Listen to the Baby Animals : Marion Billet

Listen to the Baby AnimalsListen to the Baby Animals by Marion Billet

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I need to tell you a little bit about this book that, I suspect, might appeal quite immensely to the adults amongst you who have Suffered From Noisy Book Syndrome. Come on, we all know what I mean. Those books that children adore – and rightfully so – but that you’re quite tempted to flush down the toilet after the 365th tinny repetition of ‘Jingle Bells’.

THIS BOOK HAS AN ON AND OFF SWITCH.

IT IS HIDDEN BEHIND A PANEL THAT IS ACCESSIBLE ONLY TO ADULTS AND THEIR DEXTEROUS DRIVEN BY NECESSITY AND AN URGE TO PRESERVE THEIR SANITY FINGERS.

Like, what an amazing thing is that? It’s pretty much the interactive board book equivalent of inventing the wheel and I love it, ferociously, because it’s a gesture towards the parents as much as it is to the children. This isn’t just to turn the noise off; how much of a Gandalf will you look when you turn the noise on? Clever design benefits everyone, and Nosy Crow are so on the ball with this. Immensely.

I wouldn’t be writing this fulsome review of a book based solely on a switch, brilliant as it is, because the book itself needs to stand up and be worthy of interest in its own right. I think sometimes, especially with this age group, we can rely on tricks and *jazz hands*, and the story element itself gets neglected. Luckily enough, Marion Billet has done something quite intensely charming here. It’s a simple journey through a series of scenes, each of which introduces a baby animal with their parent, and the artwork is charming. Round-edged, thick, blunt colours, and a gentle prompt for the reader to encourage interaction.

This is delightful all the way through, from Billet’s fat and thick use of colour, through to the sounds – actually real life yips from puppies and cheeps from chicks (no tinny nonsense here!). I’d also direct you to Billet’s Listen To The Birdswhich features actual recordings of nightingale song and sort of blew my mind a little bit.

I could write about board books like this forever.

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‘Roads’ in children’s books

As I’m sure you’ll know, I have a particular interest in the representation of landscape in children’s books. Landscape tells you everything, and yet it’s often one of the more forgotten elements when people talk about a book. Consider the difference between the two sentences below.

The cat sat on the mat in a field.

The cat sat on the mat in the ocean.

Two entirely, viscerally different scenarios and all of that comes from adding a little bit of context. Location. Landscape. Setting.

I’ve been thinking about roads at the moment, and in particular stories where roads form a key point of the narrative. I don’t want books where roads appear in the background or as a vague element in the illustration, I want them to be centralised within the text. Characters, if you will, in their own right.

So this post is essentially to ask for some help! Do you know of any children’s books – picture book through to YA – that might fit the bill? If you do, please let me know in a comment below and I’ll collate the results into a reading list . Thank you!

I Dare You : Reece Wykes

I Dare YouI Dare You by Reece Wykes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a picture book and honestly? I get a little twitchy when I’m away from them. I get a little nervous, as though a part of me is missing and it’s a part that can only be completed by delightful endpapers and books that give you the world in a handful of words. Picture books are the buttress of our literacies and they make us who we are.

And I Dare You by Reece Wykes is rather, utterly gorgeous. It’s the tale of two bored gorillas playing a game of dares. The game starts in relatively innocuous circumstances before slowly building up as the dares became even more and more outrageous until the final dare – one which I won’t spoil for you here -is posed. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully handled moment that spirals off into somewhere delightfully suggestive in the final endpapers. (A brief note: books that give different front and back endpapers, that little bit behind the cover and before the ‘story’ itself, are perfect. These are immense spaces and Wykes uses them quite perfectly).

There’s a lot to love about this dry, dark, funny book and it comes from both the text and the imagery – as all good picture books should. Textually; there’s a dominant motif of ‘I DARE YOU…’ which begs for the exuberant chant of storytime. There’s also a useful point to be made in I Dare You about the risks of taking dares too seriously and though it’s not explicitly made (thank God), the lesson is very much there. This is one to have around to prompt conversation and to consider; and that’s something very important indeed.

