The Exhibitionist Part Two: Yet another crack at galleries

So I was in the middle of combating my mistrust of art galleries.

I was doing it in the laziest way possible, don’t get me wrong, by only attending events of illustrative relevance, but I was still doing it.

Having spent the early afternoon in a whirlwind tour of the contemporary illustration scene, by way of the AOI World Illustration Awards at Somerset House, I decided to kick it up a notch with an exhibit that cost real life pennies. Commitment ahoy! This big spender headed to the House of Illustration.

Safe bet? Yeah definitely but whatever, I was still paying to look at walls so I consider it a victory.

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So, I am in love with the House of Illustration. Tucked behind the bustle of Kings Cross, if you can fight your way through the Potter-ites to find it, do it. Not only does it have a tiny yet really nice little shop of all things illustration, (I forget I have no use for postcards every time I enter) it also regularly holds events, talks and lectures by some of the industry’s finest. I’ve many a fond memory of various events in those walls held by editorial artists, to kids book creators, comics artists and beyond, all of which have been top quality. It’s genuinely a great place to get yo’self an education in all things drawn so if you’ve not already, do head it up.

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What made this venue a great counterpart to the AOI exhibition, is that the HOI not only champions the contemporary, but regularly pays great homage to the history of illustration. It didn’t let me down on my visit either, where, on paying my affordably £7.00 ticket price, I was treated to a charming, unexpected exhibition of Quentin Blake originals.

I suppose it’s not that surprising, given that this goliath of British children’s illustration IS the founder, but even so the short and sweet collection was a bit of a delight. Seven Kinds of Magic, is a collection of Blake pieces in which he approaches themes of surrealism and magic. In all honesty, Blake’s work doesn’t tickle my fancy on too frequent a basis, but it’s truly impossible to deny the life and charm of his scrawled characters and bonkers scenarios. I also firmly believe that any insight into the workings of a practitioner and acknowledgement of how they approach a given subject is all of great relevance. Especially when they have been rather a large part of your childhood experience of pictures. And especially when they are so joyfully mad.

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On top of this emporium of scribbled musings, another small room housed yet more Blake magic, this time in lieu of the BFG‘s contemporary comeback. Having spent many a sleepless night, terrified I would be consumed by an unfriendly giant (well, what’s any British childhood without a bit of Dahl related trauma?) this did result in a pang of nostalgic excitement. hoi_16

This small collection housed originals from the book, as well as previously unseen images that were cut from the end product. A sneak peek into the production and alternative results of something we’ve all become so familiar with. I’m not the kind of gal who is hugely fussed by the idea of seeing ‘The Original’. For me, if illustrations  were made for a book, those printed pages in their intended context ARE the real versions. Authenticity of ink on a page matters not in my eyes, BUT new images I’ve not seen before? Illustrator interpretations of scenes I was previously left to imagine myself? Well that is something worth taking a peek at.

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And it is a bit of a joy, even on a wall. It’s around until October, so if you were/are/could be a fan of the book, you really should stop in.

BUT, these surprise delights from an illustration wizard were not actually what had drawn me to the HOI that sunny, August afternoon.

Instead an exhibition of Soviet children’s books, the aptly named A New Childhood had caught my interest hook, line and sinker.

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You offer me a chance to compare story, illustration style and subject of historical children’s books to that of the contemporary, I’m there. (#booknerd) You invite me to take a look at the picture books of another culture, particularly those in a time of historical poignancy I’m THERE. You invite me to observe the impact of political unrest on the children’s book market I am ALL OVER THERE. And you appease my love of classic, European and Russian design, casually throw out names like El Lissitzky and charge me less than a tenner? My friend, you got yo’self a date.

It was one of those events that made me sad I wasn’t still in education and having to write a dissertation any time soon. I was mortified the taking of pictures was forbidden, it was a fabulous collection of incredible design work. Stylised illustration in glorious synergy with typography that screamed history.

Given it’s historical relevance, it’s not surprising that the arrangement of the exhibition felt like a classical museum format. The glass topped tables and large, formal information cards gave the collection a treasured, ‘getting cultured’ vibe that took me back to being a kid in a museum. That knowledge that you were, in NO WAY going to EVER be trusted to touch such relics. It’s so strange then, to imagine the pre and post revolution children of Russia, pouring over this very collection I stared at through four inch thick glass, in their beds and with their parents; in the same, slouched manner you see kids on beanbags in Waterstones, sinking into Charlie and Lola with the corners folded in and their imaginations racing.

I understand, and in this case totally appreciated, the serious tone of such a valuable collection being treated with this respect. I liked that I felt I was in a museum. I felt I was being taught. I felt I was really Getting History, but it was so apparent how many millions of miles away from the real world of kids books it was. I wasn’t a reader here, I was an observer.

Yeah okay, the fact I can’t read Russian probably had something to do with that too, I can’t deny it.

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And I learned a lot. Aside from the joy I found in discovering the artistic impact of the curious rules of such a strict regime; the banning of all things folklore, the mistrust of anthropomorphism and the, almost comical differences this appears to have with our contemporary, Western picture book climate, I learned facts. I followed the roots of contemporary illustration, the way style and content spread throughout nations, the impact such poignant work has on my current market. The transition of design. The movement of character. It was a delight to see and compare where things came from, to where they are. And, importantly as always; context. Society changes, and the creative output moves too.

To ban fantasy, to encourage production, function and mechanism and place importance on becoming USEFUL adults, is a far cry from the values explored in plenty of picture books today. Such a no-nonsense regime had to drill function into young minds. I suppose for many, it’s brainwashing. To remove a child’s imaginative capability by way of focusing on the reality. The list of banned, damaging or unsuitable children’s output then, seems so obscure to us now.

But that obscurity to our society, is of course where the lesson lies. Call it brainwashing if you will, but children’s books do shape minds, which, in turn, shape people.

We may not like to consider it brainwashing now, perhaps because the societal scenario is not nearly so extreme, perhaps because one political body is not perceived to be outwardly in charge of the entire output, perhaps, and most importantly, because we don’t disagree with the topics of discussion. Either way, we must always be aware that picture books are significant in shaping thoughts, societal codes and values. All works of fiction, media and art in all  their forms, impact directly on the belief system of a person.

I don’t think this is necessarily negative. This is how cultures are formed. We have to define and express shared values to an extent, in order to co-exist without pandemonium. Without getting too pretentious, children’s books, along with all other entertaining consumables, help to define the core of societies.

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A New Childhood was a brilliant collection of texts spanning across a foreign period of revolution. It, as all museums do, celebrated and examined a point in history, be it within or outside of our cultural code of conduct. It was an extreme reminder that context is everything and to always be aware of the power of judgements communicated in all media; specifically those intended for the young. First impressions, after all, can be hard to renegotiate.

The House of Illustration is a good place for picture loving yet gallery-wary people like me to explore these, white-walled environments. It takes things I love, like illustration; imagery designed for a purpose, for a brief, for a text and displays it out of it’s original context. The intent is to perhaps elevate it to something more cultured than it is? To remove the dirty, money aspect, and witness the creation as an example of higher art?  It’s a mark of true acceptance of commercial artists, once looked down on by the community of higher artists, into the realms of something greater.

I appreciate the notion, because I (obviously) appreciate the illustrator. I think they SHOULD be appreciated. I do think they should get credit for the work they do. Cover artists of novels should have their name on their work, and picture book artists should be acknowledged as co-authors. In my, humble opinion, that is.

Where I think I fall away from the idea of an exhibition space, is that I don’t view it as any more valuable. I don’t like looking at things on a wall or displayed on a grey floor. I still don’t really rate the experience, even after the array of, frankly, phenomenal collections I experienced. I suppose I personally, don’t really feel it does the illustrator that many favours.

I like to see things, not in their original state, not to appreciate solely the mark on the page or the craftmanship of the line (although there’s no doubt it can be sensationally impressive) in a blank environment where all that matters is its existence. I’m more excited by it In situ. I want to see an illustration next to the text it was made for. I want to see the design of the spread as a whole and how that designer has impacted on the illustration. I want to see the results of every stage of production working their respective magic to create the final output. Arguably of course, that’s why it’s important to see the illustration alone, in a case; to truly experience how it’s placement has changed. That’s why I’ll continue to check out places like this, to get a rounded experience of what illustration is, why it is more than simply drawing.

But don’t expect me to be as excited. I still prefer my pictures printed in pages, tangible, touchable, smellable. Interacting with spine and paper stock and text in the musty library, in the messy play room, in the classroom that smells like pencil shavings.

This is my kind of illustration, and my kind of design. I loved my visit to the HOI, it was an enlightening and beautiful museum and I know I’ll return. Thanks for trying to appease my inner gallery lover, but if you need me, I’ll be on the floor, elbows deep in a beanbag.

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Bagley Book Club- The Dragon and the Nibblesome Knight review

nibblesome_02Author: Elli Woollard

Illustrator: Benji Davies

Publisher: Macmillan

It’s a corker this week from wordsmith Elli Woollard and the ever brilliant Benji Davies. I picked this number up at the Power of Pictures panel event at Foyles in London a week or so back, so it only seemed fair to rock it into the spotlight, while I’ve still got Davies’s insight fresh in the old noodle.

A tried and tested formula, The Dragon and the Nibblesome Knight is a tale of  surprising and unlikely friendships. Sent on a fledgling flight to gobble a knight of his very own, we are led by Dram, the utterly fearsome-less and totally huggable wee dragon, into the heart of a storm.

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nibblesome_01In a beautifully drawn and tastefully coloured sequential spread, our little chap is blown off course. Frankly, I defy any human with a beating heart not to express even the tiniest of concerned, cooing syllables here. Davies captures such peril in the wide eyes of the reptilian baby, there just isn’t a homosapien alive whose heartstrings are sturdy enough to withstand a good tug. It’s a perfect Attenborough moment. Yeah sure, the bloodstained and ruthless lion has been out for an afternoon’s killing, but look how FLUFFY the babies are!

Humorously mistaking the beast for a duck, our compassionate (and equally adorable) knight James discovers the disheveled castaway in a pond. The pair grow a bond as James nurses his unknown foe back to health through  Woollard’s charming and lyrical story.

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So he took off his armour and said with a grin,

‘I’m coming to help you’ and he waded right in.

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Known for her witty poetry, it’s no surprise that Woollard’s text is such a delight. Free from any hint of forced rhymes or lyrical-cheese, the text flows from page to page with a real smoothness, wit and charm.

One of my pet peeves in children’s books, is a poorly paced tale. Often confined to strict page counts of 32 or 40 pages, there’s sometimes a feeling of being desperately hurtled by the words through the story to reach the conclusion before the page count cuts it short. If so inclined, illustrator s then have to desperately compensate with enough additional narrative to halt the reader for a bit; a decision I’m not at all adverse to, might I add. As highlighted many times, pictures SHOULD have their own tale to tell, it’s the key magic of a picturebook to contain a duel narrative. But equally, no matter how fine the artist, it won’t ever fully patch up the holes of a lacking author.

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But THIS is where the Nibblesome Knight really shines. Both Woollard and Davies are in full control of the flow of the narrative. Davies’s pictures are a brilliant partner to Wollards’s poetry prowess, with enough characterisation, heart and little environmental joys in every image to give them depth, yet without so many additional details that derail the reader from the pace of the story.

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The poem is so smooth and funny, it’s only right that the illustrations work with it to maintain the swing of the lyric, and Davies has done so masterfully in this example.

nibblesome_13And it’s true, his interpretation of the characters make this tale. Adorable with a capital ‘A’, I demand plushy merchandise of the innocent duo (I am DESPERATE to hug this dragon!) The pair are subject to a good number of emotions as they build and reveal their, unknowingly forbidden, friendship and even with he simplest of facial details, Davies creates the full, emotional spectrum with precision. For a story all about the value and strength of relationships, empathy and compassion, characterisation and humanisation were key and Davies nailed. it.

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‘Come to the woods and I’ll fetch you some honey.

It makes a good medicine, all soothing and runny.’

It’s worth saying too, how strong the artwork in general is. The palette is bright and full of life yet without being nudged into the realms of gaudy. The scratchy ink marks are loose and organic looking, yet clearly drawn with clear precision. The depth of the painterly lines give this tale a much more shadowed darkness than Benjies previous works and it works brilliantly in the Ye Olde world of knights and Dragons.

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The classic narrative ends as it should; happily ever after. Predictable? Yes, but who on earth cares. As far as children’s stories go, this is a solid, classic example. It breaks no boundaries, it holds few surprises but it’s charmingly written, witty and funny and the characters are endearing and beautiful. The world is consistent and the imagery is breathtaking and it’s another brilliant example of the ‘classical reworked in a contemporary world’ kinda deal. It’s definitely worth a look, but don’t be surprised if you explode into a mass of whimpering, gooey “Awwwww”.

It is inevitable.

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The power of pictures was strong in these ones…

This week, I took a trip to the capital again. It was for illustrative purposes though so it doesn’t count as a holiday.

As we all know, the best kind of procrastination is the kind we can pretend is work 🙂

So this, definitely-work-related trip involved spending many, MANY hours in laughably enormous London bookshops (for work. Of course.)

I will say, central London definitely doesn’t do things by halves. The Picadilly Waterstones has become a frequent haunt for me on recent visits and still has yet to fail to astound me with its vastness, it is simply a Goliath! I get serious thigh burn every visit from just meandering from section to section (because, you know, book shop work out right? I ain’t usin’ no lift!)

The reason I thought I’d mention this week’s visit to this literary colloseum, was because of a current, lovely little surprise I’d happened across that I think needs a little shout out. Naturally, my feet had auto-piloted to the children’s floor (not department, floor. A WHOLE FLOOR) where I discovered the most beautifully displayed arrangement of sketchbook and back up work from Nobrow’s ever talented, William Grill.

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Now on his second publication with Flying Eye, Grill’s backup work astounded me by it’s sheer elegance. I’m not really a gallery guy, I don’t think illustration should be kept on white walls or in glass cases, but this small collection, was just enough and was displayed perfectly to give insight into the adoration of drawing that’s so apparent in his books, without any pretension or grandia. Grill’s doodlings and planning were methodical and detailed, speaking with the same delicacy as his finished penciled books and is painfully neat and organised.

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If the exhibit hadn’t been so carefully designed; the tools of his trade and collected samples of inspiration scattered amongst his working pages, I’d probably have had some kind of breakdown at the lacking visual power of my own, heinous behind-the-scenes. But I digress, if you are in the area (or lost/ following a trail of thread in the labyrinthine bookshop) I highly recommend checking out these snippets of genius. It will make you sick with envy, but such is the nature of Nobrow’s artistic catalogue.

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So, having spent several hours browsing, drooling and drawing a yak in a hat in Waterstones, I thought it was probably the wise move for my wallet to move on.  So I did. Right into multistory bookshop numero deux: Foyles. Which actually brings us to the main purpose of my London exercise in bookstore-navigation.

The good people Foyles had been illustrator collecting, and kindly (and reasonably, at only a mere £5 per ticket!) thrown together a lineup of top quality talent for a panel discussion event: The Power of Pictures. It was little wonder that the event was packed up to the rafters with an all start cast of Benji Davies, Jean Jullien, Marion Deuchars and Oliver Jeffers. Those of you who are familiar with the works of these contemporary picture book giants, will understand what a fab mix of approaches this panel represented and there was no way I was going to miss out on this, simply because I happen to live three hours away. Oh no.

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I’ve attended a lot of talks and lectures from talents within the arts, and panel events are by far the most successful in my opinion. Lectures can easily fall into an overview of one career, which while interesting on a personal level, they can fail to get into the meat of what is IS to make successful commercial art.

Yet this event did just that. Featuring talents from all over the spectrum of the, once shamefully named ‘commercial’ arts, these four powerhouses of creativity have all ended up in the field of picture books and each spoke with a unique voice (both visual and literal) that channels the experience of their past works.

Yes, of course the basics were covered. The topics of ‘style’ and the questions of best visual mediums; the digital means vs traditional debate, yet with a string of different opinions and experiences involved, The Power of Pictures was able to extend further than the realms of an ordinary lecture may allow.

“For me, it’s not so much a strategic decision, but more of a guttural reaction to what is suitable”

– Davies on artistic material

The insightful discussion branched into all aspects of the picture book field, from creation through the publishing process to the more practical aspects of the market and its constant progression. Each members’ approach to the field seemed to tether their visual styles to them and, in analysis of their thought process, they all offered insight into the vital hows and whys their work has reached the artistic notoriety that they all respectively have.

The art of storytelling has truly ceased to be about simply nice pictures to accompany authored words, and become about the artists’ personal approach to storytelling. Traditional artist, Jeffers insisted that book illustrators are trying to “buy immortality”, as it allows their own ideas to exist instead of working to illustrate a company’s brief in a manner akin to the fine artist. The, previously editorial, Deuchars saw all commercial arts as a form of selling, it was simply the content that changed: “…[ book illustration] is not selling a product; you’re selling a story,” And unsurprisingly, the very graphic Jullien spoke in the true voice of a designer, assessing any story as an exercise in “problem solving.”

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“Obviously you don’t have to illustrate the words.”- Deuchars

Clearly, there is no particular correct channel here, as all four approaches have lead to beautiful, successful children’s books; each with its own unique credit. What became clear was that all four artists did agree on one vital point: that their book work was in no way tailored to the audience in a way that compromised themselves. While there were little guidelines in creating for children (Davies’s shared anecdote of being encouraged by publishers to lose reality’s logical whale size for the sake of the story’s progression in his beautiful The Storm Whale) each member of the panel never felt they were trying to reach into an unfamiliar head space. Far from it. While their books are all enjoyed by children, none considered this a particular driver in the execution of such works. In fact, there was an agreement that it would be counterproductive to attempt to enter the mind of a child, as it brings restrictions to your readership.

“Writing stories for children, you really have to switch the left brain off.” – Deuchars

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Jeffers refuses to acknowledge his works as children’s books at all, instead plumping for the term ‘picture book’ so that there can be no division; he makes his books because he wants to, which differentiates such works from his previous commercial endeavors. Jullien too, asserted that to try and artificially enter the head space of a child would be to talk down to them, creating a dividing and inauthentic story, a point seconded by Davies.

It was , for me, Deuchars who hit the jackpot regarding this question of readership, with an assertion that stuck with me throughout the rest of the night. She claimed that in creating a story, the key is conveying emotion; and if that has been done correctly, the age of the viewer is irrelevant. As a constant analyser of my own visual narratives with a view to assess where their strengths and weaknesses may lie and why, I found myself unintentionally nodding along like a plastic bulldog in a shopping trolley. In my experience, social understanding and emotional empathy is something people almost always have a handle on, regardless of age, knowledge or experience. I believe that to tap into that IS to communicate, and in my practice I think I will always drive to do this as successfully as the current market’s dream team that sat before me.

From here, the discussion traveled through question’s of collaboration in storytelling and the pros, cons and preferences of working with authors and other creatives. The self-assured Oliver Jeffers seemingly adored the exclusivity of indulging in his own, unique creations, yet positively acknowledged the impact of working alongside a good editor. Often considered a lonely practice, analogies were flying as the illustrators attempted to verbalise their feelings towards collaboration. Davies likening it to creating a film in which “you have to play all the roles” and Deuchars, considered it the chemistry of a marriage. Jullien, as one might expect from a designer, wholly relished the practice of bouncing off of other practitioners as it “pushes [him] to forget [his] own uncertainties.”

“It takes the right people to show you the way”- Jullien

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My own rushed,half-baked attempts to capture my heroes, while wildly scrawling to capture their wisdom. Massive apologies to Benji Davies. You don’t really look like Brian Blessed.

The closing topic of the night, was another that seemed to bring unanimity to the diverse opinions of the panel. I was surprised and overjoyed, that it was a feeling that I had come to hold very strongly myself in critiquing my own work: that the designing of a character held the key to any story.

It sounds so self explanatory, yet in a sea of beautiful artists making beautiful books, it’s easy to forget the basics in lieu of making a more expansive, original or beautiful image. While many discussed elements of the panel’s practices had depended on individual preference, this really seemed to be a non negotiable. To have a character was to have a story. The team were all in agreement that they had labored over getting the look of their protagonists right. From Deuchars demandingly ‘drawing a bird doing yoga’ to ensure she had the movement right, to Davies laboring over each pixel to ensure the eyes were in exactly the right place, the look and feel of a character is the key to that vital emotional engagement. Jeffers and Jullien were in agreement that in removing facial details, character simplicity can bring you the freedom to create the emotions you need to evoke and I was reminded of Alexis Deacon’s similar assertions at masterclass event I attended a year or so ago.

“One Pixel makes ALL the difference.”- Davies

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Ultimately, I left London that night buzzing with inspiration. The panel had all shared their plethora of approaches to the same practice with honesty and analytical insight that I felt truly engaged in the life of picture book illustration. Each practitioner stepped to a different tune, yet each had developed a unique and curious visual distinction to call theirs.

“Illustration is about what you, the illustrator, choose to focus on.”- Jullien

Their paths had been carved from confidence in their own convictions and an understanding of their visual language. Instinct undoubtedly plays a role, but they had not simply drawn things to be pretty, instead analysing and laboring over what they had wanted their images to convey. The world of words is a separate beast to the language of pictures and the work of each of the panel artists is a perfect illustration of the vitality of combining the two with intelligence and intent. For me, Deuchars had summarised the secret to story telling in picture books with a comment on character, accurately asserting that ‘without a character you can make a beautiful book, but you don’t emotionally engage in the story.”

I thought back to Grill’s wonderful pencil landscapes in Waterstones, and had wanted to disagree. But while Grill’s landscapes ARE utterly beautiful, they are just that – beautiful imagery. It could be the biases and figurative subject of my own work talking, but for me, the work that sang in that glass cabinet (and indeed the pages of the finished article) were his working sketches of the dogs, his loose depictions of the people, his developments of the characters.

will_gril_04The landscapes were made MORE beautiful by the figure of a husky gazing out towards them, because suddenly, I was engaged. The involvement of character invites narrative to a scene; it asks for emotive understanding. Characters make a book a book. Without them, Grill’s could have been very attractive non-fiction. A quirky, historical workbook. With them, it is an engaging, contemporary retelling of historical tales.

Not that, I hasten to add, beautiful workbooks would be anything to sniff at, of course. Non-fiction in it’s original, un-narrated form is still a valued and important member of the bookshelf, but it is a separate beast from a story book. And it was just that: the passion for story books; for narratives and characters that packed out the Foyles auditorium with people from all around the country that evening.

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The obligatory book signing 🙂
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My new book adds Benji Davies to the list of illustrators whose signed works I own 🙂 Review will no doubt be on the way soon.
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I own signings by Jeffers and Davies, but noticing them on a quiet spell I nabbed Jullien and Deuchars to ask if they’d like to deface Davies’s book. They said they would 😀

Once more, I am reminded how wonderfully diverse this picture book bag is. All approaches are entirely different and equally valued. There is space and place for every kind of book these days and the vast shelves of these wondrous bookstores are brimming with talent and creative magic. You don’t have to draw the words. You don’t have to have words. There are no hard rules, aside from simply caring and investing in the subject.

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Deuchars magnificent approach to character development-make Bob do yoga, and Davies’s perfectly aligned eyes to capture the right expression

And the results are numerous, surprising and precious. There is emotion, there is character, there is always narrative. This week I have again been reminded of the real power of pictures. In all their glorious forms.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Club Review – Have you seen Elephant?

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Author & Illustrator: David Barrow

Publisher: Gecko Press

 

I happened across this little number while meandering through the web on an unrelated mission. I was drawn in to the, seemingly quite small, release by the curious nature of Barrow’s illustrations. He too has joined the ranks of the dirty digital army, utalising thick and organic looking textures and splatters into a digital landscape.

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As I’ve said in previous posts, purists flying the flag of ‘authenticity’ may scoff at this process, but let’s get real. The results are still beautiful and times have changed. FOR THE BETTER.

The illustrative possibilities are endless with the mouse at your fingertips, and I think Barrow has done a cracking job of proving that the digital pencil case is more than capable of capturing the heart, charm and ‘happy accidents’ (however contrived) of any paintbox.

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In it’s entirety, Have you seen Elephant is a story about finding elephant. Job done.

‘Would you like to play hide and seek?’

In the enigmatic manner we expect and embrace from children’s tales, Barrow makes no attempts to establish or formulate the origins of our curious playmate’s visit. And rightly so, the logic and reason behind why or how is joyfully irrelevant. This is about a game, be it real or imaginary…or even somewhere in the middle.

All that matters is that we, alongside our un-named seeker, have been very kindly invited to play in the very first spread. So who are we to decline?

