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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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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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Stand Out Nominations for Outstanding Books - An Interview with CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Co-Ordinator Amy McKay

Posted By Jacob Hope, 19 September 2019
Updated: 19 September 2019
One of the most exciting times for the profession is the stage when nominations open for the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals, the UK's oldest and most prestigious children's book awards award for an outstanding reading experience created respectively through writing and illustration. On the opening day of nominations, we are pleased to have the opportunity to speak with the award co-ordinator, Amy McKay, to glean exclusive behind the scenes insights.
Amy starts by discussing her job.  There are numerous duties the awards co-cordinator has, these include looking after the judges and ensuring they are organised and on track with the Herculian reading task they face.  There are also meeting sto organise as well as overseeing the nominations, communicating with regions about their choices days, checking eligibility and monitoring what has been published.  'It's a really busy point in the year,' Amy explains, 'but it's also one of the most exciting as this is when the process begins.'  
After pondering which part of the role she enjoys the most, Amy says, 'working closely with the judges is definitely one of the highlights, you see them grow in confidence across the two years and it's fascinating to hear their opinions and thoughts'. 
'It's so important that people nominate the books they are most passionate about,' Amy enthuses, 'without nominations and the profession's engagement, the awards would not exist.' What makes a good nomination?  Amy feels consideration of the criteria is key and that the books need to have an x-factor, something more than just enjoyment.  Nominations don't have to be massively long, Amy urges.  Statements are an integral part of the process and can be used in judging discussions to help widen debate and give insight to other viewpoints and experiences.  'It is passion that really shines through.'
The nominations lists provide a snapshot of contemporary publishing for children and young people and are valuable for all of the profession.  They can be useful for stock and collections providing insight into what other professionals consider as outstanding and presenting a curated list for selection.  It is something Amy uses herself to help with selecting for the bustling school library in Corby where she works.
This year has seen changes to the nomination's process with members of CILIP able to nominate only one per medal within a two week window, making it even more crucial to carefully consider the titles being put forward.   Amy gives some top tips for nominating:
  • Consider the criteria and how the books you put forward match these
  • Think carefully about all you've read and not just the latest titles as books are eligible for 2020 cycle from 1 September 2018 to 31 August 2019.  Amy mentions that she keeps a reading journal so that she does not overlook the books published in the first months of nominations.
  • Nominations don't have to be hugely long, strong nominations tend to be formed around the criteria headlines - plot, theme, characterisation and style for the Carnegie and aristic style, format, synergy of illustration and text and visual experience for the Kate Greenaway  - and are usually clear and concise.
  • Enjoy nominating as it is a real statement of belief in the work of illustrators, authors and publishers alike and acts as a flagship for the expertise of the profession
  • Use resources like publishers lists, CILIP's new 'Pen & Inc' magazine  to raise awareness to make sure that some of the titles by smaller independent publishers that might not have the same promotional budgets do not get overlooked.

Nominations are open now until Friday 27 September, visit to put forward your choices.



Tags:  Carnegie  Kate Greenaway  libraries  nominations  professional development  reading  reading for pleasure 

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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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Introducing 'That Asian Kid' by Savita Kalhan

Posted By Jacob Hope, 30 August 2019

We are delighted to introduce author Savita Kalhan who discusses her new and intensely thought-provoking novel, That Asian Kid.  Part gripping thriller, part ethical dilemma it's an utterly absorbing view into power, control and contemporary teenage life.  Here Savita talks about her influences both as a reader and as a writer.

Growing up as an Asian girl in High Wycombe in the sixties was challenging. My family was poor, my parents were very strict and traditional, and my mother was completely illiterate – in her own language as well as English as she never had the chance to go to school when she was growing up. We couldn’t afford to buy books, but for my parents education  was synonymous with books and reading, so they made every effort to take me and my siblings to the library once a week. Education was the key to achieving success and financial security; it was also the key to overcoming prejudice and racism.

Very quickly, the library became our safe place, our haven. It was where we discovered the many worlds and possibilities outside of the four walls of our home and the strictures and pre-conceptions of Asian children in our schools. We couldn’t change our colour or our background, but we assimilated as fast as possible because not to do so would have consequences. We tried to make ourselves as English as possible.

I read voraciously – my first and abiding love was fantasy. The Narnia books and The Hobbit will always hold a special place in my heart. But I read every book I could lay my hands on in the children's library. In all that time, I never read a story by an Asian author, and I never came across an Asian character. Because there were none. So I never thought I could ever be a writer. How I ended up becoming a writer is another story. But my experiences have inevitably informed what I write, both with The Girl in the Broken Mirror and That Asian Kid.

The Girl in the Broken Mirror explores the themes of identity, culture clash and the patriarchy that exists in Asian communities, where girls are often treated as subservient second class citizens. Through the main character, Jay, the book also deals with the trauma of rape, the feelings of shame and being at fault in some way, and also the long journey to recovery. I wanted to provoke discussions in classrooms about respect, boundaries and consent, which, judging by the horrific figures collated by the NSPCC, both girls and boys need to talk about in a safe environment. The book is not graphic and it is sensitively told because I wanted it to be accessible to teenagers. I am always mindful of who I am writing for, but I strive to be honest.

That Asian Kid is a very different story. It’s the story of Jeevan, a fifteen year old boy growing up in Britain today. He is third generation Indian. His parents and grandparents would have gone through much the same experiences as my parents and me. He’s got great friends, enjoys school, but he is a bit of a smart-aleck, which gets him into trouble with one particular teacher.

He is walking home from school, taking the shortcut through the woods, when he sees two teachers. He ducks and hides when he sees that it’s his favourite teacher and his least favourite teacher, the one he feels has been unfairly marking him down. They’re talking about him, so without pausing to think, he presses record on his phone. And then the teachers get it on, and the camera is still recording.

Jeevan now has a radio-active video on his phone that feels like a ticking time-bomb. He’s caught in a moral dilemma. As tempted as he is to upload the video on social media, Jeevan knows that it would be wrong to do so. He knows that two wrongs don’t make a right. But as the situation between him and his teacher escalates and with expulsion looming on the horizon, Jeevan’s struggle to do the right thing becomes compromised when matters get taken out of his hands.

Ultimately, That Asian Kid is about one boy’s struggle against the abuse of power by a figure in authority – hard enough for an adult to deal with, much harder when you’re a kid.

Tags:  Conference  Diversity  Reading  Reading for Pleasure 

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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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