Monday, 15 July 2019

Building Kids’ Bookshelves - Just One (More) Book At a Time • by Natascha Biebow

I have this image stuck in my mind: just one book on a lonely bookshelf, occupying pride of place.

A precious resource.

The key to so many things, among them MAGIC. Yes, the magic of reading, the magic of another world, the magic of access, the magic of fun.

I grew up in a non-English speaking place, so books were treasured gifts from family living in England.

I loved reading, and I loved books. My school had a library also. More windows.

I still have these books. They are friends. When I was old enough, I filched from my parents’ bookshelves as well. 

But for many, the reality is very different. 

In 2018, in the UK, the National Literacy Trust surveyed 44,097 children aged 8-18. It worryingly concluded that 1 in 11 children and young people in the UK don’t own have a book of their own at home. 

The same survey also revealed unsurprisingly that “the more books a child owns, the more likely they are to do well at school and be happy with their lives.

It is well documented that reading for pleasure is the single biggest indicator of a child’s future success, and that reading is key to developing empathy. Picture books (and all books!) matter.

There are some great initiatives to bring books into households:

Booktrust’s Bookstart – which gives free books to every child in England and Wales at two key stages before school, as well as free packs for children with additional needs.  

World Book Day –  where each child receives a £1 book token towards a book – is a registered charity on a mission to give every child and young person a book of their own. Published figures state that WBD reaches 15 million children and young people in 45,000 schools every year.

With every book donated, there is a greater chance of a child discovering their love of reading and gaining access to a brighter future. 

But, clearly, there is more to be done.

Even if children have one book on their shelves, they should be entitled to more. Access to books through free school and public libraries is something that will benefit everyone’s future.

This week, Cressida Cowell took over the mantel of Children’s Laureate from Lauren Child, with an ambitious ten-point charter:

In her impassioned speech at the launch event, Cowell talked about the magic of books and reading for fun. She promised to do more to lobby for access to books, school libraries and author and illustrator visits.

And she promised to LISTEN to what children are saying about books and reading and needing to address our planet’s climate emergency.   

School children support Cressida Cowell's laureate launch speech

Cowell admits that it’s a huge list, but she’s committed and she has the laureateship behind her.

But is there something I could do to contribute, I wondered?

I thought about this again . . .

And I remembered: on my author tour this Spring to promote THE CRAYON MAN, I met a teacher and librarian who shared with me the order form for my book that went home with the children. On it, in addition to the possibility of ordering my book to be signed when I came to the school, parents and carers could also choose to buy a book for another child, one who might perhaps not have access to such a thing. And people did!

At another school, the PTA purchased a book for the library and a copy to give out as reward for children who had achieved something noteworthy at school. I know some authors and illustrators, if they're able, sometimes donate a copy of their book to the school library.

If, for every author/illustrator visit we did, even one child got a book who might not otherwise have one, just think how many more books might be on that bookshelf?


Natascha Biebow,
MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor
Natascha is the author of The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. She is currently working on more non-fiction and a series of young fiction. She runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. Find her at

Monday, 8 July 2019

Tips on writing picture book non-fiction • Moira Butterfield

Moira Butterfield was one of our Picture Book Den co-founders, and has recently been writing lots of highly-illustrated non-fiction for age 4+. Her book Welcome to Our World (Nosy Crow)was an international bestseller in 2018. Her new book Home Sweet Home (Red Shed, Egmont)came out at the end of June 2019. In 2020/2021 she will have picture book non-fiction published by Nosy Crow, Walker Books and Quarto. 

What is picture book non-fiction? 
Picture book non-fiction uses the medium of the illustrated picture book to explore real life. It might be for ages 4+, or pitched slightly older at 6+ (as is Home Sweet Home). The text will be paired with the work of an imaginative picture book illustrator. 

Moira’s new book – Home Sweet Home. 

