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An Interview with Jaclyn Moriarty, author of 'The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone'

Posted By Jacob Hope, 14 November 2019

Followers of Jaclyn Moriarty's work will know her work by its characteristic, left-of-field humour and the extraordinary sense of character that she builds.  We were delighted to discuss her work and latest book, The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone.  

 

1.   Can you tell us a little about Bronte Mettlestone and the adventures she is forced to embark upon?
 
Bronte Mettlestone was ten-years-old when her parents were killed by pirates.  This did not bother her particularly.  She hardly knew her parents. Bronte had been raised by her Aunt Isabelle and the Butler, her parents having abandoned her as a baby so they could run away and have adventures.  But now Bronte’s parents have left a will requiring her to travel alone throughout the Kingdoms and Empires delivering treasure to her ten other aunts.  The catch is this: the will has been bordered in Faery cross-stitch which means that, if Bronte doesn’t follow its instructions precisely, her hometown will crumble to pieces. 
 
2.    Precocious beyond her years due to her upbringing, Bronte is an intrepid female lead. Throughout the book, she must visit an impressive assortment of aunts.  Were you conscious of creating a matriarchal society and what were your reasons?

That’s a great question. I didn’t start the book thinking, ‘I am going to create a matriarchal society,’ I just decided that Bronte was going on a journey to visit her ten aunts. (I grew up with six aunts, and I’m one of five girls who’ve all grown up and had children—so we’ve become aunts ourselves. I think this might be why I’m fascinated by aunts.)  The more I wrote, the more I liked the fact that most of the characters were women, that these women had various careers, stories and secrets of their own, and that many were in positions of authority. I also liked the fact that Bronte, like most children, was only getting a tantalising glimpse of the complex lives of these aunts. 
(But the world in which Bronte lives is not really a matriarchal society – there are men in positions of power there too. There’s just a bit more of a balance there than in our world …)  
 
 
3.    A ripping yarn that hearkens back to serialised novels of 19th Century, the novel is also a rites of passage with a sense of Bronte's maturation and emotional growth, how important was it to allow her to tell the story in retrospect for achieving this?

Thank you!  I liked the idea that Bronte was telling the story two years after the adventures took place.  This means she’s still a child with some of the sensibilities of a child, but that she also considers herself a little wiser and more world-weary, thanks to her travels and experiences. There’s a big difference between ten and twelve, and I like the way children are constantly leaving their younger selves behind, and trying out new selves.
  
4.    You've written now for middle grade readers, teenagers, young adults and this year had the adult novel, Gravity is the Thing published, are there ways as a writer you adapt your approach for the age groups you write for?

I’m pretty sure a more sensible approach to a writing career is to stick to one genre and one audience, but I love jumping between them.  Also, I keep changing my mind.  I’m a Libra, so I blame the stars for my extreme indecisiveness. 

I was writing Bronte and Gravity at the same time and this was a deliriously happy time.  In the mornings, I’d go to a café and let Bronte tell me the story of her adventures, and in the afternoons I’d come home and listen to the voice of Abigail, the narrator of Gravity. Mornings seemed magical and full of possibility, and afternoons were more thoughtful and grounded in the emotional reality of grown-up relationships, loss and hope.  I don’t think I needed to consciously adapt my approach because the stories and their narrators, and the mood of the day, did that for me.
 
 
5.    Characters and world-building always feel incredibly compelling in your books.   Does this require significant planning or do both 'grow' and develop organically through your writing process?

Thank you again - you are lovely.  World building seems to vary between books for me.  With the Colours of Madeleine trilogy, I spent years drawing maps and collecting features of the world before I started writing.  With The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, I wrote each chapter in a different café in my neighbourhood without any planning—I just let Bronte discover her world as she journeyed around it.  (After the first draft, though, I did spend a bit of time trying to make sure that Bronte hadn’t made any mistakes.)
I usually spend a lot of time talking to characters inside my head, trying to get to know them and choosing favourite songs etc for them, but some characters—like Emily Thompson in the Ashbury books, and like Bronte herself—are already completely themselves before I’ve even met them.
 
6.    A sense of magic permeates a lot of your work, whether in the gothic musings of students at Ashbury High in Dreaming of Amelia, in The Kingdom of Cello, the faery cross-stitch in The Extremely Incovnenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone and in the Spellbook that Listen discovers in The Spell Book of Listen Taylor.  Are you attracted towards the magical?

 
That’s very perceptive of you… I am extremely drawn to the magical.  My mother has always made magic seem perfectly possible, and she is still so matter-of-fact about fairies in the garden that I find myself wondering.  My favourite books have always been those that are set in a realistic world like ours, that are emotionally authentic, and that have magic all around the edges.

