Wednesday, 27 November 2013

A book charity we should all know about. The fantastic work of Living Paintings.

Moira Butterfield

We all love the crazy, wonderful, colourful world of picture books, but how can children who are blind or partially-sighted join in the fun?  Yesterday I was moved and delighted to find out that some very special people are working hard to make sure that this happens.

I visited the offices of Living Paintings, a UK charity that’s also a unique publishing house. The charity creates and publishes tactile printed/audio books for blind and partially-sighted people and distributes the material to them free through a postal library. Some of the work it creates is prepared from scratch. Some is prepared with the agreement of publishers.

The material it offers is very surprising and varied. For adults it has worked with some very exciting contributors to create unique material. The architect Norman Foster and the artists Gilbert and George are two examples I found fascinating, and Tracey Emin is about to co-operate with the charity, apparently. Helping create access to art of all kinds is a big part of the charity’s ethos.

For young children Living Paintings has created tactile and audio versions of some of our most well-loved picture books, from Angry Arthur through to Where’s My Teddy, via Spot, the Gruffalo, Kipper, Charlie and Lola, and many more. The audio for these books is a real treat, read by such great voices as Martin Clunes and Bill Bailey, with added sound effects and music.

Older children and teenagers get a great range, too, including up-to-the minute material on fashion, music, cooking, science, nature and history.
Charlie and Lola in 3D

I saw 3D picture book images being created at the charity’s workshops near Newbury. The front cover image from Oliver Jeffers’ beautiful ‘Lost and Found’ had been lovingly carved in wood, ready to be made into a durable plastic 3D mould for touching. Publishing Manager Liz Davies made the mould before my eyes and it looked great. Nearby, volunteers were painting the moulds. Why? Because some readers will be partially-sighted, but also because blind children will be sharing their picture books with sighted readers, just as sighted children share their book-reading with adults. Living Paintings strives to make sure that its picture books lend themselves to that all-important sharing experience, and readers might want to talk about the colour as well as the image and the story.

On another desk lay some Spot learning books, in the process of being carefully re-configured for blind or partially-sighted children, with each image carefully pored over and selected for the 3D treatment.  

Celebrities give their time for free to Living Paintings, producing some fantastic audio treats. Liz told me that she wanted an American voice for ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, so she took a punt and wrote to Hollywood heartthrob Ethan Hawke when he was performing in London. Ethan Hawke said yes!
A happy library user shares Mole's Sunrise by Jeanne Willis
For older children, Phil Harding of Time Team fame has just helped produce some great audio material about Anglo-Saxons, which will be going out with touch moulds and all sorts of interesting material to support school history learning. I drove home listening to Sean Bean reading a children’s adaption of Beowulf for the Anglo-Saxon pack, and very stirring it was. 
Phil Harding working on the Anglo-Saxon material.
Alan Davies apparently had a ball in the office sound studio interviewing Arsenal Premiership footballer Carl Jenkinson, for teenagers to hear. What treats! Charity Chief Executive Camilla Oldland tells me that the families and schools who use this material get a very big boost from this kind of involvement.
Alan Davies reads Billy Monster's Daymare by Alan Durrant.
So how can we help? Well, first off, the charity needs as many people to know about its work as possible because it wants to reach as many blind and partially-sighted people – adults and children – as it can. Its guiding principle is that its library will always be free for them to use. It needs to get the word out, so please take a look at the website and pass on the link.

Secondly, it wants to engage more directly with authors and illustrators, because it knows that we are good sharers of information. It hopes to get the chance to introduce its work to more of us in 2014, perhaps even by running some events. Sometimes it finds that publishers haven’t told authors and illustrators very much about how their work is being used in this way, and they want us all to know just how strongly valued we are!

On its website there is a new icon that you can grab and put next to any books they’ve featured that you’ve been involved with. The charity finds it gets increasing amounts of click-throughs from parents who have visited author websites, so they know it works. I'm also going to suggest they produce a general icon that we can add to websites such as this one.

The Living Paintings website is newly revamped. Perhaps you could offer it a blog (which might become an audio blog). Perhaps you could point it out to your agent or your publisher. Perhaps you could tweet their blogs, to share the message. 

Finally, if you're feeling generous, this is a really worthwhile charity for authors, illustrators, publishers and agents to support. Living Paintings gets no government money. It relies on donations and help from individuals and on donations from businesses, so all word-spreading is good. 

Please take a look on If you Tweet, follow them on Twitter: @LivingPaintings.

PS: If you know of any blind or partially-sighted children, or perhaps a school near you that would benefit, check out the gift box range for sale on the website– with tactile pictures of Elmer, Mog, Winnie the Pooh, Harry (Bucketful of Dinosaurs) and Willy Wonka. The charity is happy to post these to worldwide customers, though they point out that the audio features British-usage language. They do work with some blind and partially-sighted individuals internationally, so please contact them direct if you want to discuss this side of their work.


Abie Longstaff said...

Moira - I loved reading your post. What a fantastic charity! I'm going to their website straight away to have a look :))

Moira Butterfield said...

Thank Abie. It finds it hard to get publicity, amazingly (and it can't afford swanky PR). So everybody spread the word!

Jane Clarke said...

Echoing Abie - fantastic idea - I hadn't heard about this charity before, so thanks Moira, I'll help spread the word.

Ann Evans said...

Thank you for letting us know about this charity Moira. I'm popping to look at their website now too.

Jon Burgess Design said...

What a great idea. Heart warming stuff ;-) I wonder if they use 3D printing. . .

danielle @ this picture book life said...

Amazing. Thanks for sharing this.

Moira Butterfield said...

They have one mould-making machine that they custom-built to get just the right amount of detailing. They use an especially hard-wearing plastic mix for the picture books, because of little fingers. I'm not sure they could afford a 3d printer!

Paeony Lewis said...

So interesting, Moira. Thank you. I always assumed that books for the blind and partially sighted only used braille or were converted into audio books. I never imagined a picture book with 3D images - such an innovative idea. Do state libraries offer the books? They should. And like Jon, I wondered about 3D printing.

malachy doyle said...

Fascinating! Well done for bringing this to wider attention, Moira - they're doing marvellous work.

Abi Burlingham said...

What a brilliant post, Moira! So glad I read it and now know about this charity. It sounds like they're doing some amazing work.

Pippa Goodhart said...

What an important and wonderful charity, and I love the way they have really understood that picture books are for sharing so need to be accessible to all. Thank you, Moira.

Jon Burgess Design said...

getting cheaper all the time ;-) but not ever so, that's for sure.