A board book every week No 4 – Slinky Malinki

 

 Slinky Malinki, Early Bird

by Lynley Dodd (Puffin Books 2014)

 

Slinky Malinki, Early Bird by Lynley Dodd

New Zealand writer Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary is one of my absolute favourite books – for rhythm, rhymes that make you laugh, and names that make you laugh even more.

Instead of lots of eccentric dogs, Slinky Malinki follows one single black cat and his* (very familiar) morning attempts to wake everyone in the household and then claim the comfiest bed. The bouncy rhythms and perfect rhymes of Hairy Maclary are here, but far fewer words: a shorter, simpler story. Much more suitable for a baby board book.

There are several books about Slinky Malinki and this is the latest, first out in larger format in 2012.

All the action takes place in a house, mostly in bedrooms, so there’s limited and recognisable stuff to talk about on the page, and always Slinky himself to spot, sometimes just a bit of him peering round the edge of a door or a curtain. He bounces like a ball, plays hide and seek, sings yowly songs, and sits on heads, until everyone is awake – all (fairly) understandable for a small child.

I partly chose Slinky Malinki, Early Bird because there’s a very similar-looking black cat in the household of the baby I’m finding these books for. It is feeling a bit displaced at the moment, a sort of pet/sibling rivalry at being shut out of the bedroom at night and having someone new take all the attention. But when the baby is old enough to notice the cat, this book will come into its own.

 

*Yes, Slinky is male. Yet another boy animal as lead character in a children’s book. Ho hum. But you could subvert the whole thing and read it out loud as ‘she’ and ‘her’ instead.

Colourful Chameleons

A Board Book Every Week

Week-by-week I’m building a stimulating and diverse library of baby books. So No. 3 is…

Boue Chameleon by Emily Gravett

Chameleon – Emily Gravett (Macmillan Children’s Books 2010)

Three weeks old is a bit early to start learning colours, but this is such a witty and original take on the familiar theme that I cannot resist featuring it. It’s also one of those “I’ve got no friends, oh yes, after trial and error I finally have” stories that seem pretty common in young children’s books these days. (You can substitute Mummy, hug, or hat for friends.)

Blue Chameleon by Emily GravettChameleon is blue because it’s lonely, so it approaches a number of creatures – and objects – doing what chameleons do best: changing colour. This one also changes shape to mimic its potential new friends. But none of these approaches work and Chameleon – “I give up” – turns as grey as the rock it flops down on. Until a gloriously starry, spotty, stripy, multi-coloured chameleon turns up!

This is a very simple, charming and funny book, with just one or a handful of words per page and a few social sounds or words like ‘Hello’, ‘Hi’, and ‘Psst’.Blue Chameleon by Emily Gravett Macmillan Childrens Books

I love all of Emily Gravett’s books that I’ve seen. She seems to be down at child- and dog-, cat- and creature-level. The illustrations are uncluttered but not without detail. And there’s the implicit humour which is what keeps adults going when a book is visited many, many times.

Blue Chameleon by Emily GravettP.S. Chameleon is neither a boy nor a girl. The way the text is written leaves this completely open. I had to change all my default ‘he’s to ‘it’s in  my second paragraph: I fell into the trap of assuming without thinking about it that fictional animals are male, something I posted about ages ago – Shock Horror! All animals are boys!!

 

Serene seasonal nostalgia with ‘I Am A Bunny’

A Board Book Every Week – my week-by-week attempt to build a stimulating and diverse library of baby books for a particular new baby.

 

  1. I Am A Bunny – by Ole Risom, illustrations by Richard Scarry

I Am A Bunny illustrated by Richard Scarry

A Golden Sturdy Book, first published in 1963.

I circled the table in the bookshop several times before I picked this one up. I’m retro myself so I’m not always drawn to retro – it can just remind me of teatime with aunties and embarrassing haircuts and clothing mistakes long-past. The book cover has a vintage colour palette: eye-watering yellow, scarlet, grass-green, and a yellow title font outlined in red – a queasy combo, and the reason I can’t eat cheese and tomato sandwiches.

But I saw the name Richard Scarry and I was curious. I associate Scarry with busy-busy pages crammed with small animals and vehicles and lots going on. Whereas this looked much less frenetic.

It’s taller than most board books but maybe that’s a good shape. The title page has realistic-looking violets, along with Bunny in his dungarees sniffing a flower. (We discover his name is Nicholas but actually he doesn’t need a name.) On the spring spread two kinds of daffodils look like actual daffodils – not just generic dear little flowers – followed by recognisable butterflies, which Bunny chases. So it goes on, with incredibly clear, colourful and calm seasonal spreads while the bunny does simple things like watch frogs and blow dandelion seeds in the air. The page filled with autumn leaves echoes the page filled with butterflies. There’s a rainy scene and a snowy scene. Finally Bunny goes to sleep and dreams of spring.