'This Book will make you Fly, will make you Strong, will make you Glad. What's more this book will Mend your Broken Heart.' 
The Spell Book of Listen Taylor

 
7.    Your dad used to commission you to write stories, do you think this played a part in why you Liane and Nicola all became authors?  Were there any particular books that made an impact upon you as a child and have influenced your work? 


It’s funny because Liane and I are always telling the story of how our dad noticed we loved writing and decided to commission us to write books rather than giving us pocket money—and we talk about how special it was to have our father taking our writing so seriously, and how it gave us the motivation to finish and polish our work, and how it made writing seem like a viable career option, etc, etc—but Dad never commissioned Nicola to write. (She was the youngest and got pocket money for free.)  So Dad likes to take credit for all of our writing careers, and Liane and I like to give him the credit, but I guess it was actually possible to grow up to be an author in our family, without the commissioning …  

Books that had a huge impact on me as child and influenced my work include the P.L. Travers Mary Poppins books, Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway books, and E. Nesbitt’s The Phoenix and the Carpet.  There were plenty more, I could be listing titles for pages.

8.    Are you able to give any clues as to what readers can expect in The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering Wars, the next book which published with Guppy Books here in the UK in Autumn 2020?

The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering Wars is a kind of prequel to The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone.  It’s set before Bronte was born, in the time just before the Whispering Wars.  In the town of Spindrift, the Kingdom of Storms, a boy named Finlay lives in the Orphanage, and a girl named Honey Bee lives in an exclusive Boarding School.  Finlay and Honey Bee, like the Kingdoms and Empires around them, are about to go to war. 

 

 

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Tags:  Fiction  Interview  Middle Grade  Reading 

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Booking into Hotel Flamingo with Alex Milway

Posted By Jacob Hope, 13 November 2019
Updated: 13 November 2019

On the eve of publication for Hotel Flamingo: Carnival Caper, the third book in the brilliantly inventive, witty and whimsial series, we are delighted to speak with author and illustrator Alex Milway.

 

(1) How important do you think children's book illustrations are and why?

As a young reader, illustrations were the first thing that grabbed me in a book - yes, hang my head in shame, I judged books by their cover. Looking back, I think that because I loved animation so much, this was the way I connected books to the world of cartoons. If it looked like it might make a good cartoon, I was in!

So I think illustrated books provide an entry for readers that don't immediately get drawn in by words, for whatever reason. Looking at it another way, I think the illustrations and 'branding' of books are more important than ever, and younger fiction depends upon it, especially if they're to compete with all the other media industries that vie for kids' attention. 


(2) What books did you read as a child and what do you feel created their appeal for you?

This is a toughy! I remember a few books vividly, but I wasn't a huge reader. I spent way more time playing football, drawing, building LEGO models and coding on my Spectrum 48k. But I do remember devouring The Witches whilst on holiday once. I read lots of comics weekly, like Whizzer and Chips. My love of stories really kicked off in my teens - partly on the back of wanting to write stories like I saw in animated films (Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky was immensely important to me, having chanced upon it on ITV one Sunday afternoon when I was about 13/14.) As with many kids of my generation, I read a lot of books like 1984 and James Herbert's Rats when at secondary school. YA didn't exist, but those fantasy/dystopian/horror classics worked fine. 

(3) Can you tell us how you came to create 'Hotel Flamingo'?

I saw my youngest daughter playing with a crowd of her cuddly toys, putting them to bed, teaching them, feeding them, and I thought it would be lovely to somehow get that into book form. A story about a child playing the adult, I guess, caring for others. Animals were an obvious choice for characters, but I didn't like the notion of it being a zoo - I don't think humans have any ownership over nature - and a hotel popped into my head. 

This world of animals became a place where Anna, the main character, could meet everyday human challenges head on in a gentle setting. All the problems of social cohesion, community and fairness are there for her to deal with in Hotel Flamingo. (Not to mention all the fun, very animal-centric problems, too, such as a rock band of nocturnal animals that have to practise at night!)

(4) There is a delightful sense of imaginative play in the models, animation and songs you create, does this help create a connection with young readers and what kind of responses does this get?

Yes, it really helps! I often find that children think the songs are the best bits of my events. I even had one lad ask for an encore! I blushed! But seriously, I love making things, from models to songs, and it's such a privilege to be able to bring that into schools and show what I do. It definitely helps with some children, making my books less like work, and more like fun. Which I obviously know reading is, but you know how literacy is these days!

(5) There is a warmth and wit that belies the stories, is the role of humour in children's books underrated?

