Friday 27 December 2013

It's Christmas story time with some favourite Books - Linda Strachan

This Christmas which picture books did you give, share or discover?  I thought I would share some Christmas presents and some books that are favourites.
Little Ruaridh is 2 years old and he just loves tractors and diggers.
For Christmas this year he got his own copy of a book he had enjoyed when they borrowed it from their local library.

  It was Goodnight Tractor by Michelle Robinson and Nick East.  He also got a copy of Goodnight Digger. These are part of a series of books all very similar in style with gentle rhyme.

Goodnight Tractor and the other books in this series work in the same way that parents have often encouraged children to settle down to sleep, by saying goodnight to their toys before going to bed.

 '....goodnight pig and goodnight sheep... goodnight tractor time to sleep.'

Ruaridh loves them and it does settle him down to sleep.  He also loves Goodnight Princess, as does his sister, Abigail.

Abigail is 4 and loves her books. One of her favourites this year has been Julia Donaldson's Jack and the Flumflum Tree, illustrated by David Roberts

 Jack heads off in search of the fruit of the Flumflum tree to cure his Moozles and encounters all sorts of problems but he has his granny's patchwork sack filled with a strange assortment of things that prove to be just what he needs in every situation!

Poppy is 3 and she also loves her stories.
Jack and the Flumflum Tree has recently been on her reading list as she recovered from her own Moozles!

Another favourite is Giraffes Can't Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees. 

As you can see in the picture,she also loves Hamish McHaggis and likes to keep him close by at night because she knows he keeps her safe from bad dreams and her little brother Benedict has his own little Hamish, too!                                                          

 Baby Benedict is 7 months this Christmas and he is just getting the hang of books. He has inherited a lot of his big sister's books but his Christmas presents included  Usborne's Baby's Very First Touchy-feely Book.  One of the many great books for tinies with textures to touch, and bright colours and images.

So this Christmas which picture books did you give, share or discover?

Linda Strachan is the award winning author of over 60 books for all ages, from picture books to YA novels, and writing handbook Writing For Children


Saturday 21 December 2013

Picture This by Abie Longstaff

This is just a little post to highlight a small, but fantastic, exhibition at the British Library. 

‘Picture This’ closes on the 26th of January so, if you love illustration and you haven’t seen it yet, I really recommend a visit (and it’s free!).

In reviews of picture books the emphasis is so often on words rather than illustration, but this exhibition focuses entirely on the pictures; with original artwork, old books and video interviews.

In an age of ebooks, there’s something quite awe-inspiring about being a few centimetres away from classic illustrators’ work such as this wonderful drawing of Willy Wonka by Quentin Blake, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

As well as showcasing the art, the exhibition also looks at how well-know characters from books have been interpreted and reinterpreted over the years.

This is David Roberts's take on Mole from Wind in the Willows:

There are more pictures of the exhibition on the BritishLibrary Facebook page.

Have a lovely Christmas!

Monday 16 December 2013

Names, or no names. . . by Jonathan Allen

The impact of names in children's books is something that I hadn't thought about particularly until I read an article about the stage version of Maurice Sendak's 'Where The Wild Things Are'.
In the article, Sendak talked about how he felt he couldn't stage direct his creatures until they had defined personalities. To this end he felt they needed to have names. Not overtly in the script, but just as a personal device to help their coming alive as animated beings feel more convincing. Hooks to hang their behavioral characteristics on if you like.

It was interesting that there was felt to be no need for this naming in the actual book, ( or come to think of it, in Sendak's head at the time of writing and drawing it ). Maybe because the creatures weren't differentiated in the book, they were the Wild Things, and didn't need the distraction of having different personalities.

Anyway, that is by the by. What was really fascinating to me, and revealing about my own mental blind spots etc, were the names he chose. I may not have the first one exactly right but you will get the idea. He chose the names Aaron, Moysha and Tzippy.

Because of my lack of examination of my own cultural bias, or awareness that I even had much of one, I was surprised. The surprise was only momentary, But my inner self monitoring process clocked it! I gave myself a clip round the ear. Why on earth should it be even remotely surprising that a Jewish author would give his creations Jewish names?

On further consideration, I came to the conclusion that it was the baggage that comes with names that had struck me. Suddenly, Sendak's creatures had ethnicity! They were no longer universal creatures from the imagination in quite the same way.

This made me think up all sorts of names for the creatures and see what difference that made to my view of them. What if they were Alf, Bert and Norman, or Rory, Torquil and Hector? What if they were Gudeep, Arshad and Divinda, or Lloyd, Winston and Curtley? etc etc. Or what, heaven forfend, if they were girls? ;-)
It does seem that a seething morass of entirely subjective cultural bias, class bias, and unsubstantiated preconceptions is invoked every time a name is used! (If you can evoke a morass. . . Look, I like mixed metaphors!)

