Review: Much Ado About Shakespeare – Shakespeare Day 23rd April

Much Ado About Shakespeare – The Life and Times of William Shakespeare: a literary picture book by Donovan Bixley

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April 23rd is Shakespeare Day so it seemed fitting that our ‘What We’re Reading Wednesday’ for this week should be Shakespearey. This is in fact a book that I wanted to nominate for this year’s Greenaway Award but the fact that it is a New Zealand import made it disappointingly ineligible. It is, however, a corker of a book that deserves some shouting about!

The subtitle says it all: ‘The Life and Times of William Shakespeare: a literary picture book’. Bixley says his aim is to offer a new interpretation of Shakespeare’s world: a play on words and pictures that attempts to draw back the curtain and shed light on the bright and exuberant world of Shakespeare’s life and times.

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Double page spreads combine words from the plays and map them on to historical fact/context. The fact that the known details of Shakespeare’s life are pretty sparse allows Bixley some fun with his interpretations (Macbeth’s ‘double, double toil and trouble’ accompanies the birth of Shakespeare’s twins). It is a work of speculation but a joyous one at that that allows us a gateway to this world.

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Illustrated Books: The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize

The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2017 shortlists have been announced today. It’s no surprise, given recent global events, to see Francesca Sanna’s spectacular The Journey in the illustrated books category but I really liked the idea that a ‘guiding light of optimism’ could be found in the rest of the shortlisted books. This certainly chimes with the fact that two of my favourite feel good picture books of last year were also nominated, so for this ‘What We’re Reading Wednesday’ we’re looking at Meg McLaren’s downright lovely Life is Magic and Lizzy Stewart’s bountiful and imaginative There’s A Tiger In The Garden (Both Greenaway nominated I should add!)

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Life is Magic – Meg McLaren

Monsieur Lapin is on the hunt for a new assistant. Houdini the rabbit is the perfect choice: he loves magic and is a good sport. However, life in a magic show can bring with it its own surprises!

Naturally mayhem and backstage high jinks ensue. Though lively, the narrative is told with a simple economy which the bustle and pzazz of the illustrations expand upon deliciously. Shifting from full page spreads to frames and panels the illustrations are packed with detail and mischievous fun. The use of different typography and signage is a great hook to entice the younger reader and is truly showcased in the treasure trove of posters hidden beneath the dust jacket (A feature that’s thankfully been incorporated into the newly published paperback edition). The effect of McLaren’s muted palette is that of a big soft hug – you can’t help but share in the goodwill and bonhomie of Monsieur Lapin and his band of bunnies. It’s an utter pleasure to read with some strong messages of friendship and teamwork to boot.

I’m very much looking forward to reading Meg’s new book Pigeon PI (due 2nd March)

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There’s A Tiger In The Garden – Lizzy Stewart

Nora is bored, ‘There’s nothing to do here’ she matter-of-factly complains but even as she utters the words the reader’s eye is drawn to the distinctly jungle-y looking garden glinting with promise behind her. All it takes are some well-chosen words from Grandma and the reluctant Nora finds herself amidst toy eating plants, running with dragonflies as big as birds, chatting with a VERY grumpy polar bear and finally face to face with the eponymous Tiger (beautifully revealed one ear, a tail and a head at a time).

This is a bountiful tale of the joys of the imagination. It takes the sceptical Nora, face screwed up in a scowl, resolute in the belief that she is too old for silly games, and shows her transformation to a child rosy cheeked with wonder and ready to teach Grandma a thing or two herself about imagination! As with all good books it works on several levels – for the very young the colour and vibrancy of the illustrations will captivate whilst the theme of imagination (and perhaps that opening premise of boredom) will resonate for slightly older readers. Add to that the whole existential encounter with the Tiger to mull over and there’s something for everyone. A joy of a book!

 

A Child of Books

Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston's 'A Child of Books'

Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston’s ‘A Child of Books’.

 

Numerous picture books have tried to capture the fizz and sparkle with which words and pictures create and bring to life whole worlds, increasing the understanding and providing context for the life experiences that readers have.  Paradoxically these often feel a little flat, perhaps because the set of process that are set into motion are so personal and complex that it is difficult to do them adequate justice…

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Our journeys through the landscape of literature can be so powerful and personal that it is difficult to capture in words or illustrations.

Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston’s A Child of Books is a tour de force and one that deserves a place on the bookshelves of every bibliophile throughout the land.  Taking as its central premise the idea of a child created from books – from the stories, invention, ideas and imagination that surround her – it provides a treatise on the way that books provide immersion, guidance and endless illumination throughout our lives.

A tour de force.

A tour de force, hyper-textual reference and typographic effects build a rich landscape that brilliantly showcases the way literature helps to shape our world and yet through its spare nature and muted palettes it skilfully avoids sentiment.

One of the major achievements of the book is the way that its story not only figuratively carries readers through this process, but also the means through which its method of illustration – it’s clever hyper-textual references and typographic effects, extracts from Heidi, Treasure Island, Robinson Cruesoe and many, many form the building blocks of oceans, mountains and clouds – literally form the embodiment of that.  Where Jeffers and Winston’s art succeeds so well is in its understated quality, the spare nature of both the text of its narration and illustration.  There are no weighted sentiments here, but instead, a range of poignant staccato statements and indelible images that readers are able to readily identify with and that make a lasting imprint and impression.

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There is an understated quality with staccato statements and indelible images, there is a brilliant sense of control in the use of colour and movement.

 

With the loving attention to detail and lavish production values, A Child of Books feels the perfect title to recommend on International Literacy Day and an ideal way to help share positive associations with books, stories and reading and one that might just form a portal to a good many other powerful and poignant stories and reads.

This is our world we’re made from stories…

Lavish production details and loving attention to detail

Lavish production details and loving attention to detail permeate the whole craft and design of the book as shown by the gilt foiled lettering and embossed images.


Jake Hope is a Reading Development and Children’s Book Consultant.  He has worked as the Reading and Learning Development Manager for Lancashire Libraries, one of the largest authorities in the United Kingdom.  Jake is an active member of the Youth Libraries Group both on the North West and National Committees.  He is an avid reader and commentator on reading and books for children and young people.
Twitter: @jake_hope

Greenaway Shortlist: Alphabets, Bears & Holes

So the announcement is looming, it’s less than a week ‘til we know the winners of the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals; we’re hoping to have posted reviews of all of the shortlisted titles by then so we’re kicking off with a bumper three in one Greenaway edition.

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Something About A Bear – Jackie Morris

First of all, let me just say this book is BEAUTIFUL. If asked to describe it in one word, that’s what pops to mind first, or possibly lyrical, or maybe rich… but you get the idea. This book has lots of visual appeal but as we all know that’s not enough to impress the judges, so looking in a bit more detail…IMG_1010

The judging criteria mentions something about the medium and artistic style being appropriate to the subject matter and this is where the watercolour illustrations really excel – they lend a fluidity of movement both to the bears themselves and their habitats (I love the rushing waterfall of the Brown Bear spread). There’s character there too in abundance (see the spectacled bear cubs) but I think what I most enjoyed, and perhaps is where the book’s strength lies, is the way that the illustration puts you in the habitat with the bears.

The illustrations are full page with the colour bleeding right to the edges of the spreads. The use of colour is masterful – it’s used to convey temperature so that we experience these habitats – they are not mere pictorial upholstery. Perspective too plays a part; we’re up in the trees with the spectacled bears or down  in the churning water amongst the salmon. It gave me the sense of having travelled, of having journeyed as part of the reading experience. And what’s more it left me wanting to know more: Jackie’s words and pictures gave real characters to these bears and their surroundings and that in turn made me want to know more – just imagine what the song of a spectacled bear would sound like…

Read more about the genesis of the book on Jackie’s blog.

Sam and Dave Dig A Hole – Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

When I think about this book it conjures in my head a sense of crumbly soil and the intense desire to find one of those spectacular jewels! Testament again to a book which is experienced rather than just words on a page.IMG_1011

Ostensibly very simple, the textured and muted illustrations set the scene for this comedy of errors beautifully. Though a character can look exactly the same from page to page a slight change in expression and most particularly the eyes (the dog might be one of my all-time picture book characters for this reason) can change the whole story. There’s a pantomime ‘it’s behind you’ quality about the book –the cross sectional illustrations give a special knowledge about the unfolding action that the hapless Sam and Dave are completely unaware of. Very much in the vein of the classic Rosie’s Walk, the illustrations in fact reveal something quite different than the text might suggest. In decoding the pictures we become actively involved in the storytelling process.

One of my favourite things about this book though is that it has given us this: 6 Theories on The Ending of Sam and Dave Dig A Hole. How wonderful and how powerful that a book can cause such flights of fancy and speculation.

Once Upon An Alphabet – Oliver Jeffers

Conceptually brilliant, Jeffers takes the idea of an alphabet book and explodes it into a 112 page narrative. It’s as wry and witty as you’d expect from a Oliver Jeffers book with all the tender and humorous little touches that have characterized his work so far. Colour is used to great effect, setting the mood or tone for the words (of course Danger Delilah was going to wear a purple super hero cape). The use of white space focuses attention adding extra poignancy or emphasis, it also means that despite the plethora of materials used in the illustrations (there’s watercolour, pastels, crayons, pencils, collage and I particularly loved the turned back and crumpled pages of the letter Q) the effect is never overwhelming or fussy.IMG_1004

Each letter is illustrated in a way that adds extra layers of narrative to the words. There’s extra details and conversation added in handwriting as well as plenty of signposts to send you doubling backwards (or forwards) checking where a character last appeared. The book actively encourages movement between the pages beyond the traditional page turn: so that if you want to know the solution to the enigma of the letter E then you need to turn straight to the letter N.

Though we’re ostensibly following the alphabet, Jeffers shows us that stories can be fluid and that their life continues beyond the page. It’s certainly a book that will keep on offering new details or nuances each time you pick it up.

What We’re Reading Wednesday: Greenaway Shortlist – Willy’s Stories

Every time I walk through these doors something incredible happens. I go on AMAZING adventures.

Come with me and I’ll show you…”

Thus begins Willy’s Stories by former Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne – I don’t think that it spoils anything to say that Willy goes on his adventures by reading books and that those doors that he speaks of probably belong to a Library…P1020624

In this beautiful celebration of storytelling and imagination every page turn brings with it a new adventure. There’s a shipwreck, a tornado and even a tumble down a rabbit hole; it doesn’t take long for readers to recognise that Willy is standing in for such stalwarts of Children’s Literature as Alice in Wonderland, Robin Hood and Peter Pan to name but a few. Even the marbled endpapers hark back to a kind of golden age of Children’s Literature and hint at the richness within. Continue reading