Absolutely. I could go on for hours about this, but when a class full of children are laughing, you know immediately that they will remember your visit as a positive experience. That works with laughing when reading in your head, too. Humour linked to words is one of the most powerful tools we have for building and keeping young readers. 

(6) What animal would you most like to see visiting the hotel and why?

Beavers! I have been reading a book called Eager, by Ben Goldfarb, and I'm now a Beaver Believer, as they're known. I wish I'd written a story about a visiting beaver damming up the swimming pool... MAYBE I WILL?!

(7) Can you tell us anything about what you are working upon next?

I'm working on the illustrations for Hotel Flamingo 4 right now. Once those are complete, I have a lot of thinking to do... So many ideas, so little time. But there may be some adventures in the wilderness involved. 

 

 

 

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Tags:  Funny  Illustration  Reading  Reading for Pleasure 

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Man in the Mountain - a guest blog by Natalie Ramm

Posted By Jacob Hope, 30 October 2019

It is a pleasure to welcome Natalie Ramm to provide an insight into her picture book, Man in the Mountain, and the way her career and life have fed into the creation of this.

 

Six years ago, I took a three month sabbatical from my job in publishing to set off on a road trip across Europe with my husband. The plan was to check out of work entirely – but no sooner had we hit the end of week one, than I felt a sudden urge to write.

 

Perhaps it was the peacefulness of the surrounding landscape, or just the sheer desire to still be working, but each day I would sit down excitedly to write for a few hours. When our trip came to an end, I filed the stories away and thought little of them for years. This is largely because I work in publishing.

 

After spending seven years at Penguin Press, I now work freelance – as a copywriter and marketing consultant – for some of the best publishers in town. I love my day job, but there is nothing like it for reminding you of all the reasons never to get your hopes up of being published: there are just too many books – excellent books – being published already, most of which barely anyone has heard of.

 

Each year, the market seems more crowded, and the space for capturing readers’ attention increasingly small, and contested by all kinds of media. At the same time, in the children’s world at least, big brand authors continue to dominate much of the landscape.

 

And yet, last year, I started to think about my stories again. And in a fleetingly hopeful moment, I sent a few of them to some smaller publishers who accept submissions directly from authors. I was pretty sure it would come to nothing, so when Ragged Bears said they were interested in publishing Man in the Mountain, I knew not to get my hopes up. I didn’t think about whether the book might be a success or not, because I’d worked in publishing long enough to know that it couldnt be. 

 

When you work with books (and especially in marketing), you can get fixated on sales figures, and other standard measures of success. But what if ‘success’ just meant you’d written something that people (who aren’t just your mum) actually want to read? What if success was a finished book you were proud of, kind words from respected colleagues, a spring in your step?

 

Over the past year, as I’ve worked alongside the amazing illustrator Gaia D’Alconzo, my friends and family have often asked ‘aren’t you excited to be having a book published?’. My response was almost always ‘well, it’ll probably sell about three copies’. They would look perplexed, and rightly so – because this is not the attitude to have if you’re writing a book, or creating anything for that matter. Feeling excited and hopeful is an important part of the creative process.

 

So now, upon publication, I’m allowing back those feelings of hope and excitement I felt when I first sat down to write.

 

And it’s a thrill.

 

 

Tags:  Picture Books  Publishing  Reading  Visual Literacy 

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The Responsibilities and Fun of Taking on Eva Ibbotson's World - A National Libraries Week Blog by Sibeal Pounder

Posted By Jacob Hope, 07 October 2019

At the start of National Libraries Week we are delighted to welcome Sibeal Pounder to discuss her approach in researching and writing Beyond Platform 13, the brilliantly imaginative novel that re-enters Eva Ibbotson's magical world.  Sibeal also discusses the Easter Eggs she interlaced through the story, how many are you able to spot?

 

I read the The Secret of Platform 13 for the first time when I was nine years old and fell in love with Eva Ibbotson’s stories. When I was asked to write a sequel it was incredibly surreal and very important to me that I got the heart of the book right – that it felt as much like an Eva book as possible – and that I developed the characters and world in a way I believed Eva would.

 

 It began with research ­– and I started by reading and listening to every interview with Eva, and re-reading the book, hoping to find clues. I had a two-pronged approach for the initial research, which involved looking at two key areas. The first was to find any clues that hinted at how she would develop the world and characters. For example, in the The Secret of Platform 13, she adds in a throwaway about the gumps and writes that every country in the world has one. To me this felt like a classic world building mechanism, which would allow her to expand the world in a sequel should she wish to return. There is the possibility that, as she was published internationally, she added it in as a way of being inclusive, so her fans around the world would read the book and although they were not based in London, they would know that somewhere nearby was a gump to be discovered. It’s difficult to know, but I feel it’s deliberately placed to accommodate a potential return, and the reason she never did go back to the Island of Mist was, I believe, more to do with external factors – things that would set her writing on a different course.