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Singing to the same tune as the talented  and oh so trendy Klassen et al, Barrow’s approach to narrative is one of ‘less is more’. The short narrative follows a classically simple procedure as our seeker explores room to room of his house, hunting desperately for the cunning elephant, eluded by the creature’s hide-and-seek prowess.

‘Not under here…’

As ever, the richness of humor is what keeps this simplicity fresh, and Barrow keeps the hand-scrawled text sparse, instead building our little character’s personality visually, with the pleasing offset of image against word.

Offering a delightful frustration for readers, the incompetence of our seeking protagonist is developed through his mutterings of clueless asides, establishing his oblivion to the, very clearly positioned, elephant in the room.

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Our dear little seeker searches in entertainingly improbable places. There’s a really innocent charm about searching for a large elephant in a small plant pot. Not sure I could get away with it though.

The addition of a silent, clued in mutt, the classic device of the underappreciated sidekick, emphasises our protagonist’s inability even more, boosting the funnies through a little sub narrative for the keen eyed reader to decipher. Similarly, the latter introduction of animals, hidden in the minutia of the environment deliver more seeking opportunities for readers.

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‘I can’t find elephant’

I would have loved to have seen this quality developed further, with background creatures and interactions turning each page into it’s own game of hide and seek. As it stands, a lot of the spreads push the less is more approach a little too far, with only the base components of our hider and seeker and simple environmental touches.

For me, this dilutes the humor of the search when little more other than the core joke is offered from spread to spread, again and again.

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The invitation spread is a favourite of mine. I love the little, background  suggestions of family life that set the scene perfectly, while offering snippets of detail about our seeker’s life.

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That said, the art IS beautiful. Those textures bring a coarse, accidentally-on-purpose mess to the environments and an inspiring set of sunset colour palettes that don’t fail to delight as every page turn reveals a new one.

While the palettes are vibrant, the simplicity of content in every spread create a quietness that carries through the book. Environmental calmness is not at all a bad thing, although here there’s almost an overarching feeling of darkness within the artwork that seems to lean towards lonesome.

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The scenes feel quiet, almost a tad morose and there’s a suggested lack of interest from our seekers family in him or his activities. Heavy lighting in the artwork create dark, almost sinister shadow work which, while beautiful, seem to extract the ‘fun’ from the game.

Even the opening invitation from the elephant, drawn with a   very close positioning of elephant’s face as he warns us ‘[he’s] very good’, does have an almost cautionary air to it.

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‘I must warn you though, I’m VERY good.’

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way against a darker quirk in children’s books.

My position is that children are pretty hardy and more than capable of deciphering and enjoying more ‘grown up’ looking art styles, a bracket in which I would place Barrow’s work .My only concern in the context of this book, is that I can’t tell if it’s supposed to feel quite so lonely or if the heavy colours and sombre emptiness are simply a slight misjudgement.

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Either way, it is still a joy to look at. And any sense of the macabre are certainly circumvented by the book’s delightful close. Elephant is a gracious playmate and and the tale remains a great example of good, clean fun of children’s games.

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Perhaps if you were desperate to attribute a deeper moral to the tale, you could expand on the lonesome family unit. The lack of human companionship that drives you towards animals.

You could spend your time getting caught up in the perception of elephant’s surprising, opening boast that ‘[he] is very good’. You could assert not to judge a book by it’s cover, that even thought he is large, perhaps he IS good at hiding.

You could say a lot of things.

You, know. If you wanted to.

Personally, I wouldn’t trouble yourself with it. For me I can’t find Elephant is most enjoyable when seen as exactly what it should be. A  good bit of old fashioned, nonsensical fun.

And isn’t that what being a kid is about?

Book Club Review – Kiss it Better

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Author: Smriti Prasadam-Halls

Illustrator: Sarah Massini

Publisher: Bloomsbury

 

I think it’s important to begin here by noting that a book with the word ‘kiss’ in the titles, adorned with hearts and cuddly bears is not my usual choice when browsing the shelves of the kids section.

It’s pretty fair to say I am not the saccharine type, and tend to learn towards picture books that come with a sense of quirk, adventure, humour or, dare I say it, even a touch of darkness?

That said, I was drawn to this one initially by the beautiful, elegantly drawn characters on the cover. The quality finish on the thick, textured paperback, coupled with the tasteful touch of the title foil, made it feel like a product of real quality when I then came to pick it up. I was sold on the cover, and began to flick through it.

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Kiss it Better is exactly book you expect it to be. Classically inoffensive, tender, loving and heart warming throughout, its what I tend to think of as the perfect grandparent book. Prasadam-Hall’s cutesy poem, champions the power of  family and love in conquering the day to day perils of young childhood in a series uplifting and feel-good couplets. From bruises and bumps to the fears of leaving mum and the playground gates, Prasadam-Halls  captures a number of common fears for little ones, reassuring readers that strength and comfort is always found the family unit.

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Geared up towards the 2-4 age bracket, I think Prasadam-Halls does a great job at tackling the most relevant problems for children of this age, taking the first steps towards independence. Personally, I’m not quite sold on the use of poetry, catching one or two slightly forced rhymes that, for me push the limits of sweetness just a little too far into the diabetic danger zone. It’s, naturally, a thing of taste, but I can’t help but think of the parents reading this one at bedtimes, and feel it could be something of a one sided relationship. Completely relevant for the child, yet potentially not quite such a pleasure for the adult of the bedtime routine.

But of course, heartwarming tales of reassurance ARE most necessary for children who do worry, and Kiss it Better  does a great job at preemptively tackling young-perils with Mumma bear’s aresenal of types of kisses for every occasion.

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Its also important to note that, while a touch on the ‘safe’ end of things, I enjoy this book. I really enjoy it, for the very same reasons I picked it up that afternoon in that bookshop in Bath, against all my cynicism.

Massini’s illustrations are utterly delightful. Her anthropomorphised characters are charmingly animated protagonists, filled with character. Their faces are simple, yet so elegantly drawn that they effortlessly communicate all the genuine love of Prasadam-Halls’s tale. In a book where the poem gives nothing away as to the character specifics, Massini’s interpretations seem to perfectly capture the heart of the story.

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Their charmingly vintage wardrobe and soft palette gives a real personality to the book that elevates it visually to something a little more interesting than classical cuteness. Or I’m just a sucker for a bear in a hat.

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Similarly, texture and rough painterly marks give the images a real depth and bite that set them aside from the more classical, painterly illustrations you may associate with a traditional children’s book. The rough and ready touches add a quirky, offbeat life to the pages and the clearly considered-to-look-unconsidered scatterings of hearts bring it all together into an image that’s contemporary while still drawing from suitably, classic influences, all in the soft, pastel palette.

The location of our story are also moved along within the visuals, as we follow our family from the fairy tale, forested home, to the schoolyard to family holidays away at the beach. This seems a really strong visual device for the book, not only to allow for Massini to emphasise her retro styling (these bears know how to ROCK that rockabilly bathing suit look) but more importantly to allow the strength of the family unit to shine. Childhood woes can appear anywhere, but wherever they may be, a kiss from Mum, a hug from Dad or a bit of generosity from your sister will save the day.

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On top of the strength of the illustrations, I think the design overall is equally well executed, with a good combination of full page imagery interspersed with spot, sequential images. The flow of the book is kept well without pages becoming too samey and the fluid layout of the text gives creates a real movement in the reading that carries you through the poem with ease and grace.

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Sure, Kiss it Better may not be my cup of tea entirely, but it’s a beautiful and heart warming read without a doubt. The prefect ‘safe’ book for the picture book traditionalists and romantics among us, this title knows it’s audience and I think the dependence on family values is something we can all appreciate.

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While there are increasing numbers of boundary-pushing, quirky and, dare I say, post modernist picture books gracing the contemporary market, I think it’s really important that more classic, uplifting reads like this one remain on our shelves. The world of the picture book market is vibrant and versatile and it’s vital it continues to offer something for every taste. Especially when the quality it this high.

Well I’m suitably warm and fuzzy, who’s for a hug?

 

Book Club Review- The Princess and the Giant

Welcome everyone, to the very first of a BRAND NEW series to the blog! Woop Woop!

I make no secrets of the fact I am an ENORMOUS picture book nerd. I draw write, read, study and live them and you’re either lucky or lying if you say you’ve ever attempted a conversation with me and I’ve not slipped off into the realms of an illustration related ramble. My bookshelves are booming with all things pictures, so I’ve decided to introduce to the blog a new series of reviews based around the contents of my studio! Welcome to the Bagley Book Club, kick starting this week with The Princess and the Giant.

I mentioned in my last post, that I recently attended a very lovely book event in London, hosted by the indie publishers, Nosy Crow. Here I purchased a (signed, natch) copy of the next installment of the Princess and the.. Series. And yeah okay, I am cheating a little here, as the talk did allow insight into the creation of the book, but it’s my first review so I trust you all to forgive me.

warbie_5Author: Caryl Hart

Illustrator: Sarah Warburton

Publisher: Nosy Crow

 

So, let’s get to it! Following two already successful titles in the series, The Princess and the Giant sings to the same, whimsical tune. Our feisty, heroine princess – suitably cute, of course- is ever strong, albeit less comically obnoxious than that of the Princess and the Presents title, yet still brimming with life and charm. Her stoic determination to quell the furiously, grumbling giant above them using the home comforts of her own night time routine is bloomin’ adorable, offset with a hefty dose of humor and feist for a pleasingly full-bodied tale.

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The fearsome, yet not really so monstrous, giant’s ferocious, tired tantrums are no doubt a familiar tale to countless parents and can only to be conquered by pragmatic Princess Sophie’s application of all the proper elements of bedtime. Empathetic and stubborn, her repeated efforts to comfort the frustrated beast are depicted through rich spreads that all conceal extra layers of visual delight.

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Cracking pajamas.

