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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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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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The Sticker Atlas of Scotland - In Conversation with Benedict Blathwayt

Posted By Jacob Hope, 11 September 2019
Benedict Blathwayt's picture books have been firm favourites for decades, offering a unique insight into the countryside of the United Kingdom and visually documenting so much about nature and farming practices.  It was a pleasure to speak with Benedict about his latest book, The Sticker Atlas of Scotland.
Benedict describes the work of inaugural Kate Greenaway Medal winner, Edward Ardizzone, as being a particular influence admiring the efficacy of his simple line and wash.  Although he never read the classics, Benedict was fascinated by the visual worlds in Herge's Tintin books and in Rupert the Bear.  The idea of place and childhood runs through much of Benedict's work and influences.  'I draw from a lot of the places I've lived.' Benedict spent a lot of his youth and chilldhood in Scotland and has worked on three farms, including one on the Isle of Mull.  He has owned a cow, Bramble, who might be familiar to readers of his books.  Even today, he still lives on a farm and, although he occasionally helps with the sheep, is glad not to have the full responsibilities of a far.
Describing himself as not being a naturalist, Benedict nevertheless has a palpable curiosity and intrigue about the world that surrounds him. 'Artists are like sponges, absorbing the things that surround them.'  Benedict is likely more astute than most as he spent some years drawing wildlife in Wales for Nature Conservancy. He explains how he loves nothing more than to watch otters and whales on the nature walks he loves.  'I like to observe and then look up in a book what I have seen.  It's amazing how much you learn that way, I've even remembered some of the Latin names'.  It's no surprise that Benedict also keeps a nature diary where he records his observations, like the swallows that came into his kitchen this summer, perching on the drying rack.  He uses these observations to help inform the natural history column his writes for a local newsletter and to pore over during the colder months.
Discussing his creative process, Benedict tells how he creates the idea for a story, beginning by writing down scribbled text in biro.  He divides this into the number of pages - usually 12 spreads -and creates a mini storyboard (about the size of a matchbox), in fine sharp pencil.  This is how he tests to find whether the continuity and run works.  If approved by a publisher, he will then create full size roughs where he makes all the mistakes of composition.  Placing the roughs onto a homemade copylight, he then copies these onto watercolour paper before colouring these.
Nature and place play key roles roles in his books.  'Part of this is that I always want to be able to go for a walk in a picture, seeing the horizon in the distance, knowing that even if a road goes around a hill you can still get there.'  Place formed a part in his latest project for Birlinn, creating The Sticker Atlas of Scotland. It was an idea Benedict was initially a little sceptical about, seeing it more of a toy than an actual book.  Having produced novelty books before, Benedict felt these weren't always satisfactory 'It only takes a lost piece or a broken tab and they don't even really work as books any more'.  Seeing the sticker books that his grandchildren play with, Benedict felt there was a place for one that does it differently, 'to create a variety of stickers that, like individual mosaic tiles on a Roman floor, work together to give an overall fair and true picture of the country.'  Having visited much of Scotland, there is an authenticity to this.  
There's a sense of synchronicity to this project because, as a child, Benedict used to draw invented maps, creating white sandy beaches and tall mountains, delighting in giving them weird and wacky names.  'I always loved maps, the brown bits that show higher ground, the water - wondering whether it is swimmable, if you could sail a boat in it.  Sat Navs and Google Maps are blinkered by our specific question and only answer the"now" and miss the excitement entailed in laying out a map on the table when everything and anything is possible.'  
As our conversation draws to a close, it strikes me that the wonderfully detailed landscapes and townscapes that Benedict paints act as proto-maps, encouraging readers to explore different areas and the lay of the land, acting too as a places where anything and everything is possible. 


