Friday, July 8, 2011

My Mosts of the Moment

Most Eagerly Anticipated…

As you might know from previous blogs, I am a HUGE fan of Jeffers and this latest offering has only fortified my fanship! In Up and Down, Jeffers returns to us that lovably odd pair of friends, of boy and penguin, from the earlier Lost and Found. His work always touching without being corny or sentimentally syrupy, Up and Down is true to this storyteller's art.

Readers reconnect with the eccentric characters to learn that even though "they always did everything together," the penguin has decided there is "something important" he must do all by himself: fly! But he soon discovers that his wings don't seem to work very well, and runs off to enlist himself as the new "living canonball" at a nearby circus. But his friend, the boy, is never far off... When the canon-sprung penguin comes hurtling back down to earth, the arms of his friend are waiting to catch him. The lesson that day is that penguins don't care much for flying. But more valuable is the unspoken lesson delivered loud and clear, in the importance of friendship. And beyond that still, readers are left with the feeling that fly or no-fly, whatever it is you most love doing, and wherever feels like home, well, that'll do just fine.

So together again and heading off into the sunset, the boy and penguin make their escape from the circus-life back home to do what they do best: play "their favourite game," backgammon.

(Follow this link to read an extract.)

Most Exciting...

It's a thrilling day for me when I stumble upon a new illustrator/writer. (And, to clarify, by 'new' I mean only that they are new to me, like America to Columbus but without all that messy conquering business...) And David Mackintosh is a stupendous discovery for a lover of children's books! Described by the blurb as a "funny book about an out-of-this-world boy by a sparkling talent," the publishers tell no lies. Marshall Strong is the new-boy at school, and the teacher advises he sit in front of the class till he "settles in." This is much to the displeasure of Mackintosh's narrator as Marshall takes up the seat next to him. "He looks different to me," he decides on one look at this uninvited schoolmate. And his stationery is strange. And his "ear looks like a shell," and he has lips like "my tropical fish, Ninja." Things are altogether Not Right.

And as Marshall Armstrong leaves school on a penny-farthing, the narrator concludes that he "doesn't fit in at our school," with big, bold letters as emphasis,

                                                                           "Not one bit."

So naturally, when he is invited to Marshall Armstrong's birthday party, our narrator is more than just a little resistant. But he is soon to be pleasantly surprised... They are not denied delicioius treats or forced to read the newspaper with Marshall's dad, as he had suspected. Instead, the children enjoy a spectacular day of running around the house, swinging on a monkey pole, sliding down a fireman's pole and drinking "REAL lemonade made from lemons. And with pips." As it turns out, Marshall is as "great" as his birthday party and initial perceptions are turned upside-down.

And when the story ends with a shy-looking "Elisabeth Bell" who "is new to our school," Marshall and the narrator are ready for her, suggesting that she sit in the front with them "for the first few days until she settles in."

While the 'moral' of Mackintosh's story is a relatively common one, it is the perspective that is most appreciated. The voice of the narrator is undeniably a child's and there is no adult intervention to administer the day's lesson. Ultimately, the narrator and Marshall are their own agents in welcoming Elisabeth Bell to the classroom. And in the illustrative work we have a similar recreation of the child's experience. Often working against a plain white background, Mackintosh's mixed-medium of predominantly pencil crayon, collage, and watercolour may appear simplistic. But as with children's insight, his artwork constantly surprises with attention to those details that the grown-up eye might so often overlook. From the glasses "pinched ... from another boy" because they bear the name, "Ray Ban," to Marshall's shoelaces that are "straight, not crisscrossed," Mackintosh reminds readers that little escapes such curious eyes. Picture books such as this are invaluable to us. They reassure and reaffirm in young readers their extraordinary views of even the most 'mundane' or 'everyday'; and hopefully, they return to parents and adult readers those maybe forgotten ways of seeing the world.

Most Surprising...

It wasn't my intention to pull out a selection from the bookshop shelves that each, in their own way, seem to deal with what it means to Be or to Belong or to be Befriended, but somehow so it is. And try as our chameleon will, he is finding all this 'B'-ing very difficult indeed. Long-established and celebrated creator of children's books, Gravett clevery employs the natural wonder of the chameleon as a trope for human awkwardness (and ultimately metamorphosis) in the pursuit of self-knowledge and acceptance. And what appears to be a unique education in shapes and colours is really an education in matters of the heart, too. It is my 'most surprising' in that I found myself so very touched by Gravett's chameleon in ways that I cannot entirely explain and ways that surprised me...

In the beginning, our chameleon is the colour blue because he is "lonely." But when he comes upon a banana, he spots the chance to end his loneliness. "Hi," he says to the banana, mimicking its shape and changing colour to match the fruit's yellow. And so it goes with a "Pink cockatoo" ("Hello, hello, hello"), a "Swirly snail" ("Nice to meet you"), a "Brown boot" ("Howdy"), a "Stripy sock" on a washing line ("Can I hang out with you?"), a "Spotty ball" ("Pssst"), a "Gold fish" (greeted with a series of empty bubbles), and a "Green grasshopper" (who hops off with a chameleon in futile pursuit)... All to no avail. Perched on a "Grey rock" (and grey in colour himself), our chameleon gives up. He turns invisible (but for a faint outline) on a "White page," resigned to a friendless existence, when from beyond the next page comes a speech bubble: "Hello?" And at last, we turn the page to witness two very ecstatic "Colourful chameleons" who have finally found each other.

A story of Being True, children will leave this colour-filled adventure with the wisdom that there is little gain in being something you're not in the hope that others will approve. Never underestimate a story told simply and honestly.

Most Surprisingly Necessary...

I would like to close my eyes, and open them to find a world where gender stereotypes have been nipped in the bud once and for all. But the world says "Humbug!" to that idea... Instead, chainstore toy emporiums still offer a plethora of plastic princess crowns and dollies that actually wet themselves for the express pleasure of little girls, with superhero masks and frighteningly angry-looking machine-guns for little boys. I'm not saying little girls shouldn't enjoy costume jewellery, or little boys aspire to the code of Spiderman... But it's the strict regulation of toy-gender specificity that I feel some issue with. (I am most suspicious of the gifts given to little girls shaped like ironing boards, baby bottles, and vacuum cleaners, in the alluringly pretty pastels of pink and purple, but I'll save the rant for another rainy day...)

I teach English Literature part-time at my town university, and the first-year course is compulsory for those students enrolled in Education. As is the case with anything Compulsory, the reception of the books on the syllabus is often tentative. Why must these young men and women who one day want to teach a bunch of 6-year-olds be subjected to such heavy abstract nouns like Race or Gender? And I hope Naughty Toes might prove useful in such future inquests.

