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?

 

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Book Club Review – A Beginners Guide to Bear Spotting

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Author: Michelle Robinson

Illustrator: David Roberts

Publisher: Bloomsbury

 

Planning on going for a walk in bear country?

Well, Michelle Robinson and David Roberts have it covered. And frankly, if I’ve taken one thing from this entrancing Bloomsbury number, it’s that I probably wouldn’t recommend it!

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With the guidance of the unseen narrator’s reassuringly authoritative instruction, our silent, somewhat gormless, protagonist is led on his safe and correctly passage through the obstacles of bear country.bearspot_inn11

Er…or that is until the bears get in the way.

As the sorry little blighter walks further into increasing peril, Robinson’s narrator enthusiastically observes the scenario unfold alongside the reader, instructing accordingly based on the, ever so helpful bear spotting guide.

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What’s so charming about the tone of this book for me, is that it somehow seems to harbor a really classic British-ness. Not only is it impossible to read the text in ANYTHING but the most polished of Queen’s English (the narrator, for me, was undoubtedly voiced by Stephen Fry. Maybe Attenborough at a push) but the humorous, narrative voice hints towards that mocking depreciation of authority that is somehow unique to British humor. The subsequent disasters our unprepared hero befalls, at the hand of the useless instructions relayed by an, apparently knowledgeable authority, are somehow utterly delightful.

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Let’s face it, us Brits just revel in the shortcomings of others. It’s those cringe-making social failings in Gervais’s The Office; the deepening escalation of Black Adder’s wry truth embellishing, even the incrementally increasing fallout of Mr Bean’s slapstick clumsiness. Bear Spotting’s dry humour is a charming nod to the oh-so-British black comedy. (Or perhaps that’s brown comedy…)

bearspot_inn1But, as ever, in a picture books the legwork is only in part down to the written content. While Robinson’s text is, frankly, inspired, the true, laugh-out-loud effect is only achieved with its application to Roberts’s exquisite illustrations. Pleasingly sparse pages, and a rich, autumnal colour palette allow our character and those bothersome, suitably menacing, bears are left to speak for themselves against the minimalist environment. Earthy tones and tiny, quirky details all come together in the formation of a weird and wonderful world where oven glove mittens are the obvious choice for an excursion.

bearspot_inn5Only the simplest components of a human face are visible under our hero’s inspired, vintage-look balaclava, yet the expressive power in accordance with our narrators exclamations are simply divine. Robert’s facial drawings are spot on, ensuring instantaneous recognition as to the feelings of our silent protagonist. Its a delightful excuse for little-uns to strengthen understandings of empathy and for us bigger ones, it’s really just very funny.

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As much as the absurdity is pleasing, I think there are a lot of reasons that Bear Spotting is actually a pretty intelligent children’s book. Not only does the silent figure demand a level of emotive analysis, but the format of the book as a whole is pleasingly subversive from the picture book status quo.

Once upon a time, books were words. Then pictures joined the party as the supportive side kick, echoing the text to reinforce the imagining in the readers mind. Then practitioners got clever. Imagery started to work together with the text providing additional details, or even showing a different reality to that of the words. Picture books subsequently became rich with narrative.

Bear Spotting is taking the next leap in the evolution of visual storytelling. Today, an all singing, all dancing new breed of pictorial-textual relationship has been emerging. Robinson and Roberts separate voices neither repeat nor subvert each other; instead they are two sides of the same dialogue. A reactionary book, if you like.

 

A short time ago, panicked traditionalists foresaw the death of books in place of the, more adaptive, games, films and apps. But seemingly picture books weren’t willing to give up so easily and new structural shifts have allowed for them to compete on the dynamic and reactionary plane. Our written narrator says jump, and our visual lead responds…rarely asking ‘how high’. Both have their own agenda and this interplay is the crux of the humour of this triumphantly absurd and delightful tale.

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I love the text hidden under the ‘folded page’ of the guide.
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Creative use of capitals, bold and direction of the font throughout really gives the narrator a distinctive voice.

The simple conversation of the story is executed perfectly, without the book becoming long winded or overdrawn. The design faculty at Bloomsbury have masterfully laid out the pages into a perfectly paced and well balanced number and their exquisite use of typographic play really brings a life and enthusiasm to Robinson’s narrative voice.

 

In a time when picture books are offering as much ingenuity as the current market suggests, it is no mean feat when I say that Bear Spotting has probably been one of my favourite releases this year. I congratulate every single person who had a hand in this delight, and I look forward to seeing where we end up next on this path through the children’s industry.

But be sure to pack your teddy and a stick of gum, and never rely on Stephen Fry as an authority to guide you through Bear Country.

ELCAF 2015 – Nobrow’s indie Comic Fest

Having already spent a weekend basking in the creative radiation of Alexis Deacon in his two day masterclass last weekend, this week I’ve taken another peek into the world of illustrative inspiration and general artistic goodness.

Following a series of talks and masterclasses throughout the month, the key player of the East London Comics and Arts Festival (ELCAF) is always the indie comics fair, held on the final weekend. Hosted by the beautiful and, almost sickeningly lovable publishers Nobrow, the fair is a celebration of contemporary illustration from all over the place, this year showcasing tables from Canada and France as well as our wealth of homegrown talent.

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I hate generic terms like “something for everyone” but unfortunately there are times when you really do just have to bite the bullet and succumb to the fact that there is no better way of saying it. Showcasing the numerous talents of indie publishers, comic stores and artists, the work on show was as diverse as it was eye bleedingly beautiful with artists and storytellers of all ages forming a real smorgasbord of stories.

And my how I gorged.

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I couldn't resist the chance to get my copy of Wild signed at the Nobrow table by the lady herself; Emily Hughes
I couldn’t resist the chance to get my copy of Wild signed at the Nobrow table by the lady herself; Emily Hughes
Beautiful little drawing left for me by Emily Hughes
Beautiful little drawing left for me by Emily Hughes

As well as a general display of sickeningly talented people, the day also consisted of a number of talks masterclasses and events. I was very happy to get the chance to add to my collection of books signed by people I like, with the very talented Emily Hughes signing at the Nobrow table, as well as attending a talk but the eloquent and wonderful Jillian Tamaki, in conversation with Paul Gravett.

Unfortunately (due to the fact I was sat behind someone with the biggest head I have ever seen) there are no photos to document this one, but it was a fantastic and honest talk about her life and the role of comics and illustration in it. As with the Alexis Deacon masterclass, it’s a really pleasing thing when successful and well regarded artists talk about their process and it sparks familiarity and chimes similarity with your own and once more I found myself desperate to get back to work.

I won’t go into to too much more depth, I’ll leave that to the numerous reviews and analyses that have no doubt been written and published about the whole festival online, but I’ll sign out simply with the fact that my inspiration batteries have has a good and thorough recharge. In an attempt give you something more of a taster, I’ve waded through the thousands of photos I snapped while I was there, and will leave you simply with a holiday slideshow of sorts all some of my personal highlights.

Peace out x

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Vivian Schwartz drawing a kitty!
Vivian Schwartz drawing a kitty!

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Beautiful Nobrow collection. I own too much of this selection.
Beautiful Nobrow collection. I own too much of this selection.

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My closing Haul!
My closing Haul!