Tags:  illustration  libraries  maps  nature  reading for pleasure  visual literacy 

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An Interview with Illustrator Jon Agee

Posted By Jacob Hope, 05 September 2019
Updated: 05 September 2019

Jon Agee is the author and illustrator of numerous picture books.  Milo's Hat Trick and Little Santa have both beenrecognised as American Library Association Notable Books.  The brilliantly witty and timely The Wall in the Middle of the Book is published by Scallywag Press as is Life on Mars.  We were delighted to have the opportunity to interview Jon for the blog.  


Were you interested in illustration as a child and if so, which illustrators made a particular impact upon you and why?


I was always drawing.  Mom, an artist, encouraged that.  I grew up with Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense.  The limericks – of grown-ups doing silly things to themselves and others – were particularly liberating, along with his lively pen and ink drawings.  Garth Williams was another favorite.  His pen and ink illustrations – for Charlotte’s Web and many other books – exuded warmth and had a tactile, sculptural feel.  There was also a well-thumbed album of New Yorker cartoons from the 1950’s, filled with material by Charles Addams, Peter Arno, James Stevenson, Saul Steinberg – all the greats.  It no doubt helped shape my sense of humor. 


In your work, comedy is often derived through what the pictures show but the text does not, is this an important way of helping pre-readers to feel empowered and to begin inferring meaning?


Yes, the pictures often show you something that the text deliberately leaves out.  This may be for comedic effect, as in Life on Mars, where the text never mentions the very large Martian creature following the little astronaut.  The hope is to create an inviting  tension between text and picture, which draws the reader in.


More often, picture book text is spare because the pictures do most of the work.  Years ago I wrote a book about a grown-up astronaut, named Dmitri.  When Dmitri returns to Earth from a two-year stay on the moon, nobody remembers him.  So, he goes to the Museum of Space Exploration to get an idea of what happened while he was away.  It turns out, a lot has happened.  A vast exhibit hall shows the exotic discoveries of more recent astronauts: a fragment from the ring of Saturn, a Plutonian Asteroid, a Venusian Splurge, part of a crater from Mars, even a small planet called Zoltrop.  The illustration is elaborate, so the text is brief: “The main exhibition had changed while he was gone.  Dmitri was impressed.”


Life on Mars really encourages us to look, how important do you think this skill is for young people in the modern world and what role can illustration play in helping to develop this?


Looking is a big part of picture books.  There is a joy to discovering things that are never mentioned in the text.  The picture/text dynamic encourages us to use our intellect, to see beyond the surface of things, to expect the unexpected. 


 In some ways, Life on Mars feels almost an allegory for how picture books can widen our understanding as young children, the world can feel a very unfamiliar and alien place.  You showcase emotions very clearly in your work, are picture books a useful way of helping to make sense of these and even of the world?


When I work on ideas for stories, I’m trying to make sense out of something, even if it’s absolute nonsense.  There is always a clear logic to my stories, no matter how implausible or ridiculous-sounding the plot.  In Life on Mars, a little astronaut misses the biggest find of his life simply because he doesn’t look behind him.  Children can follow his missteps, and empathize with his up and down journey.  And maybe they can laugh along the way.   


The Wall in the Middle of the Book is a masterpiece of minimalism.  It is also a very timely book with so much discussion around borders and movement.  Do you feel picture books can be an effective way to explore often sophisticated issues affecting society and can you think of examples where this happens?  Were you conscious of this when creating the book?  How does it feel to have the book endorsed by Amnesty International?


The idea for Wall was sparked by the architecture of a book; thinking about the opposing rectangular pages as unique places, separated by the binding in the middle.  Many months later, a story emerged from this.  The concept of a protective wall seemed ripe for parody.  So I turned it on its head.  It was simply a coincidence that the book was published at a time when a controversial wall was being discussed here in the States.


Many picture books explore important issues that affect society.  Among Dr Seuss’s books, he covered racism, environmentalism, and nuclear war.  Maurice Sendak’s We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy was inspired by a photograph of homeless children in Brazil.  John Burningham’s Aldo seems to be about a girl whose parents have separated.  In William Steig’s Amos and Boris, a mouse, fearing he’s about to drown in the ocean, talks candidly about mortality.


The Amnesty International endorsement was a first.  I was delighted!   


 The book makes clever use of the gutter to create a physical barrier, how conscious of the format of the book are you when creating the layout and composition of your illustrations and how does this affect them?


Part of writing and illustrating a picture book involves figuring out the way you want to physically (graphically) present your story.  Will it be the standard 32 pages?  Does it need to be longer?  Will it rely on a few big page turns, or many?  Will it utilize single page spreads and double page spreads (where the picture crosses the gutter) or simply double page spreads throughout?  Will the story break the fourth wall?  Will it ask the reader to interact?  Will it incorporate text in the picture?


It’s not enough to simply be a good illustrator, writer or designer.  A picture book is about sequential images, the play of words and pictures, pacing, timing, scale, perspective, point-of-view, etc.  Left and right page (verso and recto) can have distinct roles.  Page turns can set up punch lines and surprises.  There are a lot of things to consider, which is part of the reason I enjoy what I do.   


 The Youth Libraries Group supports libraries and librarians, how important have libraries been to you during your life? 


 As a kid, stepping into the local public library was like walking into a church, because it was so quiet, and – being a kid – I was inevitably told to be quiet, which was awkward, but then I found my book, settled in, and it all made sense.


 I loved my college library.  A beautiful, modern space.  The chairs, though, were too comfortable.  A fair amount of unintentional napping took place in that library.  After college, I used the great New York Public Library.  It was an important resource for rare children’s books, obscure books of wordplay, and the main reading room, with it’s vaulted ceilings, was a beautiful place to be.  Across the street, there was the picture library, where I could find photographs and images of pretty much anything I was researching. 


More recently, I visit schools and libraries across the country, talking and reading to children, and meeting smart, passionate librarians.  


 Picture books can sometimes be overlooked in promotions and activities, have you encountered any best practice that you could share?


I promote my books by talking at schools, libraries and bookstores.  Publishers are always finding new ways to publicize books.  These days many books are previewed with a book trailer – a short video –which readers can access on social media, before the book is published.  


What challenges do you think exist in the field of illustrations and how do you feel these are affecting – or likely to affect – the market?


The challenge for illustrations would seem the same as always.  The difference might be that illustration is moving more to digital art.   There are new technical challenges, I suppose.  But, for now, publishers are just as happy with hand-painted artwork as they are with art that arrives via the internet. 


What is next for you in your work?


I’m working on picture book projects, as usual, and a graphic novel where everybody speaks in palindrome, which is to say, everything that’s said In the book, will read the same forward and backward.  It’s been a longer project than I’d imagined.  



We are grateful to Scallywag Press and to Jon Agee for their time and support with this interview.



Tags:  Humour  Illustration  Reading for Pleasure  Visual Literacy 

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Geiriau Diflanedig: Finding Lost Words in Welsh

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


Fighting the cause of lost words is a familiar effort in Wales where language itself is endangered. While both Welsh and English by today have equal status in the eyes of the law, over the past 150 years, we have seen the number of Welsh speakers decline from 90% of the population to only 19%. During the past sixty years or so, there have been many campaigns for the survival of Welsh, or Cymraeg as it is known in her own language. As well as official status, these campaigns have led to the restoration of original Welsh place names (and marking them with bilingual road signs), the right to be educated in Welsh and to have Welsh television and radio programmes. And things are certainly looking up, with the Welsh government recently setting itself the ambitious goal to double the number of Welsh speakers from half a million to a million by the year 2050.

This matters. Saving words and languages matters. It matters because they are more than just sounds. They are windows that enable us to see and understand the world about us. A bluebell and a dandelion may both be flowers, but without being called by their own names, they become somehow less visible, less important, more prone to be ignored ...  and eventually, more likely to vanish.

