Monday 7 August 2017

Favourite Picture Books of Writers and Illustrators ● Paeony Lewis

“What’s your favourite picture book?” Argh! That’s such a tricky question. Is it a favourite picture book to share with children? Or a favourite picture book you enjoy as an adult? 

Escaping to the country
to immerse ourselves in picture books

Recently, at a long weekend in the depths of the English Cotswolds, a collection of children’s picture book writers and illustrators shared their answers to this questionable question (and they couldn't pick their own books!). It’s a wonderful way to discover new picture books and see familiar ones with fresh eyes. So I thought I’d share their choices, even if I‘m staggered at some of the books chosen (ha ha, I won’t say which!).  

The discussions were originally recorded in my scruffy writing in my scruffy notebook. Apologies if I’ve misunderstood anyone and just contact me if you want anything changed. In general, I only included those who are published because although I mentioned I'd be writing a blog post, I didn't ask individuals and those who are published are more familiar with seeing all manner of stuff about themselves on the internet (even nonsense!).

Also look out for extra VIDEO LINKS. Later that weekend the talented Candy Gourlay grabbed some of us to talk about our choices on camera (we were totally unprepared – well I was!).

THE THREE PIGS by David Wiesner (Clarion Books 2001)
Chosen by guest speaker and author/illustrator, Adam Stower  + Video

The words and pictures come together to create something greater than the individual parts. It starts off lulling you into a sense of traditional security. Then the pig literally blows the pig right out of the visual frame of the story. There are speech bubbles followed by a wonderful word-free journey with a surprise at every turn.

GRUMPY FROG by Ed Vere (Puffin 2017 )
Chosen by author/illustrator Mike Brownlow  + Video

A new book which has been stylistically pared back. The lines are out of the ordinary and all unnecessary detail has been removed and the colours are particularly strong. The book removes or plays with the authorial voice and there’s a dialogue with the reader. 

Mike also sneaked in WE FOUND A HAT by Jon Klassen (Walker Books 2016) because the dialogue between the two characters appealed, and the ethical dilemma is told in a refreshing way.

THERE'S A PIG UP MY NOSE by John Dougherty & Laura Hughes (Egmont 2017)
Chosen by author Julie Fulton 

It's great fun though probably a bit of a 'Marmite' book (non-British readers: this means you'll either love it or hate it!). The trotter prints in the illustrations and the very matter-of-fact way the characters accept the doctor's diagnosis of a pig up the girl's nose add to the enjoyment. The oink repetition is fun to repeat by a child.

WATERLOO & TRAFALGAR by Olivier Tallec (Enchanted Lion Books 2012)
Chosen by guest speaker and publishing art director
Zoë TuckerVideo

Beautiful and unusual book that is wordless and relies on observational body language. Great characterisation. Adores the cover from a graphic designer's point of view.

CRY, HEART, BUT NEVER BREAK by Glenn Ringtved & Charlotte Pardi (Enchanted Lion Books 2016, originally published in Danish in 2001)

A popular choice and picked by two people, writer Alison and illustrator Rachel Tilda Wolf  + Video

A story within a story. It was the stunning illustrations that first attracted Rachel, and then she fell in love with Death - he has so much respect for everyone. It's such a strong moment when Death puts his hand over the coffee cup and says now is the time.

It was an emotional book for Alison too and she particularly empathised with the intertwining of sorrow and delight; who would enjoy the sun if it never rained?

ONE OF EACH by Mary Ann Hoberman & Marjorie Priceman (Little, Brown and Company, USA 2000)
Chosen by author/illustrator Bridget Marzo  +  Video (about another favourite: Caleb and Kate by William Steig, 1977)

The saturated colour is reminiscent of Matisse. The illustrations work well with the writing and there's a strong rhythm. Bridget enjoyed sharing it with her children who found it hilarious.

PARK IN THE DARK by Martin Waddell & Barbara Firth (new edition Walker Books 2002)
Chosen by illustrator John Shelley

An old favourite. John adores the illustrations but it's the poetic rhythm (not rhyming) of the words that pulls him into the night-time world of the toys. You simply can't stop reading it from beginning to end. A simple story told in a beautiful, poetic way.

HENRI'S WALK TO PARIS by Leonore Klein and illustrated by Saul Bass (originally published in 1962, this edition Universe Publishing, USA,  2012)
Chosen by illustrator Alyana Cazalet  + Video

One of many favourites, Alyana loves the work of American, Saul Bass. The illustrations are simple, patterned, and use space, colour and typography in an interesting way. Although the book is about Henri, we never see him, which works well. Plus Bass doesn't use cliched tourist images of Paris. For a book first published in 1962, it looks very contemporary.