 

The main event that would set her on a different course was a truly heartbreaking one for Eva – her beloved husband Alan Ibbotson passed away. Afterwards, she commented that she just didn’t feel like being funny anymore, and so she turned to writing a different style of children’s fiction and Journey to the River Sea was born. It became one of her bestselling books, along with The Secret of Platform 13, and won the Smarties Prize for children’s fiction.

 

I felt I had enough evidence to support the idea that when writing the first book she engineered a framework that would allow her to return to the world, so I used her throwaway comment about the gumps as the basis for expanding the world in the sequel.

 

The second element of my research was to go back in order to go forward. I think authors, subconsciously or otherwise, create characters with similar characteristics to people they know in real life, so I wanted to figure out who the characters might be loosely based on. If I could do that I’d have a better understanding of where to take the characters – and crucially, would be able to establish where Eva would not take them.

 

One of my favourite parallels I uncovered in my research is to do with the character Ben. He is an interesting one in terms of development as he is the prince of the island and so wields much power. He was on my list of characters to evolve and potentially corrupt, so I wanted to figure out exactly how Eva saw him.  I had a suspicion that he was in many ways Alan Ibbotson – he’s incredibly kind and gracious and gentle and loves the natural world and all creatures. These were all qualities Eva mentioned when discussing her husband.

 

In the book Ben creates a den for the mistmaker creature and hides him under his bed. In an interview Eva mentions her husband had an ant farm and he hid it under his bed! I loved that detail and the parallel with Ben. It convinced me that there were enough similarities between the two and therefore Ben was good to his bones and not someone she would ever think to corrupt in the story. So that was very helpful in guiding the development of Ben.

 

The Ibbotson family were so wonderful in being available on email, and her son Justin was incredibly kind and told me to stop in for tea any time I was passing by. One thing I decided not to do was mine the family for information. At first I was conflicted, because they knew her best, but I felt uncomfortable for reasons I couldn’t initially put my finger on. I think authors share a lot in their work, but they also hold things back for the people in their life – I can imagine this is especially true if you have children. Not every special moment or tradition goes into a book. Not everything in real life is to be plucked for fiction. I really wanted to respect that boundary that Eva would’ve established and I worried how I would distinguish where that boundary lay if I dived into her private life as a way of informing the fiction.

 

Luckily I had to write a very detailed synopsis before I started writing, and this was to be approved by her children. In order to write the synopsis I had to do most of the research, and one of the things I found was an interview with one of her sons in which he discusses Spludger cake. This was no ordinary cake and it was very famous in the Ibbotson household – she would make it for their New Years Eve parties and it was a real feature. I loved the name, and I loved the idea of Eva making it for her family every New Years Eve. I decided to use Spludger cake as a test. I added it to the synopsis and highlighted it, explaining where I got it from. Interestingly, the only hard no from her children was a note asking me kindly to please not include Spludger cake. 

 

That confirmed for me that the way I was going about my research was the most respectful to Eva and her children. I still haven’t found any instance where she mentions Spludger cake – I think it was something she kept just for them.

 

I also had fun adding in Easter eggs for super fans. I wanted the book to read on multiple levels, for those who were discovering Eva’s world for the first time, all the way up to those super fans who know her and her work so well. I won’t list all the Easter eggs as it’s fun to see if people spot them, but one I love is Netty, the new hag in the story. She’s called Netty as a nod to Newcastle, where Eva lived for many years and raised her family – it’s Geordie slang for toilet and I felt it was perfect for a hag. Another one I like is Eva once commented in an interview that if she got stuck when writing a story she would add an aunt in, so when Lina is physically stuck some ghostly aunts appear to help her. There is also a scene when Lina makes a big speech, only to realise her microphone is round the wrong way – that is a nod to Eva’s Smarties prize acceptance speech for Journey to the River Sea. She later spoke of how she held the microphone at the wrong end and no one could hear her. I knew she would keep hold of that to use in a story one day. 

Tags:  National Libraries Week  Reading  Reading for Pleasure 

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Word-Play, Image-Play - Part Two

Posted By Alison D. Brumwell, 06 October 2019
In her recent guest blog Cicada Books’ publisher and editor, Ziggy Hanaor, explores the importance of illustration and ways in which images “create a story that can set children’s imagination alight.” It’s an inspiring piece for librarians, particularly those of us who are passionate about visual literacy and illustrated text and who actively promote the innovation of small, independent publishers. Ziggy is also a talented writer; “Fly Flies”, her recent collaboration with illustrator, Alice Bowsher, is an example of “the playfulness that happens in the gaps between text and image.” Fly loops and twirls across the sky in her own “buzzy, flappy” (and happy) way, until the birds spot her technique and offer unsought advice about how to fly right. The crisp, witty text is perfectly supported by a bold use of space and limited colour, creating a picture book which celebrates freedom and identity. Many thanks again to Ziggy for her insightful blog.

