought processes of nursery-age children. They discovered that the children could easily distinguish between people pretending to be Father Christmas and the man himself, and have no difficulty still believing in the real deal whilst meeting impersonators. Welcome confirmation that small children don't take everything literally, are very aware and don't need every message, every 'moral', hammered home on every page as if they have no brain at all. (Oops, sorry. I am in danger of going off on an unrelated rant here. Pass the damson gin, would you?)

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Finland is the country that use its libraries the most. On average a Finnish family borrows a hundred library books a year between them. This could be valuable evidence of what Santa does in summer.
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So long as a new Norwegian children’s book passes quality control, Arts Council Norway automatically buys 1,550 copies to distribute to libraries. The authors make an extra-high royalties on these books. Renowned Norwegian writers and artists receive a guaranteed income and are eligible for one to five-year work grants.

No wonder Santa lives up north! I’m off! 

Until this morning Moira Butterfield was trying to work out how best to explain the British Iron Age to 7 yr-olds, was in the process of creating some pre-school board books for a major UK retailer, and was about to begin a series on children around the world. She also had a picture book in the works for 2015. However, she has just left to catch a plane to Norway, muttering about become one of Santa's in-house authors. 


6 comments:

  1. That's a great Christmas selection box you've put together there, Moira. Those last two facts do make the prospect of upping sticks and moving to Scandinavia very attractive!

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  2. Hmm, I have had to rethink this and unpack my suitcase because the cost of living in Scandinavia turns out to be huge.One beer costs the equivalent of three sacks of gold.That's probably why Santa can only afford fuel for one trip each year, and always wears the same old clothes.

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  3. Fab post and thanks for providing the answer to the riddle - doubt I would have solved it.

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  4. That was just like a Christmas stocking of goodies! Thank you, Moira, and cheers!

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  5. Very enjoyable and I want to move to Norway, regardless of the cost of living!
    In particular thanks so much for 'The Picture World of the Senses’, published in 1658. Intriguing. For example, the last two seven stages of man are ‘elderly man’ and then ‘decrepid old man’. Thunder is made of a brimstone-like vapour. Animals are divided into categories such as ‘herd-cattle’ (eg bull and ram), ‘labouring-beasts’ (eg horse and elephant), ‘wild-beasts’ (eg hedgehogs and tygers) and ‘wild-cattle’ which range from a mole to a unicorn. Not sure I understand all the distinctions, but love it!

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  6. Excellent! A unicorn! It's in a fact book so it must be true.

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