Authors and Illustrators v Author-Illustrators

Monday 3 October

If someone asked you to name your favourite picture books, without referring to your bookshelves, I wonder which books you would choose?

And what would your choices reveal?

As a picture book obsessive, I have hundreds at home but believe the books which stand the test of time and go on to become the classics of tomorrow are those which spring to mind immediately, without sneaky peeks at our book piles.

Those books we remember instantly are the books which have registered in our subconscious.

It’s these books which have ignited an inextinguishable spark, just like the words to unforgettable songs when the lyrics mesh beautifully with the melodies.

Picture books are a wonderful marriage of narrative and image when they work properly. Both support and enhance each other.

Equally, there are picture books where narratives have been ruined by less-than-ideal illustrations and where wonderful illustrations have saved less-than-worthy texts.

When I decided to try and name my top ten favourite picture books, which rose to 12 instantly, I was surprised that all were in rhyme.

Rhyme Above Prose

While publishers can be reluctant to publish rhyming books, due to the difficulties of selling co-editions, they are often favoured by parents and children who enjoy the easy sing-song rhythm and flow of these books, when properly rhymed.

It took me no time at all to reel off this list, unlike my top 12 in prose which took longer to remember.

I can only guess the rhyming books were easier to recall because rhythm is deeply ingrained in our nature and hard-wired into being human. When young children hear music, most dance, nod their heads or sway their bodies in time with it.

The 12 I chose in prose took longer to think of but are nonetheless well-thumbed treasured possessions which have enriched our family life with humour, warmth and heart.

When comparing the ratio of author and illustrator books to author-illustrated books, I was pleased to see two thirds (66%) of my choices were collaborative efforts between storyteller and illustrator.

Yet within the publishing industry, amongst agents and publishers, there appears to be an increasing tendency to favour author-illustrators.

The rise of author-illustrators

I can only surmise this is due to economics and ease of working with one ‘creative’ rather than two.

But the fact that my own list is 66 per cent weighted in favour of individual authors and illustrators, demonstrates that people who are good at writing are fundamental to producing great stories.

People who are good at illustrating are the lynchpins of visual narrative interpretation. Illustrators bring little those little black squiggles of alphabet characters to life with glorious colour and imagination.

There are, of course, talented author-illustrators as my lists testify, but the industry creep towards actively seeking them over and above individual authors and illustrators does the picture book market a disservice, in my opinion.

Strong storylines and clever writing coupled with jaw-dropping illustrations will for me, at least, always win over beautifully-illustrated picture books with weak narratives – of which there are depressingly many.

I leave you with my own lists and wonder how others compare?

Do I buck the trend in favouring author and illustrator collaborations ahead of author-illustrator texts or do most people, like me, have a list which is predominantly author and illustrator led?

Feel free to comment and, as always, happy reading.

Top 12 in rhyme, in no particular order.

Zog                                                            Donaldson & Scheffler

Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book        Donaldson & Scheffler

Room on the Broom                             Donaldson & Scheffler

Giraffes Can’t Dance                            Andreae & Parker-Rees

Sir Scallywag and the Deadly Dragon Poo    Andreae & Paul

Slinky Malinki                                        Dodd

Fix-It Duck                                               Alborough

Where’s My Teddy?                                Alborough

I’m Sure I Saw a Dinosaur                    Willis & Reynolds

Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: The Cat Burglar Corderoy & Lenton

Abracazebra                                              H. Docherty & T. Docherty

The Snatchabook                                    H. Docherty & T. Docherty

 

Top 12 in prose, in no particular order.

Winnie the Witch                                      Thomas & Paul

Happy Birthday Winnie                           Thomas & Paul

A House in the Woods                              Moore

Six Dinner Sid                                             Moore

Pigs Might Fly                                             Emmett & Cox

The Santa Trap                                            Emmett & Bernatene

Burglar Bill                                                   A. Ahlberg & J. Ahlberg

Mr Pusskins: A Love Story                      Lloyd

You Must Bring a Hat                               Philip & Hindley

Mr Wolf’s Pancakes                                  Fearnley

Five Minutes’ Peace                                  Murphy

The Snorgh and the Sailor                      Buckingham & Docherty

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You Must Bring a Hat

Simon and Schuster. First Published 2016

Simon Philip and Kate Hindley

ISBN: 978-1-4711-1732-9 (PB)

As the owner of hundreds of picture books, it’s rare for a newly-released illustrated text to grab my attention enough to warrant blogging about it.