Trixie's sister, Belinda is a ballerina. Along with being a ballerina, Belinda does not appear to jump in puddles or mess ice-cream on herself. Most importantly, Belinda does not have "naughty toes." Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Trixie. From the purple-and-green ballet leotard she chooses for its flair (while Belinda "picks classic pink and white"), to her hair that "sticks out all over like dandelion," naughty toes are just the beginning of Trixie's problems. Constantly upsetting the ballet teacher, Trixie struggles to "find spirit" as a rock in the school play. Meanwhile, her sister (and the star of the show), Belinda, turns twirls on the stage in a "sequinned blue tutu" as the "fairy princess." When the two go backstage, it seems that things could not get any worse for the naughty-toed sister. A beautiful bouquet of pink roses are waiting for Belinda with a card: "For my prima ballerina, with love from Madame Mina." But Trixie has her own surprise in store... A box tied together with red string, and a note that reads "Follow your feet"... Inside, a pair of dazzling red shoes and matching top-hat reveal that Trixie is not a ballerina... She is a "tap dancer!"

What I love most about this story is that at no point does the reader sense anything more than Trixie's love and admiration for her "swan"-like sister. And in the end, it is through this little heroine's warmth and special charm that readers come to recognise both girls for the talented young individuals they are.

The Most Mysterious...

There is little I have to say about this one... 'Reverence' seems to be about the best I can come up with. But, I'll try, reverence and all..

Chris van Allsburg first discovered these 'mysteries of Harris Burdick' in the company of a Peter Wenders. Once in publishing, Wenders had received 14 illustrations from a stranger, Harris Burdick, who wished to know what the publisher thought of his work. Each of the 14 illustrations was but a selection of the illustrations that accompanied 14 different stories by Burdick. The publisher liked his work and the artist promised to bring the accompanying stories the very next morning. But Harry Burdick never returned, leaving Wender with the mystery of these 14 pictures, each given a title and caption courtesy of their missing creator. It is these abandoned works that have been reproduced in this collection by Van Allsburg in black-and-white along with their original titles and captions, for readers to mull over in their own imaginations.

There is some strange magic at work in this picture book. There are those that hint at the eerie, the impossible, the fated, and The End. And then, I am sure there will be the favourites. Mine has become the picture entitled "THE SEVEN CHAIRS," with a caption that reads: "The fifth one ended up in France." A chair is suspended in mid-air, with a nun perched mutely atop. Light streams in through the high cathedral windows and two 'men of the cloth' look on the spectacle with a holy solemnity. I think it is their seriousness, off-set by the utter absurdity, that tickles me pink with this one.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Box of Magic Pencils

I had the blooming blessed fortune of visiting the British Library in London a few years back. Well, it was more of a ‘pop in’. Not that anyone should ever admit to ‘popping in’ to the British Library. But I’ve been told it’s not everybody’s idea of a Fantastic Time, that is to have spent the entire afternoon in a library. So when in company, I have to be reasonable about these things. In truth, the two hours I had to spend didn’t even get me past their gift shop (a stone’s throw from the entrance). A student budget blown, all I could do was admire the endless book memorabilia, coveting out of the question. The thought of making a klepto-maniacal run for it briefly crossed my mind, in spite of what looked like pretty tight security.
       I had my doubts though. London wasn’t ready for the crazy South African fleeing the scene of the British Library gift shop with an armful of Alice-in-Wonderland stationery and a demented but satiated look in her eye. ‘Bobby Dies of Lead Poisoning’. Peruse it was then.
        And it was in these two hours of perusing/penny-less loitering (potato, tomato)that I fell in love Italian-born illustrator Sara Fanelli.

She was one of the illustrator featured in a collection of children’s book art, The Magic Pencil.  Fanelli’s eccentric approach to collage and the art of re-enchanting found, everyday objects had me spellbound. And excited. There was an energy to her craft that was infectious. Cheeky. Brazen. Unapologetic.Infectious.I have been a fan ever since.

 There is a certain unbridled joy in being given free licence in art class to colour outside the lines. Another in handling an art tool that won’t bend entirely to your will. (The second, however, may also be dished with the initial sheer frustration.) This is Fanelli’s gift as an illustrator, to remake the world outside the lines, recreating characters that don’t entirely bend to anyone’s will. And what better way than by (mis)representing one of our most infamously mischievous and unruly characters, Pinocchio. (The result of which made for a brief mention in my last blog...)

      Asked to work together with translator Emma Rose on an edition of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio for the Walker Illustrated Classics series, it was Fanelli’s first impulse to ease up on the moralistic overtones she remembered from her Italian youth. Her sense of Collodi’s tale was revived, instead, by its surreal characters and dream-like story, a dream in which one strange moment is always enfolded within another and never feels beholden to excuse its (il)logic to the reader.

         Watching Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio (2002) a few years back, I had a similar re-encounter. The fairy I remembered from my Disney-informed youth was a bottle-blonde who routinely donned an immaculate sparkly blue dress. But Benigni’s fairy had dark, secret eyes and long, dark blue hair. And Benigni’s fairy did not disappear and re-appear with the wave of a wand and emerge from a centre of bright light. His fairy travelled by coach, a coach drawn no less by an endless expanse of white mice. It was this version of Pinocchio that returned me to the real magic of Collodi’s fantastic escapade. Like Fanelli’s work it was refreshingly unapologetic.

Returning to the Walkers Illustrated Classic, this unapologetic turn has arguably revealed a version closer to the original. Rather than making this a moralistic tale (where a once naughty boy is rewarded by the end for good behaviour), Rose and Fanelli ultimately re-tell the story of the inexhaustible love of a father for that wilful and wild creature: his son. And with their help, at twenty-seven I have fallen in love not only with Fanelli’s work but also with a tale whose watered down version never wowed me in my bedtime-story days. I have come to fall in love with Medoro, the blue fairy’s right-hand agent, a “handsome poodle” in “a coachman’s uniform,” “with jewelled buttons and two large pockets to hold the bones his mistress [gives] him for lunch.” (Although, I adore most the blue satin cover he wears on his tail.) I have fallen in love with Gepetto, the carpenter teased by the children and called “Maisy on account of his yellow wig […] exactly the colour of maize porridge.” And I have fallen in love with that incorrigible stump of wood that becomes a real boy. What I love most though, of this edition, is the reminder that the joy of story magic is for all ages. And arguably Fanelli’sgreatest contribution here is her work’s emphasis that illustration is art, the art of a magical pencil.

So here are a few magic pencils I want to tip a colourful hat to:

Ralph Steadman, Thank You. As always, you are a mad man and genius. With your help, the Firefly Books edition of an art-deco inspired Alice in Wonderland is every bit the warped and weird adventure it should always be. (As a teeny tiny digression, I would also like to tip that colourful hat here to Cape Town’s finest, The Book Lounge. In true form, you are that good bookstore and rarity, infinitely rewarding with such finds!)

Erin E. Stead, for your technique of combining woodblock printing and pencil that have sketched in my mind Amos McGee, the “early riser,” the chess-playing elephant (“who thought and thought before making a move”), the racing tortoise (“who never lost”), the pigeon-toed penguin (“who was very shy”), the sniffly rhinoceros (“who always had a runny nose”), and the bespectacled owl (“who was afraid of the dark”). You have brought the dear characters of A Sick Day for Amos McGee into my home with immeasurable tenderness.