Tags:  Illustration  Reading for Pleasure  visual literacy 

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Jay Hulme: On Writing Clouds Cannot Cover Us

Posted By Jacob Hope, 03 October 2019
Updated: 03 October 2019

On National Poetry Day, it is exciting to welcome Jay Hulme to talk about 'Clouds Cannot Cover Us' an astonishingly direct and powerful collection.  Here Jay discusses his collection and helping to fill the gap that exists for Young Adult poetry.

 

I often say that if I didn’t already love poetry by the time we studied it in secondary school, I’d have hated poetry. The work we studied didn’t reflect our lives or experiences, and the idea that form stood above all else was frustrating to say the least. All of this was exacerbated by the fact that there seems to be a gap in the poetry world; there’s lots of poetry for children, there’s lots of poetry for adults, but there seems to be so little YA poetry to bridge that gap and lead readers further on their literary journey. I was so excited when Troika suggested that I could help fill it.

 

The first thing to think about, when you’re writing a poetry collection, is what you want it to say. In many ways, a collection of poetry is one big poem, and poems (like poets) always have something to say. In writing this collection I thought about what I cared about as a teenager, and what I care about now. I thought about what it is I wanted to say. I was even persuaded (somehow) to dig up some of my old poems, ones I wrote as a teenager in high school and, after giving them a bit of an edit, include one or two of them in the collection.

 

It turns out that what I wanted to say was what I wanted to hear as a teenager - the truth. No “protecting” young people from the issues, no minimising their problems or experiences. No lies. What I wanted to say, what I hope this collection says, is: “The world is terrible. I get it. I see it. I know. But I promise you, there’s still good out there.”

 

This book doesn’t shy away from “issues” it tackles, among other things, domestic violence, general violence, homelessness, class divides, family strife, transphobia, islamophobia, anti-semitism, death, refugees, white supremacy, disability, poverty, and more. It is the world as it is, and will hopefully enable young people to see their lives reflected back at them in a way that is both helpful and affirming.

 

Knowing the industry, I worried that this would be too much for a publisher, but Troika had asked me, specifically, for a poetry book for teenagers. They’d seen me perform. They’d read my work. They had actually met me (big mistake). They knew what they were getting into, or at least, I hoped they did. I sent off the manuscript - it felt like a game of chicken, where I was waiting for one of us to blink. I made lists in my head - which poems I’d be happy to get rid of, which topics might be ‘too much’, and which topics were too personal, or too important, to compromise on.

 

They didn’t blink.

 

We had a meeting, to discuss the order of the poems, the format of the book, how to make it familiar and appealing to as wide a range of readers as possible. They acknowledged the personal nature of many of the poems, and asked if I could make it into a narrative, if it could follow my life in some way. Then they did the unexpected, and instead of asking me to cut poems out, they asked for even more. I went away. I dug through my notebooks. I pinned poem titles on a giant corkboard and tried to see if they could fit in a semi-autobiographical narrative. The day I found an old poem about my own birth felt like a sign - I had an opening. But where next?

 

Being trans means that my life does feel almost like it comes in two halves. I have lived in this world as two people: The person I was before; angry, confused, violent, trying to find out what was wrong, trying to find my place in a world that didn’t want me.  And the person I am now; proud, confident, at peace with myself, trying to forge a future to be proud of. With that in mind, I divided the book into two parts. The first half is filled with problems, anger, and confusion, and the poems in turn are often filled with industrial and urban imagery, dark, and claustrophobic. The second half is filled with hope, change, and growth - the poems here are often filled with natural imagery, they are lighter, softer, quieter - kinder.

 

My hope is that as well as bridging the gap in poetry, into which so many young people fall, this book will also help people. Poetry has a power far greater than any other form of literature, it allows people to see, and feel seen. The intrinsic unknowability of a poem, the way it allows people to take from it what they most need in that moment, is something so often overlooked in the search for the “real” or “correct” interpretation, but it is unbelievably important; especially for a YA audience, who are so often searching for… something.

 

Hopefully this collection will act as a lifeline, and a mirror, and a friendly voice. Hopefully it will offer young people the affirmation and hope they so often need. Hopefully it brings a bit of good into the world. Hopefully it helps people.