I love it.  Nostalgia for the simple life? Maybe, but I have the feeling it’s one of those books that will get requested again and again. It looks different from other baby books, not just because of the colour palette. I think it escapes being twee because of the accuracy of the nature images. Everything but Bunny looks super-realistic. As a plantsperson I really appreciate this, even if a baby won’t. OK, for UK readers there are raccoons as well as grey squirrels nesting in the trees, but we can cope.

And for the baby “reader”, there’s not too much going on and the language is simple and repetitive. For the adult having to read it a thousand times it may get boring, but there are few books at this level that won’t pall under that pressure – and its charm may just save it! There are animals and flowers and raindrops and pinecones to point out. And good old Bunny appears on every page, very cleverly the same size on each, so lots of opportunity to look and find.

 

I Am A Bunny - Richard Scarry

Children Behaving Badly: ‘The Wind On The Moon’

The Wind on The Moon by Eric Linklater, Jane Nissen Books

 

‘When there is wind on the moon, you must be very careful how you behave. If it is an ill wind, and you behave badly, it will blow straight into your heart, and you will behave badly for a long time to come.’

As a child I was always reading and so was highly reliant on our local public library. It was situated on the ground floor of a big Edwardian villa, and the children’s section occupied what might once have been the drawing room. The fiction shelves were up one end and that was where I stayed. I don’t remember having any guidance from the librarians. As far as I knew, they were just there to stamp your books and take your library tickets – only two for children, and hey, a generous four for grown-ups. How times have changed!

So I just roamed the shelves and pulled out random books, or checked my favourite authors in the hope they had written something I hadn’t discovered before. This wasn’t so much to see if they had written a new book – the library stock was well-worn and a bit tired – but because that the something new might always have been out on loan to other readers before.

This meant that I often re-read books. Sometimes these were my favourites, left just long enough so that I’d forgotten most of the plot, and could enjoy them anew. Sometimes it was just that the book was familiar (therefore a safe read), and I was drawn again to the cover or the pictures inside.

One of these was The Wind On The Moon by Eric Linklater. I’ve just found it, reissued by Jane Nissen Books, complete with original illustrations by Nicolas Bentley. I was very struck by these pictures as a child, especially, I have to say, the one where Dinah and Dorinda take their clothes off and hide them in a tree. Naked people in a book? Perhaps that’s why I decided to borrow it! But there are lots of other strange pictures, many depicting mysterious night-time scenes, in Bentley’s rather simple yet sophisticated line drawings. Or maybe I chose it because I recognised his style from a humorous book we had at home, How To Be An Alien by George Mikes.

It’s a strange book altogether, long and full of bizarre episodes. Dinah and Dorinda are affected by an ill wind blowing on the moon, which makes their behaviour turn bad, and just at a time when their father is going away and leaving them for a year. It was published in 1944 and is marked by the attitudes of the era and the strangeness of wartime.

It wasn’t a book that I loved, but I did come back to it from time to time because something about it obsessed me. Of course, tales of children behaving badly are very attractive to child readers. There’s shape-shifting and talking animals, too. I wonder if it will seem as strange – or even more so – on re-reading as an adult?

You can read a piece on it by James Meek in the Guardian and a less enthusiastic review here on Bookslut.

By the way, Nicolas Bentley was a cartoonist and novelist as well as an illustrator of books. He was the son of E. Clerihew Bentley – inventor of the clerihew!

 

Totally invented or – um – slightly real?

I posted this on Girls Heart Books last month, so as keen recycler, here it is for a slightly different audience…

GirlsHeartBooks

Whenever I’m asked if I base my characters on real people I always reply firmly ‘Nooo!’ But when I was creating a key character in my next book, I found my knowledge of a real person creeping in. Not someone I actually know, but a girl who lived in Victorian times, when the book is set.

Agnes Glass is one of the leads in The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard. To start with all I knew was that she was lonely and isolated, over-protected and ‘in delicate health’, as they used to say. I tend not to work out everything in advance. Once I begin writing I find that the characters muscle in of their own accord, giving me information about themselves that I’m not necessarily expecting. (I love this aspect of writing!)

When I wrote Agnes’s first scene, it suddenly became clear that her favourite time of day is when…

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What makes a good first picture book?