This is one of the reasons why I was so delighted to be asked to try to recast Rob Macfarlane’s spells into Welsh and project them against Jackie Morris’ extraordinarily beautiful artwork. Inspired by the original ideas, I took a deep breath and imagined my pencil into a magic wand. Together we were facing a task of great responsibility - to conjure the words of the world about us back from the brink of unbeing and place them in central sight!

Some of the challenges were obvious. If the way the three letters in the English ‘ivy’ grow to five in the Welsh ‘iorwg’ cause a conundrum, then what about how the four in ‘newt’ expand to ten over three words in ‘madfall y dŵr’?! Beyond their length, the names also sometimes focus on different characteristics. While the Welsh ‘clychau’r gog’ and the English ‘bluebell’ reveal the same ‘bell’/’cloch’ component, ‘blue’ is not reflected in the Welsh, but instead it recalls the ‘cuckoo’ that shares its May landscape. And if the regal status of ‘kingfisher’ is not evident in Welsh, here the colour blue, that’s missing from the bell flowers, is clear for, literally translated, this royal English fisherman is known in Welsh as ‘the blue of the water’s edge’.

As is the case in other languages such as French or German, in Welsh we have two ways of expressing knowing, enabling us to ‘know’ facts on the one hand, and places and people on the other in different ways. In our language we recognise that to know facts is somehow a more superficial undertaking than to know places and people; the former an act of mind and memory, the latter more an act of the heart and soul.

In working on these spell-songs, I have been allowed to meet the twenty words they conjure up and get to know what they represent beyond the mind and memory. They have become more than facts. They have become friends that need to be known by the heart and soul.

With the help of the craftsmanship and artistry of the design team at Graffeg, and the generous encouragement of Jackie and Rob, it has been a great joy to work on Geiriau Diflanedig. I can only hope that the readers will share some of this pleasure and that the Welsh version will play its part, along with its counterparts in the other languages, in calling back onto our tongues some endangered species of wondrous words.

To help ensure a copy of Geiriau Diflanedig reaches every primary school in Wales please visit:

Geiriau Diflanedig published on 10 October 2019

Grateful thanks to Mererid Hopwood for writing this guest blog.




 Attached Thumbnails:

Tags:  Kate Greenaway  Lost Words  Translation  Visual Literacy  Wales  Welsh 

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The Inner Child

Posted By Alison D. Brumwell, 27 August 2019
One of the significant takeaways from this year’s SLA/YLG joint weekend course in Birmingham was identified by delegates as increased stock knowledge. Building Identity, Building Readers focused on the theme of children’s mental health and well-being, particularly in terms of identity. The weekend course also coincided with the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; never has it been more important to ensure these are embedded in our daily work as librarians. Small, independent publishers have recently been at the forefront of commissioning innovative illustrated material to support building empathy and developing emotional resilience. Picture books The Suitcase (Chris Naylor Ballesteros, published by Nosy Crow) and Umbrella (Elena Arevalo Melville, published by Scallywag Press) are two examples from 2019 lists. Cicada Books adds to this with a quirky picture book, Melbourne-based artist Henry Blackshaw’s The Inner Child. The importance of making time to play and be joyful is conveyed in this open letter to both children and adults. The value of cherishing our inner child, the lessons learned in childhood and that fact that adults feel fear and anger too is delivered with subtle charm and limited text. There are positive messages about friendship, love and growing old. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes; “Nasty adults…have a nasty child inside.” Blackshaw encourages his readers, regardless of age, to look beneath the surface; his adult characters dance, stride and ride across the pages in vivid colour while their child selves are superimposed in pencil. Perhaps The Inner Child’s key message is about tolerance; preserving the inner child in each of us, and listening to their voices, makes us kinder and more thoughtful adults. The Inner Child, Henry Blackshaw Cicada Books 978-1-908714-68-8 £6.95

Tags:  illustration  Reading for Pleasure  visual literacy 

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Falling out of love with reading — how to rekindle the passion - YLG Eastern Spring half day school

Posted By Susan U. Polchow, 20 December 2018

This spring half day training session run by the YLG Eastern group takes place on March 22nd 2019 at Bury St Edmunds Library and will examine some of the reasons children and teens turn away from books and how we can address this issue as librarians, teachers and advocates for reading.