The text needs to be a great out-loud read 
Picture book non-fiction text needs to exhibit the same writing skillsets as a storybook. As it is likely to be a shared reading experience between adults and children, the author needs to think hard about the way the book will hold up as a ‘together’ read. Just as you would do with a story, read your work out loud regularly as you write. That way you can catch anything that doesn’t flow well, is long-winded or confusing.

The text might be poetic or caption-based 
Some non-fiction picture book text is lyrical – using the features of poetry to explore a subject. By contrast, some non-fiction texts use an introduction and short caption facts (as per Home Sweet Home). For instance, lyrical non-fiction about a butterfly might read more like a poem about a butterfly, whereas in a caption-based text you might want to explain – step-by-step - the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. It should still sound great out loud (and with its meaning as clear as a bell), but it’s not laid out as poetry. 

I myself have written both these styles and I’m happy to mix them up in the same book. I think it makes for a good varied read.

This poem comes from the beginning of ‘Everybody Feels Angry’ 
(QED, illustrated by Holly Sterling). 
The book contains a mixture of material exploring a child’s feelings. 

Here’s a snippet from a Home Sweet Home spread.
It shows an introduction and caption.

Be hyper-aware of the needs of your age-group 
Be very careful to ensure your text caters to the age-group you’re aiming at. Will they be interested/able to connect with what you are saying and the way you are saying it? For example, a 4 year-old might prefer the poetry approach as a way of accessing a subject. A 6+ year-old might prefer longer content with more caption facts. 

The text should have a sense of wonder 
Most importantly the language of a non-fiction book should impart a sense of wonder in its subject. That’s why picture book non-fiction is such a great genre. We’re getting the chance to spark a child’s interest in the amazing world around them. 

The opening spread of Home Sweet Home, illustrated by Clair Rossiter
and written to get children interested in life around the world.

Page length varies 
Picture book non-fiction may not always follow a 12-spread pattern. I have written for 48pp and longer recently. In fact a publisher has just suggested that I write with no page numbers in mind, which I think is a great idea. The designer will then work on the text to see what comes out. That’s pretty radical and has given me the impetus to be very creative without stricture! 

Children need to feel involved 
A non-fiction picture book text should, in my opinion, connect to the lives of the children who read it. So, for example, Home SweetHomelooks at homes around the world and in history, but with reference to a child’s own experience. I am giving them surprising and (I hope) fascinating facts but making sure I link the information to what they know.  In fact, in this case I decided to ask the reader questions as they move through the book – to get them actively connecting themselves to the things they are learning. 

First example of including questions -
taken from
 Home Sweet Home.

Second example of including questions -
taken from
 Home Sweet Home.

The text needs heart 
Above all, a picture book non-fiction text needs heart, just as a story does. Are you passionate about it? What’s the reason you chose a particular subject? If you have something important to say, then your feeling is more likely to shine through in your work. 

Twitter @moiraworld
Instagram @moirabutterfieldauthor

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Protests over picture books: LGBT+ inclusion by Juliet Clare Bell

Many people will have read about the protests outside two primary schools in Birmingham recently, with protesters arguing against the reading and discussing of certain picture books at certain ages in school.

This is very close to home -literally- and I'm a member of SEEDS (Supporting the Education of Equality and Diversity in Schools), which was set up in the wake of the protests. At Birmingham Pride this year, we marched alongside people from the Muslim LGBT+ community and for the first time, the parade was led by prominent Muslim LGBT+ members Khakan Qureshi and Saima Razzaq, and also Andrew Moffat, who created the No Outsiders Programme. The joyful nature of the parade felt a long way from the protests and felt like a massive celebration of the wonderful diversity of Birmingham, and of teaching of acceptance and love. Very different was the meeting soon after in a highly charged setting with our local MP (who has, controversially, backed the protesters, directly at odds with his own party). As a picture book author and local parent, I’d like to talk about some of the books that are being read in the schools in the light of the protests.