And a thank you to Joel Stewart, for the dreamy and delightful depiction of Dr Moon in Tree Soup (A Stanley Wells Mystery).And for your Sneep, Snook, Loon and Knoo in Have You Ever Seen a Sneep? A treasure in my bookcase is your contribution to the Walkers Illustrated Classics’ collection, Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. The Little Mermaid you have rendered is hauntingly sweet, sad and beautiful, while your emperor’s nightingale remains steadfastly true and good in the face of Death.

To Timothy Basil Ering, your mouse of Kate DiCamillo’s imagination is as physically tiny and equally big of heart. It is not hard to find one’s self endeared by that small “disappointment” of the brave but minute Despereaux of large-eared fame. And where DiCamillo’s unequivocal love speaks in leaps and bounds for her unique and often misfit characters, it is matched by yours.

Likewise, to Yoko Tanaka who has so seamlessly contributed to the “dark but warm” tale in Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant. I could think of no more a fitting magic pencil than yours for this city of Baltese where an orphan dreams of his missing sister and elephants. Your illustrations materialise the magician’s elephant that arrives shortly after with the same tragically charming art as DiCamillo’s story. Meaning only to “conjure a bouquet of lilies”, the reconciliations that ripple from the magician’s act, both painful and uplifting, demand a maturity that you have faultlessly delivered.

And to Angela Barrett, for your illustrations in the recent Walker Books edition of Beauty and the Beast (as retold by Max Eilenberg). The vision of the Beast is unparalleled, full with the complexity and the body of longing his bedevilled form has made him. And in your artist’s truer understanding of his beastly form, you have made him other but exquisite. The double-page depiction of the penultimate moment reveals this, with Beauty’s return to the dying Beast. Her deep regret for that fateful broken promise is tangible, and the reader wants no more than her the death of this snow-covered and moonlit Beast. In the end I believe I share, too, in your ambivalence, when that Beast so beautiful is transformed back into a handsome and human prince. 

My over-rated (un)happy ending...

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Attic Door Loves Picture Books: A Second Installment

When I was around six years old, I had a pet kangaroo named Raspberry. Well, to be fair, she was more of a best friend than a pet (although, if you look it up in The Concise Dictionary of Six-Year-Old English, it will tell you that 'pet', when used as a noun, is synonymous and effortlessly interchangeable with 'friend'). More to the point, she was an animated best friend, which also explains why she could be purple and non-animated kangaroos are seldom found to be so. Finally - and as you may well have guessed by now - her Most Favourite Thing of all things was a juicy raspberry. So come her birthday, my pet expected what any animated, purple kangaroo named Raspberry might: namely, a raspberry cake... With purple-coloured cups of raspberry juice... and raspberry muffins with a healthy smearing of raspberry jam... and of course, raspberry tarts (of which I, at six, had only a very vague idea, having read about such sweet things called 'jam tarts' in my English stories of croquet and roasted chestnuts - for which I reserved similarly vague ideas as well as childish yearnings). So the story of a tiger who comes to tea would not be a totally unfamiliar one to my poor mother, who became very good at pretending to make delicious, raspberry-flavoured treats.
Tigers having captured the imaginations of men, women and children the world over for time immemorial... Did that sound authoritative enough? Anyway, they do, and continue to do so... Blake found in them a "fearful symmetry" "burning bright", and for Kipling the tiger was the indomitable primitive power at the heels of Mowgli in the terrifying Shere Kahn. But trust the child to take that which embodies the creature beyond taming, and invite it in for a cuppa tea. 
However, while some reviewers have read Kerr's interpretation of the tiger as one that is harmless and lovable, to my mind, hers is more of an ink-blot test. And in this ink-blot, I see a pair of sly but smiling eyes. Arriving at the door and asking if it might join Sophie and her mother for tea on account of being "very hungry," the tiger precedes to eat all the sandwiches on one plate ("Owp!"), then the buns, the biscuits, all the cake, all the milk in the jug, the tea in the teapot, to clean out the refrigerator and kitchen cupboards, finish "all Daddy's beer," and finally, to go so far as to drink all the water out of the tap. Make no mistake, this is hardly a tame tiger... a gluttonous tiger perhaps, an opportunistic tiger, certainly... But a tiger, nonetheless. Unpredictable, volatile, and not entirely unlike children themselves.  And, as it just so happens, the tiger also ends up being a very good excuse as to why Sophie cannot take her bath later that evening (with no water left in the taps!), and the reason the family has no choice but to go to the cafe down the road for a supper of "sausages and chips and ice cream." Mum, Dad, and Sophie walking past a stripy, orange cat on their way out for dinner, Kerr gives her readers a final knowing wink. We're told that the tiger never returned to Sophie's house, leaving the large feline more than free to show up unexpectedly one day at anyone's front door.  Or so I'd imagine. 
(Visit Lovereading4kids for an  extract.) 

This book falls into the useful category of what I like to call 'book books'. For those of you relatively new to the term, a 'book book' is a book about, well, books. At least in part. And Yates' is a dog who'll resonate deeply with any book lover, as this dog really and truly "love[s] books," from "the smell of them," "the feel of them," to just "everything about them." In fact, this dog loves books so very much that "he decide[s] to open his own bookshop," "unwrapp[ing]" and "unpack[ing] and stack[ing] the books, ready for the Grand Opening." Getting himself squeaky-clean and geared for the crowds, Dog flings open his balloon-sporting doorway "to greet his new customers." But no one turns up... That is, a little while later, a posh old lady turns up and orders "tea with milk and two sugars," but leaves when she is told that this is a "bookshop" that "only sell[s] books." Then an old man in a trench coat enters the shop, and the increasingly drooping and disappointed ears of our dog stand to attention with excitement. But the man only wants to ask for directions. Again, the bookshop-owner is left "down-hearted." "But not for long!"
Picking up a dinosaur book from one of the shelves, Dog begins to read, and so doing forgets about the outside world  and his empty shop. Furthermore, he feels no longer alone, as the room has become crammed with dinosaurs (of which one has, in my opinion, over-eager eyes and rather fearsome teeth). Leading his dinosaurs like some Pied Piper, Dog goes traipsing through the store carrying the book that has now transformed his surroundings into a primordial, overgrown jungle. And thus it happens that when one adventure meets its ending, our dog has simply to pick another off his shelf, the next being a book entitled Marvellous Marsupials (which he hands down, from the stepladder, to a merry-looking kangaroo)... So a "new adventure" begins! 

From riding in a kangaroo's pouch through the Australian outback, to landing on an unknown planet in a technologically-advanced spaceship to be greeted by a three-eyed alien reading a book on UFO's, to pirouetting and enacting Roman battle scenes, Dog comes to know the books so well that when a young girl enters the shop looking for something to read, he knows "exactly which ones to recommend."  
A valuable lesson is thus learnt and no longer does our dog just loves books; "most of all... he loves to share them!" For an added delight, children (and grown-ups) can turn over the page to find the credits page embellished with a dinosaur reading a dinosaur book. And in a sense, this is the same reward readers have in reading a story about books, about a character who loves books. They get to read a little (or a lot) of themselves into that character, and perhaps even feel that they have a tangible role to play in the story itself.  Perhaps, like Yates' white, short-haired terrier, you too will want to blast your trumpet, shouting out, "I, SUE/PETER/LILLIPUT/GERALD/GERALDINE/RUDYARD/CHRISTOPHOLUS, LOVE BOOKS TOO!" for all the world and then some to hear!

I adore Lauren Child's work! Not only is her knowledge of children and their quirks quite beyond compare (see exhibit A: her Charlie and Lola series), but her illustrations perfectly convey the reckless abandonment of childhood creativity in their unapologetic imperfections. Far from scraps of paper neatly snipped and seamlessly pasted next to each other, or lines dictating where she may or may not colour, Child recreates her imaginative world in a way that can only be construed as one thing: PLAY! 
Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Book? is the kind of book I'd give to someone if I wanted to convince them in the matter of the greatness of Lauren Child. Unique but unforgettable, entirely contemporary but still timeless, it is every bit a testiment to how wonderful a storyteller she is.  And like all decent fairytales, this one is not without a moral that any book-lover will appreciate: treat your books with kindness and respect, lest you incur the wrath of their characters. 
And for one second, let's pretend we weren't kinda glad to see that greedy little pair of suspender-wearers almost end up in a witch's oven. Serves them right for eating other people's houses... Or was that 'taking sweets from a stranger'? And pigs should know better than to build their houses out of wolf-friendly materials... It's a good thing one of their brothers turned out to be the Bright One in the family. And Snow White eating apples, as if Eve didn't learn that lesson for all of us (or at least those of us forced to attend Bible study where miserable, old biddies preached fire-and-brimstone). Point is, there is a certain sense of justice when characters are 'rewarded' for their tomfoolery, so to speak, and many a-time in real life when we wish a witch would just shove someone into her pre-heated oven for us. So while the lesson-learner of Child's book isn't quite visited by the ghosts of Past, Present and Future, he is visited by the disgruntled characters of his storybook when he falls into a collection of fairytales one night.
"Oh, so you're the doodler who ruined my looks," an unhappy queen accuses, as the reader sees that she is not the only character Herb has accented with "a moustache drawn on in biro." Our young protagonist suddenly begins to see the error in his ways, and realises the great embarrassment he has caused to those in the fairytale book. Trying to mend his ways, the "scissor-snipper" draws the king a new thrown, "mak[ing] sure it's got lots of twirly bits" and comes in "gold, of course!" However, her highness remains unappeased, leaving the poor (though rightly deserving) Herb to grab a pair of nearby scissors and cut his exit through the page, leaving the queen to yell out, "Look, he's at it again!" 
Climbing through the hole in the page, Herb finds himself in a room where Cinderella's ugly step-siblings and stepmother have been snipped and glued to the ceiling. (Here, readers will have to engage in the story's topsy-turvy shenanigans by flipping the book upside down to read harsh words flung at the boy from above.) From one page to the next, Herb encounters these past sins of book defacement and, finally 'waking up' from his bizarre adventure, resolves to set it all right.  Together with his friend, Ezzie, Herb spends "the rest of the night putting the storybook back to rights: rubbing out moustaches, cleaning out crumbs and blowing away dust," rescuing a bewildered Prince Charming from his mother's old birthday card and returning him to a thrilled Cinderella... And while he resists the temptation to leave the "wicked stepmother's room upside down," he does help the three bears by "drawing a padlock" on their front door. (Ezzie likewise can't resist sticking a wig on Goldilocks; "Well, serves her right for being such a meany.") So this story ends, with Herb having learnt a lesson that parents will happily thank Child for, and "a very cross little girl with mousey brown hair" trying to get in through a securely-padlocked door. The End.

While 'book books' are grand in that they encourage the child's active participation during story-time - encouraging, as they do, a love of books - picture books can also help in the development of a child's confidence in reading too. Take Katie Cleminson's Wake Up! (It's going to be a busy day...) as a case-in-point. "Wake up..." whispers the elephant's trunk on the opening page, a little boy soundly asleep with his toy rabbit next to him... "and up," as the elephant trunk picks him up, eyes still closed, by the back of his pyjama top... "and up!" as it deposits him safely on the elephant's head, our boy now smiling and gladly awake. "And stretch and scratch, and scrub and wash, comb your hair, give teeth a brush. It's time to dress. Dress up... and up, and up!" The little boy leads the procession, still in pyjamas but with the additions of a hat and toy sword, not to mention a cat in a red tasseled fez, and Lemur in king's robe and crown. Finally, the child is dressed and ready for school, where they will "Listen up... and up, and up!" Here, the scene is truly a sight to behold as a big bear in a red cardigan addresses a classroom full of children, each one accompanied by an animal. One bespectacled young man stands proudly, but attentively, next to a raccoon, while a little brunette gazes dreamily ahead with an equally dreamy-looking penguin, and another girl dearly looks down at her pet hamster.
And so it is time to "read and draw, and count and spell, and ask and answer, show and tell." And soon after this, it is "time to play," so "swing up... and up, and up!" You get the gist.  
All along, however, children are not only rewarded by the repetition that begs for their participation, but also by the illustrations with their old-world innocence to them. Their creator, Cleminson herself, admits to being drawn to things of the past, from gramophone players and bowler hats, to the pipette with which she manages to draw from the happily more organic and impulsive heart. And I am all the more grateful to her for these lovingly rendered characters in predominantly primary-coloured palette, given life and shape and detail by their fluid ink outlines. 
Furthermore, this one is also a 'book book' in its own right. After having eaten and cleaned "up, and up, and up!" the elephant's trunk again comes to the child's aid as he searches for his bedtime story from a book-case brimming over with potential choices. A substantial amount of  "pick[ing] and choos[ing], and search[ing] and look[ing]" later, and it is finally time to "read aloud the perfect book," before cuddling "up, and up, and up!" This said, all I can suggest further is that you find your own "perfect book" not unlike (or perhaps, just like) Cleminson's with which to "cuddle up, and up, and up!" before, your day likewise ends in dreaming...
(For more of Katie Cleminson's work, see her prior award winner -  2009 Best Emerging Illustrator at the Booktrust Early Years Awards  - the picture book entitled Box of Tricks.)

My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes by Eve Sutton and illustrated Lynley Dodd

Most will already be more than familiar with the signature, so to speak, of Lynley Dodd in the character of Hairy Maclary, a staple in any littlie's library. However, whether fan or newcomer, few could be disappointed with My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes.  This next picture book follows a similar path of rhyme and reason as the 'up and up and up!' progression of Cleminson's Wake Up! 
My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes will surely be a gem for any child, and particularly any cat owner, as the cat on the book's cover boasts the quintessential smile (content and rounded at the corners with an air of smugness) that all cat-owners secretly suspect their cats wear when no one is looking. And from the very first opening page - pictured with a wooden garden box, an oddly placed tale swaying from the top, while a pair of eyes peeks out from between two slats - the reader can have no doubt that this is indeed a cat who* likes to hide in boxes.  But not all cats like to hide in boxes, as the reader learns with a turn of the page, for the "cat from France liked to sing and dance." This is paired with an even more smugly contented Pepe-le-Pew-esque faced feline dancing down a cobbled path by moonlight, the scene picturesque with the eiffel tower in the backdrop. Suitably dressed, the dancing cat from France flaunts a black beret (worn askance of course!) and stripy white-and-blue shirt (the kind we generally associate with the eating of frogs' legs). (And yes, I am aware that this is stereotyping at its most innocent and thus most dangerously innocuous, but heck, along with the birds, bees, storks and cabbage-patches, I'm sure there will come a time when you can sit your blossoming young adult down and explain to them the meaning and importance of 'cultural diversity' and 'heterogeneity'. But for now, I guarantee they'll be fine going to World Food Market Day with a garland of garlic cloves round their necks to signify their faux French-ness)
So, the "cat from France liked to sing and dance," but "MY cat likes to hide in boxes," our narrator reiterates (while the cat in question is attempting to stealthily sneak past wearing a stamped package marked "FRAGILE").  Meanwhile, the "cat from Spain flew an aeroplane" (dressed not unlike a Pamplona bull-fighter, maustachioed and all) and the cat from France continues to enjoy a "sing and dance." But still the narrator's rather loopy cat prefers to hide in boxes. And so it continues with a cat from Norway who "got stuck in the doorway" (a rather unfortunate stereotype, I admit), and the cat from Spain still flying an aeroplane, while the cat from France relentlessly "liked to sing and dance." Having encountered both a Brazillian cat, as well as a violin-playing cat from Berlin, the reader is given the penultimate moment of the (rather lovely and kimono-ed) "cat from Japan" who "waved a big blue fan..." "BUT MY CAT LIKES TO HIDE IN BOXES" comes the final sentiment, as the bear in the toy trunk has been wedged into a corner by the narrator's box-crazed pet.
This book reminds me of the first story I ever wrote; I was barely six and it was for a school-holiday competition being held at my neighbourhood library. It was about my first really-loved dog (the first one you remember as a kid not solely from photos and fake memories accumulated through your parents). The Life and Times of Bojangles the Misunderstood Maltese, it might've been called by now (for Bojangles was his name'O... and don't ask, my mother had a thing for the song by Nina Simone)... The point is the pet is the first thing many of us cling to as children... That and imaginary friends (how great are those, the friendship equivalent of Egyptian cotton...? Hand-crafted, 100% irritant-free, and mostly in my head).  And we don't care what Benny Benjamin the Third's SAS-trained Doberman/German Shepherd hybrid can do. Ours is cooler. End of discussion. (Mine would untie your shoelaces in a moment of madness, so overcome was he with joy when I got back home from school. That was my hypothesis for this otherwise inexplicable phenomenon anyway. And how cool is that?!) 

So not only does the book speak in a language children can understand, the language of the beloved pet, totally unlike anyone else's... But the cherry-on-top is the humourous use of rhyming and repetition that will have kids telling the story out loud before they're even able to read, undoubtedly  impressing their glowing grandparents (who you know will return to your home-town with tales of Incredible Timothy Tomkinson, the child prodigy who read My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes at the tender age of 2). Kidding aside, children will love knowing what comes next, and begin to feel more than capable of story-time role swap, reading to parents instead. And ultimately, a confidently faking 'reader' will make for a child who finds books inviting instead of intimitating. Frankly, a parent couldn't ask more out of a picture book.

*speaking of a cat as if it were not a person just seems so inappropriate at times

Lucy Goes to Market by Imogen Clare and Sanchia Oppenheimer

Finally, my latest prized picture book is the "magical alphabet" that is Lucy Goes to Market
Meet Lucy, an adventuring spirit and little girl, who leaves for the market one day in search of things that will be Just Right for her dollhouse. Armed only with a woven basket and her snail, Lucy finds many a wonder, including "an asparagus angel," a "Brazilian brass band" (for whom her little musical triangle does not skip a 'ping!'), "a candlelit clock," and (my personal favourites) the "delicate dragon," "invisible igloo," and "nomad named Nathan."  
Caught in the act of a giggle at Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Book?, my grandfather asked after what it was I found so funny. Predominantly a numbers man (aside from an appreciation of Roald Dahl that is limitless), these kinds of situations involve a slower, more logical and in-depth rationale. So I explained that it was all the little priceless moments hidden throughout that really made the book... As when Herb's books occasionally have "the odd pea squashed between the pages" on account of Herb's habit of "read[ing] his books everywhere," I showed my grandfather the squashed pea Child had cheekily placed at the bottom corner of the same page. 
"Do you think children really spot these tiny details?" he asked.
"Well, if they practice often enough at Where's Wally? they do," I answered confidently.
No, this is not entirely true. I thought this last bit to myself, yes. But what I answered was a bit more grown-up. What I actually said was that this was where I felt parents had an important role to play. Parents can complain as much as they like about a teenager's inability to spell or do well in a comprehension test, or a child's lack of enthusiasm when it comes to reading, but often this could be afforded a little more reflection. There is a special kind of joy in parent and child perusing picture books together from an early age onwards, in pointing out squashed peas, and cats hiding in boxes, and greedy-guts tigers to each other. Herein, the act of reading is introduced not as a task, but as a fun activity to be shared, as an imaginative escape before bedtime, as an open space where nothing is off-limits (not even a cat from Spain flying an aeroplane), and where emotions and experiences are brought to the fore within the comfort of the child's own home (as in, say, Jeffers' The Heart and the Bottle).
In this - that feeling of togetherness that comes with  story-time - Lucy Goes to the Market makes for an ideal start. Firstly, the words chosen by Oppenheimer are wasted if not read aloud. (Try saying "a unicorn umbrella and a vulture with vertigo" quietly in your head... It's not anywhere near as satisfying!) Meanwhile Clare's dream-like and sweetly detailed illustrations are entirely suitable for hours of browsing and reading pleasure. (Here, too, at the book's beginning, there is the added incentive as Lucy's snail asks of readers, "Look for me on every page.") Also, parents may be pleasantly surprised that, with their child/ren, a new language is steadily being learnt, one that involves "endless eccentric eggs," and where citrus slices are in fact better known as "marmalade moons." Put this way, if Lucy Goes to the Market were a dollhouse, it would be a site of endlessly eccentric and wonderful moments of play for you and your child/ren, and should equally manage to do so as a picture book.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Attic Door Loves Picture Books: A First Installment

The mid-year holidays have inspired in me not only an appreciation of the fine work of Oliver Jeffers, but of picture books in general...
Here are just a few of my personal picture book keepsakes...

Little Beauty by Anthony Browne

Walker Books are renowned for their beautiful and timeless children's classics, and Little Beauty by Anthony Browne is no exception. Playing on the familiar favourite of Beauty and the Beast, it tells the story of a "very special gorilla who had been taught to use a sign language." But in spite of having everything a primate could ask for (or so a zoo-keeper would assume),  the gorilla grows increasingly sad and one day signs to his keepers that what he wants most in the world is a friend. And so they give him "a little friend called Beauty, with instructions not to eat her. "But the gorilla loved Beauty," we are told, as the big gorilla holds the tiny, grey kitten in the palm of his hand.  He cares for his kitten and dear friend, and the pair are happy, doing "everything together." But one night, after watching King Kong, the gorilla becomes "more and more upset... and then very ANGRY," breaking the television. Rushing in to see what all the fuss is about, the keepers find a broken television and threaten to take Beauty away... Until the kitten begins to sign, "It was ME! I broke the television!" and shows off a rather respectable set of biceps. At this, everyone bursts into laughter, and, of course, the book ends as all good endings do with "Beauty and the gorilla liv[ing] happily ever after." 
A touching tale paired with a frankly gob-smacking attention to detail in Browne's artwork, this picture book is a treasure and must-have for any family bookshelf. 

A huge fan of Neil Gaiman and his professional partnership with illustrator, Dave McKean, this picture book is sheer genius and a bowl of mirth for the entire family. Inspired by Gaiman's young son who, when pestered by his father's request to get ready for bed (or "one of those things that parents say"), responded by saying that he wished he had a goldfish instead of a dad.  In similar fashion, the book follows the swapping trail that ensues when a boy does just this, swapping his dad for a goldfish. Tattled on by a bothersome sister whose neck he is fond of "putting mud down," the boy's mother sends him to retrieve his father. Things get complicated, however, when his friend Nathan has already swapped the dad for an electric guitar, "a big white one." A gorilla mask, and a bunny named Galveston later, the boy and his sister arrive at Patti's house to find the father in a rabbit hutch still reading his newspaper and "eating a carrot." Admitting that the dad made a very poor pet rabbit, Patti is only too delighted to have Galveston returned. Walking back home with dad in tow, the sister turns to the boy and says, "You like her ... I can tell." To which her brother replies, "If you do, I'll tell everyone at school that you're secretly fat."
Remembering the days when my mother raged at the swaps of my own youth (a family-heirloom broach for an ice-cream container of silkworms, for instance), Gaiman's understanding of the world of children is spot-on, while McKean's signature use of photo images, ink and scraps compliments this in the perfect match.
(Sign on at Lovereading4kids to see an extract.)

I challenge anyone not to be charmed by Olivia-the-piglet in black-and-white who is very partial to the colour red. And Olivia Saves the Circus is one of her finest moments. Today is show-and-tell day, and Olivia "always blossoms in front of an audience." Her show-and-tell a story about going to the circus, Olivia begins by informing her audience that "all the circus people were off sick with ear infections." While lesser-piglets might have been disappointed, Olivia "luckily [knows] how to do everything."  Covering her body in marker pen pictures, she transforms into "Olivia the Tattooed Lady," and with a single wardrobe change, "Olivia the Lion Tamer." And before the day at the circus is done, Olivia has walked a tight rope, ridden a unicycle, donned a clown nose, balanced on stilts, juggled, flown through the air on a trapeze, been "Queen of the Trampoline," and in a final blazing stroke of brilliance embraced the role of "Madame Olivia and her Trained Dogs" (for dogs who "weren't very trained" in her opinion), thus saving the circus. "Then one time my dad took me sailing The End." Her teacher, grown suspicious, asks if all of this is true. "Quite true," she tells him. "All true?" "Quite all true?" Well, to "the best of her recollection," the teacher rolling his piggy eyes and turning them heavenwards. Later that evening, her mother tells her to go to bed and "no jumping." "Okay, Mummy," the piglet promises. But as all children (piglet or not) are wont to do, her mom finds her moments later jumping on the bed. "Now, Olivia, I said, 'No jumping'. Who do you think you are - Olivia, Queen of the Trampoline?" 
The whimsical style of Ian Falconer, artfully rendered in black, white and red, has the timeless appeal of Babar and Pooh and a bear delivered to Paddington Station, and Olivia's tall tales will worm their way into yours and your children's hearts with the ease of a circus-performer, of this much I'm sure.

In the same vein as Olivia and her marvellously tall tales, Portis' Not a Box likewise captures the proclivity of the child's mind for imaginative stretches. When the story's bunny is asked, "Why are you sitting a box?" the response is naturally, "It's not a box" (while the picture of a rabbit in a box drawn plainly in black pen is embellished by a race-car in red). When asked, "What are you doing on top of that box?" the red pen boasts a mountain top while the flag waves triumphantly, "Rabbit Peak." And so the questions ensue, with the bunny's increasing frustration in having to reiterate that it is not a box! The final question posed is, "Well, what is it then?" Thinking long and hard, the bunny eventually declares, "It's my Not-a-Box!" and launches off in a space rocket (not a box!).
Reminiscent, both visually and in theme, to Antoine de Saint Exupery's The Little Prince, this is a picture book that will open doors for grown-ups and free boxes from a boring fate the world over.
(Click here to read an interview with the author on her book, Not a Box, and the role of imagination.)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Once there was a boy, and a bear, a penguin, and a heart in a bottle - A Blog in Two Parts on the Incredible Book-Making Oliver Jeffers

Part 2

I am inherently a fan of things by nature... 
Once I discover a favourite illustrator/author/musician/you-name-it, it doesn't take me long to accumulate their work, at times a little over zealously too... And after The Incredible Book Eating Boy, I was an over-night and understandably zealous Oliver Jeffers fan. It seemed little coincidence then when the fourth and, at the time, newest title by Jeffers presented itself to me in the children' section of Fogarty's Bookshop less than a week later. It was The Great Paper Caper, "a thrilling tale of suspense, crime, alibis, paper planes, a forest and a bear who wanted to win at all costs!" the blurb bragged. I called it kismet.


Beginning as a story about a forest that is mysteriously losing its trees in the dead of night, it ultimately becomes a story about changing worlds, old traditions, and a bear who wants to uphold the family name in the 112th Biennial Paper Airplane Competition next Saturday at 2p.m. In Jeffers' typically heart-warming but unique fashion, it takes a beaver, deer, duck, pig, anxious-looking owl and one curly-haired boy to help the bear achieve his dream while ensuring that the trees are unharmed in the process. Gathering up all of the bear's old, discarded paper planes, they send him soaring over the finish line in one great big recycled one instead. Cut to the book's end, or "fin," and our paper airplane champion is watering a freshly-sprung sapling.

Whether it is a little boy who loves stars so much that he wants his very own to "play hide-and-go-seek" or "take long walks" with, or the little boy who one day finds "a penguin at his door," or the boy who runs "out of petrol" and gets "stuck on the moon," Jeffers' stories always begin within that magical framework of the child's mind, where anything is possible and nothing extraordinary too out of the ordinary. However, it is where he takes them that really demonstrates a true appreciation of the nuanced child. 
When asked as to the moral of The Great Paper Caper, the author replies, "Don't chop down trees to make paper planes and then get caught doing it... Or if you see a bear, report it." And yet, there is a great deal more to the story, of friendship, and the inheritance of damaging traditions, of community, and of the importance of fun and dreams. But as the author knows, these are not things that need to be spelt out to the child in a heavily moralistic, finger-pointing tone. Rather, they are issues of subtlety that the intuitive child is more than capable of figuring out in each of his picture book's own mystery. And readers, old and young alike, will be rewarded by this process of investigation in his endings.
In How to Catch a Star, our little boy eventually resigns from his fervent pursuit of the star, and waits on the beach shore, hoping that the star reflected in the ocean's surface might wash-up. It does, and as the adult will guess (and perhaps child too), in the form of a starfish, nevertheless the boy's very own star.
(It reminded this slightly older girl of her younger days, of a similar love of starfish and mermaid's purses and pumpkin shells that might turn into carriages drawn by a band of seahorse, of hours spent combing the sandy beaches for these immeasurable rarities.)

Meanwhile, in Lost and Found, our protagonist learns that the penguin at his front-door did not look sad because it was lost. After he has made it all the way to the South Pole and back again, the boy realises that the penguin was sad because he was "lonely." Without a moment's hesitancy, our enterprising protagonist undertakes yet another journey, a return-journey to find his friend...
And "so the boy and his friend [go] home together, talking of wonderful things all the way."  

And in The Way Back Home, the boy stranded on the moon is not as alone as he at first thinks, but is in fact joined by an equally stranded Martian whose spaceship has a broken engine. Forming an unlikely pair, each conspires to help the other get back home. So doing, they discover the similarities in their otherwise striking differences.And although they are forced to part and each go their own way, on the final page readers are greeted by a knock at the door and the postman, delivering an intergalactic walkie-talkie to the boy back home.

It stands to reason then that a man like Jeffers has kept something of his own little boy (describing himself as he does, as a man who "makes art as well as books and has climbed more than one large tree in his time"). Kids of many ages (and more adults than you'd think) are known to *lomp about sometimes, yelling for whoever cares to hear, 'You just don't get it!' Well, Jeffers gets it, of that there is no doubt.

How to Catch a Star, Lost and Found, and The Way Back Home currently 
available in this little gem of a boxset, Once There Was A Boy ...

But as touched as I have been by all of Jeffers books, and by the predominant child-like stylization of his characters, in their charming watercolour palettes, none have quite hit the spot like his most recent addition, The Heart and the Bottle.

"Once there was a girl whose life was filled 
with all the wonder of the world around her. 
Then one day something occurred that caused the girl 
to take her heart and put it in a safe place. 
However, after that it seemed that more things were empty 
 than before. Would she know how to get her heart back?"

So having read the blurb, the reader turns to the first page and is again told that "[o]nce there was a girl, much like any other, whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world" and "thoughts of the stars"... But always with the comforting presence of her grandfather (or father, or uncle) to reassure her, from reading aloud to her on the subjects of botany, the whale and the universe in one scene, to pointing out constellations in a midnight sky in another, and flying a red kite on the sea shore while the little girl combs the beach for new discoveries. 

 And our little girl takes "delight in finding new things..." Until, that is, "the day she [finds] an empty chair." 
"Feeling unsure," the girl resolves that the "best thing to do" would be to "put her heart in a safe place," "[j]ust for the time being." And putting her heart neatly away in a bottle and hanging it round her neck, everything seems momentarily "fix[ed] ... at first." 
"Although in truth, nothing was the same." 

With her heart encased in glass, the little girl - slowly growing up as the story progresses - begins to forget about the stars, and ceases "taking notice of the sea." "[N]o longer filled with the curiosities of the world," the only thing she does notice is how "heavy" and "awkward" the bottle has become around her neck. "But," she comforts herself," "at least her heart [is] safe." 
However, the reader knows otherwise, when the scene depicted here is one of the girl grown now into a young woman, eating alone, washing her solitary dish alone, while the heart in a bottle continues to hang heavily.

But there is hope for our now young woman yet, when walking down the length of the beach one day, she comes upon a little girl building sandcastles and talking of elephants in the sea. In fact, it "might never have occurred to the girl what to do had she not met someone smaller and still curious about world," and she remembers "a time when [she] would have known how to answer" the awe-struck questions of this little girl. Sadly, "not now." 
"Not without a heart."
"And it was right at that moment she decided to get it back out of the bottle. 
But didn't know how. She couldn't remember." 

A pair of pliers, a hammer and a tool-bench equipped with saw, drill, mullet and axe, and still "nothing seemed to work." The bottle simply won't be broken.
Bouncing off, and rolling "right down to the sea" instead, it occurs to that "someone smaller and still curious about the world that she might know a way." And with a single, effortless motion, the "someone smaller" has reached into the bottle and retrieved the now young woman's heart. 
(Here again the reader is rewarded by Jeffers' delicious details, in that the girl's initial sandcastle of little more than a few upturned buckets, has become a two-tiered castle with both bridge and turret, a small yellow bucket and blue spade sitting modestly in the sand behind it.)

Having had her heart returned to her, it is now time for the young woman to face her loss.
Standing with her hands on her hips, she reproachfully regards the empty chair,and literally-manifested seat of her hurt, the chair that first made her put her heart in a bottle. And how does our protagonist meet the challenge of the empty chair?
Well, she fills it, of course. Turning over the page, the reader learns that while the bottle may be empty, the chair is no longer so... And in it, the girl sits happily reading from one book while a tower of books builds next to her, filling her head once again with all the curiosities of the world around her, with sandcastles and sea-elephants.

The entire book speaking as it were, in metaphor, what Jeffers has captured in this heart in a bottle hung around a neck, is so succinct in capturing that simultaneous feeling of the weightiness and emptiness of loss. Beautifully aimed at an audience not yet discouraged by the notion of a thing being far-fetched, the metaphorical becomes brilliantly literal and the literal, pictorial renderings totally unforgettable.

Perhaps close to my own heart because I was similarly taken to a library brimming with the all the curiosities of the world, after which a grandfather would sit me snugly, while reading The Mrs Pepperpots Omnibus aloud. I have not yet suffered any such loss as the little-girl-grown-older in our story... 
But I imagine that if I were to, The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers might just be the literal way of reaching into a glass case and finding the heart.

(*a kind of lumpy, stomping motion)

Avid readers of Oliver Jeffers can eagerly anticipate 
the nail-biter of a sequel to Jeffers' Lost and Found
in the up-and-coming Up and Down.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Once there was a boy, and a bear, a penguin, and a heart in a bottle - A Blog in Two Parts on the Incredible Book-Making Oliver Jeffers

Part 1

Once there was a girl who, trawling as she liked to do ofttimes for little treasures in her favourite bookshop, found in a pair of hands a very special treasure indeed: Oliver Jeffers Presents The Incredible Book Eating Boy...  A declaration of circus proportions in bold, star-marked letters...