Board books by Helen Oxenbury I was prompted to write this after reading an interesting post by Pippa Goodhart here on Picture Book Den. Pippa wrote a very thoughtful post about children needing to see themselves reflected in the books they are offered, and that one way to be inclusive is to steer away from people and use animals as characters to identify with, as this cuts through some of the multiple factors that may be involved in inclusivity. (You’ll have to read Pippa’s post in full as she puts this much more effectively than I can if I try to précis her thoughts.)

However, using animals presupposes that a child can identify with animals, that they’re ready to understand the wonders – and conventions – of storytelling, where a tale about a bear and his ursine mum is really a tale about me not wanting to go to bed yet. And it set me to thinking about my experience of children with developmental delays who, at an age when most children are romping away with story-books, need something much more literal than that and yet books that still show themselves, their lives and and their interests reflected.

For years and years (and years) I worked with the families of very young children whose development was not progressing as hoped for. I visited them at home, always with a bag of toys – and always with a book. The books we chose for our project’s library had to be tough, so mostly board books: they would get a lot of use, and from children who maybe hadn’t handled books before. They had to be simple and engaging. They had to show children – and sometimes the adults involved in their lives – that books are great for so many aspects of development and also, just as important, are fun.

Wibbly Pig Likes Bananas by Mick Inkpen

Familiar stuff and simple vocab, though he’s still an animal!

Many of the children I worked with (most were aged 1 or 2 or 3, though sometimes a bit older or younger) were just at the stage of single word acquisition when we began. That’s not being able to say single words – saying comes much later – but being able to understand single concrete words that were important to them: cup, teddy, biscuit, duck, Mummy, Daddy, bye-bye, car. The kind of words most children start to acquire between 6 and 12 months.

So I needed books full of such simple things – but not too full! Many First Words books have a core of key words and then are bulked out by stuff that really wasn’t helpful for my purposes. Fine if you are a baby just primed for eating up words, familiar and unfamiliar and just plain daft, but if you are struggling to make much sense of your own small world you don’t need objects you never see, like a sailing boat or an iron or a kite. And so much too long – bor-ing! Just as many toy manufacturers often don’t appear to have consulted an expert on child development before bringing out their products, as the buyer for our toy and book library I often got the impression that publishers of baby books had not asked a specialist speech and language therapist about suitable early vocabulary.

But – there are many delightful and appropriate first board books! Not that many pages to turn, a simple clear image on each one (a plea to leave out the purely decorative twirls of irrelevant daisies and butterflies beloved of book-buying grannies and godparents – that just clutters the place up!)  and tiny-child-friendly stuff going on. Familiar stuff. Taking a bath, going to the supermarket, playing with friends and pets, sitting on Grandad’s lap and having a story.

Honourable mention here to the lovely books by Helen Oxenbury, some of which were passed from my own children into our toy library.  And you’d be hard-pressed these days  to find a first book of babies – small people love pictures of other small people! – which does not reflect a decent variety of ethnicity, whether it’s in photos or drawings. It’s just that this doesn’t seem to push further up the age-range. And they hardly ever show babies and children with visible disabilities.

Many of these books have no text at all, or just one word or sound per page, ‘Splash’ or ‘Baa!’, which is great when you are trying to get a child to connect them with what’s going on, and later imitate. By the way, sounds are easier to copy than ‘proper’ words at first. Which is why books with animals are so brilliant. Quack! Moo! Woof! Everyone has their own way of saying them – and I have to confess I never mastered an elephant noise that convinced a single child, though we had a lot of laughs trying. And animals seem to break the rule of relevance. Young children don’t need to have seen a real tiger or crocodile in order to get terribly enthralled by them.

Friends board book by Helen Oxenbury

Lovely friendly pets, one per page, in this delightful book.

There is a developmental hierarchy to interpreting visual images, which starts with photographs of the real thing. Most young children are just so adept at skipping through the stages of learning – they’re hardwired to do it – that apart from being impressed by how clever and (a)cute they are, we adults barely notice how they’ve done it. But some children need to start with a photo of their very own cup before they can understand that ‘cup’ is still a cup in a variety of shapes and colours. When they’ve grasped that, they can move on to clear uncluttered drawings, then to more stylised and fanciful representations, and finally to busy pages full of detail where they can isolate and identify a particular item amongst many.

This sounds really dry, but if you don’t understand the stages you may well turn some children off from looking at books that have no meaning for them. A beautiful, arty, graphic picture book an adult might chose can be hopeless for a child who cannot see anything they recognise in pictures which are too sophisticated for their developmental stage, however ‘simple’ they look to us.