No Outsiders Programme 

Created by Andrew Moffat, deputy head at Parkfield Community School in Birmingham, No Outsiders is a programme followed in some primary schools, using 35 picture books (five each year from Reception through to Year 6) to help open up discussions about inclusion and equality, alongside all the many other books the children will be reading/have read to them. Here are the picture books deemed controversial by some:

Mommy, Mama and Me (Leslea Newman and Carol Thompson),

                                                           (c) Carol Thompson (2009)

King and King (Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland)

                                                                (c) Stern Nijland (2002)

And Tango Makes Three (Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell and Henry Cole)

                                                           (c) Henry Cole (2015)

and My Princess Boy (Cheryl Kilodavis and Suzanne DeSimone).

                                                         (c) Suzanne DeSimone (2011)

In addition to these four books whose main characters/families are in same sex relationships or who do not conform to gender norms, there are two others about families in general which include mention (and pictures) of same sex couples in families alongside many other non LGBT+ families:

The Family Book by Todd Parr (used with Reception children)

                                                                 (c) Todd Parr (2010)

                                                                 (c) Todd Parr (2010)

“Some families have two mums or two dads. Some families have one parent instead of two.”
                                                                 (c) Todd Parr (2010)

And The Great Big Book of Families, by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith (used with Year 2 children)

                                                               (c) Ros Asquith (2015)

The book talks about lots of different families before moving on to different homes, holidays, food etc. It’s a beautiful, inclusive book.

"Some children have two mummies or two daddies.  And some are adopted or fostered."
                                                               (c) Ros Asquith (2015)

But back to the four books that have caused the most controversy. As with so many books for young children, these are about relationships and love. It seems almost absurd to mention it but because of all the misinformation, it’s worth stating that they are in no way whatsoever about sex.

Mommy, Mama and Me (read in Reception, with five- and six-year olds) is about a loving family unit with two parents doing ordinary, everyday things with their child. 

                                                            (c) Carol Thompson (2009)

“Mommy gently combs my hair. Mama rocks me in her chair”
                                                           (c) Carol Thompson (2009)

“Mommy packs a yummy snack.  Mama rides me on her back.”
                                                         (c) Carol Thompson (2009)

At the end of the simple story, Mommy and Mama kiss the child good night.

That is all. It’s like many other lovely picture books for young children about the important adults in their life.

King and King (Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland is read in Year 4 (with eight- and nine- year-olds).

                                                             (c) Stern Nijland (2002)

It’s a fairy tale about a prince whose mother, the Queen, is trying to marry him off to a princess. He’s not interested in any of the princesses she’s lined up for him. Instead, he falls in love with the brother of one of the princesses, and as with many fairy tales: "it was love at first sight":

                                                               (c) Stern Nijland (2002)

and the two princes marry instead.

In year 5 (where the children are nine- and ten- years old), And Tango Makes Three is introduced.

                                                               (c) Henry Cole (2015)

This is the true story of two male penguins in Central Park Zoo who paired up and eventually (after trying to incubate a stone)

                                                               (c) Henry Cole (2015)

were given an egg that needed looking after. They incubated the egg, which hatched successfully and they brought up the baby penguin as their own.

In Year 6, the final year of primary school, where the children are ten and eleven years old, they read (alongside the other books in the No Outsiders programme, and countless other books)

Suzanne DeSimone (2011)

My Princess Boy
This is another story of love and acceptance, written by a mother about her son who likes to wear dresses and who is completely loved exactly as he is.

Suzanne DeSimone (2011)

These are the books that have proved so controversial (you can see the full No Outsiders reading list here:)         No Outsiders book list

As with the other books on the list (including our own 'Denner's You Choose -Pippa Goodhart and Nick Sharratt, Elmer -David McKee and Red Rockets and Rainbow Jelly -Sue Heap and Nick Sharratt), these books are about acceptance and love, saying that it's ok to be you, showing children that different people like different things.

