Thursday, 25 August 2016

An Interview with Joe Todd-Stanton, the creator of Arthur and the Golden Rope

It is with great applause that I welcome Joe Todd-Stanton into the fabulous world of children's literature with his first book, Brownstone's Mythical Collection: Arthur and the Golden Rope. This is his first solo venture and he shows us that he not only places great worth on those stories which are the backbone to our culture but  he also recognises the power of stories which celebrate the rite of the ordinary person undergoing extraordinary challenges in order to save the day and find themselves. 

I was fortunate enough to ask Joe some questions about the story.

1. Describe your office and the format you like working in. 

I work from home in a little office space which I am constantly adding to with posters and drawings. I have thought about getting a shared studio space but I really enjoy being able to shut myself away and  focus on something, especially when I get the opportunity to take on a big project.

Cover illustration for an OUP text showing Joe delving into other myths
2. The writer Alan Garner says that myths are there to test our boundaries. Do you think there is some truth in this?

Definitely. I think the really interesting thing about myths is the way they often cross extraordinary characters and situations with very human problems. They are a great way for people to look at moral conundrums through a more entertaining lens.

3. I am a huge fan of traditional tales and wondered what drew you especially to Norse mythology.
I think Norse mythology is something that isn't explored enough in English schools even though there is a big connection between it and early English literature like Beowulf. I also love style of the Art and the characters since they give a lot licence to be very epic and over the top. 

Arthur and some creepy monkeys: An unused illustration of Jo's
4. Is there a particular Norse legend/myth story that you think every child should encounter? 
Well it's gruesome but I think the original tale of Fenrir and the golden rope is very interesting. Tyr knowingly scarifies his hand so he can trick the wolf into a false sense of security giving the other gods the chance to tie him up. This is a good lesson about moral ambiguity and the idea that sadly not every tale is clean cut and that in some situations you may have to sacrifice a small thing for the greater good of the ones you love.

6. Can you share your favourite scene from Arthur and the Golden Rope and talk a little about its creation.
My favourite scenes to work on were the wordless ones. Growing up, I was a big comic book fan and enjoyed putting some of those sensibilities into the story. I especially liked drawing the part where Arthur had to climb the World Tree as I loved opportunity of playing with scale and seeing how epic I could make the climb feel.

7. I love the fact that it is Arthur's wit which helps him succeed. How much research did you put into working out Arthur's character and how much reading around traditional tales did you do? 

I think the scene in the Hobbit when Bilbo has to answer Gollum's riddles had a big effect on me as a kid and what I thought were good heroic qualities to have. I also looked a lot at Tintin and how even though his character never really says that much, you get a good sense of his personality just from his facial expressions and how he goes about his adventures.

Thanks Joe!

If you would like to see more of Joe's work. Then head over to his tumblr page and his blog

Arthur and the Golden Rope is available at Flying Eye books

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Brownstone’s Mythical Collection: Arthur and the Golden Rope

Joe Todd-Stanton’s first solo children’s book takes us on the very best kind of journey. It is a step into myth and magic, a touch on the traditional tale which is a form close to my heart. The first in a potential series, Professor Brownstone retells the tale of his family, beginning with Arthur, a young Icelandic boy who uses his wit and guile to overcome Fenrir, a giant wolf who is terrorising his town. A fusion text packed with Norse Mythology which uses elements of picturebook, comic and graphic novel, Arthur and the Golden Rope celebrates the power of story and calls upon the true heroes of the traditional tales.

From the eye-catching endpapers, mapped blueprints of our story’s setting, to the fond farewell of our narrator, each page of Arthur and the Golden Rope calls for careful scrutiny. The author fills the pages will little details, that captured my eye and imagination and I expect children of all reading abilities would enjoy browsing the professor’s study looking for swords in stones, glowing grails and sealed tomes.

Born long ago in a small Icelandic town, it was clear from an early age that Arthur was always going to be a bit different.

