Monday, 22 February 2016

Singing Away the Dark by Caroline Woodward & Julie Morstad [Picture book}

Singing Away the Dark
Written by Caroline Woodward 
Illustrations by Julie Morstad
Simply Read Books, 2010
ISBN 9781897476423

This picture book is quite old now but it's the first time I've laid eyes on it, and I am completely charmed by it.

The aesthetic is very Scandinavian, those birch trees, so much snow, the isolation. 

The nameless girl narrates her own story of when she was six and started school. She has to walk from her home to the bus stop to catch the school bus, through the woods, over hills and hollows. It is dark when she leavesShe is a little nervous but continues onwards, and makes herself less afraid by singing until the sky lightens and the bus arrives.

This might seem mind-boggling to a Kiwi child, certainly a city child who would never be allowed to walk such a distance in daylight, never mind in the dark. This will make our singing girl all the braver in the eyes of the reader, just imagining what it might be like to be in such a place, alone.

The text is carefully paced and rhymes beautifully; the lines are spread out over pages, the rhythm and rhyme sneaking up on you as you walk through the woods with our girl.

The pages are laid out with lots of white space, just look at that cover, split into white and green, the trees balanced by the girl with her yellow lunch pail like a lantern in her hand. 

The song she sings is to the army of trees she walks by "I see a line of big, old trees, marching up the hill. I salute you, Silent Soldiers. Help me if you will." Drowning out the sounds of the "creaks and groan and hoots and howls" of the woods. 

As she gets closer to school the pages lighten until she' is in the cloakroom with other girls and she seems much more like an ordinary little girl, not the incredibly brave six-year-old making her way through the wilds.
I'm reminded of Extra Yarn  by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, with its similar setting and also the heroic young female character, it's fine lines with careful use of colour too.
It's whimsical but also inspiring - shouldn't our children be able to discover their heroic selves by learning to face up to danger... to experience solitude... and discover the power of a song at just the right moment.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Written and Drawn by Henrietta [Picture book / Graphic]

Written and Drawn by Henrietta
By Liniers
A Toon Book (imprint of RAW Junior), 2015
ISBN 9781935179900

The maker of this clever book is known simply as Liniers. Ricardo Siri Liniers is an Argentinian comic artist, well known for his daily comic strip Macanudo, which has now been published in book form in English. (Just requested it from the library.)

 It's from this comic strip that Henrietta originates, along with her black and white cat Fellini.

Henrietta is wonderful in her ordinariness, with her one companion, the speechless but nonetheless expressive Fellini. She's given a box of coloured pencils "as close as you can get to owning a piece of the rainbow." She launches right into making a comic, and the story divides in two from here on as Henrietta's own drawings tell her story, while the comic's style of pictures talk about what she is doing. This is super clever, as Henrietta does all her decision-making about what's going to happen next in the story in the accompanying comic panels. 

She really tells a great scary story about a character called Emily who is in bed at night and gets scared, clutching her toy called My Favourite, while scary noises get closer. A three headed, two armed, four-footed monster (called Huey, Dewey and Louie Bluie) emerges from the wardrobe (of course, isn't that where all monsters hide?), upset because only two of their heads have hats. Emily joins them exploring the gigantic interior of the wardrobe, meeting a zombie mouse who directs them to the hats (of many kinds, all labelled by style from newsboy to porkpie to one I'd never heard of, the phrygian cap. They must choose and quickly flee before another monster arrives - the one-headed monster with three hats. 

When all is finally resolved Emily is given a special present but you'll have to read the book to find out all the details.
The Henrietta panels do useful things to talk about making up a comic and the problems/steps therein:  "Thinking up new ideas is always the hardest part." "In a good story, there's always something that happens 'suddenly'!" "Those three little dots really add... ... SUSPENSE!" "The best things are the ones that make you say WOW!"

Although there are two stories going on at once it's all done with such perfect pace and style that it's a pure pleasure to read alone, or share with a child.

TOON Books is a terrific series of graded comics on three levels - for brand-new readers, emerging readers and advanced beginners (nice terminology). (This book is Level 3.) So obviously designed to make comics a worthwhile part of the school curriculum, and I can so imagine how kids would love to have a book like this to read rather than some of the more ordinary texts they are presented with. Details of the levels and a 'Tips for Parents and Teachers: How to Read Comics with Kids' guide is in the back of the book. Also checkout their website also has free online cartoon makers, lesson plans etc.