These books cover protected characteristics in the Equalities Act 2010. It is illegal to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their gender, or gender reassignment, or race or religion, and (with the shocking exception of Northern Ireland) same sex marriage is legal here and holds equal weight in law with marriage between a man and a woman. This is not controversial subject matter for this country. These books are merely reflecting reality and ensuring, for example, that the many children of two mums can see themselves in a book, and those children without two mums can see that a slightly different family set up is still in many ways similar to their own. 

We need to encourage empathy in children, and picture books that reflect the wonderful diversity of the place we live in are crucial. Children need to see themselves and their families, and they need to see other families that are different from their own, in picture books. This includes children of different ethnicities, with disabilities, and families and children from the LGBT+ community. One protected characteristic does not over-ride another. All these characteristics are protected. We don't get to say one should be more protected than another. Our job -and the legal duty of schools- is to protect them all. What better way than introducing them in attractive picture books that are engaging and welcoming?

And yet we are witnessing some very uncomfortable scenes, far removed from the loving and accepting nature of these books...

Anderton Park School (one of our local schools) currently has an exclusion zone around it so that children and staff are not intimidated and/or frightened by the protesters who were standing outside at the end of the school day, chanting. Having been banned from outside the school, the protesters are now protesting slightly further away outside the exclusion zone, though on some days their shouting can still be heard near the school. When a group of us from SEEDS went to our local MP’s surgery to talk with him about his views on the age-appropriateness of these picture books, the police were out in force to ensure our safety. This was at an MP surgery session –to talk about the picture books mentioned above. These are books about acceptance and love. 

Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, the head teacher, said last week at a meeting on Defending Equality, that this protest has “at times, crushed my soul”. She said how she loves that it is her duty as head teacher, to foster relationships between those people with protected characteristics (under the Equalities Act 2010) and those without, and that equality is woven “into everything we do”, and that although the ongoing protest “has broken our hearts… we are not broken because Anderton Park is built on equality”.  Anderton Park School doesn’t follow the No Outsiders programme. They use many hundreds of books throughout school including some of the same books mentioned above (Mommy, Mama and Me; My Princess Boy, and And Tango Makes Three). She said at the meeting that they didn’t have consultation with the parents about using those specific books in school because they are doing nothing different from what they are always doing –teaching acceptance and equality.

There has been so much misinformation about the books being used in schools. I do not want to write too much about the protesters as I do think that the story has been manipulated by the media to make it look like it’s a more generalised problem than it is. The vast majority of schools are not experiencing these problems -including the vast majority of schools in Birmingham. But It is really worth watching the statement made by Nazir Afzal, former Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England, who was brought in to try and mediate between Anderton Park School and the protesters:

Nazir Afzal's comments on the protests (scroll down on his site for his excellent video statement. It should be essential viewing)

In the Defending Equality meeting last week, MP for the nearby constituency of Birmingham, Yardley, Jess Phillips, talked about her concern and upset about the misrepresentation in the press of these protests. Although she was filmed challenging the main protester (who is not actually a parent of anyone at the school), she wanted to point out that in her own nearby constituency with approximately 40% of constituents of Bangladeshi- and Pakistani- origin, not a single person has mentioned it to her. This is simply not the fight that is most important to most people, she said, and she hates that it has been portrayed as such in the media.

Many Muslims in the UK have experienced an increase in Islamophobia and general racism in recent years and are feeling vulnerable. Many people in the LGBT+ community are also feeling vulnerable at the moment. Those who are LGBT+ within the Muslim community are some of the most vulnerable of all. We are living in very uncertain times politically. If people felt less marginalised, there would be easier dialogue and discussions and considerably less likelihood of outside parties managing to spread misinformation (as discussed by Nazir Afzal, above). Let’s work together –as writers, humans, parents, neighbours, teachers, citizens to ensure that we don’t choose one protected characteristic over another -that we fight racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, discrimination against those with disabilities together. As picture book writers, let us keep writing books that encourage empathy, with diverse characters so that everyone can feel seen. Publishers, let us see more diverse writers and illustrators being published and greater authentic diversity in our picture books. Let's be less defensive and more willing to have difficult conversations, accept that we will make mistakes along the way as we learn, and allow others to make mistakes and learn from them, too, as we try to celebrate diversity in all its richness. But one thing is clear: showing diversity in books should not be a debate. And nor should sharing those books with young children. It should be our duty.

