Sunday, 26 October 2014

Quentin Blake at The House of Illustration

Not content with just having an Illustration Cupboard, London went one step further this summer and got itself a whole HOUSE of Illustration; a proper dedicated gallery and education space for celebrating that particular skill and art. About time too.

Their first exhibition has been in situ since July and is devoted to Quentin Blake. I had always been meaning to go but, as is sometimes the way with these things, it took the realisation that the exhibition was entering its final week to actually make the 30 minute or so trip from home. Me and boys went yesterday.

It makes a fine day out. Not just the House of Illustration but that whole patch of regenerated Kings Cross for a satisfying booky pilgrimage. We gawped at the queues waiting to have their photo taken at the (possibly somewhat over-commercialised) Platfrom 9 3/4 and poked about the Harry Potter shop. We also poked about the Doctor Who books in the bookshop next door. We swung on Kings Cross's handy giant birdcage swing and crane and train spotted.

The House of Illustration proved an elegant space. Yesterday it was running making and drawing workshops for The Big Draw and had a room devoted to Paddington too. We chose to start with the Quentin Blake exhibition. And it is wonderful- full of roughs and plans and notes as well as finished art work. You can follow the whole process from first thoughts to final illustration. The boys' familiarity with Blake's work made the whole thing accessible to them and they spent some time poring over walls/cases devoted to the Twits and The Boy in the Dress and Clown.
But, oh dear. I'd forgotten that there was a whole room in the exhibition devoted to Blake's  illustrations of Michael Rosen's 'Sad' book about the death of his son Eddie. And by the time I'd realised that maybe showing them to my Eddie would not be such a brilliant idea it was too late. He looked and looked and looked and then crumpled into a soggy ball. Then we had to leave and have one of those tangled tearful but necessary conversations about death and loss and whether you could ever be really happy if you hadn't experienced sadness too ( Eddie, in frustration, proposed simply banning sadness as a reasonable solution).

And there, quite simply, was the power of the illustrator expressed in a belly punch. Words on their own don't get to open those conversations with an 8 year old.

So we didn't spend the time I'd thought we might looking properly at Paddington or joining in the workshops which were also on offer. If you're short of activities this half term, do go before the exhibition closes. Just be better prepared than me.
And on the way back, fountain jumping, tunnel running and spotting favourites on the billboards, (plus the sharing of chocolate toffee shortbread) chased all the sadness away. And I think we felt the joy that more sweetly for it.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

On Sudden Hill

I've become very quiet here I know. We've had a wonderful summer, jam packed full of good sticks and fires and mud and ice cream and Expeditions and mucking about and more particularly bears and whales and glaciers (which is another story). But truth to tell, awful to tell really, it wasn't that packed with books. Or perhaps more accurately that packed with books that we shared and got excited about together.Or perhaps MOST accurately books that I felt like blogging about after we'd shared them.

Bah. Enough introspection. I guess I've just been waiting for the right book to come along. Yesterday the right book did come along. A picture book that socked me in the gut with its proper punch of perfect emotional pitch. A picture book sparkly jewel of loveliness, that made me a bit snivelly and a bit warm inside. A picture book that made the nine year old (NINE year old) both prematurely nostalgic and  a bit jealous and aspirational and a tiny bit teary too.

'On Sudden Hill' by Linda Sarah, illustrated by Benji Davies is that book. A magical collaboration of text and pictures; there is real poetry in both. Birt and Etho take their cardboard boxes up Sudden Hill each day and find a box and a friend is all that is required for every possible adventure. When Shu arrives on the hill with his own box, two become three and everything is changed.
 Birt retreats and breaks his box. This is genuinely gut wrenching. The picture of Birt alone outside his house, the light through the windows dappling the grass is quite wonderfully sad.
Shu and Etho bring Birt back to the hill of course: The resolution of the book provides a blueprint for the best box-creation ever. And a blueprint in a simpler way for the negotiations and compromises of friendship. It's just lovely.

When Bill read it he was very still afterwards for a few minutes. Then he said 'I wish we lived by Sudden Hill'. Then he said 'That was brilliant'. Then he turned back to the beginning and read it again. There. That's all the review you need isn't it? If you love picture books this is one you need to own.