I used to use photo books, but these can be hard to find, and as photos date quickly they may not be a publisher’s first choice. Early Learning Centre sold a range of books such as My Home with a just a few clear, separate images of everyday objects on each page. But they were never updated and things like the telephone and the TV became hopelessly antique and unrecognisable to young eyes, even if the socks and the potty and the banana looked familiar! Other text-free books often of Scandinavian origin, on topics such as Seasons, or Playing, or My Nursery School, showed photos of ordinary children in everyday settings. But, again, the clothes began to date terribly until grown-ups couldn’t look at the pictures without sniggering (‘Gawd, I had brown dungarees just like that!’) and these books with photographs seemed to fall out of fashion. But some children really like and need photos, however wonderful drawings can be.

So I must mention Dorling Kindersley’s range of early books with really high quality photos, often with clear white backgrounds. I’ve known a  child try to grab the lifelike banana off the page, very cross that it didn’t do what she expected. Some are board books, but many have paper pages which were quite risky for my needs (and limited budget). And they tended to be a bit too detailed and distracting for my first-book-users. The book below, My Day, is too recent for me to have bought, but looks like the kind of thing I would have been happy to try with abler children. (Though I hate the ‘learning to read’ logo on the front. That’s not all that books are about!)

My Day photo board book Dorling Kinderlsey

Everyday childhood activities

For some children the most exciting first book was one that their family made themselves. This really can be the ideal first stage for any child, and I knew kids who almost wore their books out through constant reference. A simple photo album – ideally a small one with one picture per page you could just slip in – with pics of them, their favourite people, favourite toys, and everyday stuff. Me with shampoo in my hair. Me on the slide. My baby sister in her buggy. My Nan asleep on the sofa. My teddy. Just perfect…and it led a way into loving looking at books. Because who knows what you might find inside?

Little Acts of Kindness: Author Interview with Anne Booth

I first met Anne Booth at a conference run by Nosy Crow Books last year. We had a lot in common, including debut novels for young readers, and a publisher (O.U.P.). Anne’s first book of several out this year is Girl With A White Dog (Catnip Books, published 1st March) so I asked her about it, and about her writing process.

Here’s what the book is about: When Jessie’s gran gets a white Alsatian puppy, it’s the start of a downwards spiral of strange and worrying behaviour. But life at home is only half the problem. At school Jessie’s class is studying the Nazis’ rise to power and she’s learning some uncomfortable truths about the way people can treat those they see as different – and starts noticing worrying parallels around her. With one eye one the past and one on her ailing gran, Jessie starts to see a connection – something long-buried, troubling and somehow connected to another girl and another white dog…’

Girl With A Wg=hite Dog by Anne Both Catnip Books March 2014

J: I didn’t know anything about the Nazi policy targeting the pets belonging to Jewish families. This is a good theme for connecting with modern-day young readers. How early in your work on the book did you find out about this – was it a gift along the way, or the spark that started the whole thing off?

A: Lots of things happened at the same time and I’m not entirely sure what came first. I think it started with a book someone tweeted about and which I bought, Amazing Dogs by Jan Bondeson. I have two dogs of my own and I thought it looked great, so I treated myself to it. In it I read about a college for dogs in Nazi Germany. I thought this might be an interesting idea for a book. To find out more I did some research and came across the wonderful ‘Animals in the Third Reich’ by Boria Sax, and from there I read about the law saying that Jewish people were not allowed to have pets and how that felt for them. I started reading more social history books about Germany and growing up in the 1930s. I remembered my ‘A’ level History and wanted to work out more about what would make people accept Nazism. What I read really affected me. I read lots of social history and accounts of children growing up as members of the Hitler Youth, and I began to realise that if I had been born an Aryan German I might not have wanted to see how bad Nazism was either. I might have just wanted to go camping and singing and see myself as good and be happy to blame others for the problems in my country.

At the same time I was concerned at all the negative comments about immigrants and asylum seekers and disabled and unemployed people in our media. I couldn’t put on the TV or the radio without someone blaming one of those groups for being ‘scroungers’ or for wasting money. I found that very worrying, as the books I was reading were telling me the same things happened in Germany in the 1930s, and prepared the way for Nazism. I couldn’t remember ever having read a book putting that across, and thought I might have an idea for a children’s book.

There was also a lot in the media about Grimms’ Fairy tales and a report that a new fairytale had been found. I’d read about how the Nazis loved using fairytales to show themselves as the ‘goodies’ and others, like the Jews, as the ‘baddies’. I thought I might write a new fairytale about a child growing up in Nazi Germany. My original book started with the first paragraph of the very last chapter of ‘Girl with a White Dog’.

I started to write from the point of view of a little Nazi girl, but it was difficult to convey how attractive Nazism was for many in the Hitler Youth without seeming to condone or even promote it.

At the same time something else was happening in my life: my elderly mother was diagnosed with dementia and had a bad fall, ending up in hospital. There she kept talking about people marching down the corridors and was very distressed. I am glad to say that she stopped thinking this, but her reaction was so strong that I realised that for those days in hospital she was in a horrible nightmare I could not free her from. I read more about dementia, and came across stories of elderly people whose distress was found to be linked not with nightmares but with long-buried memories. I read about a man whose family were shocked to find that he lost his ability to speak English and could only speak Polish, the language of his childhood. When I read about elderly dementia patients in Germany talking about Hitler then I had the last bit of my story.

During all this time I read and re-read as many children’s novels about Nazi Germany and the Second World War as I could, just to make sure nobody else had approached it in the same way.

J: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

A: As a child I wanted to save children and animals – I’m not sure how – but it seemed to be by either being a saintly nun or a saintly nun who was a doctor. You have to know that I was brought up in a very religious family. Then I realised I didn’t want to be a nun, and I wasn’t good enough at science to be a doctor or a vet. I went to university and studied English which was bliss. I got my first job in a bookshop, which was wonderful, and I’ve worked at loads of different jobs – including being a tour guide, an English language teacher, a lecturer, doing arts & crafts in an old people’s home, washing up in a café and being a project assistant for a charity. The one consistent thing is that I have always written – in diaries, letters, prayer journals and notebooks.

The first story I remember writing was an epic bible story I wrote at school when I was 5 about Jesus bringing Jairus’ daughter back to life. I remember not being able to miss out any details, and drawing lots of pictures, and feeling very tired using my pencil but unable to stop! I still have the same feelings now when I write!

I never stopped reading children’s books alongside adult books. Long before I was married and had my own children I was buying and reading and enthusing over Shirley Hughes, for example. I went on to do an MA in Children’s Literature and I still didn’t try to write any. I think it was because I was in awe of them. I loved being a bookseller and recommending them but I did not write any children’s books until quite recently, helped by going on two Arvon Writing for Children courses. Instead I did an MA in Creative Writing in the evenings and wrote short stories and a novel for adults, and I do want to take those out and dust them off. I also really really love illustrations in children’s books and my big desire is to have enough confidence to have a go at illustrating, but I’m a bit shy about that.

J: Now, about your own writing methods – if you get stuck, is there any particular thing you do to get inspired again?

Walking into woods pic for Julia

A: I go for a walk with my dogs, sometimes alone, sometimes with my family. I read some books I love. I watch a film I think might inspire me – I have a cup – many cups – of tea. I sit quietly and pray. I talk to my dogs!

Wriyer Anne Both's dog sleeping

 This must have been a particularly boring idea! 

I write – often in my prayer journal – about how I can’t write, and most times that does the trick as I find that there are still lots of feelings and ideas out there, so I draw diagrams and write lists and sometimes – when no one is there apart from the dogs – I walk around the house talking to myself!

I have very recently 

Anne Booth's yurt jumper

found that in moments of despair sitting with my jumper over my head is surprisingly calming. There is one jumper that is particularly good – it is like having a little portable tent or yurt! I may mass produce it and sell it to writers! 

J: I really like the idea of a portable, wearable yurt. Please put me down for one when you go into production!

Next question – have your own children helped in any way with your writing?

A: I do find talking to and listening to my children very helpful. They make me laugh and are such good storytellers about their days that they give me lots of inspiration. They have been brilliantly patient at listening to me reading out scenes set in school and telling me if they are realistic or not.

J: We are so used to sassy, smart-mouthed main characters in teen fiction. Jessie, your narrator, is relatively unsophisticated in both behaviour and vocabulary. Can you tell me about your decisions behind creating her as she is?

A: I think there is a lot of me in Jessie. I wasn’t a very sophisticated teenager and I worried a lot. I did want to write about a teenager like that because I feel the way teenagers are portrayed in the media or in some fiction only shows one way of being a teenager – and there are as many different types of teenager as there are adults. I don’t drive, and if I catch the bus with school children you can hear and see so many different types of students – some sophisticated, some funny, some more innocent than others. I think it is only fair that we write about the less sassy ones too!

J: Jessie is a real ‘worrier’ – so was I as a child (still am!) How do you balance happy and sad stuff in a book for young readers?

A: I do believe in Goodness. I do worry about the bad things that happen in the world, and my own responsibility for them as a shared citizen of the planet, but I do have a religious faith in a God of Love, and I do actually believe (though I have to remind myself that I do) what I say in my own book – that we should not despair, and that little acts of kindness can transform things. So I hope I have left children with that message, and that they will feel empowered and hopeful rather than overwhelmed by the story. I hope that putting a puppy in helped!

J: What age group is this book aimed at? I can see it revolves around Year 9s (13-14 year olds) but it feels easy enough for younger children to read.

 A: I think it is for older Primary school upwards. I would like it to be read by children when they are studying Nazi Germany, and I know my children looked at Anne Frank’s Diary, for example, when they were still at Primary school, and again in Year 9.

J: Were you the sort of kid who always had their head in a book?

A: Yes!

J : I won’t ask about ‘favourite books’, as I’m hopeless at deciding on favourites myself,  but were there any particular books that had a deep effect on you as child?

A: Anne of Green Gables. Paddington Bear. Just William. Jennings. Black Beauty. Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat. The Little Wooden Horse. Carbonel. A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley (wonderful!) Lots of Enid Blyton – particularly Mr Galliano’s Circus as I really wanted to be Jimmy Brown and tame lots of animals. What Katy Did. The Secret Garden. Books by Noel Streatfield. All the Narnia Books. The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley… I’m going to have to stop now but that is just a tiny tiny list and I know I will be so sad to have missed anything off. They made me cry and they made me laugh. Some of them – like Paddington – made me cry with laughter.

J: I have certain authors who I can rely on to inspire me in terms of style and content and the way they organise the story they are telling. Are there any writers who work for you in this way?

A: I know that Girl with a White Dog is nothing like this – but I have to say P.G. Wodehouse. I just love his comic timing. I would love to write some straight comedy.

J: What are you reading at the moment?

A: I’m waiting impatiently for a delivery of a secondhand copy of The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfield, one of my favourite childhood books. I am just about to start a book called Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson. I am reading non-fiction books for inspiration for some ideas I have – Playing at Home – The House in Contemporary Art by Gill Perry, Bonzo’s War – Animals under fire 1939-1945 and Imaginary Animals by Boria Sax. I am also dipping into lots of books about Lindisfarne or ‘Holy Island’ as I am very drawn to writing about it but am not sure what form the story will take yet.

J: You’ve got other books coming out this year. Can you tell us about them?

A: Lucy’s Secret Reindeer is for 5-8 year olds and is a magical Christmas story about a little girl who looks after a poorly reindeer for Santa. It’s being published by O.U.P. and has a beautiful cover and will have lots of lovely black and white illustrations inside by Sophy Williams. This will be out in October but is available for pre-order already!

I have two picture books coming out with Nosy Crow which will be gorgeous (I have seen the sketches for the first book’s illustrations by Rosalind Beardshaw) but I am not sure when the first one will be out.

J: Tea or coffee? What’s in the cup next to your writing?

A: Tea!

J: And, finally, your Writerly Snack of Choice?

A: Chocolate. But I really must cut down…

Thanks to Anne for taking the time to reveal the secrets of her writing process, and for such great pictures.

My Top 5 Horses in Children’s Books

Fledge flying horse The Magician's Nephew

When I blogged about my top 10 animals in children’s fiction back in September I promised to follow up with my favourite horse characters, because I felt they deserved a list of their own. Finally, here it is.

I was a sucker for a pony story as a child, and I read anything I could find in my local library with a horse on the cover or a hint of one in the title. I must have consumed a lot of rubbish about gymkhanas and curry combs and five-barred-gates which I have completely forgotten now. Looking at my choices of rather more classic books below, I realise they are all highly dramatic, and highly romantic – even, at a pinch – the Thelwell ponies, who are the objects of their girl-riders’ romantic affections.

1. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877). I blogged about this book here and here. Beauty is beautiful (natch) in looks and temperament, honest, ill-used, and eloquent in this, his ‘Autobiography Of A Horse’. He is the template against which all other fictional horses – and many human heroes and heroines – are measured. And fall a little short.

2. Thelwell ponies – any of the cartoon ponies created by the (somewhat reluctant) Norman Thelwell. They are the complete antidote to all the other noble equines here. Thelwell ponies are short, fat, hairy, stubborn, lazy, and selfish, and not even very good at natural horsey skills. Unless by natural horsey skills we mean kicking, bucking, shying, braking suddenly, and foraging in hedges. Yet they are still adored by their owners and riders, and readers of the little books like A Leg At Each Corner (1961). The nearest I could get to having a bloody-minded little Merrylegs of my own.

The Silver Brumby by Elynne Mitchell

3. Thowra in The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell (1958). Thowra is a wild Australian horse whose pale colour marks him out to other horses and to threatening humans, so already as a colt he has the makings of a persecuted hero. I loved Mitchell’s tale, told from the horses’ point of view without anthropomorphising them. A story firmly rooted in the natural world and using Thowra’s knowledge of it, so yet another strand that appealed to me as a child – and still does.

4. Flicka in My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara (1941). I watched loads of Westerns as a child. Cowboy films and TV series seemed to be the common dramatic staple then, just as cop/crime shows are now. My Friend Flicka, set on a Wyoming ranch, fulfilled my love of all things outdoorsy while I lay on the sofa with my nose in a book! It has the best ingredients: our sympathetic attraction to the underdog (the least favourite son, the filly that isn’t wanted), family rivalry and injustice, learning, love and loyalty. It also features serious injury, life-threatening illness and gruesome details, all of which seemed totally necessary to many of the books I relished, and were seen as perfectly suitable – nay, classic – material for child-readers!

My Friend Flicka by Mary O'Hara

5. Strawberry in The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis (1955). Which takes us almost back to Black Beauty, since Strawberry is an overworked cab-horse in Victorian London when he gets whisked by magic to the Wood Between the Worlds and into Narnia as it is created. There Strawberry makes the ultimate transformation into Fledge, not only a flying horse, but a talking one as well. As Fledge he becomes the first in line of all the flying horses of Narnia. I loved the idea of a knackered old working horse finding his youthful strength again, blossoming into a mythical beast, and, as Beauty never could, gaining the capacity to tell humans the truth.

Flambards by K M Peyton OUPI’d also like to give an honourable mention to the horses in the Flambards books by K M Peyton, although by the time I discovered these I was more interested in the budding romance between the human characters than the horse-riding stuff. The beautiful, romantic, but accurate equine illustrations by the amazing Victor Ambrus really added to the delight.

And to The Pie in Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet (1935). This is another novel of transformation, and bears almost no resemblance to the famous film with a young Elizabeth Taylor as plain little slaughter-houseman’s daughter Velvet.

Lastly, though it is definitely not a book for children, Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley (2000) is a wonder. A huge book about the American racing community, it tells parallel stories of jockeys, trainers, breeders, owners, grooms, various hangers-on – plus a dog and several horses! The amazing foal who might become a star, and the experienced old nag who is more than he seems. I have never, ever read anyone who creates the truly alien perceptions of an animal so persuasively before. The heart-wrenching powerlessness of the horses as they inevitably change hands, even on the way up in value, let alone on the way down, takes me right back to where I started, with Black Beauty.

Strawberry into Fledge, The Magician's Nephew by C S Lewis

When We Were Very Young and loved jumping in puddles

Winnie-the-Pooh Day is celebrated today, on the birthday of his creator, A A Milne.

Teddy Bear, from When We Were Very Young poems by A A Milne

I think if you grew up with a book since babyhood and know it inside out, it’s almost impossible to look at it objectively. I’m like that with Pooh books, both the stories – The House At Pooh Corner, and Winnie The Pooh – and the little books of poems, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, which I am revisiting for this post.

Yes, there are twee aspects to them, and a distinct lack of female characters in the stories – though not so much in the poems. Mary Jane and Emmeline appear alongside boys who – often in curls and loose smocks over shorts in the distinctive drawings by E H Shepard – I’m sure I thought were girls, anyway. Yes, the poems feature children in buttoned gaiters, with nannies, and nurseries, and all that privileged pre-war clutter. But there are also plenty of animals – wild and domestic – and a good dose of imaginative transformation. It didn’t jar when I looked back at the books when I had small children to read to. Of course, I was selective, and I left out the sillier or rather aimless bucolic poems, but I suspect they got left out when the books were read to me too!

What I still really like about the strongest poems are their rhythms, which are so well-suited to being read – or recited – aloud. A poem that sticks in your mind is sure sign of a good bouncy rhythm (though I suppose that’s true of some doggerel, too – er, theory confounded, then.)  There are plenty of natural-feeling and satisfying rhyming words. But best of all – despite the buttoned gaiters – is that many of the situations are very simple and very child-centred, and are about gently defying adult expectations. The joy of just running madly around, of stepping in puddles, the pleasure and terror involved in avoiding the cracks in the pavement, and the hatred of being cajoled to be polite or eat up or hold hands.