Would reading more diverse books have helped you as a child? If you're happy to say how, please do comment in the comments section, below. And if you have any other thoughts, please share them. Many thanks.

Juliet Clare Bell is a picture book author, whose next picture book (which she will be able to announce soon) is due for release in 2020. Her experience of doing author visits in schools in this area has been overwhelmingly positive and still believes that this is solvable. Love, ultimately, will win.

Please feel free to comment, below. Many thanks.

Monday, 24 June 2019

What I wish I'd known... by Jane Clarke

It’s my 20 year anniversary as a published writer - a poem in Tony Bradman’s anthology appeared in 1999, and my first picture book text was accepted in June that year, (though not published until 2001).

So here are  a few things I wish I’d known when I hit my 40s, and started to write…

  • It’s not the end of the world if your story is rejected. Rejections are part of a writer’s life. Go for a walk, have a cup of tea - and get on with writing another story.

  • Self edit more.  Don’t finish writing a text and send it straight off. Stick it in a folder and leave it for a while, then get it out and have another look. 

These days, most of my files are on the computer but I still have to fight off the urge to send off stuff prematurely.
  • Get someone else to read what you have written.  Join The Society of Children's Book Writer's and Illustrators. A good critique group is a much better source of useful writing advice than bribed teenagers.

Mug shots of hairy teenagers at age of bribery. Fear not, they both turned into wonderful adults (and fathers).
  • During harrowing times, don’t add to your stress by wondering if you will ever be able to again.  You will.

  • Celebrate every significant writing moment (even finishing a story that you suspect will go on to be rejected). They’re great excuses for cake!

Jane’s also discovered that if you write a book about a shark, you tend to accumulate shark-related items. Gilbert the Great illustrated by Charles Fuge.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Tales from the riverbank – a wander into the world of Wind in the Willows with Mini Grey

As a child I watched far too much TV. There was a show called Tales of the Riverbank. The stars of the films were real animals, who were shown moving around in miniature boats, cars, balloons and aeroplanes. I loved seeing rodents rushing downstream in rickety water-crafts.

I live near the river in Oxford, and there’s nothing I’d be so excited to see as a water-vole rowing a tiny boat down the Thames.

The original messing about in boats is of course in The Wind in the Willows. And I’ve recently finished making the illustrations for a story set slap-bang in Wind in the Willows territory, so in this post I’m going to have a look at Kenneth Graham’s book and some of its illustrators. I want to consider the challenges of illustrating in the Willows Zone, and how the Willows, the most comfortingly nostalgic of books, was actually shivering with premonitions of the modern world.

The book was published in 1908, but it wasn’t until 1931 that EH Shepard illustrated it. To me EH Shepard’s pictures are as much a part of Wind in the Willows as the text – so I was surprised to discover they weren’t there at the beginning.
Grahame didn't live long enough to see the book released with Shepard's illustrations, but their meeting would be reported by Shepard in a 1950s edition of the classic, as follows: 

"Not sure about his new illustrator of his book, he listened patiently while I told him what I hoped to do.

Then he said 'I love these little people, be kind to them'.

Just that; but sitting forward in his chair, resting upon the arms, his fine handsome head turned aside, looking like some ancient Viking, warming, he told me of the river nearby, of the meadows where mole broke ground that spring morning, of the banks where Rat had his house, of the pool where Otter hid, and of Wild Wood way up on the hill above the river.
EH Shepard

...He would like, he said, to go with me to show me the river bank that he knew so well, '...but now I cannot walk so far and you must find your way alone'."
Grahame was living in Pangbourne near the Thames – and at other times he lived in Cookham, also on the River Thames – so to me, the river running through the book is always the Thames - which bubbles up in Gloucestershire and flows through Oxford, Reading, Henley and Windsor and eventually becomes the great river that snakes through London on its way to the sea. Mole, on his escape from white-washing, is captivated by the river; it “chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”
EH Shepard

The Wind in the Willows has been rich ground for re-illustration. To me EH Shepard’s illustrations are part of its fabric, like Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice, but still both books are big enough to inspire reinvention.
And so far, in all the versions I’ve seen, the animals are wearing clothes.