Special guests are: Bali Rai Popular author Bali Rai is never afraid to tackle difficult, contemporary and controversial issues in his vast range of books for children and young people. He has written extensively for dyslexia-friendly publishers of books for reluctant readers, Barrington Stoke and also Penguin Random House. An enthusiastic advocate for libraries, he is also a powerful voice in the area of gaining diversity in children’s and YA publishing, posing the question ; if children and young people cannot see themselves represented in books, how can they engage with the world of fiction?

Amy McKay School librarian of the year 2016 and Corby Business Academy’s librarian, Amy McKay’s passion for books, libraries and reading shines through as soon as she addresses a room. She describes herself as a “stealth librarian” luring her readers in to the library with innovative clubs and activities and using her natural rapport to gradually introduce them to the world of books. She believes that the best school libraries are “fun friendly and vibrant.” She has gained the support of senior management who have seen her narrow the gender gap in school and engage students who struggle with either literacy or motivation. She will look at practical ideas to re-engage students with the world of books. There will also be a Barrington Stoke book sale. It looks like it will be a splendid & inspiring afternoon.

To find out more please get in touch with YLG Eastern's Harriet Cox at

Tags:  children's books  reading  Reading for Pleasure  visual literacy  ylg  youth libraries group eastern 

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YLG National Conference Reading the Future - Early Bird Booking Extension until July 15th!

Posted By Susan U. Polchow, 05 July 2018


The Youth Libraries Group are delighted to be extending our Early Bird offer for the YLG National Conference 2018 “Reading the Future”.

Numerous people have expressed interest in attending but have stated that extra time would aid employer decisions. Professional development is a key part of maintaining knowledge and awareness offering a chance to engage with up to date research, changes in cultural context and current best practice. The deadline for the Early Bird offer has been extended until 15 July. We are keen to provide some rationale for attending conference, whether this be as a day delegate or on a full place.

• Conference this year is focused explicitly around reading - one of the six universal offers for libraries decided by the Society of Chief Librarians, policy and agenda setters for libraries across the United Kingdom
• Latest research from key organisations and agencies including BookTrust and the National Literacy Trust
• Networking opportunities with publishers and the opportunity to pitch for author visits, proof copies of books for reading groups
• *It is worth noting that average daily rates reported by the Society of Authors are between £400 and £500 for an author, this means one successful pitch for an author to a publisher - (which would also include the authors travel and accommodation), would more than recoup the entire cost of conference.  Conference gives direct access to a host of publishers and the opportunity to build strong partnerships.
• Showcase of forthcoming titles to aid programming and planning and receipt of publicity materials (tote bags, book marks, badges and more!), copies of new books at no charge
• Chance to share best practice with other professionals across the United Kingdom
• Key part of continuing professional development offered by the Youth Libraries Group, the special interest group for the Professional Body for librarian and information professionals
• Opportunity to showcase best practice from authority and to learn about existing best practice in other authorities and regions so as to replicate existing and proven frameworks for quality and cost-effective service delivery
• Engage with relevant creative provider - app producers, BBC, Gerry Andersen entertainment - to explore models of engagement and hooks to attract non-users
• Receive in-kind materials including book proofs, advanced reader copies, bookmarks, posters and other related point-of-sale
• Actively highlight role of  in supporting and maintaining awareness of the UK's oldest and most prestigious children's book awards, the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, the profession's flagship awards.
• Maintain links with the Youth Libraries Group, one of the leading training and development bodies for librarians working with children and young people in the United Kingdom

The Youth Libraries Group Conference is one of the real highlights on the children's book and reading calendar. Find out more and book your place at


Tags:  carnegie  children's books  conference  illustration  kate greenaway  reading  visual literacy  ylg 

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Riding a Donkey Backwards - A storytelling show at Conference

Posted By Jacob Hope, 15 June 2018
Updated: 15 June 2018


Riding a Donkey Backwards is a collaboration between storyteller and author Sean Taylor, the Khayaal Theatre and Shirin Adl. Across 21 stories, it recounts the fables of Mulla Nasruddin.  Sean Taylor and the Khayaal Theatre will perform a special short-fire storytelling performance of the stories at this year's Youth Libraries Group Conference.  Sean discusses how the book came to be created.


