Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Emperor's Nightingale

I first came across the work of Jane Ray long before I had children of my own and a re-ignited interest in picture books. Her rich, jewel-like, celebratory pictures of animals and people were produced on a range of wrapping paper in my student days. My friend, studying zoology at the time (but now a rather successful painter herself) who always had an immaculate eye for idiosyncratic interior design, snaffled them up and stuck them as a cheap and classier alternative to posters on her wall. I admired her and their verve and style.

Two or three years later and having taken my own career swerve and become a student midwife I went to weigh a baby in North London only to find another set of walls adorned with familiar pictures. On closer examination they turned out to be originals, and the baby belonged to the artist; Jane Ray herself. I was actually quietly starstruck -"The wrapping paper lady! In real life!" I probably spent far too much time surreptiously looking at pictures and not nearly enough time checking baby fontanelles and jaundice levels.

Fast forward about another 19 years (do us both a favour and don't add up too carefully here) and that baby has apparently grown up despite (or perhaps because of?) early student-midwife neglect to become a doctor himself and I have my own Jane Ray walls; although mine are decorated with shelves and face out spines of her lovely books. She was good enough to agree to come to the Fellow Reviewer's school and judge an art competition for them. I was still starstruck; probably rather more so since my knowledge of her work had expanded out from wrapping paper. I baked her a very sticky cake and then sort of forced her to eat it. Sorry Jane.

A new book by her then, and they come with pleasing regularity, is a cause for celebration. And "The Emperor's Nightingale' is a particularly fine one I think.
A collection of traditional tales and poems loosely linked by a birdy theme: It includes the familiar eg. 'The Owl and the Pussycat' and the less so eg. 'Jorinda and Joringel'. Some stories are left in their original form, some sensitively retold.
In contrast to her normal glowing palette of ?gouache and gold the illustrations in this book are all done on Scraperboard. The frontpage elucidates; 'the line is etched onto a thin layer of white china clay on board coated with black India ink.'
The results are stunning; the pared back pleasure of individual lines and cross-hatching can sing off the page. It seems the perfect medium for expressing feather and flight. The pictures are surprisingly diverse in style too; some like simple block woodcut pictures and others detailed and lifelike. The two colour contrast gives each picture weight and gravity. This feels like a very Proper book. A book that small hands will hold with respect and will still be earning its place on the shelf in years to come.
I love it.
And I want a piece of Scraperboard to make a mess of myself Right Now (stamps tiny foot).

'The Emperor's Nightingale and other feathery tales' by Jane Ray, pub. Boxer books, isbn 978-1-907152-59-7

A good Christmas gift (aagh!) for any bird lover perhaps?

With thanks to the Publisher for providing a review copy. Our opinions are our own.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Bagthorpes and Ripping Yarns

It's very lovely being sent books for review but I realise it has been distracting me recently from enough spouting forth on old favourites. So today I am neglecting the small pile of new picture books at my desk to tap you all on the shoulder, nod wisely and simply say- Helen Cresswell.

Her Bagthorpes books probably made me laugh out loud more than any other books of my childhood. I read and re-read them on a loop;not least in the bath by the looks of the slightly puffy, water stained copy of 'Ordinary Jack' I still have.

'Ordinary Jack' was alas, the only copy I still had of her original series of four books. Until this week; when I paid a ridiculously long overdue visit to 'Ripping Yarns' second hand treasure trove bookshop. I have to hang my head in shame here. I think of myself as a Good Bookbuying Girl- making full use of the excellent independent local bookstores I'm lucky enough to live close to. But it's only now, as I read it's under threat of closure (sigh) that I've shopped at 'Ripping Yarns'; a mere 20 minutes walk away from home. It is up a steepish hill and over a busy road but that is NO EXCUSE.

I've been an idiot. It's an AMAZING place. One of those shops that is so crammed with deliciously musty stock that it can't really hold more than two customers at any one time. It has a great mixture of old Puffins and Armadas and many rather older, grander curiosities; including an intimidating shelf of Moral Tales. I spent a small fortune on a large pile of familiar goodies from my past. Here's the link to the shop's website- and please do have a browse and a buy and help keep it open.

Anyway, amongst my haul was a signed copy of 'Absolute Zero'; the second in the series. Now I only need to find 'Bagthorpes Unlimited' and 'Bagthorpes V. The World' and my precious shall be returned to me. She wrote another six later, but the first four are definitely the best I think.

The Bagthorpes books are joyous farce. Pretty much entirely character based comedy, their plots are relatively free-form. I wasn't surprised to read recently that Helen Cresswell never planned her books; she just wrote. A writer of her calibre can get away with it. A family of egotistical eccentrics get into a series of escalating domestic dramas including fires, floods, seances, maggot breeding, a riot in a bingo hall and an appearance in a surprisingly prescient fly on the wall TV show. Think something like the kids from Outnumbered parented by Basil Fawlty. Every page is a treat.