 

 

Tags:  National Poetry Day  Poetry  Reading  Reading for Pleasure 

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Simon Mason: A Short Article on the Importance of Libraries (with added rabbits)

Posted By Jacob Hope, 30 September 2019

The Youth Libraries Group was delighted to be asked to be part of Simon Mason's blog tour for his latest Garvie Smith Mysteries book, 'Hey, Sherlock'.  Simon has been shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Award with 'Moon Pie' and for the Costa Children's Book Award for 'Kid Got Shot'.  We are pleased to welcome Simon as a guest blogger to talk about his encounters in libraries (and with rabbits!).

 

 Ecclesall Library in Sheffield was a low stone building at the end of a shadowy driveway off Knowle Lane.  Sunlight sat in the corners of its rooms smelling of warm dust.  The book cases seemed very high, perhaps because I spent most of the time sprawling on the carpet, and there was a room at one end where you could sit round a record player in a highly polished wooden cabinet and listen to recordings of books on scratchy LPs.

 

The book characters who made the deepest impression on me lived in that library.  Looking back, so many of them seemed to be rabbits.

 

Peter was one of them.  I enjoyed his rapid, adventurous sneakery and general rudeness to Mr McGregor, something I sometimes tried out – unsuccessfully – at home.  Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Rabbit, on the other hand, was an interesting figure of tragedy; the backfiring of his trick on Tigger first introduced me to the unsettling ambiguity of humour.

 

Best of all the rabbits, though, was Brer Rabbit – born and bred in the briar patch, swaggering through the plantations of the deep south in his dungarees, shooting the breeze with Brer Tarrypin, cocking a snook at Brer Fox and Brer Bear, getting caught and escaping again, stealing dinners, having the last laugh, quietly smoking his pipe.  God, I loved that rabbit.

 

Enough of rabbits, however.  There were others living in Ecclesall library, sleeping beauties and sleeping dragons and jungle creatures and Viking raiders and, perhaps most interesting of all, ordinary children who happened to have got themselves into books somehow.  It gave me great joy to meet them all, and the joy has lasted all my life.

 

My love of libraries has lasted too.  My school library where, in moody adolescence, I discovered poetry.  My library at college, which I could visit in the middle of the night if I wanted to.  And – much later on – the children’s library in Oxford where I took my own children to meet their own favourite book characters – some of them rabbits.

 

So this is how it seems to me.  That in the end the importance of libraries is not a matter of learning or influence or taste.  But a matter, very simply, of joy.

 

(And rabbits.)

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Word- Play, Image-Play

Posted By Alison D. Brumwell, 29 September 2019

We’re delighted to feature a guest blog by Ziggy Hanaor of independent publisher Cicada Books, which offers a personal insight into the topic of art and design in children’s books.

Visual literacy is a hot topic. It’s vital that we teach children how to read images and interpret them. In this crazy age of information, we are under constant visual bombardment, and if we aren’t equipped with the right tools, what chance do we stand of navigating our way through?

However, as an editor and publisher, my interest in visual literacy is less on the consumer level and more on the creator level. How can we create books that contain images that work with the text to enrich it? How can we make sure that the visual signifiers are all pointing clearly in the right direction? And then, how can we make those images add up to more than the sum of their parts, to create a story that can set children’s imaginations alight. 

I started my career as an editor of art and design books, only really moving into children’s publishing in the last two years. I pride myself on my understanding of visual communication. In the art and design world there are very strict rules that govern the ways in which typography, space, image and colour are used to create an impactful composition. A good designer (and indeed editor) will understand those rules so inherently that they can break them effortlessly but with clear purpose, subverting and challenging the way in which the design is read. The design that I love most is playful. The ads and posters that are imprinted on my mind are the ones like those of Bob Gill, in which words and images are combined in unexpected ways that delight and surprise. 

When I started working in children’s books I was slightly shocked to find a vast divide between the world of illustration and the world of design. A lot of the illustrators I work with operate in a completely instinctive way that can be extremely emotive and impactful, but completely anarchic.

My role as an editor then is to create a structure around the anarchy. I think of the text as ground plans for a building. I explain to the illustrator the size and shape of the building, where the doors and windows need to go and who is going to be the end user. I then wait to see what comes back. You want a slide going from the bedroom to the kitchen? Sure. You want to paint the walls purple? Sure! You want a glass floor in the bathroom? Hmm… maybe let’s rein that one back a bit.