Arthur’s story has in it all that you would want from a traditional tale: gods and monsters, wit and wisdom and the weak overcoming the mighty. Against the wishes of the town's warriors, Arthur is chosen to defeat the giant wolf, Fenrir, who has put out the great fire of his town and rekindle its flame before his people freeze. Armed with a miscellany of magical items, Arthur’s quest sees him trick giant cats, enter the library within the gods’ hall and climb, Yggdrasil, the World Tree.

Every page (almost card-like in its thickness) is a delight whether it is a map, a series of diminishing returns a double-page epic battle. The frames and words work well to pace the story and you never feel that one element is hindering the other. There is enough writing to carry the story along but not too much for the early reader to find a hindrance.

What I most enjoyed about the story was how Todd-Stanton followed many of the traditional tale codes which made the stories so successful and it answers why I think it could be a key text in any classroom beyond it being a pleasurable read for the children. The story itself is very oral in its writing. It asks to be read aloud and the short sentences and paragraphs lend to pace one feels when listening to or reading a fairy tale. Its cast of characters all come from the same pot that has been set within folklore since they first became recorded: a villain, a donor, a helper, a dispatcher and, of course, the hero. Propp would be proud.

As his first book for children, Todd-Stanton does well and, as with all storytellers, his craft will improve with each new retelling. Personally, I can’t wait for more stories to emerge from the Brownstone family vault.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Wolves of Currumpaw

The Wolves of Currumpaw will have you gasping in joy at its invention and shedding a tear in its telling. We find ourselves transported to New Mexico, 1893, to witness the story of a great wolf named Lobo, terror of the plains, and man’s desire to kill him. 

 After Shackleton’s Journey, his first critically-acclaimed and Kate Greenway Medal winning non-fiction debut, William Grill sets out to re-tell a short story taken from Ernest Thompson Seton’s 1898 book, Wild Animals I Have Known. The Wolves of Currumpaw, is an imaginative, exciting picture book in which both image and text open a window into the past (given the context of the story, it is important to acknowledge that it is a century-old, white man’s window). His book casts a light upon a place, a people and a series of moments that the reader will want to explore further.

Photo used without consent from British History Museum.
Watch the video created here by Neil MacGregor and the BBC, it's illuminating
With this in mind, I want to draw your attention to the buckskin map above. Etched on to the skin of a deer a hundred years prior to the events in The Wolves of Currumpaw, it was possibly created by a member of the Piankishwa tribe (around 1774-1775) and thought to be shared with European merchants in order to agree boundaries with the purchasing of native land. It is a signal of an encounter between two very different worlds with conflicts of interest, understanding, culture and perceptions of land. I found the analogy between it and The Wolves of Currumpaw significant.

The map shows an area of the American Midwest which the British and French were warring over. Driven, perhaps, by greed and a need to be seen as the champion state in Europe, their actions were exploitative. This fact was noted as far back as 1762 when British satirist, Oliver Goldsmith, spoke of Britain and France despoiling a land which already belonged to the native tribes-people of Canada. The map marks a moment in history when the land on which the native people had lived since ancient times was despoiled.

The Wolves of Currumpaw is much like the Buckskin Map: its narrative is dualistic. Much of this has been achieved through Grill’s enviable eye for perspective and position. Where he chooses to place the reader has been so carefully considered that it makes the reading far more immersive than a simple illustrated non-fiction text. Its portrait shape tells us that this is a story about people but his gorgeous double-page spreads tell us that it is, equally, a story about place too.

Old Lobo (Old Wolf) stands, in Grill’s book, as a symbol of what the European settlers see as untamed and unclaimed. The story tells of the frequent failings of trappers, cattle barons, cowboys, Texas Rangers, farmers and hunters to capture him until British naturalist, Ernest Thompson Seton finds a way to fool the wolf using a method which will tear at your heart-strings.

 Although Grill delivers a narrative which brings the past to life and yet still remains accessible to the young reader, it is his evocation of the landscape and man’s mark upon it which is his real achievement. Through small, free-framed vignettes to double-page full bleeds Grill’s pace and majesty of moment is both breath-taking as it is haunting. Seton crossing the low plain beneath a cloud of great majesty and the two vignettes of settlers bathing in their greed in front of a collection of buffalo skulls and wolf hides are examples of this.

What makes The Wolves of Currumpaw an engaging, immersive and reflective read is the overwhelming emotional attachment you have for Lobo and his pack and the sense that a place, a culture and people (the lives of the Native Americans are soon swept from the pages) has been all ignorantly and dangerously eradicated from memory. The endless hunting of Lobo and his pack, the momentary glimpse of the Native Americans had me thinking back to the Piankishwa tribe and their map. It is a map which shows the rivers of the land and the settlements of the indigenous people. For me, what it really shows - but which the Europeans who invaded would not have seen - is the special relationship that the tribes had with the land and the animals that lived off it.

The Wolves of Currumpaw offers us a chance to have a deeper understanding of our links to the past. Unlike most non-fiction books out there, it is a fascinating, touching story which is an engaging as it is informative. In both map and book there lies a sense of the exploitation of people, beast and landscape. In Grill’s story, at least, we have a sense that all of us are slowly beginning to understand that we are inextricably bound to the land that we live off. The Wolves of Currumpaw closes with Seton’s words stating that need for humankind to consider different ways of thinking about and treating the world and the wild. What a timely message to share with the next generation of readers.

The Wolves of Currumpaw is available from Flying Eye Books for £14.99 

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Is Daddy Coming Back in a Minute?: Explaining Sudden Death to Pre-School Children in Words They Can UnderstandIs Daddy Coming Back in a Minute?: Explaining Sudden Death to Pre-School Children in Words They Can Understand by Elke Barber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although the subheading on the cover of 'Is Daddy Coming Back...' defines it as a book that explains sudden death to pre-school children 'in words they can understand', I think the book is selling itself short. It is a story, in fact, for almost any child who has lost a parent/member of the family and it is a wholly remarkable because rather than being a fictional story it is, in fact a recount of the events written and told by both Alex, who is three, and his mother.

We find that Alex's father suffered from a massive heart attack when he and his son were out on a boy's weekend together. Here, Anna's watercolour images show the close bond that Alex has with his father and together, at the start, they share the page and frame as Alex recalls the fond memories at the start of the holiday with his dad.

I found the page when Alex goes in search of help for his father deeply upsetting, not only because of the responsibility put upon someone so young but Anna's thick, hard little arrows showing the mixed route that Alex takes around the site showed the innocence with which he understood the burden and sense of urgency he had been placed upon him. This occurs again when his father is taken into the ambulance and Alex finds his mother at the site. Alex shouts: 'Oi! No girls allowed.' which continues to show how little really understands what has happened. For me, this was incredibly powerful and helpful to other readers. It is completely understandable that a very young child will have little grasp of what is happening around them so to see this mirrored in Alex's own story could offer a great sense of relief for the reader.

When mummy arrives she brings with her a sense of calm and order in both image and text. Her explanation to Alex of what has happened to her husband is deeply welcoming to me and an approach that I would share with my own boys when they enquire about death: 'Daddy's heart has stopped beating and he is never coming back.'

The finality in this statement and, for me, it highlights how much Elke cares for, respects and loves her son. She is brave in sharing the truth with him and even though it clearly upsets her deeply, she sticks to this statement and keeps to the facts as honestly as she can. There is no 'he's gone away' or 'he's gone to heaven' - terms that would be incredibly confusing to any young child. Instead she states: 'Daddy can't use his body any more, and he is never coming back.' The repetition of 'never' makes it clear that this is a statement that she deeply wants her son to understand and, although some adult readers might find this uncomfortable, it is, importantly, open and honest.

To support the understanding of the loss of the father, the narrative device of making key words and phrases larger and bolder is used: 'It is NOT YOUR FAULT' and ' I am VERY proud of you' offer readers the chance to believe that they are guiltless of blame. I imagine that these scenes would offer a powerful outlet for both parent and child reader as they tackle the deep confusion and sense of blame that we can put upon ourselves when facing the loss of someone that we love very deeply.

But this is not a book that ends on a sad note, instead for the latter half of the story, it explores Alex's family's life after the death. Here we get to see Alex's family start a new chapter in their life, where Alex is allowed to ask questions about death with ease wherever he is - whether on the beach or at home. The final page may show Alex alone on the verso whilst his mother and sister sit together reading, but he is happy and comfortable in his surroundings.

He tells the reader that his mother says that it is okay to be sad and that, equally, it is okay to be happy too. What is important is that he should always feel that he can talk about his father whenever he wants to those who know him so that he can continue to understand what is, a profoundly emotional chapter in his own story.

I have read a lot of books recently that deal with the loss of a parent Missing Mommy: A Book About Bereavement and My Father's Arms Are a Boat but there is something real and deeply visceral about Alex's story. Knowing that the book is a retelling from Alex's point of view, as a parent, makes it a emotionally upsetting read, but I imagine it would give a great comfort to the child reader (and anyone who is supporting that child).

View all my reviews

Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Journey

Francesca Sanna’s debut picturebook tells a significant story for our time. Set in an all-too familiar world daubed in the fantastical, Sanna’s characters roam the picture plane, sylph-like against a haunting, fairy-tale landscape. They are a family desperate to escape a war that they did not ask for, led by a mother whose only wish is for her children to be safe. In a time when stories of migrants & refugees are at the forefront of our media, this book offers readers the smallest glimpse into a world that they cannot know unless they have lived it. 

In her author notes, Sanna tells us that the seed of the idea for The Journey arose from a meeting she had with two girls at a refugee centre in Italy. Their journey urged the author to collect more stories of refugees. With these recounts, she has woven a narrative collage of personal tales that shed some light on the hardships attached to these journeys, the loss and sorrow that these travellers are victim to and the strength which drives them on in order to start a new life.  

‘The war began. Every day bad things started happening around us and soon there was nothing but chaos.’

Francesca Sanna’s work embraces all the narrative and pictorial art that make picturebooks great and it stands as a beacon for why some picturebooks require multiple readings. The front cover itself is an amalgamation of the whole story and hints at what is to come. From the sharp-shapes of the border guards and insurmountable waves, to the warm-waving locks of the mother and gentle curve of the birds’ bodies, there are echoes here of a life in constant motion, wrapped in danger.

She shows us pictures of strange cities, strange forests and strange animals until she finally sighs, “We will go there and not be frightened anymore.”

The story begins with a family united. Mum, Dad and two children: a boy and girl. The narrator’s voice itself is ambiguous with the reader only knowing that it is one of the children. This is such a clever decision and shows that Senna is not only an illustrator but a writer too for this is not the story of one child or family but a collage of refugee memories woven together. When war tears their life asunder, the mother is left with the devastating choice of whether to stay in her homeland or leave.
Throughout the story, I was struck by the repetitive echoed image of the mother protectively embracing her children. The first scene shows her at home, with the claws of war threatening to separate her from her children; the second, when the border guards are searching for them and the final image of her comforting her children against the darkness. It is such a powerful repeating image because of how well Sanna commands the picturebook codes of shape, position, tone and colour.

In each of the three separate scenes we see a strength in her that the children need and yet, in this final image, the reader alone is allowed to witness the buried fear and heartache that she carries. It is in these images, I feel, that Sanna shows us how powerful the relationship between words and image can be. There is a dual narrative at play here: how the children perceive their mother and how we, the reader, perceive her is very different. As she looks out into the night, her mind wonders to those things she fears and mourns for and it is only when her children sleep that she shares this with us. For me, this final image shows the great fragility which lies behind the strength that she calls on to carry her children.    

I hope, one day, like these birds, we will find a new home. A home where we can be safe and begin our story again.  

I’ll leave you with the final picture showing the family racing happily off towards the end of the page riding on the back of a flamingo. Most birds migrate. Did you know that? Even blackbirds can migrate although not as far as swallows or ospreys. Birds often leave one country for another when their population grows too large, or their family is in need of food, to escape predators so that they can moult in safety or for the milder weather. Some travel short distances and other several thousand miles. They go to seek food and shelter and many to escape those predators who would prey on their young. It is a story of survival, instinct and escape.

