Dinosaurs roar for boys – and girls

Week-by-week I’m building a library of stimulating and diverse books for a baby…

A Board Book Every Week: No 17

Image result for dinosaur roar

Dinosaur Roar! by Paul Stickland & Henrietta Stickland (Doubleday 2015)

 

There’s a weird sort of gender apartheid amongst animals that seems to have sprung up since my own kids were little. You see it if you look at children’s tee shirts, sleepsuits and socks, birthday cards, even baby muslins. Manufacturers, designers and marketers have decided that only large, snappy, vibrant and possibly violent animals are of interest to boys, and only soft, fluffy, pale-coloured and supposedly amenable animals are suitable for girls.

Creatures in the middle of this silly spectrum create a few problems. Do children’swear companies not know that a single sweet bunny-rabbit can ravage an allotment? Badgers seem to be for boys: why? Is it that assertively stripy face, or the big digging paws? Butterflies are deemed girly, but where are we on moths? And the jury’s out on giraffes.

It’s as if no boy ever hugged a kitten, or no tiger ever came to tea with a little girl!

As for dinosaurs, they’re definitely seen as male territory, though there must be some boys who aren’t that interested.

But what’s not to love about a dinosaur for any child? (Or grown-up!) Claws, spikes, scales, tails, big teeth, tiny brains. Roaring about the landscape tearing up trees like giant house-plants. So I’m including Dinosaur Roar! here to balance out the fluffy bunnies, and for dinosaur-loving girls (and boys) everywhere.

First published in 1994 in larger paperback format, this is basically an ‘opposites’ book. Every page has a different adjective for a dinosaur – fast, slow, above, below, short, long, weak, strong. The occasional word isn’t very useful for tinies – meek, anyone? – because it is wanted for the rhyme. The dinosaurs here come in crazy colours and contrasting sizes. They have wonderful expressions. Even the fierce one looks as if he’s having a laugh. Their small eyes make them all look a bit intellectually-challenged. The two vivid spreads at the end of the book with dinosaurs, both carnivores and herbivores, eating lunch and making horrible noises, are great fun. And let us revisit all the different ones, and find our favourites again.

The book is published in association with the Natural History Museum and a percentage of the royalties is donated to this much-loved institution.

Oh, I do love to be beside the seaside…

A Board Book Every Week: No 15

(Or almost every week…)

 

Deep Deep Sea by Frann Preston-Gannon (Pavilion Children's Books)

Deep Deep Sea by Frann Preston-Gannon (Pavilion Children’s Books 2014)

 

Being lucky enough to live near the sea – and having been obsessed with the seaside all my life – I like to collect sea-themed books. Illustrated books make this project even more fun. So I’ve tried to find some baby board books that feature seaside stuff that will become familiar to our baby mermaid and here is the first one.

The gorgeous Deep Deep Sea is essentially a simple colour and counting book, with a gentle palette of Deep Deep Sea by Frann Preston-Gannon (Pavilion Children's Books) sea colours – quite unusual in baby books. That may make it less than high-contrast, but there are plenty of bright beady eyes to find on the sea creatures. Okay, I concede that whales, green turtles and seahorses don’t turn up every day on the beach. And I’ve been on dolphin spotting trips and never seen a blooming one! But I live in hope.

Frann Preston-Gannon makes lovely illustrated books: subtle and mainly subdued colours, flattish images, but rich in texture. There’s something slightly poignant about it all. I definitely want more.

One aspect that appealed to me about this book is that after reaching ‘5 red starfish’ it gives up on subsequent tougher numbers and leaps straight to the exciting ‘100 colourful fish’. I haven’t counted them all. There had better be one hundred – but I’ll leave that to busy little fingers a few years down the line.

 

 

Get those jazz hands ready: The Wheels On The Bus Go Round and Round

Week-by-week I’m building a stimulating and diverse library of baby books.

A Board Book Every Week: No. 8

The Wheels On The Bus, Annie Kubler, Child's Play books

The Wheels on the Bus illustrated by Annie Kubler (Child’s Play 2001)

 

“The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…The – [deep breath] – wheels on the bus go…” You get the picture. I must have sung this hundreds of times in my former professional life. It was a standard song with our local speech therapy groups, which used a plastic ring off a ring-stack to represent the song. I used this object of reference in a song bag when I went out on home visits – children would know what was coming next, and, if they were at that skill-level, could choose which song they wanted by choosing the object that went with it.

Wheels On The Bus is a favourite with small children and this little book from Child’s Play is a lovely version of it. The pages are quite busy and there’s lots to look at, plus various peepholes at window-, wheel- and other levels – I’m just noticing more and more. But reduce it to its simplest elements and you’ve got easy actions and sounds – beep, beep, beep; wah, wah, wah; ssh, ssh, ssh – to repeat and copy. And my fave: swish, swish, swish, with its slightly jazz-hands action. Even the child who has never been on a bus (not impossible these days) should be familiar with windscreen wipers. So adults with no sense of embarrassment can really go for it with these sounds, and have baby readers in stitches – they tend to love the idea of other babies wailing.

As for narrative, the bus gets more and more crowded, with a new character running to catch it on each page. The bus’s passengers are ethnically diverse. When I first knew this song, it was the stereotypical “mummies” who went “chitter chatter chatter”. Now it’s parents who chat, chat, chat. Phew. There are clues (presents, balloons, cake) that they’re all heading off to a party, and this is depicted on the last page, so again lots of chance to recap vocab and look-and-find-and-point.

In fact, each page has an accumulating recap of the sounds that have gone before – that is, if you’ve got the stamina for all this! (If you’ve got the sort of child who never ever lets you leave out any bit you’ve read before, just “don’t notice” this in the first place.)

The Wheels on the Bus, Annie Kubler, Child's Play

Little animals like frogs, birds and mice scamper about the page margins. Rain comes and goes. Faces change: there’s laughing, shushing, sleeping, licking lollies, even a few tears. Then party food and activities. Although I’m not fond of overcrowded pictures for babies and little children as it can all just get too confusing, I think in this case it gives the book great staying power, with more to focus on as a child’s experience grows. Fun for tinies, it should go on giving interest for several years.

 

 

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!!

 

Rhymes with Oomph and Zoom

I Saw Esau edited by Iona & Peter Opie, illustrated by Maurice SendakMy latest book find is a gem – I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Bookedited by Iona & Peter Opie and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, first published in 1947.

‘They were clearly not rhymes that a grandmother would sing to the grandchild on her knee,’ Iona Opie says in her introduction. ‘They have more oomph and zoom; they pack a punch.’ Well, a grandmother with a taste from the macabre, the grim or the rude might well do, and have a good giggle besides. But there would have to be a lot of explanation, too.*

There are 170 rhymes grouped into themes: Insults, retaliation, teasing and repartee, more insults, lamentation and reproachfulness are just some of them, which gives you a taste. It is ‘a declaration of a child’s brave defiance in the face of daunting odds’. illustration by Maurice Sendak toIona & Peter Opie's I Saw Esau, Walker Books

The book was born in the days of post-war paper rationing. The wonderful illustrations only came with the 1992 edition from Walker Books, and for an illustration-fiend the helping is more than generous. There’s at least one picture on every page and sometimes one for every short verse on the page.

*But there are Notes at the back. Hurray! I love Notes. Especially when the Notes have pictures, too.

I Saw Eau, The Schoolchild;s Pocket Book, I & P Opie & Sendak

Discovering the new cover for ‘Gully Potchard’

My new book, The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard, will be out in six weeks. And it has a brand new cover. This is the da-da-daaah! moment. (It took me at least two minutes to decide how best to spell that.)

Beady-eyed readers will have spotted that there was already a cover image out and about for this book. It was red and flame-yellow. But the team at OUP Children’s had second thoughts and came up with something far more spectacular. The cover of a book is so important: it’s crucial to get it as right as it can be. There’s still a dog, a sinister baddie, and a hatchet involved. But now it’s a stunning night-time blue and there’s one helluva chase for my hero, Gully, an ordinary boy who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.

The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard by Julia lee, Oxford University Press, cover image

 

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?

Unforgettable: Laurian Jones’ horse drawings

National Velvet by Enid Bagnold Penguin edition 1951

National Velvet by Enid Bagnold

I’ve got a very ancient, yellowing Penguin edition of National Velvet from the early 1950s; not the actual copy I read as a child, just something I’ve picked up along the way and put on the shelf for the day when I would want it.

But glancing inside when I was writing my recent post on My Top Horses in Children’s Books, the simple and evocative drawings by Laurian Jones took me right back. Of course these were the illustrations that go with the book. Once you’ve seen these, nothing else will do.

title page of National Velvet by Enid Bagnold with drawings by Laurian Jones

There aren’t many of these drawings. They appear almost at random through the text, sometimes few and far between, sometimes in a cluster.

drawing by Laurian Jones for National Velvet by Enid Bagnold

Some seem very rudimentary but all have an amazing energy – capturing the basic shape and sense and speed of horses in motion. They remind me of cave paintings, or images in Etruscan art.

cave painting horse

Etruscan bronze horse

Etruscan bronze horse

It turns out that Laurian Jones was Enid Bagnold’s daughter. Mother and daughter, in their different ways, have given us unforgettable horses.

drawing by Laurian Jones fro Enid Bagnold's National velvet

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