Animals in Clothes

I have love-hate feelings about dressed-up animals. I really don’t like animals that seem to have human bodies under their animal heads. But if their body-shape seems to be the stumpy innocent sort of shape of an animal, then it’s OK.
Some animals seem to need more dressing up than others. As a child I used to adore these animal illustrations for the Woodland Happy Families game by Racey Helps. 
 I love Mrs Frog’s expression as she gazes at her cheerily waving tadpole. My sister Jo and I used to play long and involved imaginary games with these cards as our avatars: – Jo was the glamorous Miss Rabbit and I was the slightly homelier Miss Mouse.

I do admire how Racey Helps’s animals are truly animal under their clothes – and have a look at Mrs Owl’s delicious pie. (Eeek. Don’t tell Miss Mouse.) The Woodland Happy Families are sometimes fully dressed complete with shoes, like Miss Fox, but other times just lightly accessorised, like Miss Robin. Master Frog is as nature intended as he goes for a swim, but Mr Frog has full sailor garb including little boots… (So how DO those flippers fit in? Better to skim quickly over questions like this when considering animal-dressing.) 

With EH Shepard the main characters are completely suited and booted. But the weasels and stoats just have the odd bag and hat – so it seems the less civilised & well-behaved you are, the less you wear. But then there’s practicality too: those swimmers Otter and his son Portly don’t wear clothes either. 
EH Shepard

EH Shepard

Here’s the battle of Toad Hall: Badger, Mole, Toad and Ratty are all showing their claws and teeth like proper animals on the warpath. The tiny weasels seem to have abandoned any pretence at civilisation and become pure animal as they scuttle away in terror. There is a bit of animal stereotyping in Wind in the Willows: weasels are actually brave, fierce and bonkers little animals – but in Wind in the Willows, as Ratty says: “well, you can't really trust them, and that's the fact.” It could be that the uprising of the less-well-dressed animal underclasses foreshadows the social upheaval of the First World War, and the unwinding of the Edwardian age of servants and huge hampers.
Inga Moore
Here’s the same scene pictured by Inga Moore. Again, the weasels are just minimally accessoried and you can imagine the blood-curdling war-growls coming from Badger.
Here they are getting weaponed up for the battle.
EH Shepard
I love Mole's hunched and determined posture.

Here’s Shepard’s Mole again doing a leap, with its stumpy rounded shape, true to animal form. 
Inga Moore
Here is Inga Moore’s Mole strolling through a glorious landscape.

The Wind in the Willows was the last book Arthur Rackham illustrated.
Arthur Rackham
  Here’s his Ratty loading up the boat with that all-important luncheon basket. To me Rackham’s animals seem more human in form than Shepard’s, with longer limbs and more human knees and elbows.

EH Shepard

Here’s the same scene from EH Shepard. 

Robert Ingpen

Robert Ingpen

Some glowingly depicted scenes by Robert Ingpen.

But let’s return to the luncheon basket.

The Luncheon Basket

EH Shepard
Here are Shepard’s Ratty and Mole stretching out after their picnic.