 WHEN FRANK WAS FOUR by Alison Lester (pb Allen & Unwin, 1997)
Chosen by author Cath Howe  + Video


This is a book about real children, to be shared with children. It creates lots of discussion and is not a narrative and breaks expectations of what works in a picture book. Cath likes the way all the children do one thing, whilst one child does something else, and Cath's children love it.

BAHAY KUBO illus by Hermes Alegre (Tahanan Books, 1993)
Chosen by author Candy Gourlay 

Not in English but we all understood what was happening. This is a traditional folk song that everyone knows in the Philippines. Candy adores the colours and illustrations and picked it because she's especially interested in books that show other countries and cultures that aren't familiar to European children.

Similarly, writer, Cathy, picked THE MOUSEHOLE CAT By Antonia Barber & Nicola Bayley (Walker Books, 1990) partly because it reflects her Cornish identity and life, her language and places. Also, she feels there's a place for longer picture book stories.

THE RED BOOK by Barbara Lehman (Houghton Mifflin, USA, 2004)
Chosen by author Juliet Clare Bell  + Video

A wordless picturebook, although for Clare the attraction is not in the illustrations. Instead it is about the 'whole thing' and the way the book makes her feel . The wordless story is about two lonely children who meet in an extraordinary way. It's a different form of storytelling.

Another book was chosen for the overall way it made the reader feel.  This time  it was an unusual (weird?!) book, THE BEAR WHO WANTED TO STAY A BEAR by Jörg Steiner & Jörg Muller (Swiss), originally published in English in 1977. Chosen by illustrator, Paul Morton, and you can find out more in this general video link.  Once again, for him it's not the pictures, or even the writing. Instead it's the feeling you get from the book. Despair with a little hope at the end.

After that book, if you want to cheer yourself up then listen to Gary Fabbi talk about Stickman in the video below.

STICKMAN by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler (Alison Green Books 2008)
Chosen by writer, illustrator and filmaker, Gary Fabbi  +  Video

Gary loves reading this 'awesome' story to his children and says there are no other books like Stickman. It's a story about homecoming.

Time to squeeze in my book choices.

Like others, I brought along several books. There was Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson - a reassuring tale about separation anxiety and a favourite to read to my young children. Plus This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen - I adore the illustration and simplicity of the expressive fish eyes, the deadpan language that says so much, and the childlike morals of the little fish who tries to justify the theft of the hat. However, we had to pick one book and my choice was...

VARMINTS by Helen Ward and Marc Craste (Templar Publishing, 2007, 2013)
Chosen by Paeony Lewis  + Video

I have two copies: an everyday secondhand copy and a signed hardback in a slipcase. Despite this I hadn't read Varmints in quite a while so if you listen to the video you'll be confused by my chaotic rambling (I panicked and didn't know what to say - which is daft as I can cope with radio interviews!).

Varmints is a slightly abstract tale about being subsumed by urbanisation and cutting ourselves off from nature. But all is not lost and it only takes one person to nurture a seed of hope that spreads change and the return of bees. The illustrations are unusual and atmospheric. Sometimes the text is hard to read, which is deliberate as the noise of industrialisation drowns out sound. Perhaps it's because my degree is in environmental sciences that this is a favourite?

Sadly there's not enough room for all the 'favourites', but here are a few more that other lovely writers and illustrators shared over the weekend.

The variety of 'favourites' is staggering. Many were new to me and I found some choices surprising. I think it shows that our personalities and experiences influence our preferences far more than sales hype or academic evaluations of what is 'good'. Plus there's often a difference between our personal favourites (as adults) and the ones we enjoyed sharing with children. For many, 'favourites' are fluid, so often new favourites replace old favourites. I'd love to hear your favourites.

Paeony Lewis

PS The long weekend was organised by the SCBWI (Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators), a proactive group that encourages both published and aspiring writers and illustrators. Click picture book weekend for an excellent write-up of the event by Candy Gourlay.


Lucy Rowland said...

Thanks Paeony! There are so many picture books here that are completely new to me...I need to get reading I think. Some of those look fabulous! I may well look into the Scbwi picture book weekend next year as well!

Paeony Lewis said...

I'm sure you'd enjoy it, Lucy :-) So, do you have any favourite picture books (besides your own!).

Lucy Rowland said...

I tend to re-read books again and again when I like their rhythm. So I like 'The dragons and the nibblesome knights' by Elli Woolard and Benji Davies and another book called 'Dragon Stew' which has a wonderful bouncy rhythm and lots of internal rhyme!

Paeony Lewis said...

I don't know either of those two books, Lucy - I'm off now to look them up!