However, re-reading them, I am not as surprised as I thought I'd be that they're currently OOP. Though still extremely funny, they have dated and not least in their use of language. She's not frightened of complicated words or adult references is Helen Cresswell. There's no thought about accessibility or children's vocabulary levels- she just writes the funny. My sense is this is a marked contrast to contemporary 'middle grade' and I wonder how she'd be edited now?
When I read them age 9 or so, there's no doubt that many of the words and phrases went over my head. There are frequent references (Mr Bagthorpe is a scriptwriter for Radio 4...) to quotations from Milton, Shakespeare, Locke, Marx and Freud for instance. Daisy, a borderline psychopathic 4 year old goes through a phase of chaos-causing in the pantry which is termed 'Reconciling the Seemingly Disparate'. I know I had no idea what that meant at the time but I liked the sound of the words.  Here's a sample passage to give a flavour of her prose-

'He ran up the stairs two at a time, to meet a fresh flood on the landing. Now he could hear Daisy's voice.
"Soup, soup, bootiful soup,
Boooootiful pea green soup!"
Horrified by the implications of this chant, Jack threshed his way to the bathroom. His worst fears were confirmed. Daisy had poured a whole bottle of green bubble bath into the overrunning bath and washbasin. She said afterwards that this was to make things more real, that she wanted the water to look like the sea, all green and foamy. When Aunt Celia heard this, she murmured something about 'the foam of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn', and clasped Daisy to her.
"She's going to be a poet," she told everybody.
Daisy at present wore only her knickers and was busy ladling the green water out of the bath and into a flower bowl.
"Hello Zack!" she squealed, seeing him. "It's lovely- oooh, it's lovely!"'

I don't want to make any particularly profound observations about the difference between children's writing Then and Now. Accessibility and clarity are good things obviously. But so are having your vocabulary and thought processes stretched whilst also laughing like a drain.

Hurray for Helen Cresswell...and hurray for Ripping Yarns; long may they keep selling her books.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Silver Buttons

"That's someone else born. That's someone else born. That's someone else born. That's someone else born."
Sometimes my children like to set up this sort of continuous chant over the breakfast table (or of course, its more morbid companion chant "someone just died, someone just died, someone just died"). It's obviously an enchanting refrain in and of itself but the thought processes behind it; the sheer, blooming BIGNESS of the world and the amount of stuff happening in it all the time, all over the place is really hard to think about sensibly. So you might as well do it whilst also shoveling in cocopops I suppose.

("That's another bowl of cocopops eaten. That's another bowl of cocopops eaten. That's another bowl of cocopops eaten.")

Or you could just enjoy the lovely 'Silver Buttons' by Bob Graham which elucidates the universality of a moment in as simple but pretty a way as I've seen.

Inside a house Jodie draws a duck, her brother takes his first step, their mother plays the tin whistle before we sail outside the window to watch a feather, a grandparent, a soldier, a boy with untied shoelaces and yes; someone being born, as well as many other moments both trivial and tremendous. All in the sixty seconds between 9.59 and 10 o'clock. Coo. Each page turn zooms us in or out, rather in the manner of an accomplished movie single frame shot.

It's quite rare for me to read a picture book and then immediately read it again and then again and then again but this one demanded it. Apart from anything else there is great pleasure to be found identifying all the small things happening in Bob Graham's beautiful wide vistas.

The fellow reviewers' reaction was more muted initially but this is a book which needs sharing, chewing over and discussing to fully enjoy I think; a deceptively sophisticated read. It's cropped up in conversations a few times now, in connection with (sigh) the war in Syria and what it might mean to be a child there. The bigness of the world is not always benign and that is also something hard to understand. Books like 'Silver Buttons' which reinforce how we are just one piece of a hopeful and beautiful whole are a very useful counterbalance.

Definitely a book for school libraries and to inspire project work; do take a look at it.

'Silver Buttons' by Bob Graham, pub. Walker, isbn 978-1-4063-4224-6

With thanks to the publishers for providing a review copy- our opinions are our own.

Friday, 6 September 2013

The Weasel Puffin Unicorn Baboon Pig Lobster race.

I wonder if this book began with its title? It IS an excellent title. Who hasn't stayed up late into the night arguing about which animal would win in a weasel, puffin, unicorn, baboon, pig, lobster showdown after all?

The contents of 'The Weasel Puffin Unicorn Baboon Pig Lobster race' by James Thorp and Angus Mackinnon will answer that dilemma; 5 out of the 6 animals proving to be dreadful cheats as it turns out. Although given the terrain they have to negotiate includes swamps of goo and rockfaces with bubbles of drool it's a mute question whether it's really about cheating or simple survival. It's a pretty hardcore challenge when you are forced to rely on a chocolate submarine or custard trampoline to get you where you need to go.

This book is hip and bonkers in equal measure. I read it with an eyebrow raised and an occasional wince at some rather dodgy rhyming. Eddie, who of course IS hip and bonkers in equal measure loved it immediately. The illustrations channel 70's psychedelia. David Shrigley-esque line drawings in a palette perfectly picked from the wallpapers of my childhood. In fact the whole (beautifully produced) book is reminiscent of some of the stranger TV animations of that era; 'Ludwig' say or 'Chorlton and the Wheelies'.

A frustration with the book is that all the animals in the race are male. Not an issue I'd thought about much until the excellent Carmen at Rhino Reads pointed out the inbalance that exists generally in picture book animals. An opportunity missed to have a dastardly cheating FEMALE lobster on a raspberry canoe  for once.

That aside the blend of edgy nonsense has charm and will appeal to happening young thing cool cat aesthetes- and just possibly, to their parents too.

'The Weasel Puffin Unicorn Baboon Pig Lobster Race' by James Thorp and Angus Mackinnon, pub. Digital Leaf Publishing, isbn 9781909428027

with thanks to the publishers for providing a review copy. Our opinions are our own.