Arthur Rackham

And here are Rackham’s animals laying out their spread.
That luncheon basket!
  “What’s inside it?” says Mole…

And that’s a slight problem to me, as I know that moles eat mainly worms, grubs and insects, and water voles like Ratty eat vegetation mostly. And I do believe in being true to zoology. But as an illustrator I don’t think you can avoid drawing the beautiful meat-heavy pies described in that Edwardian picnic. It just wouldn’t be doing the picnic justice if you did.
David Roberts
But the copy of Wind in the Willows I treasure is this version by David Roberts. 
I love the carefully designed outfits: Mole’s velvety moleskin suit, badger’s tweeds and cardigan, Ratty’s Edwardian sporting whites. 
David Roberts
The beautiful elegant Edwardian furniture, the audacious interiors…
David Roberts
David Roberts
and the pure poetry, the light and space:
David Roberts
a moonlit field of cow parsley,
David Roberts
mole submerged in bubbles and green water,

David Roberts
and this vista of willow weeping over.

But now let’s return to the very naughty Mr Toad.
EH Shepard

My favourite depiction of Toad has to be EH Shepard’s: irrepressible, unrepentant– a high-speed amphibian obsessed with the automobile.
EH Shepard
He is unsquashable, impetuous, possessed by an almost consumerist passion for the Motor Car.
EH Shepard

 The Car!

Rolls Royce Silver Ghost
1907 saw the advent of the luxurious Rolls Royce Silver Ghost – “Silent as a Ghost, Powerful as a Lion, and Trustworthy as Time" – aristocratic motoring indeed.
Model T Ford

But in 1908 Henry Ford brought out the Model T Ford, bringing motoring to everybody – the coming of the car – and for the last 111 years our cars have been the blind influence in charge of shaping our landscapes.

Toad is enraptured and enthralled by the Car -   “The only way to travel – here today, in next week tomorrow!”
EH Shepard

So the Willows shows this brand new force for a changing pace of life. And it’s torn between the urge to roam in dangerous places versus being safely cuddled up at home with toasted teacakes.

The Unbuilt Roads of Oxford Past

In the 1900s was the dawning of the Age of the Car, and by the 1960s the needs of car-travel was taking a major role in shaping city planning.
And in 1969 Oxford nearly had a superhighway built right through it. The city was very congested, traffic went right through the centre of it, so plans started to be hatched to make an inner relief road to speed up car travel times. Various schemes were planned, culminating in a planned motorway along the railway line and 4 lane west-east highway right through East Oxford.

A visualisation of the road-to-be in 1969.

The same spot (I think!) as it is now.

I had a look at where this planned highway would have been.

It would have been just at the bottom of our garden.

A four lane swathe of tarmac cutting through, an impassable barrier for humans and wildlife. I feel a shiver of horror for what could have been.
Planning proposals for an inner relief road hung over Oxford for almost 30 years. You can read more about the whole story here.

Luckily, in 1969, 50 years ago this year, Oxford Civic Society was formed to fight this brutal plan. They won the Battle of the Relief Road, and the planning of Oxford’s roads didn’t go with the needs of the car, but in Park & Rides and pedestrianisation.

Thank you, Oxford Civic Society! 

However, Frankenstein’s monster-like, massive road-building plans refuse to stay buried. There’s now the hulking zombie of the proposed Oxford-Cambridge Expressway haunting the future.

Back to the Riverbank

I have recently finished being in the zone of Wind in the Willows.

I was illustrating a story by the poet Roger McGough (who has adapted Wind in the Willows for the stage.) The story is called Money Go Round, and is all about the journey of a coin through the paws of all the animals who live along the riverbank – and it starts with the naughty amphibian, Mr Toad.

Our mole is female and runs a hotel,
Lavender Mole
and there’s a painter-decorator stoat, a shack of weasels, and a magpie preening parlour.
A Weasel Shack
Working out how much to dress the animals was a dilemma I haven’t really had before. Here are character sketches.

Most of all I wanted the river and the willows to flow through the pictures. So, to finish, here’s my favourite character, Walter Rat, in his boat, the Bootle.

Money Go Round by Roger McGough and illustrated by Mini will be published in 2020 by Walker Books.
Mini's latest book is The Last Wolf.
Sketching Weakly is Mini's sketch-blog and you can find it here.