The Journey is a welcome picturebook in a time when social media of all forms affects our own opinion of migrants and refugees. Books can be wonderful vehicles for exploring a message that we may not have considered or to live a life that we could not possibly imagine. The Journey asks us all to be more sentient and considerate to the needs of those who want to start their stories again.  

 Francesca Sanna's book is available from Flying Eye Books

Additionally, Caitlin Moran talks about what a refugee is here

Sunday, 20 March 2016

A Place to Call Home

A Place to Call HomeA Place to Call Home by Alexis Deacon & Viviane Schwarz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes in children's literature, there are some wonderful partnerships made: Dahl & Blake, Morpurgo & Foreman, Gaiman & McKean, Reeve & McIntyre to name but a few but Deacon and Schwarz are something extremely special. Much of this is down to the fact that they work together in the picturebook world rather than illustrated book. The relationship between the words and the pictures in all the work that they have collaborated on would have me believe that they are one and the same person.

A Place to Call Home is a wonderful story related to that awkward stage in life when we must begin to see that there is a world, an adventure awaiting that lies beyond the safety of our home and our limited understanding of the world.

The story opens, as all good picturebooks do, with the front cover, a great gaping hole in the fencing panel and a small horde of inquisitive, smiling hamsters staring straight at us. A technique in which I was reminded of The Three Pigs. Each hamster, you find as you enter the title page is unique in shape and character (I found myself rooting for the cheeky chappy resting upon the chunky hamster to the far left).

The next page finds us in the womb-like warmth of the hamster's home. How they got there we never know (although there is a hint) but their bedding is interesting indeed. Torn strips of paper which display constellations, ships at sea, astronauts, knights templar, maps and mysterious creatures speak to me of the world outside and the opportunities which, perhaps, the hamsters were reluctant to acknowledge but which reside in all of us. Perhaps they are images and stories which have entered the subconscious of the hamsters and feed them their wit and cunning when they find themselves tasked with tackling the outside world or perhaps they are there for the reader to make connections with later on in the book.

The early signs of the omniscient narrator soon give way to words and world of our seven hamsters, who, springing forth from within an old mattress, find themselves (on the verso) staring out into the dark, wide world of a junk yard (perhaps). I love the idea that this first double-page, which in itself encourages a re-reading, is, in fact, the story map showing the route for the hamsters' entire journey. Abandoned bikes, puddles of water, chained dogs and barbed wire lend a sense of the treacherous unknown. The only colour that stands strong against the blue-grey of the night is the bright yellow of the mattress and the items which the hamsters later adopt.

Whilst trying to work together to find a new home/hole, the hamster adorn themselves with items that they believe will protect them. In many ways this restricts them from accepting the reality of the world around them but this ostrich-like ignorance is made all the more laughable by the way they wear them. A tap, a pair of gloves, a lampshade (easily my favourite) and a cup means that we have a character cast akin to Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits.

As they journey across the landscape and clamber over, what seems to them but not to the reader, insurmountable obstacles, they find that it is their faith, love and support in each other is what drives their exodus on. I imagine that children will love the fact that they, as the more knowledgeable reader, perceive the world clearer than the hamsters and yet they only mirror our own fears and exaggerations for when we enter a new place or take a leap into the unknown.

It is only when a moment of imagined peril occurs that the hamsters are ready to abandoned all sense of comfort and safety in order to save one of their own (the dog's face throughout this scene is priceless). When the narrator returns to close the story at the end, the hamsters are ready to see the world for what it is and are ready to explore it with eyes wide open.

I am always going to be biased when it comes to Schwartz and Deacon but this is yet another masterpiece in which both written and visual narrative work so seamlessly together.

View all my reviews

Friday, 11 March 2016

An Interview with Keith Negley

Fellow colleague, Nick Swarbrick, whose own blog can be found here , and myself are due to give a short talk on the role and representation of fatherhood in children's picturebooks here at Oxford Brookes in June. A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to come across Keith Negley's fascinating Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too) and found that he touched on aspects of masculinity that we wanted to explore in our discussion. Alongside my interest in picturebooks and the creation process, Keith has kindly answered a few questions for me regarding the creation of his book. Keith, thank you so much for sharing your ideas and thoughts with me.

1. Can you tell me what you are interested in exploring masculinity and why you consider it an topic for young readers? 

I didn’t set out to make a comment on gender roles or society’s pressure on men. I was watching my 5 year old son struggle with emotions like shame, guilt and frustration for the first time. He was just starting to make school friends and he was working very hard to not let anyone see him. It broke my heart because it’s something I’ve struggled with and something my dad has as well. It takes a lot for me to be emotionally vulnerable and it’s something that’s held me back most of my life, and if I could bestow anything on to Parker it’s that he doesn’t have to carry that burden. I wanted there to be a book I could read him that would tell him that everyone has these feelings, even the macho characters from his cartoons and video games that he emulates and they’re nothing to be ashamed of. I looked around but didn’t find anything that quite fit so I knew then it was up to me to make it for him. I wish I could say I had an agenda from the beginning to subvert the patriarchal machismo paradigm but the reality is the books I make are for my son and I first, and if other families find value in them that’s just icing on the cake. 

2. I remember reading an interview in which work is described as Byzantine in style. After looking at art from that period, I can see the connection! Can you tell us a little about your interest in the human form and how you choose to depict it? (Any images/example would be brilliant!) 

Taken from: The Historical Museum of Crete

I find illustrations that are perfect on a technical level quite boring. I crave mistakes, and spontaneity. To me that’s where the energy lies. I love medieval and mid-century folk art because it’s wrong on a technical level. The perspective and anatomy are usually incorrect, and I find that fascinatingly human. I also really enjoy using the figure as a design element inside the composition. I love breaking it down to basic shapes finding ways to make it fit on the spread.

3. Using pictures/sketches, can you talk us through the steps you take from start to finish when producing a piece of work. 

I tend do not sit still with my process and it’s always evolving intentionally. I’d prefer to not get too comfortable. With that said I usually end up in Adobe Illustrator creating my composition using basic shapes with flat color. Once I have the composition where I like I bring it into Photoshop and essentially re-create it using everything from paint, charcoal, pencil, cut paper, and digital brushes. I really feel more like a collage artist than anything else.

4. The illustrations in Tough Guys convey emotions so strongly that the words were almost not needed. Is there an appeal to write a wordless picturebook or do you see the words working just as hard as the pictures? 

I’m an illustrator by trade. I’ve been conditioned to tell stories with only pictures and writing is something very new to me. With that said I personally don’t find wordless picture books very fun to “read” to my son. They tend to be more of a solitary endeavor, at least in my family, so I think they’re beautiful and I’ve seen some amazing ones, but if I think about what book ideas get me excited they usually revolve around me reading it to my son… so on that level I don’t see a wordless picture book in my very near future… but I would never rule it out. My favorite books are ones where the words are saying one thing and the pictures are saying something else, but when you overlap them they create a new meaning. So I do see the words as integral to creating a book that functions on multiple levels… but I’m new to this game and I’m sure I’ll change my mind about that someday.

5. Can you share your favourite image from Tough Guys and talk a little about its creation. 

My favorite spread from Tough Guys has to be the pirate spread. It started out originally as a sketch I pitched for an editorial assignment. The client passed on the sketch but I hung on to it because I liked the figure’s position so much. Later when I first pitched the book it was only 11 spreads originally and Flying Eye told me I still needed to make one more spread for an even 12. It didn’t take me long to remember that pirate losing his treasure. It works so well as a metaphor for frustration, and I just love the piles of dirt going back into the horizon. That spread just works really well for me conceptually and compositionally. 

6. Is there an illustrator whose work you admire so much that you think every child should encounter them? 

I try not to look at other illustrator’s work too much because when I’m making something I don’t want to worry about whether or not I’ve already seen it somewhere else. However the books JooHee Yoon has been making take my breath away. *

* Visit her site - her work is stunning. 

Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too) is available from Flying Eye Books