Unknown said...

Great record of the discussions Paeony! It was such an interesting session to see the huge variety but what linked them all was the emotional link each of us had with the book we selected. I think that emphasises for me the need for what David Lucas described as the heart, as well as the head and the hand being part of our writing.

Candy Gourlay said...

Thanks for recording this, I too found the choices varied and thought provoking ... and yes, as a picture book reader and writer, so reassuring that this world is full of story, and there is an infinite variety of ways to tell them!

Candy Gourlay said...

I've been reading one picture book over and over these past few weeks: Town is by the Sea, words by Joanne Schwartz and illustrated by Sidney Smith. Maybe I should say "looking", not "reading" ... Smith's illustrations are so beautiful. I hope it gets noticed for the Greenaway.

Camilla Chester said...

There are so many picture books I love. Ferdinand is probably my all time favourite. Simple ink drawings - beautiful. Would you recommend the retreat for someone who was thinking about writing a picture book but wasn't quite sure where to start? I'm guessing not.

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks, Cathy. I enjoyed David Lucas's workshop too. I think some books supply a quick, fun read in the short term, but ultimately they are 'empty' and don't resonate emotionally in the long term because they lack 'heart'. Ages ago, in a roundabout waffly way, I even wrote a blog post about this:

Paeony Lewis said...

I've just looked up 'Town is by the Sea' and it looks an unusual, thoughtful book with illustrations that suck you in. Mind you, from the pages I've seen I feel there's something uncomfortable about the story (perhaps that's a good thing as it's aimed at older readers and makes us think?. To me the story seemed too fatalistic, as though a child can only follow in the 'tradition' of a family. Or does it end slightly differently, with 'escape' possible? My husband's family comes from a long line of Welsh miners, though his father left after an accident in the lift shaft and he once said he wouldn't wish that job on anybody and my husband 'escaped' to university. Anyway, I adore books that make us think.

Paeony Lewis said...

Another book for me to look up - brilliant, Camilla!
As for attending the picture book retreat before you've tried writing or illustrating a few, I feel it's entirely up to you but I think you'd get a lot more out of it if you've had a go as you can't expect to understand everything at once. Maybe a 'how to' book will help get you started, such as Andrea Shavick's 'How to Write a Children's Picture Book' - it's very simple which I feel is fine as otherwise you might get overwhelmed?! Plus taking well-known pb books (written and illustrated by different people) and then typing out the text and looking at just the text can help demystify picture books. Basically, see the world from a young child's point of view and then solve a problem that matters to them (how the problem is solved will depend on the main character and that person/animal must contribute to the problem being solved because an adult must never do it for them).Plus always remember the story is a combination of words and pictures (often over 12 double-page spreads).

Alina Surnaite said...

Thanks for writing this interesting summary, Paeony. So many unusual picture books! I love 'Varmints' too and the animated film based on it is exquisite. I think you would enjoy 'Pandora' by Victoria Turnbull, which was published last year, as it also deals with the environment, friendship and hope. Another favourite would be 'Rules of Summer' by the amazing Australian artist Shaun Tan, which explores the sibling relationship in minimal text and incredibly rich and surreal paintings.

David McMullin said...

What writers like can be very different from what is popular. Writers see things others don't. I look forward to finding the ones I don't know.

Paeony Lewis said...

I'm glad you've nudged me as it's about time I purchased and watched the 20-minute animation based on 'Varmints'!
I looked up 'Pandora' - thanks so much. Interestingly, I see it's the same author/illustrator as 'The Sea Tiger'.
'Rules of Summer' has some incredible illustrations and I adore the olive illustration, but is it truly a children's book (yes, that old chestnut!!)?

Paeony Lewis said...

Good point, David. Plus I always enjoy listening to an illustrator discussing the images.

Sue Rawlings said...

Thanks for this, Paeony. I love your choices! Owl Babies was a favourite with children when I was teaching, and I just love Jon Klassen's gently wicked sense of humour. My choices, like some others were a 'last minute grab what I could find', but I will pay much closer attention next time, as it was such a useful exercise.

Paeony Lewis said...

Hi Sue :-) Great minds, etc.!! Yes, I enjoy all three of the Jon Klassen books - there is so much subtlety. 'Owl Babies' was an emotional choice for me and the other Martin Waddell book I considered picking was 'Farmer Duck'. I'm also a big fan of 'This Moose Belongs to Me' by Oliver Jeffers. It was hard to pick as there are lots and lots of other books too. Perhaps another time, it shouldn't necessarily be a 'favourite book', but a picture book we particularly admire as this can be slightly different.

Chitra Soundar said...

So many books to discover and read! I will need another lifetime.