The area of visual literacy that most interests me, is after you’ve taught your child the basic skills of how to read a picture (the emotional motivations, the plot points, the symbols and signifiers etc), how do you maintain their interest? How do you keep them coming back for more, even after they’re fluent readers? For me the answer is the playfulness that happens in the gaps between text and image. Where the thing that’s left unsaid is like a private joke between the writer, the image-maker and the reader, creating that marvellous intimacy that only ever really happens in children’s books and occasionally in a really good ad. I suppose, the thing I’m always aiming for is to create those Bob Gill moments of delight and surprise when the thing that you were expecting isn’t where it was supposed to be. 

 

Tags:  Illustration  Kate Greenaway  visual literacy 

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Interview with Jackie Morris - winner of the 2019 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal

Posted By Jacob Hope, 25 September 2019
Updated: 25 September 2019

With nominations currently still open for the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals (nominate by clicking here), we talk with 2019 winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal, Jackie Morris about her work, the impact winning has had upon her and the extraordinary book that she and Robert MacFarlane created.

 

Kate Greenaway winner, ‘The Lost Words’ initially began as a chat with Emily Drabble about producing  a web slideshow of images to highlight words that had been dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary.  The words had fallen from common use and so were no included in the dictionary whose purpose OUP described as being ‘to reflect language as it is used, rather than seeking to prescribe certain words or word usages.’

 

Recognising the importance of the natural world, several authors, naturalists and broadcasters signed a letter composed by Laurence Rose, conservationist and editor of the Natural Light blog.  The letter cited the National Trust’s ‘Natural Childhood’ campaign stating

 

‘Every child should have the right to connect with nature.  To go exploring, sploshing, climbing, and rolling in the outdoors, creating memories that’ll last a lifetime.’

 

Among those who signed the letter were Margaret Atwood, Nicola Davies, Robert MacFarlane, Michael Morpurgo, Sir Andrew Motion and Jackie Morris.  Talking about the removal of the words, Jackie says ‘it highlighted the disconnect between language and nature and was a clear indication that something was wrong.’

 

Fearing that a slideshow of images would be there and then, like the words in the dictionary, disappear, Jackie began to think about a book and decided to write to co-signatory, Robert MacFarlane to see whether he might be willing to pen an introduction.  When the reply came back a couple of weeks later, the suggestion was to collaborate on something more than just an introduction.

 

We started knocking the idea back and forth between the two of us.’  Jackie was clear that she didn’t want children to be in it and wanted it to be wild.  ‘The idea of spells clicked in his mind.  The first one he wrote was the kingfisher and I painted it against a background of goldleaf’.  Taking it to the Hamish Hamilton offices, was the first  time Jackie met with Robert and she didn’t meet him again until the project was finished.  ‘Everything was done via e-mail, I’d send sketches, he would send spells to be spoken aloud.  It was the most collaborative piece of work of all of the things I’ve done.’

 

Jackie did not create roughs for any of the illustrations, submitting the artwork in batches.  Part of the collaborative process involved the work of designer Alison O’Toole.  Jackie describes finding ‘The Lost Words’ font as having been key, ‘I was conscious about legibility, but something about the space given to the words means that reluctant readers aren’t intimidated.  We’ve had feedback about how well reluctant readers have responded and how they love it and are not put off by the complexity of language because of the relationship with the pictures.’

 

Hamish Hamilton were extremely trusting and have supported the crowd-funding ideas where copies of the book have been gifted to local .  The book has caught the public imagination in an inspiring way.  The dynamism of the relationship between written and pictorial language has acted as a catalyst enabling creative responses that have crossed a variety of artistic boundaries with folk songs, exhibitions and even a performance at the 2019 proms.   

 

Talking about this year’s Kate Greenaway win, Jackie explains the impact it has had upon her career.  ‘After twenty-eight years working in children’s books, I have a big backlist.  For the first time ever there is a plan of my work being taken to Frankfurt Book Fair.’  Her Canadian publisher was also very excited on hearing the news.  ‘My work now has a connection with other books that have won and which I love.  It has given me a new confidence.’

 

 

Tags:  books  Kate Greenaway  libraries  nature  nominations  reading for pleasure 

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Global Market Matters - We welcome Emma Shevah as our first electronic writer in residence

Posted By Jacob Hope, 24 September 2019

The Youth Libraries Group is delighted to have a new writer or illustrator in residence programme.  Each individual will be in post for a three month tenure and will be selected on the basis of championing an under-represented form of writing or illustration, helping to shine a light upon this, or else because they champion an underrepresented community.  We are delighted that Emma Shevah has agreed to be our first electronic writer in resident.  If you have not come across her books, we can highly recommend these.  This electronic residency will form a part of our Raising Voices initiative more of which will be announced soon.