Riding a Donkey Backwards came about, indirectly, because of a terror attack. Back on 7th January 2015, there was a massacre in Paris, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. That day, I could feel people in the UK were shaken by the nearness of the violence, and I sensed some ‘retreating into shells’ going on. This made me want to do the opposite. At an event at Shakespeare’s Globe about 12 years previously, I’d met Luqman Ali and he’d given me a leaflet about Khayaal Theatre. Khayaal is a theatre company founded by him and Eleanor Martin. It is dedicated to showcasing the rich traditions of story, poetry and humour in Muslim cultures, and also to building engagement between Muslim communities and the wider world. I kept the leaflet Luqman had given me. Sometimes I’d come across it, wonder if there might be some way of collaborating with Khayaal, and decide probably not. But, that day, I wrote to Luqman. Looking back, my message said, among other things:

I have no more connection with, or understanding of, the Islamic world than you would expect from a man with an interest in stories and poetry who grew up in the home counties of England. My strongest connections are, in fact, not to the east, but to the west. My wife is from, Brazil. We have lived there on and off over the past twenty years. But rather than seeing these things as obstacles, I shall, for the sake of this message, see them as reasons for making connection. Might we meet? Might we talk a bit about stories, and about theatre and about work with young people? Might something fruitful result from this impulse to reach out? 

We met at the British Library, a few weeks later.  It was clear that, though we are from quite different cultural backgrounds, we had a lot in common in terms of our work around story and education, and our shared interest in the imagination, dreams and humour. So it seemed natural to try to find a way to work together. I had in mind there might be ways Khayaal could make use of my experience of writing for theatre. Actually, they expressed an interest in writing a children’s book. So the idea of retelling some of the stories of Mulla Nasruddin in a publication for young readers was born. I thought newly-founded Otter-Barry Books might show interest in the project.

Some say Mulla Nasruddin was a real man who lived in the thirteenth century. Nobody knows for sure! Many different countries claim to be his birthplace, including Turkey and Iran. In the introduction to the book we say:

He has many names because stories about him are told in many different countries. In Turkey he is Hodja. In Central Asia he is Afandi. The Arabs know him as Joha. Others call him Mulla Nasruddin. He is a trickster. And Muslims all over the world love him because he makes them laugh. If he doesn’t make you laugh, he will certainly make you think – and perhaps think sideways instead of straight ahead. He may even make your thoughts do somersaults inside your mind!”

They are age-old stories, but I think they are absolutely relevant to the times we live in. Nasruddin challenges fixed ways of looking at our world, and stuck ways of behaving. So the stories about him fly in the face of fundamentalist thinking – whether it be the single-track thinking of Islamist fundamentalism or the equally narrow thinking of Islamophobia. Take a story like the one we’ve called They Can’t Both Be Right! In this, Mulla Nasruddin is asked to settle an argument between two men, in a tea house. Nasruddin listens to the first man and says, “You are right.” Then he listens to the second man and says, “You are right.” Then the owner of the tea-house says, “Well, they can’t both be right!” And Nasruddin says, “You are right!” This is a brilliant, light-hearted way of pointing out that the world cannot be seen in black and white (as more and more people seem happy to see it.) In another story, called Don’t Ask Me! the donkey Nasruddin is riding is startled by a snake. As the donkey gallops madly off, a young farmer calls out, “Where are you going, Nasruddin?” Nasruddin calls back, “Don’t ask me! Ask the donkey!” Can you feel how this has a message for anyone who thinks they have simple answers to the challenges of our times? When an out-of-control donkey is carrying you, how can you sit there stiffly certain about where you are going? At one level this tale is just a funny anecdote. But scratch its surface (or the surface of the other stories in our book) and you find wisdom. Nasruddin asks fresh questions in the face of ready-made answers. The stories in Riding a Donkey Backwards offer new ways of thinking to anyone numbed by the world, or feeling driven to recrimination and aggression. These are reasons why we wanted to bring Nasruddin, his provocations and his heartfelt laughter to life for young readers.