I have been steering clear of names in my own work for a long time without really examining why. It just felt right. It's nice to know that my unconscious was on the ball. . .
I think it is similar to choosing animals as protagonists in your books, as I tend to do. By using animals, you avoid the class, culture, and gender issues that depicting children can stir up. These issues can distract from the story or the point of a book and threaten to spoil it. I find that by using non-names like Baby Owl and Little Puffin as well, I can neatly sidestep these distractions for a second time.

ps - Not that there is anything wrong with names used in the full awareness of their 'baggage'. 'Peter Rabbit' is set in a particular time and place, as is Shirley Hughes 'Alfie' and many others. And they are great. I just can't imagine 'Denis the Gruffalo' working all that well. . .

Wednesday 11 December 2013

The Right Words by Paeony Lewis

I adore words, although I appreciate ‘less is more’ with picture book stories and some texts need pruning or stubble burning. However, it’s not just about cutting a text to 200-500 words (or zero words). I think that sometimes it’s all right to stick in a seemingly unnecessary word or two, if it adds a lot to the story experience. It’s about finding the right words, and not just the right word count. Of course, concentrating on what a story is really about, and chucking out extraneous waffle also helps.

You might shrug at what appears to be an obvious observation about finding the 'right words'. It is obvious, although it took me over a year of writing and learning about poetry for this obvious statement to burrow deeper into my brain. Perhaps it was a case of knowing something without truly appreciating it?

After immersing myself in contemporary poetry, I've realised my picture-book writing has morphed. I now search harder for the right words and for different ways of seeing everyday words. This makes it tougher for me to look at my old texts and revise, because the old texts feel a little alien. Weird. Maybe I’ll grow out of it? 

For me, the right words might be extra words, or they might be words that allow other words to be cut. They might be simple words or lush words. Picture books are written to be read aloud by an adult to a child and this can allow a richer palette of words than in an early reading book. For example, in the delightfully surreal Egg Drop by Mini Grey, there's a tongue-twisting sentence that intrigues children:

It didn't know much about flying
(and it didn't know anything
 about aerodynamics
 or Bernoulli's Principle).

In contrast to this, Jon Klassen uses simple language with style. I adore This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen. He uses unassuming words and pedestrian sentences, and then combines them with deceptively simple illustrations to create a thoughtful story that leaves room for the reader to ponder.

 from This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
Here's an excerpt from a longer section. At first glance it might appear a little repetitive, but it's not. I think you can hear the child's voice and the glorious self justification. 

I know it's wrong to steal a hat.
I know it does not belong to me.
But I am going to keep it.
It was too small for him anyway.
It fits me just right. 

from Owl Babies, illus by Patrick Benson
Sometimes the right words may add to the lyrical sing-song quality of a text. In this example from Owl Babies by Martin Waddell (a steadfast favourite), the penultimate and is a 'right word', even if it appears to be an excess word. In isolation, I think the sentence below would be a little menacing  without the penultimate and, yet with it, the sentence is softened and flows.

Soft and silent, she swooped
 through the trees to Sarah and Percy
 and Bill.

Oliver Jeffers also gives respect to the reader in This is Not My Moose. It's another of my favourites. We're told stuff, but we also smile because we understand what's also being said between the lines.

Sometimes the moose wasn't a very good pet.
He generally ignored Rule 7: Going
whichever way Wilfred wants to go.

I've just noticed that three of my examples are from author/illustrators. I suspect that's just a coincidence, although  I've always thought that a large proportion of the best and worst books come from people who illustrate and write. But that's only my opinion and it might be time for me to scurry away!

If anybody has examples of picture book sentences that seem to use the 'right words', I'd love to read them in the comments' section. And if you disagree with my opinions, just say!

Paeony Lewis

Friday 6 December 2013

A Shirley Hughes Kind Of Christmas by Pippa Goodhart

Shirley Hughes writes and illustrates the very best children’s picture books, and has done so for a long time.  She has no need for aliens or angels or burps or underpants or even Santa on his sleigh to draw you into her books.  She recognises the very real drama and passions and humour to be found in the everyday life of an ordinary small child.  We know those dramas from our own lives, so her stories resonate with us all, and that’s why books such as ‘Dogger’ and ‘Aflie Gets In First’ have become true classics. 
Working in a bookshop in the 1980s I had the perk of sometimes keeping (you’re supposed to ‘dispose of’, but there’s nothing to stop you disposing of them to yourself!) faulty books once the title page had been ripped out to be sent back to the publisher.  That is how I got my bound upside-down copy of Lucy And Tom’s Christmas. 