 

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In conjunction with endearing, curious characters, Hart’s poetry is frankly, a delight. It seems to me that rhymes in kids’ books fell out of fashion for a while, I would guess due to the eye-roll inducing forced couplets that had become oh-too familiar. But this looks set to change as Hart, and an increasing number of writers like her, have proved that they’re more than capable of restoring rhyme back into the limelight. The poetic trick is particularly relevant to the fairy tale setting, drawing on conventions and speaking in the language of all that lovely, sweet and wholesome tradition!

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Warburton’s varied of composition keeps every spread fresh and intriguing. I love this crop of the soldiers as we view the world at Sophie’s level.

Who am I kidding? Modern readers are more demanding than that! Kids books got smart and one dimensional, conventional tales just won’t cut it. Been there, done that, worn the somewhat tatty t-shirt.

Instead, Hart and Warburton expertly exploit the classic, folklore elements to subvert all the expectations into a fresh and funny result. Hart’s assertion that princesses should all ride bikes, and kings and queens would, naturally, perform the simple daily tasks of making porridge and chopping wood, ensures that any preconceived ideas of grandia are well and truly usurped by a more down to earth, accessible breed of royalty.

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Hats (and crowns!) off too to Warburton, whose ability to take Hart’s quickest of throw away lines and develop them into full blown sub-narratives breathes fresh, secondary stories into every spread. From humorous costume choices of the fluffy, cable knit clad ‘villain’ of the tale to the casual, checked-shirt donning Queen, Warburton takes the written cues and creates full, delightfully quirky characters that add depth and even more personality to the tale. The growth of the mouse butler from one line into an expressive and visually essential sidekick seems an ingenious touch that adds further narrative to every page for children, parents and enthusiast (AKA-nerds like me) to get lost in. The days of illustration’s role being limited to repeating the hard work of the text are well and truly over. Contemporary practitioners speak in their own voice that operates alongside that of the author, and the results seem to only be getting richer.

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Warburton’s beautifully hand rendered type also adds a comic-style movement and fun to split spreads.

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Let’s face it, the quality of kids books in recent years has been leaping into entirely new realms. From insane print quality values (may the designers among us take a moment to drool over the delicate cover foil here) to cunning split narratives that speak to the big-uns just as much as the little-uns, Warburton and Hart are far from sole talents in pioneering this comically subversive, contemporary and reactionary tone. But what they’ve done, they’ve done pretty darn well. No doubt with careful guidance from Nosy Crow, the Princess and the… series has been a delight and the empathetic Princess Sophie and her devotion to bedtime is another champion of this popular breed of contemporary fairy tale.

 

 

I HAVE seen a hat!

Okay, So what I’m about to tell you may provoke some cringing.

Before Christmas I went to the theater…all alone.

Yes, that is a very sad state of affairs, but it’s true. I went on my little tod, all the way to the bright lights of London, and there I sat, surrounded by families and groups of friends, clutching my ticket in my single seat, listening to the joyful giggles and playful interactions of those around me and sighed…alone.

But there’s more. Not only was I the only solo member of the audience that day, I was also the oldest. By some way. Or at least, the oldest that wasn’t there primarily as some kind of guardian.

Yep. I went on my own to the theater to see a play for children. Little children at that.

And before you sink your head into your hands at, what is very likely, the most socially pathetic tale you’ve read today, let me just clarify this scenario and explain why it is that I refuse to be ashamed by this.

I went to see the stage adaptation of John Klassen’s I want my Hat back.

Oh Yes.

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For those of you who aren’t familiar, the reason this make the sorrowful tale any better, is that I want my Hat Back is probably the greatest children’s book ever written ever and I was absolutely fascinated by the prospect of how those fantastic, simplistic, enigmatic illustrations could POSSIBLY translate into real life people on stage.

Turns out they do. Really bloomin’ well actually.

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With some stonkingly suitable music from Arthur Darvill and Joel Horwood and a number of outstandingly weird performances from the energetic, multitasking cast (I didn’t think it was possible for a human to become generic ambient forest quite so convincingly!) the show was a genuine delight from the start.

On entering to the stage, following behind an absurdly yarn bombed, argyle-socks and waist high shorts donning antlered band, I was immediately in love with the dated, 70’s appeal of the set. The perfectly haphazzard, retro costume choices and array of mismatched, flea market blankets strewn elegantly around, seemed to have the very heart and quirk of that book directly on tap; tipping it out in front of me time and time again throughout the show in a pile of retro quirk and charm.

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From the three eared rabbit and Led Zeppelin tshirt sporting bear to an impossibly perfect use of lounge-lift music, it was by far the most magical and downright absurd hour and a half of my festive period. And to be honest, based on my experience of the book, I wouldn’t have expected or wanted anything less.

If any of you are in the vicinity and have the chance, I wouldn’t hesitate to check out this little gem, with or without little ones. It’s wonderful and enchanting and yet another example of how beautifully and bizarrely children’s entertainment is progressing into something really special.

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I felt like the National Theatre had been transformed into a festive toy town for the ocassion

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I left inspired and energised (and just in time to catch some great winter-sunset light!). Because if there are grow up imaginations making books and stage plays like this now, I cannot wait to see what the kids of the future; brought up on a diet of media as magic as this, will be capable of.

Peace OUT and a happy new year

Bx

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Sunset in the Big City