But I doff my titfer to “You Must Bring a Hat” and wholeheartedly recommend this as THE best picture book release of 2016 to date.

It was an immediate hit with my son (myself and my husband) as a huge smile-inducing, gloriously-surreal tale of a boy’s attempts to attend a birthday party.

There is one stipulation on the invitation – “You MUST bring a hat.”

And so begins an ever-spiralling list of demands when the boy, who the invite says can bring as many guests as he likes, arrives at the party with a hat-wearing monkey in tow, only to be refused entry by the doorman.

“Sorry Sir, but we’re under strict instructions NOT to let in any hat-wearing monkeys…UNLESS they are also wearing a monocle.”

The absurdity continues when the boy sources a monocle from a Penny Farthing-riding badger who lends it to the monkey on the condition that he, too, can attend the party.

But is the boy permitted entry?

Of course not!

The demands grow to include piano playing, elephants, tutus and penguins carrying cheese.

The stipulation that the suitcase-holding, cheese-carrying penguin must have SLICED cheese, is a demand too many for the boy who finally breaks.

“Look, these are the silliest rules I’ve ever heard. Nigel clearly stated on his invitation that I could bring anyone I wanted so long as a I brought a hat, and I brought a monkey in a hat so technically I brought a hat and…”

(Page turn)

“Nigel?” said the doorman. “Who’s Nigel?

This is Felicity’s party.”

It is at his point the reader suddenly recognises all the clues illustrator Hindley (Oliver and Patch, Worst in Show) has so deftly left along the way, which point to the party next door.

The reader is so caught up hoping the boy will fulfil the off-the-wall demands that Hindley’s balloons next door, bunting, birthday cake-bearing mole and hat-wearing, present-bearing guests slip by unnoticed.

It’s a stroke of genius!

Here is one picture book where the strength of the story and the fantastically-detailed, humorous illustrations by talented Hindley mesh to create a marriage made in heaven.

Picture books don’t get much better than this.

Verdict: Hats off to this book. It’s a gift.

The Dragon and the Nibblesome Knight

Macmillan Children’s Books. First Published 2016

Elli Woollard and Benji Davies

ISBN: 978-1-4472-5481-2

I would be lying if I said I didn’t think there were overtones of Julia Donaldson’s “Zog” in Woollard’s “The Dragon and the Nibblesome Knight”, but I would be doing the author a huge disservice if that deterred one person from buying this charming book, which is strong enough to stand on its own four paws.

True, there’s a child which rescues an injured dragon and acts as a doctor to patch it up.

True, there’s a dragon which is learning its craft.

And true, the pair become friends and realise that fighting isn’t the solution… but that is as far as the similarities go.

Woollard’s dragon offering is based on a premise of mistaken identity, and is rhymed beautifully with lots of repetition as Dram, the baby dragon, goes hunting for “dribblesome, nibblesome, knobble-kneed knights.”

There’s a splattering of onomatopoeia, with CRASH-es and SPLASH-es and FLAPs and CLAPs which add to the dynamism of the 604-word text.

But the real strength of the book lies in the warmth of the text, superbly married with Benji Davies’s illustrations (The Storm Whale, Grandad’s Island).

In short, the story centres around a baby dragon, Dram, who has been sent off solo to hunt for a “nibblesome” knight to eat.

But he becomes injured on his journey into the big wide world and lands bedraggled in a lake.

Cue knight-in-training James, who takes off his armour and wades in to rescue the poor, injured ‘duck.’

James makes a sling for his paw, fetches honey for his sore throat and the pair enjoy fruit from an orchard together.

The following day, after Dram has had a good night’s sleep and feels strong enough to hunt a knight, he sets off to say goodbye and thank you to James.

So he strode down the road and he stomped through the field…

…and there was young James with a sword and a shield.