Where I Dare You also shines is in the vibrancy of the art work; it’s a nicely restricted palette of muted greens and the blankness of the page that lets the colour of the two gorillas – blue and orange – sing in cntrast. The gorillas, though, my goodness. Great stylised, suggestive lines – the fluidity of their arms – as they slide subtly into greater and more outlandish dares, always subtly catching each other’s eyes and making sure that they’re noticed. Cleverness isn’t easy in picture books; quiet cleverness is even harder. These gorillas sing with skill. This book is such an unexpected, offbeat joy and the ending is perfect. It’s a lot to ask to pack so much into so little and yet I Dare You does it with spades. And Gorillas.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Learning how to be not afraid

I was asked, the other day, in the middle of a conversation: “what has life as a research student taught you?’.

And my answer was: “it’s taught me to be not afraid.”

I was a little bit surprised as to where that came from and more so, perhaps, in how I phrased it. I think that language reveals a lot about people and that the unguarded utterance, the blurt, the interruption, they say perhaps even more.

I have learnt to be not afraid. Not unafraid; not that, because to be ‘not afraid’ or ‘unafraid’ are two slightly different things. Two fine, finely similar carvings in the tree of life but one with a line that slightly moves to the left instead of the right. Fear, I think, is always there in life. It is pronounced, it is shadowy, but it is almost always there. Doubt. Shadows. Light. Darkness. We don’t live wholly in one space nor the other, but flit between the two like a moth seeking a flame.

You might be asking what this has to do with children’s books; after all, this is a bookish blog to talk about bookish things and bookish things are always worth talking about and understanding in depth. And that’s precisely what being ‘not afraid’ is all about, I think, especially as an adult who engages in children’s literature. I am transgressive. I am other. I am not the child. I am an adult. Does my presence erode the very thing I love? That, perhaps, is a question for another day – but the question for today is this: how do you learn to be not afraid of the things you love?

(A memory from school : a discussion of Snowball from Animal Farm. How did we know he was a pig? Because I have read the book, I wrote, but because I had not referenced the quote we were given, I was marked down)

I have learnt to be not afraid of children’s literature. I don’t think, maybe, that I ever was palpably afraid (and indeed, how difficult to quantify such a sentiment), but I was afraid of the discourse around them. I was conscious of the conversations and questioning of my space within that dialogue. The space. I am, I was, I will be forever bookish, but the bookish world is a difficult space to navigate even then. And if you are not bookish; if you have been halted at one of the barriers that we adults are so keen to place in your way, then how do you navigate that? How do you defy that fear and learn to live and survive and thrive ?

(A memory of a reading competition in school. I read “too fast” for the rules and was quizzed as to whether I was cheating).

I have learnt to be not afraid of thoughts, of thinking, and of stating that opinion. We seek to silence opinion so easily, and to hold onto yours is the greatest thing. I attended a conference recently where we spoke of how a conversation of certain authors became gendered as masculine because only the male authors in this discipline were talked about. And thus because the discourse became gendered as masculine, more male voices were privileged, and others were forgotten and silenced.

I work for children. Not, perhaps, in a literal sense, but they are centred in everything that I do. A consciousness, an awareness, that my subject and its application exists in bedrooms and at bathtimes and at storytimes. That it can be fought over in the pram or on the bus or with your friends discussing who writes the best pony stories. That it is a subject driven by passion, by love, and that to participate within it is a privilege.

I have learnt that the barriers we place in front of literacy are made to be questioned, challenged and – quite often – broken.  And I have learnt that that journey is no fun unless I bring others with me along for the ride. These are your books; our children’s books; their children’s books; humanity’s books.

I have learnt to be not afraid of telling the world of what I love.

 

 

Collecting Sticks : Joe Decie

Collecting SticksCollecting Sticks by Joe Decie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was at a conference the other day where talk turned to the idea of ‘kindness’ and how writing can give an opportunity for emotions to be expressed another way. To shine a light into the darkness. It’s a complex idea and one that I suspect I’m going to be unpicking for a while, but what stuck with me was that idea of kindness. I have been moving closer to it for a while now, seeking it particularly in the children’s books I work with but also elsewhere. That acknowledgement that the world is a complex and challenging and intimidating space and that we are just people trying to do our best in it. Kindness. It’s hard to find in a book, hard to consciously seek it, but when you find it, you find a fat and rich and genuine warmth that sings of love and hope and belief in people in all of their foolish and idiosyncratic ways. Kindness.

And so I came to Collecting Sticks by Joe Decie, a comic book that I’d seen reviewed elsewhere and ordered at the library as a consequence (reviews! they work! colour me stunned!). It is a beautiful, beautiful book and I loved it. It’s a slender, elegant visual note, rendered in a black and white wash and wry notes and asides towards the reader. It’s autobiographical, covering a glamping trip undertaken by Decie’s family, but rather deliciously global in the same way; Decie focuses on the moments at the heart of his panels and lets the white space of the page or the quietly focused background of the panel provide that universal backdrop that means these moments of family and conversation could, perhaps, be in your house right now. It’s delicately done and all rather wonderful.

Seek this out if you’re a little tired with the world, or if you’re looking for something to remind you of the intense potential of people. Collecting Sticks has such a delightful warm rhythm to it that it beats with family life, of closeness and of love. It’s eccentric, funny, and self-conscious, and it’s full of utterly delightful beats. And it is full of kindness. Warmth. Empathy. Love.

This is a beautiful, beautiful little book.

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Thank you Michael Bond

I’m supposed to be editing my thesis, and yet here I am trying to hide my tears because of the death of a man I never met. Michael Bond has died, and I am beyond words and yet words are what I turn to. How do you express your grief? How do you express your grief when you know that it will never, remotely, hit the kindly grace that Michael Bond hit in every sentence?

You begin, perhaps, by saying thank you. It is a simple sort of thing to say and yet one that I keep coming back to over and over again.

Thank you.

Thank you Michael Bond for your stories; for Olga Da Polga, Monsieur Pamplemousse and for Paddington. Thank you for your genuine and kind and warm and rich stories that defied their apparent simplicity to cut deeper, deeper than anybody may have ever expected.

Thank you for marmalade sandwiches. Thank you for making children the centre of your stories, thank you for trusting that that story was worth telling. Thank you for bears. Thank you for overly ambitious guinea pigs. Thank you for Pommes Frites. Thank you for honesty. Thank you for gentleness. Thank you for seeing the best in people, whoever they might be.

Thank you Michael Bond.

We were so very privileged to have known you.

Image result for sad paddington bear

Losing my marbles (or the day I visited the Miffy Museum in Utrecht)

For those of you who don’t know of her, Miffy is a joy. She is a small white rabbit created by Dick Bruna and I love her greatly. Dear Grandma Bunny, for example, is one of the best picture books that have ever been made and The Little Bird isn’t far off. Miffy is one of the points that I include on my 54 places to begin when thinking about children’s and young adult literature, and I hope that by now you’re starting to realise how important Dick Bruna was. His art was precise, beautiful and incredibly eloquent. We are a poorer world without him, but we are so, so lucky to have had him.

dick bruna.jpg

Born in Utrecht, and beloved by the city, Bruna and his work are now memorialised in every inch of the town. From a pair of familiar ears peeking out from a shop window, through to traffic lights that offer red bunnies for stop and green for go, Utrecht is rightfully proud of its artistic son.

I took a day out from a week in Amsterdam to go over and visit; and oh, it was glorious. This blog is a safe space to confess such things and so I confess this to you: I lost my marbles and I loved it. There is something madly joyful about being unabashed in your loves, and when I sat in the reconstruction of Bruna’s studio in the top floor of the Centraal Museum, I cried.

bruna miffyThere is something very religious about this sort of thing for me; this travel to pay tribute to somebody, and it’s not a sensation that I can easily verbalise, but I can recognise. It comes when I love something and I do, frankly, love what Dick Bruna did for the world. He drew sensitively and smartly and warmly and to be a part of that story, even at this late and painful moment when you know it can’t continue, is a gift.

If you’d like to visit Utrecht on a similar pilgrimage, here’s some useful information for you. It is very easily accessible from Amsterdam station (literally half an hour train ride and then about twenty minutes walk from the sation). There are two points you’ll want to go to, the Miffy Museum and the Centraal Museum where Dick Bruna’s studio is in situ until 2025. You can buy a combined ticket for the two. The Miffy Museum itself is, I’ll grant, somewhat scant on the museum aspects but it’s oddly joyous to see a horde of little children racing around and enjoying themselves in that intense, whole-body, way that little children do. It’s a beautiful tribute and one that, in its way, left me as moved as visiting the recreation of Bruna’s studio did.

Here’s to you Dick Bruna, and thank you for your work. You made my heart break, you made it whole, and you made that happen with such unconscious finesse. You were – you are – you always will be – a gift. Thank you.