I'm definitely going to check out more from both Liniers (who has one other TOON book) and more from the TOON stable, and maybe even make a comic or two myself, and perhaps try out setting up the cartoon maker on a library computer or two in my new school, let's see what the boss says.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick & Sophie Blackall [Award-winning picture book]

Finding Winnie: The Story of the Real Bear Who Inspired Winnie -the-Pooh
Written by Lindsay Mattick
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Orchard Books
ISBN 9781408340233 

This book is all kinds of wonderful. Beautifully produced, cleverly told, lovingly illustrated. An amazing story - all the more when you discover that it really is true and connects to another that it seems everyone knows - A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh. And illustrations that I'd heard a lot about (I follow Sophie Blackall's blog) but not seen in all their simple, straightforward storytelling glory. What a package, what a tale, what a prizewinner.

The Caldecott Medal is about as good as it gets for an illustrator in the USA. That's the big one, and this year it is Sophie Blackall's prize for her work in Finding Winnie. Her medium is Chinese ink with watercolour and she uses them expertly, with never too much going on, gently and realistically coloured with touches of cleverness to be found everywhere. 

Hardback production certainly adds to the idea that a picture book is going to be around for a long time. Publishers are much more selective these days about what the give the hardcover treatment to. Finding Winnie feels firm and weighty, with the print effect, if not the real thing, of a cloth spine and linen covers. 

Endpapers too, thank goodness. [Why do so many miss this marvellous opportunity to add value by leaving these blank, sometimes not even using colour?] Interestingly here, the front and back pages are completely different - beginning with a lovely forest scene - Winnie's beginning.

The story, told by a mother to her little boy who wants "A true story. One about a Bear"
follows Harry, a vet from Winnipeg, Canada, who leaves to go to war (looking after the horses). On his long train journey he buys a bear cub for $20 (we see a note of it in a picture of his real diary at the end) and calls him Winnie, after Winnipeg. He becomes his unit's mascot - he even appears in their group photo. 

He trains Winnie well and all the other soldiers in his unit come to love him too. But when Harry has to go to the front it is too dangerous to take Winnie so he leaves him in the care of the London Zoo. Just as well he did too, because one of the visitors to the zoo, a young boy called Christopher Robin Milne, became quite attached to Winnie, and (unbelievable but with photographic proof!) even played with him in the zoo, and was inspired to name his own bear after Winnie - becoming the very famous Winnie-the-Pooh. 

What was even more marvellous is that Lindsay Mattick, the author of the story, is the great-granddaughter of Harry Colebourn the vet, and Cole, the baby in the story and in real life, is named after him. How perfect to have been able to make a book from a story in your own family. The book is tied up perfectly with a photo album at the end of the book with photos of Winnie with Harry and the other soldiers, and playing with Christopher. 

As well as being blessed with such an incredible storyline, Mattick also has a great way with words - I had to keep reading bits out to my husband. I particularly loved the way she wrote about Harry deciding what to do about the bear:
"He felt inside his pocket and said, "I shouldn't." He paced back and forth and said, "I can't." Then his heart made up his mind, and he walked up to the trapper and said, "I'll give you twenty dollars for the bear."
She uses similar phrasing in a couple of other places and it's stuck with me. I'm so looking forward to reading this aloud to a class, there are little gems throughout.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Question One! "How do I become a children's writer?"

I've had my first question sent to me! I've sent off a very hurried email in response, as follows, but I bet there are lots of writers for children out there who might want to put their two-cents worth in. One thing I couldn't find was information about any courses currently running if you want to write for children. Any ideas?


If I wanted to develop my own ability to write children’s stories, what would you suggest that I do?
If you want to write for children the two most important things are to read and to write.
Writing regularly is the best way to get better. Keeping a notebook with ideas, be they big or small, or noting down something someone says, they all go together to build you a good ideas and content bank.

Once you’ve got some writing done and put a story together – (you don’t say what sort of thing you’d like to write – picture books, junior novels, YA, non-fiction? I can give more specific advice depending what you have in mind) it’s a good idea to send it to a manuscript assessor. There are lots of good ones around (, again let me know what you’re writing and I’ll recommend someone for that genre. You will need to pay someone to do this and it’s well worth it as they will give a professional opinion. It’s much better than asking friends and family to give their opinion about your story, it’s pretty much impossible to be objective about the work of someone you are close to.

You can join the NZ Society of Authors (the link above is from their website) which will keep you up to date with workshops, competitions etc. There are a number of writing groups around which can also be beneficial. Everyone shares what they've been writing and critiques and encourages each other.

Once you have something written and done whatever you can to make it better you should enter it in one of the Storylines competitionsThey have several competitions each year (deadline end October is a good one to aim to get something finished by):
Joy Cowley Award for a picture book manuscript
Tom Fitzgibbon Award for a junior fiction novel (8-12 year olds)
Tessa Duder Award (YA novel)

The JC and TF awards are sponsored by Scholastic and is the only channel through which they will look at new writers, they no longer take unsolicited manuscripts. 

Storylines is an organisation it would be worth your while joining, both as an aspiring writer and as a parent. They run a national festival of children’s writers and illustrators at the end of August, including big family days where you can go and hear authors and illustrators talk about their work and ask questions. They usually have workshops too, sometimes for adults. Every chance you get to do something like this it’s good to take it up if you can. You’ll get to know other writers and the many tricks of the trade.

Storylines also sell a great book about writing for children, by one of our best children's authors, Joy Cowley, called Writing from the Heart. 

The Marvels by Brian Selznick [Children's fiction / Graphic novel]

The Marvels 
By Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press, 2015
ISBN 9780545448680

When The Marvels arrived at long last I didn't announce to any of the girls at my school that it was there. I just left it on my desk for them to discover. Catching sight of its gold on blue printed cover, and those golden page edges, always brought a spontaneous exclamation of wonder, fingers reaching out to touch the gold. "Can I look? Can I touch it?" Then opening the pages to see the distinctive dense pencil drawings - "Its another one, like Hugo... like the other one... Wonderstruck, is it?  Can we take it out?" 

One of our teachers had issued a challenge to her Year 4 class in 2014, that if 14 girls could read Caldecott Medal-winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret before the end of term the class could watch the Martin Scorsese Oscar-winning movie. And they made it, I think 16 or 17 girls read that big fat book. They were so proud. Many went on to read Wonderstruck, the follow-up book, and now are lining up to read The Marvels.

This is an epic family saga. Two stories, the first told entirely in pictures, the second in words, the end bringing them together in words and pictures. The story begins on a ship at sea in 1766, with a boy named Billy Marvel. After surviving a shipwreck, he finds work in a London theatre. There, his family flourishes for generations as brilliant actors until 1900, when young Leontes Marvel is banished from the stage. 

Here is a taste of the illustraions:

In the second part, told in words, it's nearly a century later. Joseph Jervis runs away from school and seeks refuge with his uncle, Albert Nightingale, in London, making friends with Frankie, who lives next door. Albert's home is strange and beautiful, exquisitely crafted and full of secrets, with its mysterious portraits and ghostly presences. Joseph is determined to find out why Albert is so secretive and, with Frankie's help, put the puzzle together try to find out what Albert's story is and that of the house, his family, and the past. 

The blending of the two stories, discovering what is real and what is imagined, what is true and what is an illusion, is clever and the ending rather melancholy. 

I haven't heard what the first readers thought of the book yet, as the library copies went home for holiday reading. I wonder if any of them will be bothered by the gay relationship in the story. It's the second children's book I've read recently where AIDS has played a part (I'll have to look through my shelves to remind myself what the first one was).

Selznick has written and illustrated a number of other books, but these three are my favourites. They are also great for giving a child a great sense of achievement - reading a big fat book like this is no mean feat, and yet the visual component makes it reasonably easy to consume. I always tell readers that they must be sure to 'read the pictures' as well as the words, If they don't look carefully they will miss part of the story.

After Hugo was published I remember reading about Selznick's technique for creating his drawings. I haven't been able to track down where I read it, but he works in the opposite way to many illustrators. It's a common practice to create illustrations larger than the final printed page, so that the picture can be scanned or photographed and then reduced in size, which makes the detail appear smaller and more intricate. Selznick does the opposite, he does his drawings in pencil on a small piece of paper then enlarges them to fit the page. This produces the very dense textured lines, sometimes a bit smudgy, and full of fabulous shadow and light. This would be a great technique to try out with some keen artists, to see what their own pictures would look like either amplified or reduced.

There are many interviews, reviews and articles online about Selznick and his work, I highly recommend investigating him further. Just for a start... here's a trailer for The Marvels: