Love Letters To Libraries: Jane Ray

Our next writer in our Love Letters to Libraries series, is the inestimable Jane Ray. Jane has illustrated over 70 children’s books and has worked with authors such as Michael Rosen, Carol Ann Duffy, Jeanette Winterson, Dianne Hofmeyr and Kevin Crossley Holland. She is IBBY UK’s nomination for the 2108 Hans Christian Andersen Award, alongside Melvin Burgess.

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Why I Like Libraries

A love of libraries was instilled in me early by my parents, whose own families had few educational aspirations and certainly no money for books. The local library had been crucial to their educational development and they were the first in their families not to leave school at 14 but to go on to Higher Education, and careers as teachers. So my mum took me and my sisters to our library every Thursday evening, teaching us how the library worked and how to find the books we might enjoy.

I have fond memories of that first local library of my childhood – the smell of books, the pink cardboard tickets in their little buff coloured envelopes, the rubber date stamp and the pleasure of leaving with an armful of new possibilities – Noel Streatfield, Tove Janson, Louisa M Alcott, Milly Molly Mandy, My Naughty Little Sister, Teddy Robinson… so many new friends!

There was no library at Primary school, but Secondary School had a wonderfully well-stocked library with an enthusiastic librarian and a selection of art books that filled me with complete joy! Here I discovered how a fresco was painted, the drawings of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci and the illustrations of Arthur Rackham.

There was a sense of growth, of independence, in being free to select books that developed my interests in art, that began to signpost the direction I might go in. (I do also have to admit here, with suitable shame, that for a while I was a part of a group of very noisy girls at school who loved being in the library but talked and mucked about and eventually got barred… not my finest hour – sorry Mrs Brooke!)

School libraries and skilled specialist School Librarians are a vital (and vanishing) part of every school. Occasionally, usually through the unstinting fund raising efforts of Parent Teacher groups, a new library is opened in a primary school – I have been lucky enough to be asked to cut the ribbon for a few of these and they are such a joy and cause for celebration – bright, airy colourful rooms, with cushions, pictures and books, books, books…

My first experience of a proper ‘grown up’ scholarly library was when I was writing my thesis for my degree. My subject was Oriental Puppetry and I found myself ensconced among the stacks of the Library of SOAS – The School of Oriental and African Studies. It was a little intimidating until I’d worked out how to use the cataloguing system and access the books I needed, but from the beginning I was enthralled by the quietly serious atmosphere, and a feeling that what I was writing and researching mattered.

When I had my first child we spent many hours looking at picture books together at Wood Green Library in North London, somewhere meaningful to go where you didn’t have to spend any money, where the whole point was to look and be inspired and make a choice and then take that choice home with you. All three of my children were avid library users throughout their childhoods.

It is vitally important to provide a place to study for children and young people who don’t have access to quiet space at home. The social gap in opportunity is widened by such inequality and public libraries are a huge help in bridging that gap. Specialist children’s librarians also help, by creating events in libraries with authors and illustrators that give children who don’t visit bookshops, an opportunity to experience books and their creators at first hand.

I work as Artist in Residence at a Refugee Centre and the local public library is of huge value to people who have fled their homelands with nothing. Here they can read, study, research, use the internet, sit in peace and think. The freedom this represents to someone who has fled repression of thought and education is incalculable.

Libraries are not just about books – they are local cultural hubs – noticeboards full of opportunities for classes, life drawing, language classes…

As a young illustrator, it was my local library in Crouch End that gave me and a group of fellow artists, all sharing a studio, the chance to exhibit our work for the first time. Professional contacts were made and careers boosted.

In these days of prohibitively expensive university education, public libraries have come to represent more and more a place where access to education and development is free.

As important too, in my view, is the quiet and calm they offer in a world which buzzes with constant ‘noise’.

Libraries represent the best in our society – education, enlightenment, information, peace, trust – and all for free. We should treasure them for we lose them at our peril.

Jane Ray, 2018

Jane’s latest book for Boxer Books, The Elephant’s Garden was nominated for the 2018 Greenaway Medal.

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What We’re Reading Wednesday: Hoot Owl Master of Disguise

We went to see the very funny Proon Productions version of this book at the weekend and it’s been in constant demand in our household ever since…

Hoot Owl Master of Disguise review

Written by Sean Taylor and illustrated by Jean Jullien, Hoot Owl talks a fierce game—“I swoop through the bleak blackness like a wolf in the air” but his dumpy ovoid shape and propensity for dressing up are at odds with the super villain hyperbole. It means that despite Hoot Owl’s self-professed “deadly-dangerous beak” even squeamish readers can be confident that no animals will be hurt during the reading of this book!

Jullien’s bold, black outlines, rich colours, expressive animal eyes (often turned towards the intrepid hero in benign bemusement) and positioning (Hoot Owl is frequently sideways à la Superman) hilariously complement Taylor’s text and reveal the ‘predator’ as both melodramatic and comical. Our favourite line, and the one that had us giggling the most, was the dramatic “The shadowy night stretches away forever, as black as burnt toast”.

Hilarity, smart pacing and lots of ridiculous costume changes make this a winner for all ages!

Lizzie

What We’re Reading Wednesday: First Book of Nature – Nicola Davies & Mark Hearld

The book that I’m reading at the moment has become a true classic in our house. Published back in 2012, Nicola Davies and Mark Hearld’s A First Book of Nature, has become a staple of our reading year. The forerunner of this year’s Greenaway longlisted First Book of Animals (illustrated by Petr Horacek), the book journeys through the four seasons in a mix of poetry and lyrical prose, offering scraps of recipes, facts, fragments and observations to remind us of the wonder and diversity of the natural world.

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I’m blown away each time I return to it by the richness of the illustrations – colour simply floods the page (no white margins here) perfectly capturing the essence of each season. Mark Hearld’s collages are vibrant and evocative: a mixture of direct observation and characteristic nostalgia. I’m a fan anyway but they seem to me to perfectly capture the essence and experiences being related in Nicola Davies’ words.

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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!