 “You’re a knight?” shouted Dram. “You’re not simply a lad?”

“You’re a dragon?” yelled James. “You’re all beastly and bad?”

 “Yes,” muttered Dram. “I suppose I should bite.”

“Oh!” mumbled James. “Then I guess I should fight…

…it must be all over. The finish. The end!”

Then they both said at once, “But I can’t, YOU’RE MY FRIEND!”

 Children get their traditional ‘happily ever after’ but the final page turn will have parents and children giggling when Dram’s dragon family sometimes forget their table manners.

“Nibble at knights? Why, of course we do not!” Though every so often, they sort of…

(page turn)

…forgot.

Verdict: A book which deserves to fly off the shelves.

The Silver Serpent Cup

Fast and Furry Racers – The Silver Serpent Cup

Oxford University Press. First Published 2015

Jonathan Emmett and Ed Eaves

ISBN: 978-0-19-273862-2

“Today the town of Furryville’s a very noisy place, crammed with crowds of creatures getting ready for a race. The air is filled with honking horns and engines revving up, as racers take their places for the Silver Serpent Cup.”

And so begins a high-octane, adrenaline-fuelled romp of a rhyming book as animals of all shapes and sizes take their places in an assortment of vehicles eager to race 1,000 miles to the town of Featherport to claim the winner’s prize.

The plot is simple but engaging and reminiscent of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series ‘Wacky Races.’

Ed Eaves’s illustrations are superb. They are bright, bold and leap out the page for 3-5 year-olds, eagerly studying each animal and the vehicles they are driving – many of which are reflective of the characters’ personalities.

The rhyme is pacy and whizzes along with the thrilling illustrations as creatures take to the roads, sky and underwater in their bid to clinch the cup.

Author Emmett’s character names raise a smile with racers including Ollie Octolinni (octopus), Ella Egghart (eagle) and Roderick Von Rooster (rooster) driving his Hot Rod rocket car.

No picture book would be complete without a problem of sorts and when Ella Egghart’s aeroplane looks like it will win, disaster strikes in the shape of cheating crocodile Al McNasty.

He launches his missiles from his underwater armoured aqua-car, bringing down Ella and her close rivals who parachute to safety but not glory.

“This ruthless, rotten reptile has a smug look on his face. With all the other vehicles gone, he’s bound to take first place.”

Of course, picture books can’t let cheaters prosper so when awful Al McNasty has his sights on victory, dark horse Max O’Moley trumps him by erupting out of the ground in his tunnelling machine to take first place.

“Max comes up through the finish line to thunderous applause, and swiftly snatches victory from Al’s astonished jaws. Of all the ways to win the race, Al’s had to be the worst, so everyone’s delighted that Max has come in first!”

At 515 words, “Fast and Furry Racers” is a riot of colour and rhyming exuberance, guaranteed to thrill. Definitely one to ‘pick up’.

Burglar Bill

Puffin Books. First published by William Heinemann 1977

Janet and Allan Ahlberg

ISBN-13: 978-0-14050-301-2

If you are a little po-faced and believe all storybook robbers need to be taught a lesson, don’t bother with this superb children’s classic. It won’t suit you.

If, on the other hand, you are blessed with a sense of humour and relish whimsy, you should be thinking ‘I’ll have that,’ before you ‘alf-inch’ it (cockney rhyming slang for ‘pinch’) and stuff it in your swag bag.

I stumbled across this book during my teacher training degree course in 1990 and fell in love with it.

As the years passed and I had my own children, they loved it too but more so than I could ever have imagined when I first read it as an adult.

On some nights my children would be rolling in their beds, helplessly laughing at Bill’s antics and his cockney turn of phrase.

The comedic moments when Bill tries to teach a baby to repeat his name ‘Burglar Bill’ (Boglaboll says the baby) and yell ‘Run For It’ (Runfrit), always elicited huge giggles and cries of “Read it again, Mummy.” My eldest son would be writhing in his bed with tears of laughter streaming down his face.

In short, “Burglar Bill” is a gleefully subversive book about a loveable burgling rogue, Bill, who eventually mends his ways. He isn’t punished for his misdeeds but grows to learn it’s wrong to steal.

He’s introduced to the reader as a character who sleeps all day and thieves all night.

“Burglar Bill lives by himself in a tall house full of stolen property. Every night he has stolen fish and chips and a cup of stolen tea for supper. Then he swings a big stolen sack over his shoulder and goes off to work, stealing things. Every morning Burglar Bill comes home from work and has stolen toast and marmalade and a cup of stolen coffee for breakfast. Then he goes upstairs and sleeps all day in a comfortable stolen bed.”

One evening, Burglar Bill steals a nice-looking brown box with his familiar cry ‘I’ll have that!’ only to discover he’s stolen a baby.

But, in a reversal of fortunes when he catches another robber trying to steal from his house at midnight, he finally discovers who the baby belongs to…Burglar Betty.

Widow Betty is reunited with her stolen baby and both Bill and Betty realise their error of their criminal ways.

“You know, Betty,” he says, “getting burgled like that give me a fright.”

“I know what you mean,” says Burglar Betty. “Losing my baby like that gave ME a fright.”

“I can see the error of my ways,” says Burglar Bill. “I’ve been a bad man.”

“Me too,” says Burglar Betty. “I’ve been a bad woman – I’ve been a TERRIBLE woman!”

Both characters fall in love, reform and return all their stolen goods before marrying and leading honest lives. Bill becomes a baker and soon teaches the baby to say ‘Bakery Bill.’

At 1, 570 words “Burglar Bill” deserves its place as a children’s classic for 4-7-year-olds and is, in my opinion, the perfect length for Key Stage One pupils.

Unlike some of the shorter 500 word picture books which publishers seem fashionably intent on producing today, “Burglar Bill” is produced over 15 page double spreads, not the usual 12, and provides a feel-good bedtime read for parents who can happily read one story, rather than three or four short ones.

The characterisation is deftly written and Bill’s lack of grammatical prowess and kindly nature looking after ‘a orphan’- including changing its nappy and making a new one from a towel – add to the charm and whimsy of this light-hearted story.

The late Janet Ahlberg’s illustrations have a timeless charm in subtle pastel hues and the humorous pictures support the tongue-in-cheek tale of robbers who ‘come good’ in the end.

Trust me when I say ‘This book’s a steal!

A Plea for Longer Picture Books

Making Stories Count: A Plea for Longer Picture Books

Sunday 1 May, 2016

I do not know if it is the UK in isolation or a global phenomenon, but there appears a reluctance by the publishing industry to produce picture books which go beyond 500 words.

Whilst publishers say picture books should not exceed 1,000 words many, in reality, plump for half this amount. The proof is seen on the shelves of stores like Waterstones and Foyles.

As a Mum of two boys, it is my opinion that some publishers are missing a trick.

From the ages of four upwards, children are able to concentrate for longer periods and their vocabularies have expanded enormously.

While they may be learning to read at this age, most parents still read them bedtime stories.

So, although two stories usually suffice at the age of three, it is not uncommon for parents to be reading three or, in my family’s case, four picture books a night when children turn four.

And this is the age where longer picture books come into their own.

Books like Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s “Burglar Bill” (Puffin, 1, 570 words), Jonathan Emmett and Steve Cox’s “Pigs Might Fly!” (Puffin, 1,114 words), Giles Andreae and Korky Paul’s “Sir Scallywag and the Battle of Stinky Bottom” (Puffin, 980 words), Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton’s “The Princess and the Giant” (Nosy Crow, 1, 299 words), Richard Curtis and Rebecca Cobb’s “It’s Snow Day” (Puffin, 1,087 words) and Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton’s “That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown” (Orchard, 924 words) enable families to read one picture book per night and sometimes a short 500 word book to round things off.

Harder to Find

Illustrated books pushing and exceeding 1,000 words, like those cited above, do exist but they are much harder to find in UK shops.

And if these books are not easily accessible, parents feel forced to move to the chapter book sections of stores, where books are text heavy with predominantly black and white illustrations.

I appreciate schools try to ease the transition with early readers in colour, but UK bookstores only appear to cater for full colour early readers in a limited capacity.

The few they sell are buried in the chapter book section of shops, not in the picture book section which is where I believe they belong.

In addition, they rarely hold the appeal of picture books in the truest sense because the language used in early readers has to be simplified to take account of the child reading the book on their own.

Is it any wonder that the enthusiasm for reading starts to wane when youngsters hit five and six?

While there are valid reasons why picture books are shorter – you do not need to describe what a character is wearing or their setting when images perform the task – to my mind some 500 words books are easily forgotten.

Story Integrity Compromised

The pictures may be bright, bold and colourful but the depth and integrity of a really good story can be lost when authors are forced to slash their words to accommodate fashion.

This isn’t an excuse for repetition or puffery but a plea to the publishing industry to recognise that four and five-year-olds are capable of sustained concentration.

Besides, when picture books are very short, the beautiful artwork of illustrators can be missed when adults turn the pages quickly due to the brevity of the story.

With a longer, more captivating story, youngsters have the opportunity to spend more time studying the illustrations.

Parents and children deserve longer picture books and 1,000 word illustrated books in 12 double page spreads cost no more to produce than picture books with only a few hundred words.

Longer Length Classics

When my children were reception class pupils (4-5 years), I read them the classic Ladybird picture book stories of “Jack and the Beanstalk” (1,778 words), “Rapunzel” (1,431 words), “Rumpelstiltskin” (1,261 words) and “The Elves and the Shoemaker” (1,260 words).

Never once did they bemoan the length of these stories. Quite the reverse, in fact.

They were engrossed in the narratives and the mind-bogglingly superb period illustrations.

So come on publishers…please re-think the narrow constraints of a 500 word picture book limitation.

One thousand words shouldn’t be out for the count, but up for the fight.

DING DING.

On a Tall, Tall Cliff

Harper Collins Children’s Books. First published 2004

Andrew Murray and Alan Snow

ISBN-13: 978-0-00-780971-4

In 2009, I picked this book up in a downmarket bookshop selling titles at greatly reduced prices, but it has proved to be a winner I would happily have paid full price for.

Both my sons have adored the story, not to mention the wonderfully detailed and wiry illustrations by Alan Snow, perhaps better known for his book ‘Here Be Monsters’ which was made into the feature length animation ‘The Boxtrolls’.

It comes in at 591 words and is an endearing tale of friendship between two neighbours, Busby and Puffle, who live on the edge of a tall cliff.

It’s a simple narrative of one neighbour, Busby, asking to borrow more and more of the contents of his next door neighbour, Puffle’s house.

Puffle agrees, happily, at the start but becomes concerned Busby is making a fool of him when he requests not only the contents of the property, but the property itself.

“Busby is making a fool of me,” grumbled Puffle, as he trudged home. But he did everything that his friend had asked. He collected…his roof, his walls and the mice behind them, his rafters and the nails in them, his bricks and the mortar between them, his floorboards and the secrets beneath them. Then, huffing and puffing, sweating and straining, groaning and grumbling, he carried his WHOLE HOUSE to Busby.”

 When the cliff where Puffle’s house once stood suddenly crashes “down…down…down…down…to the deep, dark rocks far below,” it becomes evident Busby has been trying to save his friend’s home without worrying him.

“Puffle,” smiled Busby, “I have been studying our cliff. All these papers and charts told me that the ground where your house stood would crumble and fall. My dear friend, you’ve really, really helped me to help you!”

The text is delightfully repetitious throughout as the names of the objects Puffle has been asked to fetch are repeated as he is shown manoeuvring them next door.

The story is brought to a satisfying conclusion when the ending comes full circle and harks back to the beginning and the same use of language at the start.

The illustrations are quirky and detailed and children will love spending time studying the pictures which include mice helping with every aspect of removals, from transporting chandeliers and the kitchen sink, to seagulls lowering a lavatory into place.

The book is written with warmth and illustrated with humour. Its gentle simplicity and tale of friendship is timeless and will have children and parents dipping into it with regularity.

All in all, a smashing read for 3-5 year-olds.