 

Hello. I’m Emma Shevah and I’m honoured to have been asked to be the YLG’s first electronic Writer-in-Residence. I’m the author of three Chicken House books for 8-12s (Dream on Amber, Dara Palmer’s Major Drama and What Lexie Did), and an early reader with Bloomsbury (Hello Baby Mo!). My fourth MG novel will be published in summer 2020.

 

As a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) author writing about BAME characters, the findings of this week’s Reflecting Realities CPLE report on Ethnic Representation in Children’s Literature have been interesting. They reveal that only 4% of UK children’s books published in 2018 had BAME main characters—up 1% from 2017 but still unpardonably low. Hopefully, my 2018 offering was included in that percentage, but Lexie is Greek Cypriot and the BAME acronym’s ‘minority ethnic’ definition is unclear (more on that next month).

 

Meanwhile, a PhD student interviewed me recently: her department at the University of Leicester is researching artists, writers and musicians, and how they manage - or don’t - to finance their creative lives. She asked about my writing process, my books, and whether I need to undertake other work. Four of her questions struck me. What percentage of your income is from writing? followed by what percentage of your time is spent writing? (face palm moment). Would you recommend writing as a career? And do you think it’s different for BAME writers?

 

Hmm. Writing about BAME characters can pose financial problems. The UK’s drive for diversity in children’s books is not necessarily shared globally, and contemporary novels about diverse characters and/or family situations can be difficult to sell internationally as they may not reflect the experiences and situations of cultures overseas. The reason there are more animal protagonists than BAME ones is that animals are generic and therefore translatable: a lion learning about his identity is likely to sell in many more territories than one about a mixed-raced child in Luton with same-sex parents. Publishing is an industry, and for authors and publishers, global markets matter.

 

Back home, there are issues, too. UK book buyers for the under 12s are predominantly (white, as that is the demographic) parents. While some are just relieved their children are reading and will buy any book they choose, others cherry-pick ‘literary’ books of ‘quality’ that will further their children’s schooling rather than ones that will widen their cultural and sociological understanding of modern Britain. Writing contemporary novels in the first person doesn’t help: I write in a style and vernacular that mirrors today’s eleven-year-olds, who tend not to talk in lyrical language rich in metaphors and similes. Historical, fantasy and third-person narratives free authors of this limitation.  A very small number of books scoop up the majority of sales, and once they sell well, more resources are put behind them from publishers and retailers so they sell even more, leaving little space and money for the rest. Celebrity authors are the new vogue, too, for the same reason. And while school librarians tweet photos of my dog-eared books, saying there’s a queue for them, which I love, those many readers are reading just one book.

 

These factors affect sales, and low sales negatively affect the ability of BAME writers to earn a living from writing. Of course, most writers share this problem. But without strong UK sales and foreign rights, generic stories about bears will continue to trump BAME characters and their specific experiences. There are further issues: with the BAME acronym, with the immigrant work ethos influencing/ dominating the career choices of first generation children where writing is not a valid career option, and the unconscious (or possibly conscious) collective bias that means books about young British Muslims have more chance of being published and promoted than ones about young British Jews.

 

What percentage of my income is from writing? Less than 5%. What percentage of my time is spent doing it? Oh God. 40%? Rising to 70-80% in the school holidays? Would I recommend writing as a career? No. See above. But this is also subjective: I’m a lone parent with four children living in an expensive part of the country. I have a demanding full-time job, and a part-time evening job, and when I should be gathering strength and enjoying my children, I’m exhausting myself by tapping relentlessly on a laptop keyboard. My books haven’t sold in forty territories – eight is the most so far, and this is good, especially as it includes the US and Canada, where—thanks to The Odyssey Honour award and New York Times, Wall Street Journal, People magazine and starred library journal reviews– my profile and sales are higher than they are here. But this still isn’t enough to provide me with more time and space for writing.

 

Are my BAME books getting out there, making a difference, changing the world and its shameful statistics? Who knows. I’m tired. I’d like to stop for a while because I value my health and my family, and need, really, to focus on my reliably-paid jobs. Is this experience shared by other BAME writers? No idea. Our experiences of writing are as personal as our stories.

 

Obviously, I’d love to see more BAME protagonists in UK children’s books. I wrote about the dearth of South East Asian characters in The Bookseller and write them myself to ensure they exist. But parents need to buy them, booksellers and librarians continue to promote, showcase and encourage readership of them, teachers use them in the classroom and add them to reading lists and curriculums, and the ‘canon’ adapt to incorporate them. BAME writers must have money and room if they are to write, and, importantly, to continue writing.

 

Is it different for BAME writers? I think it is. We’re in the peripheral vision, finally. But there’s still such a long way to go.

 

Tags:  Children's Reading  Diversity  Libraries  Raising Voices  Reading for Pleasure 

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