Lines and Squares, Whene We Were Very Young poems by A A Milne

There is the assumption that tiny children will understand when the opposite of what’s being said is true – always fun: they’re in on the joke. We know exactly what’s the matter with Mary Jane, even if the grown-ups are too dim to spot that’s it something to do with ‘lovely rice pudding’. Bullying Sir Brian Botany really isn’t ‘as bold as a lion’ and we love it when he gets his come-uppance,

‘They took him by the breeches and they hurled him into ditches’

and then we love it again when he has a change of heart. King John is ‘not a bad man, but he has his little ways’ – doesn’t he just? James James Morrison’s glamorous but wafty-looking mother is ‘LAST SEEN WANDERING VAGUELY’ – no wonder he has to pedal off on his trike and fetch her. All these grown-ups are being gently lampooned, just like the flawed and foolish adults in Richmal Crompton’s Just William books.

It’s a world that was very real to me when I was little, a world of small daily activities and large imaginary ones. Looking at them again, I realise how much I like the space in some of the poems – how ordinary things like chairs, long curtains, and the famous ‘halfway down the stairs is the stair where I sit’ – are places where the imagination can roam free.

‘Where am I going? I don’t quite know…

Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know…’

Halfway down the stairs, When We Were Very Young poems by A A Milne

The magic of Green Knowe

The Children of Green Knowe – Lucy M Boston (first published 1951)

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston cover illustration by Peter Boston Faber paperback

Another read just perfect at this time of year, and especially in this year’s weather. It’s winter and the land is flooded. The rain is unceasing, rivers have burst their banks, lanes have turned into rivers, meadows into lakes. Sound familiar? But if you’re cold and fed up and worried about logistics, fantasising only about a fortnight in Antigua, step into Lucy Boston’s magical world instead.

Tolly, born in steamy Burma, is sent for the Christmas holidays to stay with his as-yet-unknown great-grandmother at her ancient family house, Green Knowe. This is a story where all the dividing lines are ambiguous, not just those between water and land. The magic of Green Knowe is not the ‘ordinary’ sort with wands and spells and wishes, it’s this permeable, malleable divide between present and past, real and imaginary, animate and inanimate, wild and tame, inside and outside, myths and ghosts and people. It’s also a book that is suffused with the love that seems to radiate out from Mrs Oldknow: love of home, of animals, of dear people and old dear objects. And in her and the gardener, Boggis, it has two heroic characters who are far from young, perhaps because Lucy Boston was in her 60s when she began writing.

Mrs Oldknow and Tolly get to know each other slowly, weighing each other up, although Tolly is immediately drawn to the special atmosphere of the house, with its strange layout and old artefacts. There are the tangible comforts of a fire, candlelight, homely food, which always make a welcome appearance in a children’s book when well done. Tolly is given permission to roam, and he discovers that everything in the house and its unusual garden, filled with topiary and bounded by water, has a story. Old toys and musical instruments, birdcages and paintings hark back to the people – and animals – who lived there in the past and who are not so far from those who live there now. Their stories are slowly and hauntingly revealed. This is wonderfully imagined for those who, like me, love old houses and the idea of layers of the past remaining in their fabric. (Do look at my recent post on ‘Thackers‘ manorhouse in Derbyshire.)

As Tolly explores he sometimes feels lost and alone, and encounters genuinely terrifying aspects to the place, involving walking trees and old curses.

In fact, Green Knowe is based on Boston’s own beloved house, The Manor, Hemingford Grey, in flood-prone Cambridgeshire, built in the 1130s. It’s not a huge house, but the water all round makes it seem like an island, a castle. On his arrival, Tolly has to be rowed up to it across the flood. Then deep snow falls in time for Christmas, and Tolly and his great-grandmother make a very long walk to attend the midnight church service. It’s unusual to have a hero as young as seven in a book of this kind, and Tolly’s stamina and independence (we first meet him travelling across country alone by train) feel quite strange to the 21st century reader. I’m not sure how realistic it was even for the mid-20th century child.

This is another world (see Narnia) which wouldn’t be the quite same to me without the striking original monochrome illustrations by Lucy Boston’s son Peter, which enhance the uncanny aspects of the tale.

One of my favourite passages is the enchanting scene where Mrs Oldknow butters Tolly’s hands and shows him how the wild birds come down to feed from them. This would have been quite magical enough for me as a child – my ideal was to be like Dickon from The Secret Garden – but I didn’t discover this book until I read it to my own children. I’ve yet to catch up with other books in the Green Knowe series, but I have two more waiting on my bookshelf.