"Henry loved books.

But not like you and I love books,no."


Piquing curiosity, a turn of the page...

"Henry loved to EAT books.

It all began quite by mistake one afternoon when he wasn't paying attention.

He wasn't sure at first, and tried eating a single word, just to test.

Next he tried a whole sentence and then the whole page.

Yes, Henry definitely liked them.

By Wednesday, he had eaten a WHOLE book.

And by the end of the month he could eat a whole book in one go."

So begins the fascinating story of Henry, who loved all books, or more specifically eating all books. And as far as book-eaters go, Henry is entirely non-discriminatory in his book tastes...From "storybooks," to "dictionaries," "joke books," and "even maths books," he eats them all - although, admittedly, the "red ones [are] his favourite."

Furthermore, Henry is thrilled to discover he is becoming smarter in the process.

It is after eating "a book about goldfish," that Henry is able to know what to feed his aquatic playmate, Ginger. Shortly after which he finds himself doing his "father's crossword in the newspaper."

A prize of a book from the onset, The Incredible Book Eating Boy is accompanied by illustrations equally quirky and charming enough to share in Jeffers' original tale. In fact, I suspect most readers will find it difficult to imagine one without the other.  It's this quality, I feel, that makes the memorable picture book: words and story and illustrations merging in such a way as to constantly surprise and delight the reader.  And Jeffers, both as artist and storyteller, is nothing short of surprising and delightful.

Henry's new-found adeptness at crosswords goes cheek by jowl with a picture of the dad (a balding man with square glasses, staring perplexedly at the paper open before him), as the young boy at his side triumphantly calls out "MONUMENTAL". Later, the book-eating boy reaches great heights as he surpasses even his own teacher, a bemused though attentive blonde - kitted out like the dad in square glasses, the really smart kind.  Turned to face the blackboard, the teacher is perched at her desk while Henry demonstrates by sketching out the formula for a rocket to make its journey to the moon in white chalk. Meanwhile, as if to explain away the phenomenon, a diagram-style drawing demonstrates Henry eating a large orange book entitled Rodney's Great Adventure and Other Chicken Stories, as "A: Book goes in; B: Information goes to brain [Brain getting BIGGER]; C: Belly gets FULL." An artfully-wrought 'win win'. 

Mmm... Too good to be true, or downright unlikely, the reader begins to suspect...

Most readers have come to learn, in books as in life, there can be no actions without consequence and surely, in this, book-eating is no different.

And while Henry becomes so "incredible" at book-eating as to swallow books not only "whole" but "three or four at a time," suspicions are confirmed when things suddenly start to go "very, very wrong."

Chased screaming through his dreams by the terrifying A-Z of Monsters, its gaping jaws wide open, a daytime Henry finds he is unable to munch a copy of Best Quiche 1972 - nor any other book for that matter! - without being turned "greenest" and forced to perform "an Irish word for ejecting the contents of your stomach", that is, "boke."  But the worst is yet to come as all the knowledge Henry has accumulated is bungled up inside. Unable to digest his books properly any longer, streams of nonsensical words spew from Henry's mouth making it "quite embarrassing for him to speak" and maths equations result dismally in "2+6 = elephants."

Advised against it by his father, physician, fines-tallying librarian and the A-Z Book of Monsters alike, Henry resigns from the business of book-eating, dismally disappointed. However, it does not take our young protagonist long to pick a slightly nibbled text up off  the bedroom floor and do the unthinkable...
"[A]fter a while, and almost by accident," our Henry begins "to read," finding much to his astonishment that he love[s] to read" and "that he might still become the smartest person on Earth" after all...

And seldom without a sly sense of humour, Jeffers ensures that the back-cover of the book is missing a chunk in one corner, a tip-off to readers that occasionally, just once in a while, Henry falls back on old habits; Ginger meanwhile sagely advises on the same coverpage the "DISCLAIMER: DO NOT EAT THIS BOOK AT HOME."

Beginning with Anthony Browne's Little Beauty a few weeks prior, I think it was Oliver Jeffers' story of a book-eating boy that really confirmed my love of (and return to) picture books.

And I will proudly tell anyone this, as I sit here ever-so-unassuming at my laptop: twenty-six and, to the best of my knowledge, only slightly niggled* by the desire to have any children of my own  (or at the very least in this millennium, and yes, for those uncertain, that would make me near-on immortal). Honestly, this picture book is the sort of tribute to books and the art of storytelling that takes one defiant step for little readers and one boisterous leap right over Ageism.

Throughout the picture book, Jeffers cleverly juxtaposes typewriter font with hand-script, while in his employment of collage in illustration, graph paper, worn-out dictionary pages (marked "intemperance" at the top), and that familiar blue-lined A4 foolscap serve as 'backdrops' to Henry's (mis)adventures and ultimate success.

This way, the very young are impressed by the intriguing texture, while the slightly older will more fully relate to the medium using, as it does, tokens from their everyday school-day experiences. And as for me, the old, old who wears her trousers rolled, well, the elderly are easily swayed by nostalgia and memory, but mostly, by the innocence.

Hubbub, bill-paying and daily meannesses have a tendency to turn a young and unsuspecting woman such as myself into a Hag, regrettable but altogether true. I do not want to be a Hag, but I have found myself behaving in a Haggish manner from time to time...

Again, regrettable but true.

And as much as I was all-too-glad earlier to declare my undying gratitude to the picture book, I am as much ashamed to admit that my love of books has been known to become all tied up in the serious business grammar and syntax. This, I will have you know, is a tell-tale sign of an early onset of Haggishness, but not a hopeless symptom if caught early enough. For this, The Incredible Book Eating Boy is the spoonful of sugar and the medicine for the cure.

Never overbearingly didactic in his story's 'message'/moral, Jeffers' home-base is a good story, told well, with the wit, humour, and healthy dose of a childlike suspension-of-disbelief and creative ingenuity. And don't be fooled by the simplicity of Jeffers' less-is-more approach... This, together with other Jeffers' titles soon to feature on this blog, couldn't be further from it.

They speak from a perspective of the world that may initially appear simple to the untrained adult eye, but is, on closer inspection, well-stocked with the relentless marvels of the little explorer's torchlight, felt with the amazement of the child who cannot pinpoint these feelings as we grown-ups, and cares naught but to give the unnamed emotion wings and watch it take flight.

So, although I could tell you, that The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers is ideal for audiences aged 3-5, I won't bother. Instead, I will tell you I can safely hope that, old as I may get, I do not see any Hagging in my future, so long as there are storytellers like Jeffers in my vast and infinitely surprising and delightful universe.

(*Any encounter with a bookish, soapy/grassy-smelling, and properly-mannered child - i.e. one that can say 'Please' and 'Thank You' and refrain from sticking both fingers up his/her nostrils - qualifies as a niggle.)