And pictures to remind Bill that he doesn't have it so bad when it comes to hills and junk constructions or indeed boxes-

'On Sudden Hill' by Linda Sarah, illustrated by Benji Davies, pub Simon and Schuster,
 isbn 978-1-4711-2325-2. Source- bought from a Real bookshop.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Dragon Loves Penguin, Max the Brave and I Heart Holidays

Three small summer treasures for you-

We stopped actively accepting review copies some time ago,  I have to say it's just as well. Other commitments have put this blog on a bit of a slow-burn and I would throb with guilt if I felt I was accepting lovely freebies under false pretences.
But now and again they still plop through my letterbox and I can't pretend that isn't a pleasure. Surprise book post is the best sort of mid-morning treat- demanding a cup of tea and biscuit break to savour.

One such surprise book this week was Debi Gliori's 'Dragon loves Penguin'. It was a particular treat because I almost certainly wouldn't have come to it any other way and it IS a lovely book. Thank you book delivering fairy from Bloomsbury.

Bib the baby penguin curls up with his/her (up to the reader to decide-good) mother for a bedtime story about their home of ice and snow and...dragons! Antarctica turns out to once have had a thriving colony of a small reddish-gold variety living in a volcano there. Who knew? But perhaps there were dragons everywhere once...
Anyway one particular dragon is left eggless when all the other dragons have laid their own-

'"Poor dragon," says Bib. "I know," says Bib's mummy, "but... sometimes things happen for a reason. Look." "Oh!" gasps Bib, "poor egg."

Given the many different ways parents and children may come to each other; whether through adoption, fostering, surrogacy or step-parenting it's wonderful to have a book that focuses on the only important thing you need to make a family; love. This book sings with love. Its message of acceptance and valuing difference is simply and softly told; reinforced by the easy fluidity of the pastel illustrations. It has heart without being saccharine- a particularly hard balance to strike.
A good story but also a useful story for libraries, nurseries and any homes which don't fit standard ideas of a nuclear family. So that'll be everywhere then.

The second book which fell into our lap unexpectedly this week thanks to my Big Win is Ed Vere's 'Max the Brave': A beautiful signed copy of 'Max the Brave' in fact. Lucky me. An exemplary picture book lesson in how less is often more, this is a familiar play around the jokes of mistaken identity rendered fresh through the kooky-eyed charm of its protagonist. Max is one no-messing charismatic kitten. His journey across deliciously uncluttered monochrome pages in search of a mouse to fight WILL make you smile. There's a good final joke too. Pretty. Clever.

And finally a book which entered the house through the entirely conventional route of being purchased in a well behaved manner from an Independent Bookshop. Except that I wasn't that well-behaved in practically snatching it out of the particular Independent Bookseller's hands when I saw it. And the fellow reviewers weren't that well-behaved in doing a big wrestle on the sofa for first rights to read it either.
It is Clara Vulliamy's third Martha and the Bunny Brothers book; 'I Heart Holidays' and it is as warm and happy-making as the first two. An exemplary picture book lesson in how more can be more too; every page packed with delicious beach holiday detail to ponder and discuss.
One page in particular needed a LOT of discussion in this house...
And if you feel you need to join this discussion I recommend the healthy lolly debate in progress on Clara's blog here.
OH WE DO WE DO WE DO!! (two more weeks to go...)
'Dragon loves Penguin' by Debi Gliori, pub Bloomsbury, isbn 978-1408839508 Source- review copy from publisher.
'Max the Brave' by Ed Vere, pub Puffin, isbn 978-0723286691 Source- Whoop whoop lucky competition win!
'Martha and the Bunny Brothers; I Heart Holidays' by Clara Vulliamy, pub Harper Collins, isbn 978-0007419210 Source- a real life made out of bricks shop which accepted money.

Whatever the source our decision to review is, as ever, our own.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Clever Bill

So, a very brilliant thing is Resonance FM's new monthly radio show; 'Down the Rabbit Hole'. Yesterday's programme was all about the (just awarded) Greenaway prize and featured illustrators Nadia Shireen, Ed Vere, Jon Klassen and (small drumroll obviously) Shirley Hughes having a natter. Should you unaccountably have MISSED this treat you can catch up here. I recommend. Except it should be longer and on more often.

I particularly recommend because I won a prize from yesterday's show. An invitation was put out on Twitter to nominate your favourite picture book and my nomination of 'Clever Bill' by William Nicholson was selected. Hurrah- LOVELY books are coming.

Clearly the notion of a favourite picture book, or a favourite any book is a bit of a nonsense. There are so many to love for so many different moods and reasons. But 'Clever Bill' I picked and I'll stick with for today at least.
I've never reviewed it properly here before because it is out of print and back in the days when I had some sort of utilitarian notions about this blog, that seemed wrong. Having long abandoned such muddle-headed notions now seems a good time to consider its charm.

That charm IS immense- but be warned it's also a harrowing read. It's perhaps 100 words long but Fellow Reviewer number one (who shares the eponymous hero's name of course and thus may identify a bit too much) has been unable to listen to those words since about the age of 3: "It's just too sad in the middle bit Mum." It may be ethically dubious of me to love a book that upsets my child but, y'know, feeling stuff is the essence of appreciating great literature innit? He gets it. That's the point.
And, unlike the new controversial Carnegie medal winner, 'Clever Bill' does have a happy ending if you can get to it without breaking down.

Written and illustrated by that William Nicholson- the famous painter one- and first published in the 1920s it concerns the age old dilemma of how and what to pack for a holiday. Mary has been invited to visit her aunt and has proper notions of the essentials that must fit in her case:
"O! I must take Apple Grey...and my gloves with the thumbs and dear Susan and my Trumpet and I might need my shoes and my blue teapot and my brush with my name on it and of course I can't leave clever Bill Davis and my purse..."
But essentials can be difficult to fit- "first she packed it this way and then that way" and "at last she was in such a hurry that she had to pack them anyway and!
and she forgot poor Bill Davis"
It's all those ands that are the GENIUS. Heart-wrenching amplification which makes you wait and wait for the cold statement of horror even though the illustrations have already let you in on the problem.
And the picture of Bill Davis sobbing... I don't blame my Bill really-it is gutting.

Bill Davis is of course Clever Bill and like all the best toys his despair quickly turns into determination to find his way back  to Mary. Toy Story 2 compressed into 22 pages. Let me show you some (perhaps quite a LOT) of them as a treat- I think I'm allowed to do a few given its out of print and venerable status aren't I?
we're not even going to mention that William Nicholson's other lovely children's book can be seen in the background here are we? Because then my brother who 'lent' it to me some time ago might notice and ask for it back.

possibly the hardest spread to bear looking at in ANY book EVER. Thank GOD for the hope of that 'but'...

I think it is probably perfect. So there.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Oi Frog

I've been LOUSY about reviewing picture books recently. Well I've been lousy about reviewing anything much- but picture books in particular. In truth we're not consuming them at home in the same quantities we once did. This is a sadness and something I should work harder to rectify perhaps- filling my pull along shopping trolley at the library again more often. A pile of picture books always went down better than the back of the cornflakes box at breakfast for instance.
However there's Bill at breakfast with his nose in a Charlie Higson, Derek Landy or an Anthony Horowitz ("Bill-are you sure you should be reading that- it says '11+ Contains Zombies, Death, Gore and Graphic Violence' on the back?" "Yes. It's SUPER cool") and Eddie reading impenetrable non-fiction about transport systems, Human biology ("These are my testicles- see Mum?" "Yes I do, thanks for that"), wii games and superheroes and the picture books get neglected. Children will keep growing despite one's best efforts to slow them down and family rituals can be replaced or forgotten with terrifying speed.

I do have an occasional excuse to browse and buy though- and that's searching out new, at least semi-decodable but irresistible material for the kids I read with each week through Beanstalk. And so begins the first of a few (I hope) posts about some of the recent books that have hit the mark. Books that they choose repeatedly with a grin. Books that leave us both bouncy at the end of a session.

'Oi Frog' by Kes Gray, illustrated by Jim Field has been one such. It's a book with one central joke running through but it's a good joke and there's a great pay off, so what else do you need?
A frog has grown tired of sitting on a log and seeks a new seat. This is not going to be allowed by a didactic cat (smug on her comfortable mat) who explains the rules of animal seating to him. Rhyme is everything. Of course it is; and as we meet gorillas perched on pillars and gibbons on ribbons we could feel that the frog has a reasonably good deal. 
There may be a final catch though.
There are really joyous combinations of nouns in this book, a pleasure in the silliness of phonetic rhyme that gets close to Seuss-like. The perfect antidote to the dry work of 'sounding out' in a literacy hour constricted classroom. Plus the opportunity to practice one's supercilious cat voice- always a pleasure.
Jim Field's witty illustrations in the most cheering, happy making sunny palette of colours (I do like a proper rich egg yolk YELLOW book) repay joy-filled poring over details: Fleas! On peas!
A book that makes me and one particular Yr 1 reader who often picks it giggle like giggling sticks.

We also like to discuss what the cat would make us sit on. I am all for avoiding hollies, caulis, brollies or follies please. Yes. Pollys' sit on lollies I think. Not ice ones obviously- that would induce piles; I'm thinking a very large traffic light one? Like a sticky red bar stool. 
How about you?
'Oi Frog' written by Kes Gray, illustrated by Jim Field, Published by Hodder, isbn 978-1444910858

Sunday, 27 April 2014

grown up book diversions

I am, like all the best heroes of children's literature, an orphan. It's not quite the same thing. I'm 42 years old and everyone should be an orphan eventually, unless the natural order of things has gone horribly wrong somewhere. Still, most people get their parents around for longer perhaps.
My father died at a ripe-ish (but not quite ripe enough) age when I was pregnant with number one Fellow Reviewer. It would have been his 87th birthday on Friday. A day I was happy to celebrate. I raised my glass to the sky; though it didn't contain the whisky he would have chosen himself. He seemed quite close by.
It doesn't need to be his birthday for me to think of him of course. Every night when I read to the boys I find echoes of his voice and mannerisms in my own, whether its an old classic he shared too or something new. It's one of my (many) pleasures in reading aloud- finding myself following a well worn, familiar groove. An act of and active remembrance.

My mother died at a not-ripe-at-all age and when I was 12. That is sad and unfair and not right. But it is also a simple fact that I live with day to day without intrusive sorrow. Remembering her properly can feel trickier. Particularly having a sense of her as a grown up person that I might have had a grown up relationship with rather than "just" a mother.
This week I have been discovering the delights of reading Barbara Pym and a side benefit of that is a sudden joyful sense of following my mother's literary legacy in a new direction and finding her sitting surprisingly close at my shoulder too. I'd forgotten how much our tastes marry. I should have twigged and looked up Barbara earlier. She was always waiting next on the list.

My shared-heart book inheritance from my mother started with Gwynneth Rae's Mary Plain, continued with Noel Streatfeild (my mother knew her a little and I still have some of her personally signed copies-swank-) and then progressed after her death to her extensive Georgette Heyer collection- the first of these handed to me by my canny pa when I was a teenager ill with the flu. And to be honest it is with the peerless Georgette that I have stayed happily for the last 30 years, cycling through them on a yearly or so basis whenever I need to be sure of reading pleasure. Blissfully funny and well crafted Regency romance as comforting and satisfying as a mug of hot chocolate with cream.

If I picture my mother's bedroom bookshelf; her personal ledge of soothing treasures, I can also see the Barbara Pym novels all there in a line. I'm pretty sure I plucked one out as a teenager and gave it a go before abandoning it unable to see the point of all the spinsters and church. It would have all seemed too old and unromantic.
Now I AM old and unromantic I am obviously ready for them. They have been making me snort with laughter like no new-to-me book has for years. Today I wallowed in a bath reading the second half of 'No Fond Return of Love' and every page had perfect lines that would have made me score them with highlighter pen were I bonkers in that particular way. The world of limited gentility they're set in has gone of course but proves quite as pleasurable as the Regency to visit. And a reminder of what a boon social media has been to those of us with gossipy stalkerish habits who no longer have to endure a decaying seaside resort holiday to assuage our curiousity.

'An elderly man with an Aberdeen terrier passed them. "It must be strange to live at the seaside all the year round," Viola observed. "Look- there's the hotel I was thinking of- The Bristol..Shall we go in?"
"Yes, but let's peer first," said Dulcie. "This is the dining room, obviously."
A middle-aged couple, looking like people in an advertisement- she in pearls and a silver fox cape over a black dress, he in a dark suit- sat at a table in the window. A waiter bent over them- 'deferentially', Dulcie supposed, helping them to some fish- turbot, surely? Its white flesh was exposed before them. How near to the heart of things it seemed!'

Back to the children's books after this but just wanted to say thank you Barbara Pym- and welcome to the bedside shelf; Georgette and PG are shuffling along to make space for you. And also; hello and nice to laugh with you grown up Mummy.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Story Museum

Last week we went on our Easter holidays and, appropriately enough, trotted in the footsteps of our namesake by choosing to spend a few days moving a canal boat through water. Whilst alas, not by means of genuine little wooden horse power; even by diesel engine it was a soothing way to see a very small amount of world move past very slowly.

We had four days of this-
Before setting off the Fellow Reviewers found a copy of the World Wrestling Federation Annual 2011 on the borrowing shelves of the canal boat offices. They both pored over every detail of this find and found it most improving holiday reading. If you want to know the record of The Undertaker versus (sic) Sheamus as of four years ago, they're now your go-to guys.
It also inspired a fair amount of this from alter egos Shucks and Mr Chuckalot-
(insert your own wrestling commentary/screams)
Anyway. This whole holiday, lovely though it was, was ACTUALLY a thinly veiled excuse to get my family positioned in the general Oxford area so that on the way home we could visit the newly opened Story Museum.

I'd been eager as any beaver waiting for this place to open properly. It's hosted the odd event in the last year or so as it was being transformed but '26 Characters' is its first 'proper' exhibition. Twenty-six UK authors and illustrators have been photographed dressed as a character that inspired them as a child. Each photo has then been put in its own story space with props and teasers from the character's book, along with an audio reading and interview.

I'm not clear what the building was before being reincarnated as a space devoted to inspiring story love. Whatever it was it's still a magical rabbit warren full of twists and turns and secret rooms. The transformation is also clearly very much a work in progress; bare bricks and exposed ceilings and the remains of an old canteen kitchen mean that the building itself feels a story. Our exploration had the air of an adventure- with genuine uncertainty about which way to go next or what we'd find round each corner. It's an exciting building.

We all loved the exhibition; highlights including the unexpected discovery of Narnia, brewing tea on a stove with Badger and illicit peeking at what Borrowers watch on telly. Eddie was very taken with all the beds on offer and spent a long time luxuriating amongst the vines in King of all Wild Things, Max's before some pretty vigorous bouncing on Mary Poppins's. I hope she'd approve. Participation is invited; we rode on the White Witch's sleigh (being careful not to take any Turkish Delight) and threw water over the Wicked Witch. We also all wrote our birth details on parcel tags in case we should be left in a station handbag on the way home.
E makes himself at home

spying on Pod and Arrietty
Our favourite thing of all though was, what I assume to be a permanent feature; the dressing up room with announcing throne. This is SO clever and SO much fun we could have spent a whole day hogging it. It's a simple idea that works brilliantly. They have a row of really proper old school dressing up stuff- by which I mean not ready-made child sized costumes but loads of weird old coats, cloaks, hats, masks and dresses so you can really spiral off in mad sartorial directions. Then they have these boards where you select a title and a thing and a place and slot the words in and walk up a red carpet holding your selection. By some total MAGIC these are read and announced with really proper pomp and ceremony and trumpets when you sit on the throne. It's the biggest ego boost I have ever experienced. I would like one in my kitchen to be honest. We had a LOT of goes. Even penguin.

You can find out more about The Story Museum and the exhibition here- and listen to the authors talking about their choices. But really this Fiendish Monkey of the Future commands you just go. It's excellent.