Khayaal Theatre’s Eleanor Martin joined Luqman and me in the writing process. And it turned out to be a fruitful collaboration, with lots of discussion, and drafts to-ing and fro-ing as we worked out which Nasruddin stories to include and how to tell them on the page. Otter-Barry Books brought Iranian illustrator Shirin Adl on board, and Shirin came up with the wonderfully crafted illustrations which make Riding a Donkey Backwards so beautiful to look at.

See and hear Sean Taylor and Eleanor Martin from the Khayaal Theatre perform from Riding a Donkey Backwards at the Youth Libraires Group Conference.  For further information and to book places please visit


Tags:  conference  illustration  performance  reading  storytelling  traditional tales  visual literacy 

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Reading the Future: It All Begins with Enid Blyton

Posted By Jacob Hope, 02 May 2018
Updated: 02 May 2018

The Youth Libraries Group annual conference is always a high point in the calendar, a chance to recharge creative energies and to connect with all manner of ideas and with individuals working in the field. Our theme this year is Reading the Future and aims to explore what it means to be a reader in the 21st Century, some of the opportunities and challenges that exist around this and the ways in which information, stories and imagination traverse different platforms and technologies.

Reading is a vital skill, an opportunity to find release from daily lives, to encounter and engage with news ways of thinking, to step into the past or to look forward into the future. Running beneath the conference’s main theme is a series of strands exploring key areas of interest. The capacity poetry holds for conveying feelings, emotion and acting as an access point for reading makes it a very worthwhile focal point. We are delighted to welcome CLiPPA winners Rachel Rooney and Joseph Coehlo as speakers as well as having the National Literacy Trust presenting research on the role reading poetry has on child literacy. 

With the 100 year anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, we’re looking at representation and rights for women in literature for young people. Our distinguished guests include Sally Nicholls, author of Things a Bright Girl Can Do, David Roberts, author and illustrator of Suffragette and many more. This melds with another key for the conference, Enid Blyton. 2018 marks 50 years since the writer, voted by the public as the UK’s best loved author, passed away. It feels an apt time to reconsider her literary legacy and uncanny ability to captivate contemporary readers. We will also have our first ever Midnight Feast in celebration of her work!

In another first, we will also be hosting the inaugural Robert Westall Memorial Lecture. This will be led by Dr Kim Reynolds from Newcastle University and Paula Wride from Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book and will look at the indelible impact that twice winner of the Carnegie Medal Robert Westall’s work has made on the field. It feels massively exciting to be working with so many different agencies – BookTrust, Seven Stories, National Literacy Trust, Empathy Lab and more – to bring the latest research and findings and to enable networking opportunities that add value and increase reach.

it also feels apposite that this year’s conference is taking place in Manchester, one of the UK’s new UNESCO Cities of Literature and we’ll be holding a special dinner to celebrate the role of key children’s authors and illustrators from the city. The conference is uplifting, lively, vibrant and most of all inclusive. We look forward to welcoming public and school librarians alike, staff from school library services, people from the education sector and all with an interest in children’s books.

Do join us for what promises to be thought-provoking and enlivening conference and a chance to build change and critical mass around reading. To book your place please visit

We would love to know your best conference memory or the session you are most interested in attending!

Tags:  carnegie  conference  cpd  illustration  kate greenaway  poetry  reading  universaloffers  visual literacy  ylg 

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