That book has been treasure brought out for my own three daughters every Christmas throughout their childhoods, and I’ve just enjoyed reading and looking at it yet again.  It reflects, and maybe even moulded, the family Christmases of my childhood and of my children’s childhoods – stirring the pudding and making wishes, snipping and gluing and colouring to make decorations and cards, choosing just the right present for Mum and Dad, Granny and Grandpa, hiding those presents, letters written to Father Christmas and sent up the chimney, carol singers, baking, the Sally Army band playing carols, decorating the tree, putting out parcels, hanging stockings, opening stockings, going to church in the show, relatives (and old Mrs Barlow who lives all by herself) for a big lunch, present unwrapping

… and then the thing that absolutely strikes a chord with any young family, when a tearful Tom has had too much and is ‘rather cross’ and needs to go out for a dark walk down the street with Grandpa, ‘just the two of them’.  In our family such a walk or other form of removal to calm down is known as ‘dehorribalising’! 
Then Tom goes home and the tree is lit, and Christmas feels complete and just right.  
So, what about the new book, Alfie’s Christmas?  Could it possibly be as good as Lucy And Tom’s one?  Well clever clever Shirley Hughes has managed to make it different from that beloved earlier Christmas book, but still exactly, Chrismassily, right.  Alfie is a distinct character, of course, so it’s lovely to see important neighbours such as the MacNallys being included.  And Annie-Rose has her own storyline.  But comparing the two books also brings home that our Christmases have changed in subtle ways.  The importance of family and food, the anticipation of giving and receiving presents much the same. 

But we don’t wait until Christmas Day to light the tree these days.  Now the tree is decorated in the run-up to Christmas and put in the front window for all to enjoy. We tend to post a letter to Father Christmas rather than send it up the chimney.  We’ve got Dad, and even Grandpa, in the kitchen now! 
It is a lovely book, and I urge you to watch this youtube of Shirley talking about it, and drawing it.  
Do you have a favourite Christmas book without which Christmas isn't really Christmas?  Please tell...!  And Happy Christmas! 

Monday 2 December 2013

Building a Museum of Stories

Our guest blogger, Alex, helps decorate a story phonebox outside the Oxford Story Museum

Today's guest blogger is
Alex Coke from Oxford's new Story Museum. It's an exciting new project providing exhibitions and space for children to meet authors and illustrators. 
I've been working for The Story Museum for over a year now (best workplace ever, by the way) and it is as difficult to describe to my friends now as it ever has been. It's a pioneering education charity and museum-in-the-making, which aims to use story to help children fulfil their potential.

Stories lie at the heart of human culture and help people to develop the vital language, imaginative and emotive skills they need to understand the world and connect with each other. Sharing stories develops language and understanding, imagination and empathy. The stories of our childhood shape the people we become and the world we create.

There is mounting evidence that enjoying a rich variety of stories as they grow helps children to fulfil their potential. It can even break cycles of deprivation. That's why The Story Museum exists: we work in schools and communities, with authors and illustrators, with musicians and actors and storytellers to highlight the importance of story. We celebrate stories in all their forms, and demonstrate their power to teach and delight - as well as encouraging people young and old to create stories of their own.

Since 2005 we've been developing learning programmes and materials, directly reaching 10,000-15,000 people each year in Oxfordshire, London and across the UK. From the beginning we aimed to create a centre for children's literature and storytelling (a museum in the original sense of 'a home of the muses and place of inspiration'), and that dream is becoming more real with every day.

In 2009 we acquired our permanent home on Pembroke Street, in the heart of Oxford. We piloted events and exhibitions in the building during 2012, and in August 2013 we officially closed to the public to allow the first chapter of our renovation to take place.

The builders have been in since September, transforming our ground floor into a shop and café, our middle floor into a wonderful education space and our top floor into offices and writers' studios. Holes are appearing, walls are disappearing, electricity comes and goes. We're changing our pumpkin into a coach: Cinderella is one step closer to the ball.

In spring 2014 we'll open our shop and café, along with a brand new exhibition which will take over the rough spaces of our atmospheric, labyrinthine building. We'll have a programme of events, talks and workshops for schools, families and adults.

We're still raising £8m to renovate the rest of our building and create our 'cathedral of stories'. We hope you'll join us along the way, and come to visit us when our doors open.

Find out more at

For a taster of the Museum's work, hop to to YouTube to to see Michael Rosen leading the children of Oxford through the streets on the Museum's celebration of Maggie's Day: