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Shirley Hughes' Timeless Appeal April 12 2018 1 Comment

Shirley Hughes books and prints

Shirley Hughes is best known for her Alfie series, about the daily lives of a little boy called Alfie, his sister Annie Rose, and their family and community. Hughes' stories are warm and comforting and her illustration style is nostalgic and naturalistic. Children love her books because they can recognise their own daily lives in the stories, and adults love them for their sweetness and gentle humour. 

 


Five Irish Picks for St. Patrick's Day March 15 2018

Oscar Wilde: The Happy Prince, illustrated by Maisie Paradise Shearring

We're lucky to be a shop based in Ireland, a country with so many great stories and artists, and so many people who care about quality storytelling! With St. Patrick's Day coming up this weekend, we thought we'd share some of our favourite Irish themed books and gifts; from classic Irish stories to modern Dublin design. Here are five of our favourites:

Fog Island

Did you know that Tomi Ungerer, the iconic Alsatian creator of Moon Man, Otto and many more brilliant books, is an adopted Irishman? Ungerer moved to Ireland in the early seventies and still lives here with his wife and family. Fog Island is the author's ode to Ireland. It tells the story of Finn and Cara, a brother and sister who take their currach out to a mysterious island one foggy day. There they meet the mysterious Fog Man, who shows them how he makes the fog hang over the Atlantic!

Fog Island by Tomi Ungerer

Fog Island depicts rural Ireland in beautiful hand drawn illustrations, which capture the Irish light, waves and weather. Ungerer's dedication page reads, "I dedicate this book to Ireland and to all the wonderful people who welcomed us here". Aww. 


Chris Haughton

Chris Haughton is one of our favourite contemporary illustrators, and he was born and reared right here in Dublin! He now lives in London, and his colourful shapes and funny stories are endlessly popular with both children and adults.
We stock all of his picture books; Shh! We Have a Plan, Oh No,George!, A Bit Lost and his most recent title Goodnight Everyone.

Oh No George by Chris Haughton

Oh No, George might be our favourite of his books, featuring a dog who wants to be good but fails spectacularly. Last year we were delighted when Chris Haughton, and George himself, popped in to visit the shop on a trip home. Just look at our happy faces!

Chris Haughton at Tales for Tadpoles in Dublin

We're pleased to report that George the dog is as humble as they come, and has not let the bestselling fame go to his head. You can find out more about Chris Haughton's work in our "Illustrator of the Month" feature, here


P. J. Lynch

Amy Hest: When Jessie Came Across the Sea, illustrated by P.J. Lynch

P.J. Lynch is Ireland’s current Laureate na nÓg, he creates beautiful illustrations in a traditional and naturalistic style. Lynch has been illustrating both classic and contemporary stories by a range of authors for years.

P.J. Lynch: The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower

The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower and When Jessie Came Across the Sea, are two stories of emigrating to America, just as generations of Irish people have done. The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower is Lynch's first book as both illustrator and author. 

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde: Stories For Children, illustrated by P.J. Lynch

Oscar Wilde is one of the best known Irish writers. Like all true geniuses, he once turned his hand to entertaining that most discerning of audiences, children! We love this collection of Oscar Wilde’s children’s stories illustrated by P.J. Lynch. People often ask us to send this book as a gift to their family and friends overseas. It's a lovely a momento of Wilde’s home city of Dublin, and Lynch's illustrations in this edition really make the stories sing. 

Oscar Wilde: The Happy Prince, adapted by Maisie Paradise Shearring

If you like something a bit different, this modern adaptation of one of Wilde’s best known children’s stories, The Happy Prince, by Maisie Paradise Shearring is a great choice. Her unusual illustrations breathe new life into Wilde's story, and this book is a great way to introduce Oscar Wilde to young children. 

Irish design

Dublin is full of brilliant designers and makers, who can always put a new spin on even the best known stories. Keelin Murray, a.k.a. Murraymaker, is a local textile designer who makes our wonderful Roald Dahl and Peter Rabbit cushions.

Murraymaker Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cushion     

Shortly after opening Tales for Tadpoles we asked Dublin based design studio UNIT to reinterpret fairy tales and classic children’s books, they result was a range of amazing, symbolic artworks that our customers always notice and admire.

Seeing Red by UNIT, for Tales for Tadpoles

We hope all of our customers in Ireland and abroad have a wonderful St. Patrick's Day. Thank you for supporting a small Irish business! 

Browse our shop for more illustration focused gifts and books

 


Layers of Meaning: Kaatje Vermeire's Innovative Illustrations February 28 2018

Kaatje Vermeire is just one of the great illustrators currently working on the continent, who are strangely underappreciated by English speaking audiences. Although many of her books have been translated, readers in Ireland and the UK tend to stick to what they know and miss out on the experimental, innovative approaches being taken by continental illustrators.

Five Ways to Do Valentines Day Differently February 10 2018

Moomins print

Whether you celebrate Valentines, Pal-entines, Gal-entines or anti-Valentines-Day, some of the most beautiful messages of love can be found in children's books and illustrations. And they remind us that love takes a variety of forms; it can mean love for a partner, friends,  family, or your own sweet self!

Here are some of our favourite ways to celebrate Valentines Day a little differently.

Show your best friend they're the Piglet to your Pooh

It's one of the most touching friendships in all of literature, the bumbling bear and his squeaky soulmate Piglet! Piglet and Pooh are always there for each other, through thick and thin. 

Winnie the Pooh prints

We have lots of Winnie-the-Pooh prints and books to remind your best friend or sweetheart what they mean to you. 

Learn from the Moomins unconditional love for eachother

There are so many lovely relationships in the Moomins books, from Moominpappa and Moominmamma's solid partnership, to Snorkmaiden and Moomintroll's mutual adoration. 

Moomin prints

All types of relationships are represented; the inseparable and secretive Thingumy and Bob are said to be based on a relationship Tove Jansson had with a woman at a time when homosexuality was still deemed illegal in Finland.

Moomin cushion

The Moomin books  and prints are whimsical and sentimental, without being schmaltzy. They are a beautiful gift to express any kind of love and affection to someone you care for. 

Remind a sibling of the childhood you shared

People often come to us to find things to remind their siblings of a shared childhood. Do you remember what books you shared with your brothers and sisters?

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Cushion

Shirley Hughes and Roald Dahl are among the names that bring our customers back to those childhood Sundays, spent reading and messing around with a sibling. 

Shirley Hughes prints

Get this print here.

 

Introduce a little one to the joy of reading

Reading is one of the greatest gifts to give a child and one of the most magical ways to bond. Show a child in your life that you love them by sharing a book you loved as a kid,  or choose a story just for them from our range of contemporary picture books and children's classics

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery, hardback

Celebrate your individuality and independence!

Valentines day saturates us all with messages that being in a couple is the only thing worth celebrating, but being independent and true to yourself is worth celebrating too!

Rufus by Tomi Ungerer, hardback

Some of our favourite books are about individuality and independence: like Rufus, the bat who paints himself to stand out from the crowd. Or Witchfairy, the little girl who wants to live life on her own terms. 

Witchfairy by Brigitte Minne and Carl Cneutt

See in store for more of our favourite selections for Valentines Day. 


Nordic Magic: Five of Our Favourites from the North January 31 2018

Elsa Beskow mugs from Design House Stockholm

Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past few years will have noticed the massive trend in all things Nordic recently, from lifestyle trends like the Danish hygge philosophy to Swedish Kanken backpacks popping up everywhere. We’ve always loved Nordic design and illustration at Tales for Tadpoles, from classic Swedish author Elsa Beskow to the whimsical world of Moomin from Finnish artist Tove Jansson.
Here are five of our favourite things from Nordic countries.

1. Moomins!

If you don’t know Moomins, you would probably love them. If you already know them, you are probably deeply, deeply obsessed with them to a level that is perhaps unhealthy.

Tove Jansson: The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My


Moomins are creatures from the fictional land of Moominvalley. They were first created by the iconic Finnish author, illustrator and artist Tove Jansson in the 1940s, and are now a global brand. They feature in a series of novels and picture books, and at one point had their own daily comic strip which ran for over years and was read across continents, by a readership of 20 million.

Moomin print

Moomin prints

The 1960s and television culture brought with it a merchandising explosion, and Moomins were among the first characters to be reproduced in commercial prints for the retail market.

Vintage Moomin print: Sniff

This Moomin print was among the first ever produced for the retail market. Buy a reproduction here. 

There is something uniquely Finnish about the Moomins, with their tales of endless summers and snowy winters. They are now so much a part of Finland’s national consciousness that the two are inextricably linked. But they also have a global appeal. Moomins are huge in Japan, and with the current trend for all things Nordic they are becoming much more well known in Ireland, the UK and the U.S. Read more about Moomins and Tove Jansson in another of our blogs.

2. Folk and Fairy Tales

East of the Sun, West of the Moon illustrated by Kay Nielsen


Like Ireland, Scandinavia and the Nordic region has a very strong oral storytelling tradition and a wealth of folk history. Around the same time that Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats were collecting folk tales in Ireland, two folklorists set out to record the folk tales of rural Norway and published them in a volume called East of the Sun, West of the Moon. The tales were later reissued with illustrations by the Danish golden age illustrator Kay Nielsen, and what results is a feast for the senses.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon, illustrated by Kay Nielsen

East of the Sun, West of the Moon was recently reissued in a gorgeous hardback coffee-table book edition, (here),  with full pages to show off Nielsen’s intricate designs. It also includes essays on the history of folk culture and Golden Age illustration. You can learn more about the incredible Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen in our blog on his life and work. 

3. Classic authors like Elsa Beskow

Where children in Ireland and the UK grow up with the likes of Beatrix Potter and Roald Dahl, Scandinavian children grow up the books of Elsa Beskow.

Elsa Beskow: Christopher's Garden

 

Beskow was a turn of the century children’s writer and illustrator whose scenes of forests, nature and rural harvests are uniquely Nordic. The sense of humour in these books is very Swedish too, with grumpy goblins and well-meaning children who accidentally burn their mother’s house down!

Peter in Blueberry Land by Elsa Beskow


While other cultures are au fait with translation, the English speaking world tends to stick to its own well known authors. Introducing children to classic Scandinavian literature in translation is a great way to broaden their world view and feed their curiosity. You can find our large range of Elsa Beskow books here


Elsa Beskow's life was a fascinating story in its own right, you read more about her in our biography.


4. Wacky humour like Findus and Pettson


The Nordic countries have their own special brand of humour, which is very noticeable in Moomins and in other series’ like Findus and Pettson.

Nordic Magic: Findus and Pettson by Sven Nordqvist

Findus Moves Out

Findus and Pettson is a series of picture books by Sven Nordqvist,  about a grumpy old farmer and his mischievous cat. Findus and Pettson are modern day Odd Couple who get themselves into all sorts of scrapes, with hilarious results. As with Moomins, this series is a household name in Scandinavia and Germany, but is largely unknown in Ireland and the UK. Anyone we’ve met who takes one of these books home always comes back for the rest in the series. They are wacky, warm and memorable. And look at those illustrations! Read more about the warmth and wit of Sven Nordqvist here.  

Nordic Magic: Findus and Pettson

When Findus Was Little and Disappeared

5. Cosy homes

Elsa Beskow espresso mugs from Design House Stockholm


These Elsa Beskow homewares from Design House Stockholm show off slick Swedish design at its best. When you have to spend so much time indoors during the dark and cold winter months, you may as well do it in style! We could learn a lot from Nordic lifestyles about making the best of winter, and making your home pretty and cosy is a great place to start.

Browse our full range of homewares here. And have a look through our carefully curated book selection, which includes lots of brilliant Nordic authors and illustrators. 

Words by Sophie Meehan. 

 

 

 


The Man Who Made Miffy: Dick Bruna's Life and Art January 18 2018

Miffy by Dick Bruna

Every month we blog about an illustrator that we love, giving you the opportunity to learn more about your favourite authors' background and influences, or to discover great picture books you may not have heard of. So far we've covered a diversity of artists, from the forgotten genius of twentieth century illustration Kay Nielsen, to the underground icon Tomi Ungerer. This month we've been learning about Dick Bruna, the man behind one of our favourite children's characters. 

The Man Who Made Miffy: Dick Bruna's Life and Art                      

Dick Bruna was a Dutch illustrator, most famous for creating the iconic children’s character Miffy the rabbit. Miffy stars in a series of picture books, and a global range of merchandise; everything from chopping boards to cushions. Bruna was a very diligent worker, during his lifetime he created over 30 Miffy books, and a staggering 124 picture books in total!  Miffy is now a worldwide brand and a literary sensation; she is a household name in Japan, and there is a museum dedicated to her in Bruna’s hometown of Utrecht in The Netherlands. Dick Bruna distilled the simplicity and joy of childhood into his streamlined designs, and nowadays his work is appreciated by children aged 0 to 100.

How it began

Dick Bruna was born in Utrecht in 1927, in a Chinese Zodiac year of the Rabbit, naturally! His father Albert Willem Bruna was a partner in a successful publishing company called A.W. Bruna & Zoon. When the Second World War started, the Bruna family took refuge in a lake district in the heart of the Netherlands, and it was here that the young artist started to develop his talents. Dick Bruna was unable to attend school during this period, and instead had to entertain himself at home all day long by painting and drawing his surroundings. During the time away from the city, Albert Willem’s publishing colleagues in design and illustration would often visit the family, and they sometimes took the opportunity to give the young Dick Bruna a drawing lesson.

Miffy by Dick Bruna

After the war ended, Bruna strongly resisted becoming involved in his father’s business, saying that he didn’t have what it took to become a publisher. His father sent him to Paris for work experience at a publishing house there, but he was more interested in the city’s art history. The time in France gained him some of his most lasting influences, and the artists he discovered in Paris continued to impact his style throughout his career. Eventually, he became involved in his father’s company in a different capacity, as a graphic designer. He worked on book covers and his role gave him the scope to develop his simplistic and graphic illustration style.

Dick Bruna book covers

Book covers designed by Dick Bruna. (Photo by Present & Correct).

“And, sure enough one lovely day, their little bunny came.”

A couple of years after joining his father’s company, Dick Bruna married Irene de Jongh and three children followed. Having young children inspired Bruna to create his most well known character. After seeing a rabbit running in the sand dunes during a rainy holiday in coastal Holland, Bruna told his young son stories about the rabbit’s daily life, and Nijntje ,(the original Dutch name for Miffy), was born.

Miffy by Dick Bruna

The first Miffy book. Buy it here

Nijtnje is part of the Dutch word konijntje meaning “little rabbit”, (quite similar to the Irish coinín!).  Initially, until the book’s translation into English required a pronoun, Miffy was simply a small bunny, neither a girl or a boy. People who grew up with Miffy in the Netherlands often perceive Miffy as a boy, or as simply genderless. The name Miffy, thought up by an English editor when the first book was translated, has a more feminine undertone than the Dutch Nijntje.

Miffy’s usual smock type outfit wasn’t meant to indicate her gender either, Bruna simply found that dresses were more shapely to draw than trousers. Bruna always had a lot of fun with Miffy’s clothes, like this snow hat which fits neatly around both her ears! 


Miffy Dick Bruna

 

The simple life

Even though Miffy wasn’t originally conceived as a girl, she is a strong female rolemodel for young readers.  Miffy has an active and independent lifestyle, she cycles, toboggans, and paints. And she doesn’t let wearing a dress, or being a rabbit, hold her back!

Miffy glides gracefully through the tempestuous years of a toddler, nothing much seems to bother her. The text in Bruna’s books is sparse and rhyming, there are only four lines per page, and the strories focus on simple actions and activities. It’s this simplicity which makes Miffy so reassuring for young children and for stressed out adults. In the first, eponymously titled Miffy book, we spend most of the book in anticipation for the birth of the bunny. She arrives fully formed, and with a tilt of the head, her story begins.

Miffy by Dick Bruna

Buy the original Miffy book here

Miffy never has temper tantrums, she expresses all of her emotions through a simple tilt of the head or an infinitesimal change in facial expression. In Miffy is Crying, the bunny loses her bear and is, understandably, very upset. With the addition of two single tear droplets on her face, Dick Bruna expresses her sadness without having to alter the iconic design of her face. Bruna said that for every book he made, about 12 pictures were published, but hundreds were drawn. He would draw and redraw Miffy’s two dots for eyes and cross for mouth and nose, until it had precisely the right micro-expression.  He’s quoted in The Guardian’s obituary of him as saying “With two dots and a little cross I have to make her happy, or just a little bit happy, a little bit cross or a little bit sad – and I do it over and over again. There is a moment when I think yes, now she is really sad. I must keep her like that.”

Meticulous Miffy-making

Bruna meticulously created each of his illustrations by hand using the same method every time. First he would use black paint to create the outline of the drawing, and transfer the outline to a transparent cel. Then he would cut shapes out of coloured paper and hold them up the transparent drawing to see which colours fit best. Coming from a design background meant Bruna was extremely specific about what colours he used. He selected a small number of “Miffy colours” and stuck to them religiously. There is a Miffy orange and a Miffy blue, and these are immediately recognisable to young children who tend to associate stories with colours and design more so than text.

Miffy soft toys

Get your very own Miffy to bring home here. Head tilt included. 

Bruna was very particular about each and every illustration of Miffy, and he took his wife’s opinion as tantamount. If she didn’t like a certain drawing, he would put it away for several months. He always said that when he took it back out again, he would realise she was right!

A portrait of the bunny as a young artist

Dick Bruna’s start in graphic design meant that he was always regarded as a designer, rather than as a visual artist. He never finished high school and was completely self taught as an artist; at one stage he enrolled in art college in Amsterdam, but he felt out of place and soon dropped out.

Miffy made Bruna a huge success outside of his home country almost immediately, but the appreciation of him as a visual artist has been slower to grow. In 2015 the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam mounted a show of his work, poignantly titled “Dick Bruna. Artist”. This was designed to offer a new perspective on him as an influential visual artist, as well as a commercially successful designer and children’s book author. While living in Paris in his youth, Bruna was very influenced by his discovery of visual artists like Matisse and Léger. These artists’ work encouraged him to combine line and shape in a unique way. Like Matisse, Bruna would cut shapes out of coloured paper and arrange them by hand. (Read about how contemporary picture book maker Chris Haughton also employs this method in another of our blog posts, here).

Dick Bruna and Matisse

This drawing of Miffy in an art gallery is often compared side by side to "La Gerbe" by Henri Matisse. It shows the influence of the Matisse’ sense of colour and shape on Dick Bruna.

How Matisse influenced Dick Bruna

"La Gerbe" by Henri Matisse. Image from Taschen’s book Henri Matisse: Cut Outs. Drawing With Scissors.

Fernand Léger was another French artist whose expressive style influenced Dick Bruna. Léger, like Bruna, uses thick black lines and primary colours, the combination of which gives both artists' work a sense of childlike energy.

Léger and Dick Bruna                 Miffy prints by Dick Bruna

Bruna never used a ruler, and all of his lines have a slight hand drawn wobble.  This gives his work more character and charm than anything that could be drawn carefully and measured. Even though Miffy is a minimalist design, she retains the charm of a hand drawn illustration.

Life imitates art

The more you learn about Dick Bruna, the more you see of him in Miffy. Like her creator, the young rabbit is interested in drawing and painting. In Miffy The Artist she visits a gallery and immediately decides to become an artist herself. Bruna was born into a family business that didn’t interest him, but he managed to use it to his advantage to become an illustrator. It's this straightforward “why not” attitude to life that makes Miffy such a brilliant role model for young children.

Miffy the artist print

Get the print: Miffy the Artist

There are other similarities too, like Miffy’s practical nature. Whether it’s cycling a bike up a hill, or visiting the beach, Miffy gets on with the task at hand. Bruna himself was a punctual, hardworking man. He cycled to work in the same studio every day for 30 years, and when he accepted visitors to observe his work, he liked them to be on time and to leave promptly. You can almost imagine Miffy coming to visit her creator for tea, hanging up her raincoat, observing silently for precisely 20 minutes, and then leaving on her bicycle. Bruna and Miffy made a good team. We are lucky to know them.

Shop our range of Dick Bruna prints and Miffy merchandise here.

We also have lots more Dick Bruna cards and postcards to choose from in our lovely shop on Drury Street, in Dublin's city centre.

Words by Sophie Meehan.


Our Christmas Gift Guide! December 07 2017

 

Late Late Toy Show Tales for Tadpoles

The most wonderful time of the year is here! And this year has been extra special for us already, with a fantastic shout out from Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Toy Show!! He was talking about our fabulous Roald Dahl cushions, which have since flown out the door! Some of our most sought after cushions are now sold out, but they will all be back in next week; if you would like to reserve one, or be notified when they are back in stock, please call us on 01 679 2155 or email info@talesfortadpoles.ie.

Matilda cushion

BFG cushion         Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cushion

 

As well as our fabulous cushions, we've got so many more amazing gift ideas: we've got some beautiful new stock, including new books, kitchenware and accessories. Below are some special gift ideas to add to the festive cheer!

Gifts for babies

 

Guess How Much I Love You booties          Peter Rabbit wooden blocks

Christmas is a special time for even the youngest in the family. Sharing classic stories is a lovely way to start building baby's library, while keepsakes help preserve the memory. View our full range of lovely gifts for babies here

Homewares & Kitchenware

Elsa Beskow espresso mugs    Peter Rabbit apron

Miffy chopping board           Moomin kitchenware

We have a large range of gorgeous homewares in stock too this Christmas. Brighten up someone's morning routine with our Miffy, Moomin or Peter Rabbit kitchenware! Or avail of 20% off our Elsa Beskow kitchenware from Design House Stockholm.

Prints

Winnie the Pooh print   Matilda print

We have a large range of beautifully illustrated prints for all ages. Go for nostalgia with an image from your favourite children's book, or classical with something from the Golden Age of illustration. Or choose a modern take with our special designs from local artists. We can also frame any print in-store while you wait! Browse our full range of prints here. (You may have also spotted some of our Roald Dahl prints dotted around the Toy Show set!)

Decorations & Baubles

Alice in Wonderland christmas decorations      Elsa Beskow Christmas decorations

Christmas decorations can be charming tokens to help remember each festive gathering. We have loads to choose from this year, including designs from Hans Christian Andersen, Beatrix Potter, Elsa Beskow and Alice in Wonderland. (Most are available in-store only).

Books

A Treasury of Wintertime Tales        Jean E. Pendziwol: Once Upon a Northern Night, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Stories are the greatest gift of all! We have lots of beautiful children's books that will introduce little ones to the joy of reading, as well as gorgeous gift books adults will love. 

We really enjoy recommending books, so if you're looking for ideas feel free to pop in for a chat, or call or message us! Browse our large book collection online here, or pop in store for even more choice. 

Music Boxes

Blackthorn Fairy Music Box        Musical Jewellery Box: The Flower Fairies, The Zinnia Fairy

Bring sound to classic stories: this year we're stocking lovely Flower Fairies and Elmer music boxes.

Happy shopping!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Kay Nielsen: The Forgotten Genius November 22 2017

Kay Nielsen: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

Every month we focus a blog on an illustrator that we love, giving you the opportunity to learn more about your favourite authors' background and influences, or to discover great picture books you may not have heard of. So far we've covered everyone from beloved Swedish children's author Sven Nordqvist, to the Australian artist Shaun Tan. This month we've chosen one of our favourite turn of the century illustrators, Kay Nielsen, whose work we have stocked since the first days of the shop. 

Born at the right time 

Kay Nielsen was a Danish illustrator who produced work during the Golden Age, a period of unprecedented excellence in illustration that stretched from the 1880s to the 1920s. The Golden Age came about when Carl Hentschel and other pioneers invented technologies that could reproduce paintings and drawings accurately and inexpensively for the first time. Public appetite for new graphic art grew, and sumptuously illustrated gift books became popular. Artists like Arthur Rackham, Warwick Goble and Kay Nielsen illustrated books of fairy tales from masters like the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, as well as new stories. Along with Rackham and Edmund Dulac, Nielsen is often considered one of the greatest illustrators of the age.

Nielsen was born into an artistic family; his father was the director of the Dagmar theatre in Copenhagen and his mother was the star of the Royal Danish theatre. He spent his early life being exposed to performance and design. As Noel Daniel points out in one of the brilliant essays in Taschen’s beautiful reissue of East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the figures in Nielsen’s illustrations often look like actors in front of stage backdrops. He draws lengthened bodies from a low-down perspective; his backgrounds are expansive and often flattened to make the figures stand out.

"And pop! Out flew the moon". Get the print here.

"And pop! Out flew the moon". Get the print here

A new age for book illustration

The first book of fairytales Kay Nielsen illustrated was Powder and Crinoline, which shows a lot of the influence of Aubrey Beardsley, an illustrator who had a key impact on the Golden Age and on the history of book illustration itself. Before Beardsley, illustration had been mainly descriptive, and was to show only what the text had laid out. Beardsley treated every illustration as a work of art in its own right, and conferred new respect to the art of illustration. The advent of new technologies in reproducing images meant that artists could include more detail than ever, and Kay Nielsen’s illustrations for Powder and Crinoline are highly decorative. Every figure in his drawings is bedecked in flowing folds of clothing and the backgrounds are intricately detailed.

Kay Nielsen: Powder and Crinoline

From Powder and Crinoline

In a testament to how much emphasis was placed on illustration over text in these gift books, several of the stories in Powder and Crinoline had already been published in another collection by the same publisher only three years earlier. The earlier collection was illustrated by Edmund Dulac, in a softer and more classical style. Golden Age publishers understood that a book could be transformed by its illustrator. 


East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Nielsen’s break out book was East of the Sun and West of the Moon, published in 1914. Recently reissued in a sumptuous edition by Taschen, this collection of Nordic folktales were gathered by two folklorists in rural Norway in the mid 1800s and first published as a volume in 1841. As artists were starting to travel and study abroad more in the early 20th century, a cosmopolitan outlook was sweeping over Europe. But people were also beginning to focus more on their own country’s indigenous traditions. Many artists (including our own W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory), became interested in fairy and folktales from the oral tradition. The Kay Nielsen edition of East of the Sun and West of the Moon came about at the right time, and combined new heights of illustration art with an appreciation for rich folklore.

Kay Nielsen: East of the Sun, West of the Moon, illustrated by Noel Daniel

Taschen's glorious reissue of East of the Sun and West of the Moon


This book represents some of Nielsen’s best work, and is the source of many of our illustrated prints. The influence of Aubrey Beardsley is less apparent here; the stories’ Scandinavian background gives Nielsen a chance to embody a style all his own, encompassing both his Nordic origins and the myriad influences he had absorbed in his travels.


Kay Nielsen: East of the Sun, West of the Moon

From East of the Sun, West of the Moon


Nielsen studied art in Paris, worked with theatre companies in Copenhagen, became a success in London, and later worked as a creative director in Hollywood, including at Disney. East of the Sun, West of the Moon shows off his diverse range of influences, from Japanese block prints to the costumes of the Ballet Russes. The Ballet Russes, a Russian ballet company, debuted in Paris while Nielsen was a student there and quickly became an international sensation. Their work combined some of the best costumes, art direction, music and contemporary dance the world has ever seen, their style likely impacted Kay Nielsen as a young art student.

Ballet Russes Nijinsky      Kay Nielsen

Vaslav Nijinksy of the Ballet Russes, and one of Kay Nielsen's costumed figures from East of the Sun, West of the Moon

 

Too dark for Disney

Although their work for illustrated books was tremendously popular, artists in the Golden Age were still paid very little. Most had to depend on sales from their original work in gallery shows to make a living. In 1939, Nielsen moved to California to seek work with film companies, and was hired by Walt Disney to work on Fantasia. He worked on the memorably dark sequence “Night on Bald Mountain”, and the sombre procession for “Ave Maria”. Nielsen’s aesthetic stands out in stark contrast to the cute mice and dancing mushrooms in other parts of the film.

Nielsen's concept art for Disney's Fantasia


While at Disney, Kay Nielsen also produced concept art for The Little Mermaid, a project that was shelved until its eventual release in 1989. (He is credited on the 1989 version as a visual development artist). Although he was well respected by the other artists and animators at Disney, Nielsen was let go after four years, and entered a period of struggles in which he found little exposure. Unfortunately, his style had fallen out of favour in the latter years of his life. His last published book had been Red Magic, published in 1930, which shows a change in his output. His monochrome drawings here are more minimalist, as tastes were moving away from intricately detailed gift books and towards art deco simplicity.


Kay Nielsen Red Magic

From Red Magic 

 

Descent into obscurity

The embellished gift books with which Nielsen made his name were no longer wanted, and neither was his artwork. He worked on a collection of illustrations for Arabian Nights which he was unable to find a publisher for, that remained unseen until many years after his death. Nielsen descended into obscurity and spent the remaining years of his life painting wall murals and farming chickens. Some of his murals can still be seen in California today, this one was commissioned by an L.A. high school and adorns the wall of their school library.

It is a testament to Nielsen’s dedication to his art that he put as much detail and effort into this library mural as he did his most prestigious commissions. The artist completed the mural in 1944 and later spent two further years in the 1950s restoring and extending it. The school librarian at the time remembers that Nielsen would always already be hard at work by the time she arrived into school every morning.

Kay Nielsen died in poverty in 1957. Before her death, Nielsen’s widow and longtime companion, Ulla, bequeathed some of his original illustrations to the artist Frederick Monhoff, who in turn tried to have them placed in museums. But no museum would take them. 

Revival of popularity

Despite the decline of appreciation for Kay Nielsen’s style in his own lifetime, there has since been a revival of interest in him and in the Golden Age of Illustration in general. Since the 1970s people have been appreciating the art of these Golden Age masters anew, and Kay Nielsen in particular has stirred people’s imaginations. Perhaps this is because of his modernity and imagination, which still feels fresh today. For those interested in book illustration or in 20th Century art, Kay Nielsen’s work combines some of the greatest innovations in artistry with an amazingly diverse range of worldwide influences.

Browse our collection of Kay Nielsen prints and books here.


Lesser Known Masterpieces from Your Favourite Illustrators November 08 2017

John Yeoman: A Drink of Water, illustrated by John Yeoman

A Drink of Water, illustrated by Quentin Blake

The nature of children's books and childhood memory means that we often associate our favourite illustrators with just one book or series. Quentin Blake's recognisable inky illustrations will forever be associated with Roald Dahl, and Shirley Hughes' soft style immediately stirs fondness for her well-known Alfie series. But illustrators usually create masses of work in the span of their careers, and some of the most accomplished work from our favourite illustrators lies in books you might not have heard of yet! Here are some of our favourite lesser-known books from the most iconic illustrators of the last century.

Shirley Hughes 
Best known for Alfie

My Naughty Little Sister: A Treasury Collection

In 1968, Methuen commissioned the artist Shirley Hughes to illustrate the fourth collection of Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister stories, which began as a series of popular radio broadcasts. The series' author Dorothy Edwards loved Hughes’ illustrations so much that she was asked to re-illustrate the earlier collections for reissue, and the most well-known image of My Naughty Little Sister is now Shirley Hughes' depiction of her.

Alfie cushion Shirley Hughes

This work was a breakthrough success for Hughes, who went on to illustrate over fifty books, including her own massively popular Alfie series. Egmont recently released My Naughty Little Sister: A Treasury Collection, which has Shirley Hughes’ illustrations in full colour for the first time! You can buy it here.


Tove Jansson
Best known for creating The Moomins

In 1959, Tove Jansson, best known as the creator of the Moomins, was commissioned to illustrate a Swedish translation of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. Her illustration style suited Carroll’s strangeness perfectly, and this project is hailed as a meeting of two of the greatest children’s authors of the past 150 years.

The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Tove Jansson

Jansson was later asked to also illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandwhich presented her with an exciting opportunity to try out a new style. Upon receiving her work the book’s delighted editor immediately sent Jansson a telegram which read “Congratulations for Alice- you have produced a masterpiece”.

Lewis Carroll: Alice's Adventures in Wondrland, illustrated by Tove Jansson


E.H. Shepard
Best known for Winnie-the-Pooh

Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows

E.H. Shepard sometimes lamented that his beloved illustrations for Winnie-the-Pooh overshadowed his other work. He was a brilliantly versatile illustrator, adept at capturing the atmosphere of any writer’s work. Shepard was the original illustrator of the first edition of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. His drawings for the book show his skill at capturing characters and atmosphere, in a world that is very different from the Hundred Acre Wood. The Wind in the Willows has since been taken on by countless illustrators, Inga Moore’s version is one of our other favourites.


Quentin Blake
Best known for collaborating with Roald Dahl 

John Yeoman: A Drink of Water, illustrated by Quentin Blake

Long before he ever heard of Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake was already a popular illustrator. He first became well known for illustrating covers of Punch magazine, but always wanted to illustrate a full book. He asked his friend John Yeoman to write a collection of stories for him to illustrate, and in 1960 A Drink of Water was published. The book had been out of print for about fifty years, but Thames and Hudson recently released a new facsimile edition which is completely loyal to the original. (You can get it here). Blake’s illustrations, in his now iconic scratchy style, are immediately recognisable. Because of early sixties printing methods, the illustrations only use only two colours, which today gives them a lovely vintage feel. (You can see more of this 1960s print style in The Mellops go Spelunking and A Balloon for a Blunderbuss).

Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake


Quentin Blake’s amazing ability to illustrate a book’s most complex concepts is maybe best exemplified in Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. He said that this illustration, of the author “being sad but pretending [he’s] being happy”, was the most difficult he’s ever done, as he had to capture the sadness behind a smile. The image that follows it depicts how Rosen is really feeling. The comparison strikes to the heart of what the book is about. 

Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake


William Nicholson
Best known for The Velveteen Rabbit

The Velveteen Rabbit


William’s Nicholson was the original illustrator of Margery Williams’ Velveteen Rabbit, a story which has not declined in popularity since its original publication in 1922. Nicholson’s other books are now less famous, but are no less brilliant. He both wrote and illustrated Clever Bill, which Maurice Sendak described as “among the few perfect picture books for children”.

Clever Bill by William Nicholson

Sven Nordqvist
Best known for Findus and Pettson

Sven Nordqvist is a household name all over Scandinavia and in Germany for his series of books about an old farmer and mischievous cat, Findus and Pettson. But arguably his best work as an illustrator is in his stand-alone book Where Is My Sister.

Where Is My Sister by Sven Nordqvist

He conceived this book before Findus and Pettson ever existed, and came back to the project after becoming a successful illustrator. Where is My Sister is a surreal dreamscape of intricately detailed double spreads, published in large format which allows you to escape into its world for hours.


Jon Klassen
Best known for The Hat Trilogy

Jon Klassen is one of the most popular picture book makers working today. He’s best known for his explosively funny trilogy of books about animals and hats; I Want My Hat Back, This is Not My Hat and We Found a Hat. His collaborations with the writer Mac Barnett have also brought him acclaim. Their latest, The Wolf the Duck & the Mouse, was published only last month.

The Wolf, the Duck and the Mouse by Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett

Klassen and Barnett’s books are marked by their sly humour and expressive, devious animals, but Klassen's collaborations with other writers show a versatile range. House Held Up By Trees is written by poet Ted Kooser, and Klassen’s illustrations for it are on a completely different register to his other work. They have a sombre stillness that works well with the book’s reflective and poetic text.

House Held Up by Trees

Jon Klassen has also collaborated with the writer of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket. Their book, The Dark, is all about the balance of light and dark, both in its story and its artwork.

Lemony Snicket: The Dark, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Our carefully curated selection of books includes lots of lesser known works by iconic illustrators, as well as books from amazing artists you may not have heard of. You can browse the entire range here


Chris Haughton's Deceptively Simple Storybooks October 25 2017

Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton

Every month we focus a blog on an illustrator that we love, giving you the opportunity to learn more about your favourite authors' background and influences, or to discover great picture books you may not have heard of. So far we've covered everyone from beloved Swedish children's author Sven Nordqvist, to the Australian artist Shaun Tan. This month we've chosen an Irish illustrator and one of the most popular children's book authors of the last decade, Chris Haughton. 

A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton

Chris Haughton was born in Dublin and is now based in London. His books are pitched at a very young audience, and designed to be enjoyed by children even before they develop language. But his unique art style, and his use of build-up and humour to create a story, make him very popular with adults too. 

Before moving into children’s books, Haughton worked as a freelance illustrator and designer. He designs textiles and has worked for years with non-profit projects and fair trade movements in Nepal and elsewhere. In 2007, Time Magazine listed him among 100 standout designers for his work with the fair trade company People Tree.

 

Chris Haughton poster
 © Chris Haughton, 2012

 

Like many other illustrators such as Tomi Ungerer, he has worked on commission in advertising and editorial work, and his ads show the same playfulness and creativity as his books. When he moved into picture books, he remained true to his unique style, and they offer something refreshingly different within the children's book market. 

 

A colourful start

Haughton’s books for children to date are A Bit Lost (2010)Oh No, George! (2012), Shh! We Have a Plan (2014) and, most recently, Goodnight Everyone (2016). They immediately stand out on any bookshelf because of their vibrant and unusual use of colour and shape. Haughton's colour palette is full of vibrant pinks, purples, greens and oranges. He uses all of the primary and secondary shades on the colour wheel at once on some pages, sometimes placing sharply contrasting colours side by side.

 

Chris Haughton's use of the colour wheelGoodnight Everyone by Chris Haughton

Primary and secondary colours in Goodnight Everyone

Haughton makes these colour clashes work with his keen sense of design, and the way he can seamlessly balance a variety of block shapes into a cohesive overall picture. To make his illustrations, Haughton first sketches out the scene by hand, then scans and fills them out digitally with block colour. He likes to hide shapes within shapes, so there are often animals hidden in his forests, and his books reveal new details every time you read them. 

Chris Haughton process

Chris Haughton creating characters from cut paper, (via CLPE on Youtube)

Colour also helps to tell the story. In Oh No, George!, tangy oranges and reds go side by side with purples, but instead of seeming incongruous, the loud tones just add to the sense of urgency and danger George the dog feels while trying to resist his base urges to eat cake and dig in the flowerbeds!

Chris Haughton process

Character sketches for Oh No, George! From blog.chrishaughton.com

These vibrant colours might partly explain Haughton's wild popularity with very young children. (We can barely keep up with the demand for his books in Tales for Tadpoles!) In Shh! We Have a Plan, small children can enjoy pointing out the colourful pink bird in a landscape of blues. And they get a great payoff in the double spread near the end of the book where there are suddenly dozens of birds to point at. Speaking to picturebookmakers.com, Haughton said that he tries to tell stories “as much as possible through images rather than through words”. This means his books can be understood by the youngest children, who can read visuals long before they can read text.

Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton

From Shh! We Have a Plan

A little owl who made it round the world

Chris Haughton’s ongoing work in design and fair trade textiles brings him around the world, and his work combines a homeliness with a universality that has made him popular worldwide. His first book for children, A Bit Lost, was first published in Korean in 2009 before it was published by Walker Books in 2010, and has since been translated into 20 languages to date, including into Irish as Ar Strae Beagán. It tells an old story in a new way; the story of getting lost and trying to find your parent.

Little Owl falls out of the nest, “Bump…bump…BUMP!” and a neighbourly pink squirrel decides to help him find his way home.  The squirrel keeps getting it wrong, leading the little owl to a bear and a rabbit, before a frog eventually recognises him and leads him to his mother. The reader turns the page to witness this emotional reunion!

A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton, board book

This is one of our most popular board books, and sells like hot cakes (or biscuits, which as Squirrel and Frog say at the end of the book “are our favourite thing”). And like all the best picture books, there is always something tucked in for adults to enjoy, too. Chris Haughton likes to include a relevant philosophical quote at the end of his books, which help to illuminate the deeper meanings of his seemingly simple stories. In A Bit Lost, it's from Robinson Crusoe:

"Thus we never see the true state of our condition, till it is illustrated to us by its contraries; nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it."

A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton

Playing with pages

Although he didn’t start out in books, the format suits Haughton’s work perfectly. He has a lot of fun with the drama of the page-turn, and he uses half-pages to add a sense of physical play to the act of reading. In a blog he keeps about his work processes, he writes that he often formulates the stories in his book around page-turning moments. When making Oh No, George!, about a dog who tries to be well behaved but fails spectacularly, he realised that it “can be great fun when reading aloud if there is a bit of a build up, so [he] decided to build up to a page turn where the dog messes up somehow… that was how the basic idea came about”. Haughton has said he is most proud of these two double spreads from the book; where three images build up to us wondering what George will do, and the next spread shows us exactly what he has done!

Oh No, George by Chris Haughton

Oh No, George by Chris Haughton

Goodnight Everyone

His latest offering, Goodnight Everyone, has a more reflective tone than previous books. Perhaps influenced by his travel and work in fair trade, witnessing the long supply-chain that many Western consumers take for granted, Haughton had for years wanted to create a book about scale and connections. But it took the author years to find his way to this book. He abandoned earlier versions before coming back to the idea a couple of years later, after becoming an uncle. His young nieces who were visiting for Christmas were having trouble sleeping, and so he created this deceptively simple bedtime story.

Goodnight Everyone by Chris Haughton

Goodnight Everyone is a book about going to sleep, but it’s also about the scale of the universe. A contagious yawn moves from the smallest animal to the biggest, and Haughton uses a series of mini-pages to reveal bigger and bigger animals behind the leaves.

Goodnight Everyone by Chris Haughton

Each new colour here marks a mini-page to turn in the book. 

His nieces enjoyed being able to turn the smaller pages, and being included in the story when the yawn caught on to them too. When Little Bear eventually decides to sleep, the reader says goodnight to all of the animals individually, and as we move on to the next page the books “zooms out” to include the animals from the previous page in the background. This is a clever way to visually introduce children to the scale of the world, and how we all relate to each other. The main characters are Little Bear and Great Big Bear, and in the end papers we see their shapes in the constellations of the night sky. The maps of the stars and solar system either end of the book provide a great opportunity to teach children about the rotation of the earth, and to explain that on our side of the planet, it is time to go to bed!

Goodnight Everyone by Chris Haughton

Chris Haughton’s books are visual enough to be enjoyed by the very youngest readers, but they are far from simple. They can be enjoyed on so many levels, through everything from colour theory to philosophy.

You can buy all of Chris Haughton’s books from us here.

 


Seven Things You Didn't Know About Winnie-the-Pooh October 11 2017 1 Comment

Winnie the Pooh print

A.A. Milne's wonderful stories and poems about the bumbling bear Winnie-the-Pooh are loved the world over. With the release of the new film Goodbye Christopher Robin and an upcoming  Pooh exhibition in London this winter, there is more focus than ever on the true stories behind the bear. Most people know that Christopher Robin, the small boy in the books, is based on the author's son, and that the stories take inspiration from his childhood. But did you know where exactly the name Winnie came from, or who the books' illustrator E.H. Shepard based Pooh's appearance on? Here are six facts about Winnie-the-Pooh that even the hardcore fans might not have known. 

Winnie-the-Pooh was named after an actual bear, who was named for Winnipeg in Canada

In 1914 a military vet called Harry Colebourn was heading into World War One to look after the Canadian regiments horses. When the train stopped for a break, he spotted a trapper on a station platform with a baby bear cub by his feet. Colebourn impulsively paid for the bear, and took her on the train to the soldiers’ camp! He named the bear Winnipeg, which was shortened to Winnie, and she became a mascot for the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade. Harry Colebourn’s great granddaughter wrote a picture book telling the story of Winnie the real life bear, called Finding Winnie.

Finding Winnie

You can buy this book in our online store, here. 

Christopher Robin met Winnie the bear at London Zoo

When Winnie’s Brigade shipped out to England for training, Colebourn brought the bear all the way over with them on the ship. But when orders came to fight in France, he knew that Winnie couldn’t stay by his side any longer. He drove her to London, where he handed her over to London Zoo. Later, when A.A. Milne brought Christopher Robin to the zoo, the little boy was immediately enchanted by the bear. He would even be let into her enclosure to feed and play with her! As for the "Pooh" part of the name, that came from a nickname Christopher Robin gave to a swan he befriended. 

Christopher Robin and Winnie the bear

Christopher Robin and Winnie the bear in London Zoo

The first Christopher Robin books were actually books of poetry, and the Hundred Acre Wood came after

A.A. Milne’s first books for children were When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, which are books of poems. Milne had previously been a journalist and editor but had wanted to move into novels for some time. He was moved to write the poem "Vespers" after seeing Christopher Robin saying his prayers.

Vespers by A.A. Milne, print

This poem was well received and Milne decided to write a full book of children’s poetry. It wasn’t until these books of verse proved wildly popular,(When We Were Very Young sold out of its first print run on publication day!) , that his publisher suggested he start writing stories for children too.

Christopher Robin’s real toys inspired the Winnie-the-Pooh books

The characters Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo were all based on Christopher Robin’s real life teddies. The same teddies now reside in New York public library, where they can be viewed by the public. All except Roo, who was tragically lost in the 1920s and has never made contact with home. Kanga must be heartbroken…

Christopher Robin's toys

Owl and Rabbit are the only characters who are meant to be real, as they’re based on the animals found in forests around A.A. Milne’s home.

A.A. Milne rejected E.H. Shepards illustrations at first

When a publisher first suggested E.H. Shepard as an illustrator for his children’s story-books, A.A. Milne was very sceptical. Shepard was known for his drawings in magazines such as Punch, and Milne described him as “perfectly hopeless”! Thankfully, he was convinced to try using Shepard's illustrations for his first poetry book. When it was a rave hit, he realised that Shepard was the perfect fit for Winnie-the-Pooh.

When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne, illustrated by E.H. Shepard

From When We Were Very Young

In an unusual move for the time, Milne even arranged that Shepard should be paid part of the Winnie-the-Pooh books’ royalties, rather than a flat rate for his illustration work. The split was arranged at 80/20.

E.H. Shepard modelled Pooh on his son Graham’s teddy bear, not Christopher Robin’s

While still working on early drafts of Winnie-the-Pooh, the pair decided that initial sketches based on Christopher Robin’s teddy looked too gruff, and not cuddly enough for the whimsical character that Milne had written. So Shepard instead looked to his son Graham’s teddy bear, Growler, and drew a bear with a big round tummy and quizzical expression that was the perfect match for Pooh. The illustrator’s depiction of Christopher Robin was also an amalgamation of the boy himself and his own son.

Winnie the Pooh           Winnie the Pooh

E.H. Shepard's initial sketches of Christopher Robin's teddy (left) and Graham's teddy (right). © EH Shepard/The Shepard Trust, via The Guardian

 

A huge, real life game of Poohsticks takes place in England every summer

In The House at Pooh Corner, Poohsticks is a game that Winnie-the-Pooh invents by accident when he drops a pine cone into the river from a bridge. The object of the game is to drop two sticks into a river from one side of a bridge, and then watch to see which one comes out first on the other side. A.A. Milne and Christopher Robin played this game in real life, at a bridge in Ashdown forest which now attracts masses of visitors and has been officially renamed Poohsticks Bridge.

Poohsticks print by E.H. Shepard

In 1984 a lock-keeper of the river Thames saw an opportunity to create a fundraiser around the game of Poohsticks, and the World Poohsticks Championships has been running annually ever since. The event is now held in Witney, Oxfordshire, and has raised tens of thousands of pounds for the RNLI.  

Find all of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, with E.H. Shepard's original illustrations, here. And if you love E.H. Shepard's illustrations as much as we do, view our collection of his prints


Suburban Surrealism: The World of Shaun Tan September 27 2017 2 Comments

Shaun Tan illustrator

Our Illustrator of the Month blog series is a chance to find out more about your favourite illustrators, or to discover new ones. So far, we’ve written on classic authors like Elsa Beskow, cult illustrators like Tomi Ungerer and Tove Jansson, and modern picture book makers like Jon Klassen.

This month we’ve chosen a living and working artist, the brilliant Shaun Tan. Shaun Tan is known for his surreal and socially conscious work, which manages to blend outlandish imagination with real-life relatability. His work as an illustrator is unique and recognisable, he combines vivid, sweeping backgrounds with his distinctive character shapes. His work is challenging and difficult to categorise, often addressing things not broached in standard picture-books. So much so that bookshops in his native Australia and beyond have begun carving out sections for picture books for adults. Though dark at times, his writing is ultimately optimistic, and his drawings show the limitless scope of his imagination.  

Tales From Outer Suburbia

Double spread from Tales from Outer Suburbia

Tales from Outer Suburbia

Shaun Tan grew up in the suburbs of Perth in Western Australia. He became known at school for being good at drawing, and while still a teenager he began publishing illustrations for sci-fi and horror stories in small-press magazines. It’s easy to imagine the young artist creating imaginative worlds to escape from the blankness of a suburban upbringing. Tales from Outer Suburbia, one of Tan’s books as both writer and illustrator, is a collection of stories of surreal goings on in an otherwise normal suburb. In Eric, (which was also released as a stand-alone book due to its popularity), the narrator tells us about a foreign exchange student coming to stay with his family. The exchange student’s hard-to-pronounce name is shortened, and the spare bedroom is all made up and ready for him. But the text’s first hint that something is amiss comes when Eric tells the family he would prefer to sleep in the pantry. Eric is endearingly tiny,(illustrations show him carrying a hollowed out peanut shell as luggage), and polite, so his strangeness is basically accepted by the family.  “It must be a cultural thing”, is the mother's explanation. 

Eric by Shaun Tan

Many of Shaun Tan's books feature characters who feel out of place in the culture and context they find themselves in. The Arrival, his most famous work, tells the familiar story of a migrant seeking new opportunity abroad, but tells it in a completely new way. The man in this book lands in a bewildering city of strange animals, floating objects and an indecipherable language, and his journey is shown entirely through pictures. 

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

                                   From The Arrival. A full blog post on The Arrival is coming soon! 

In an article for Viewpoint Magazine about creating The Arrival, Shaun Tan wrote that he has,

"a recurring interest in notions of ‘belonging’...One contributing experience may have been that of growing up in Perth, one of the most isolated cities in the world, sandwiched between a vast desert and a vaster ocean... Being  half-Chinese at a time and place when this was fairly unusual may have compounded this..."  

He gathered anecdotes of immigrant experiences; including those of his father, friends and partner, and found the common threads in their stories to help create The ArrivalThis has meant that even though its setting is outlandishly inventive, this story is a very familiar one for most people.

The ''Real" in Surreal

In Rules of Summer Shaun Tan again allows us to recognise ourselves in settings that lie beyond the realms of our wildest imaginations. In a book made up of large format illustrations and double spreads, we get a sense of Australia’s open expanses of sky and roads, and its shimmering heat.

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

But these recognisable elements are woven into bizarre worlds, to which the sparse text offers no explanation.  “This is what I learned last summer” the narrator tells us. The lessons listed and seem simple enough, “never leave the back door open overnight, “never eat the last olive at a party”. But the images show us the consequences of these actions: if you leave the door open a spontaneous growth of lizards and glowing fungi will take over your living room. If you eat the last olive at a party an army of humanoid hawks will devour you. Shaun Tan’s world is what you get when you mess up the dials on the TV. Colour and contrast are suddenly heightened and skewed, but we can still see the reality that remains underneath. The growths in your living room might be poisonous spiders from your Australian back garden. The hawks might be a room full of your parents’ friends who think you’ve got bad manners. Tan has said that he created this particular illustration while attending various social functions related to his Oscar win in 2011, (for an animated adaptation of The Lost Thing), which might explain why the hawks are wearing tuxedos!

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

Millions and Millions of Rabbits

The allegories in Shaun Tan’s work aren’t limited to harmless suburban happenings though. In 1999, the Children’s Book Council of Australia awarded him and writer John Marsden a Picture Book of the Year award for The Rabbits. In reference to colonialism and the destruction of the Aboriginal way of life in Australia, rabbits invade a country in their millions, build a rabbit society, and wipe out what was there before. The choice of rabbits as the invading animal in this book adds another frame of reference, as rabbits caused havoc in Australia’s unique ecosystem when artificially introduced into the country by humans. The Rabbits is an allegory for all times, and all cultures, about human ignorance and greed.

The Rabbits by Shaun Tan

From The Rabbits 

It would be easy to classify Shaun Tan as a writer for adults alone, based on the challenging content of some of his books. Responding to criticism levelled at The Rabbits in the Australian media, Tan writes on his website that the book was originally conceived for older readers. But to limit his books to an adult readership would be to do children a disservice. Children can handle more than they’re given credit for, and at the core of a lot of Shaun Tan’s work is a childlike innocence and ultimately optimistic outlook on the world. His books often feature creatures that the average adult wouldn’t find sympathetic, but that children will be drawn to. And in a scenario that many parents will recognise, the oddest creatures are adopted as pets! In The Lost Thing, the narrator tells us about a time he found a Lost Thing and tried to find a place for it. No reference is made in the text to what this “thing” looks like.  Shaun Tan gives himself full rein to design a completely unrecognisable creature, which ends up as massive red metal thing with octopus legs and metal spikes on top… and somehow still manages to be sort of cute!

The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

Because this is a picture book, and not a novel, there is no long passages of text explaining where the Thing came from or why it exists. It is just there, and when we read the book we become its friend, and that’s that. This essential lack of judgement is what makes Shaun Tan so appealing to children, and adults who want to stay in touch with that glimmer of innocence inside themselves. There is also plenty here for children who love to read the same books over and over again, playfulness abounds in the small details of Tan's illustrations. A newspaper page shows us where the Thing might have a place after all; The Federal Department of Odds & Ends, whose Latin motto is sweepus underum carpetae. (If Harry Potter has taught us anything, it’s that children love a bit of nonsensical bureaucracy in their books). Other articles on the page, that adults might gloss over but sponge-like children will not, include a product recall for a potentially lethal fault in “model 350A Deluxe ‘Suck & Slice’ automated beet cutters”.

The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

Back to Basics

The majority of Shaun Tan’s work comes from a completely new and invented place, but like all great writers he is also interested in where stories come from, and what came before him. He explores this in The Singing Bones, a collection of sculptures he created based on the Brothers Grimm fairytales. In the introduction to the book the writer Neil Gaiman says that Tan’s sculptures do “something profound. His sculptures suggest. They do not describe. They imply; they do not delineate. They are, in themselves, stories.” Gaiman’s evaluation could be applied to any of Shaun Tan’s work; all of his illustrations leave themselves open to interrogation. But Tan may have found his perfect form in sculpture. The rounded shapes of his character design and pointed shapes of his buildings find a perfect balance here, and each sculpture hums with movement and energy even though they are still and quiet.

The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan

In his 2D illustrations, Tan often uses collage and mixed media, and his sculptures are no different. In his Hansel and Gretel sculpture ,(which was the first one he made), the children kneel to gobble up real cake decorations from the house behind them, while a witch leers from the shadows. Such a simple idea immediately tells us what story this is, and distills it to its essence.

You get the sense, when reading a Shaun Tan book, that he enjoys his work immensely. That he feels lucky to be able to create such weird stories and drawings and not only have them published, but have them loved and appreciated by masses of people. The feeling is infectious. Seeing an artist give their imagination full rein makes us wonder what else there is to be discovered in the world, if we open ourselves up to all of life’s infinite possibilities.

Find all of the books mentioned, and more Shaun Tan books, here.

 


A Hidden Gem: The Warmth and Wit of Sven Nordqvist August 30 2017 1 Comment

Findus and Pettson

Our Illustrator of the Month blog series focuses on some of our favourite illustrators, their lives and their works. This is a chance to learn more about the people who illustrated your favourite books, the influences that shaped their art style and storytelling, and some of their lesser known projects.

This month we’ve chosen the amazing Swedish illustrator Sven Nordqvist, best known for his Findus and Pettson series. Findus and Pettson are household names in much of Scandinavia and central Europe, and the books have been translated into 44 languages and read by millions. Which just goes to show the blinkered vision of the English speaking world when it comes to what the rest of the planet is reading! He's not well known in Ireland, but we've found that anyone who buys one of his books from us always comes back for another, and another. As soon as you open any Sven Nordqvist book, you’ll fall in love with his characters, his humour and his style.

Sven Nordqvist illustrator

Sven Nordqvist was born in Helsignborg, a coastal city in southern Sweden.  He always wanted to be an illustrator, but amazingly was rejected by several art schools! Instead he went on to study architecture, and to this day describes himself as a draughtsman rather than an illustrator. Nordqvist became an architecture lecturer, but continued to seek illustration work in advertisement and posters. In 1983 he won first prize in a picture book competition and since then he has been working solely as and author and illustrator. This was a lucky break not just for Nordqvist but for us all, as the world would be a sadder place without his work! Findus and Pettson have brought joy to millions of children and adults worldwide. That said, Nordqvists’s background in architecture may have been a blessing in disguise for his unique illustration style. His books are full of busy but impeccably balanced compositions, and beautiful landscape drawings.

Findus Goes Fishing by Sven Nordqvist

Landscape from Findus Goes Fishing 

He manages to be able to include massive amounts of detail without his illustrations ever feeling overcrowded. And a keen sense of balance is also key to why his writing is so brilliant. The Findus and Pettson series is full of wacky antics, but it can also be quite sentimental and touching at times. So, if you haven’t met them already, it’s time to be introduced to Findus and Pettson!

The old man and the cat

Pettson is an old farmer who lives a contented, if somewhat lonely, life on his farm, until the sudden arrival of a tiny kitten in a box of Findus Green Peas. The kitten is a gift from a neighbour, and Pettson names him Findus. And then… all hell breaks loose.

Findus and Pettson by Sven Nordqvist

Findus and Pettson's first meeting as described in When Findus Was Little and Disappeared 

Thus follows a whole series of brilliant escapades of this odd couple, the rambunctious Findus and the crotchety old Pettson. Nordqvist is brilliant at capturing gestures and expressions, and he shows Findus’ manic energy through drawing him contorting countless times on the same page, which children of course find hilarious!

Findus Moves Out by Sven Nordqvist

From Findus Moves Out

There is plenty for adults too, in the intricate details that swarm every page of illustrations. All of the best illustrators know that pictures can tell us things that words cannot, and we get an amazing sense of homeliness and eccentricity from Nordqvist’s depictions of Pettson’s cluttered house and garden. Tiny creatures called  “muckles” are hidden in every corner, pictures on the wall watch the action unfold, and badly mended contraptions give a perfect sense of Pettson’s stubborn independence. Here is a man who has lived alone for decades and does things his own way; fireworks are kept in a hatbox by the door, and pepper is kept in the bicycle basket. Obviously.

Findus and the Fox by Sven Nordqvist

From Findus and the Fox 

Although humour is the main focus of these genuinely witty books, Nordqvist’s writing can be very emotionally astute too. We see this in Findus Goes Fishing, when Findus tries to cheer up a despondent and irritable Pettson. Findus may be a scatty cat but he knows how to help out his friend. He pretends to scrabble around for fishing equipment to go fishing on his own, clanging around the toolshed and trying to lift the cumbersome fishing rod all alone.  Pettson of course eventually gives in and accompanies him, and the fresh air and the stillness of nature quickly reminds him how good life can be. Soon the pair are laughing together again.

Findus soft toy

Findus helping with our accounting. Get your own Findus here!

Nordqvist has said that he believes Pettson is popular with children because he allows Findus his freedom, while still providing the security and stability that children (and cats) need. Findus often tests the limits of the old man’s patience, but Pettson remains ultimately forgiving. In Findus Moves Out, the cat decides to to fly the nest, and Pettson provides what he needs to build a new home…in the garden shed. This will be familiar to any child who has ever sought independence by pitching a tent in their parents’ garden. In the end, Findus realises that Pettson’s company isn’t so bad after all, and invites him over for their favourite food, pancakes. (But Pettson cooks the pancakes of course).  Warmth and wit are hallmarks of these books, and it’s not hard to see why they’re so popular in other parts of the world.

Findus Moves Out by Sven Nordqvist

From Findus Moves Out

The Masterpiece

Nordqvist is definitely best known worldwide for the Findus and Pettson series, but the book that shows his amazing artistry to its full potential is probably his stand-alone picture book Where Is My Sister. The idea for this book came to him before he ever started Findus and Pettson, and he came back to it years later, now a successful illustrator with the means to focus on this experimental and highly unique project. Where Is My Sister was originally designed without text, and large double page spreads of images give Nordqvist the scope to show off his mercurial talent as an illustrator. Small passages of text tell the story of a little mouse who is looking for his straying sister, and we travel with him through the sprawling landscapes of her mind, to find her hidden on every page. 

Where Is My Sister by Sven Nordqvist

In a note at the back of the book Nordqvist writes,  “What appeals to me… is the idea of images telling stories and capturing all of our attention. Without the need for explanations, anything can happen.”. Illustrations often leave more room for interpretation and imagination than text does, which is one of the reasons children love picture books, and Nordqvist’s work in particular. His range of detail allows children to pore over the page and discover its secrets for themselves. In a modern world where everything rushed, he recognises the special feeling of getting lost in a single page of a book, allowing it to take you away and shut out the outside world.

Where Is My Sister by Sven Nordqvist

Nordqvist explains that he kept very closely to his original sketches when creating Where Is My Sister. He trusted his spontaneity, and he was right to, as this only adds to the dreamlike quality of the book. To find his sister the little mouse in the story must get inside her head, and some of the things he finds there are unexpected, naturally. But as the little mouse gets closer to finding his sister, we get to know her better, and in the end, it all makes sense. The text for this book was added afterwards, and is very different from the zany and action-packed stories of Findus and Pettson. The text here is more like a collection of short poems; atmospheric and sometimes melancholy:

“She’s in her thoughts, somewhere else, where I can’t reach her. And then suddenly she’s happy again and says: let’s make a car, a racing car, and zoom around at the speed of sound!”

All in all, both the pictures and text in this book delicately reflect the complexities of any relationship between a younger and older sibling.

Sven Nordqvist’s books are funny and zany, but it’s the way he can combine humour and sentiment that really sets him apart. His sense of humour is sometimes sarcastic, but always warm. His world is surreal, but it is grounded in the real love that exists between his characters. And of course, he has the rare quality of being equally accomplished in both his illustration and his writing. Do yourself a favour and pick up one of his books today, for a child you know, or for your inner child!

View our whole range of Sven Nordqvist books here


Too Much Too Soon? Dark Themes in Children's Books August 16 2017

Dark Themes in Children's Books

Illustration by Kaatje Vermeire from Maia and What Matters

We believe that children’s books have a special importance in teaching people about values, imagination and the world in general from a very young age. But should that education include the darker side of life, or should children be sheltered from life’s unpleasantness as far as possible?

Grimm & grimmer

Since stories for children have been in existence they have functioned as warnings and behavioural codes for children. The Brothers Grimm Fairytales have become part of our psyche without us even realising, everyone knows the meaning of a Big Bad Wolf.  Stripped back to their core, fairytales are just lessons for life: don’t talk to strangers (Little Red Riding Hood), don’t stray too far from home (Hansel and Gretel), and things are not always as they seem (The Princess and the Frog).

The original Grimms stories didn’t hold back when getting these messages across, some of the original tales are downright gory. Cinderella’s ugly sisters hack parts of their feet off to fit into the glass slipper and Red Riding Hood’s huntsman cuts the sleeping wolf’s belly open to find her grandmother still alive inside!

These stories have since been softened up and Disney-fied, with most people now knowing them in much fluffier forms. But what is still capturing the imaginations of artists and writers generations later is their dark edge, the way they touch on the less talked about sides of life. Stories can sometimes be the only place where we can freely explore difficult subjects, especially when we are children.

Seeing Red by UNIT design

This stencil artwork by UNIT. design studio captures the ambiguity and threat of the Red Riding Hood story. Read our earlier blog all about how UNIT. create their artwork here

Play-pretend and growing up

Books for children have a vital function not only in teaching them about the world, but also in allowing them to explore emotions such as fear and sadness, in a safe way. For a lot of children, giggling and cowering from an adult reading in the voice of the Big Bad Wolf is how they learn to act out fear for the first time. A lot of children enjoy scary stories in the same way adults enjoy rollercoasters and horror films. They present a chance to experience the full range of human emotion, without having to be in it for real. For children, learning what it is to be frightened within a make-believe context can help them process an emotion that they will inevitably face for real sooner or later in life.

Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf by golden age illustrator Arthur Rackham.

Our Illustrator of the Month blog series has touched on some of the best children’s authors, and what these authors all have in common is the fact that they don’t talk down to children. Instead, the best among them have a special ability to get in touch with the child’s psyche. Great children’s writers remember that children have a unique view on the world which is all too easy for grownups to forget. Learning about the absurdities of the adult world can be immensely confusing for children, when we consider that adults lie out of politeness, they accept things that are totally unfair, and they spend much of their time doing things they don’t enjoy. The best children’s books delight in this absurdity and create a world where the author and the child reader are in on it together. Think of the dedication preceding Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince: “I ask children to forgive me in dedicating this book to a grown up” and the exasperation in its first pages, “Grown ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to explain it to them again and again”.

The Little Prince (hardback)

Morality 

Working at Tales for Tadpoles gives us an insight into what children really like to read, and two books we’ve been told children love are This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen and The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer. Looking at what these books have in common, it may be their moral ambiguity that children delight in. In This Is Not My Hat, a flustered little fish tells us he has stolen a hat, and even though he knows that is wrong, he is going to keep it anyway. Adults tend to let out a guffaw of shock when they read the ending, as it not so subtly implies that the hat-stealing fish we have been rooting for all along has met a sticky end. But children love being let in on a secret from the adult world: sometimes good fish make bad decisions. And sometimes bad things happen to good fish.

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

Find out more about Jon Klassen's work here.

The Three Robbers is another story in which the difference between good and evil is less clear than in more conventional children’s books. Three highwaymen hold up a carriage with a little orphan girl inside, and steal her away to a better life. They use their stolen gold to build a house for all mistreated children to live in. But does this make the fact that they’ve stolen the gold okay? The question is left unanswered.  For children, who are always being told what is what, it’s exciting to get to decide this one for themselves.

The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer

 

Reality in fiction

In an article on dark subjects in children's books for The Guardian, young adult fiction writer Rebecca Westcott had this to say: “Children live in families; they are surrounded by adults with all their adult problems…Life happens and they are a part of that. Their books need to reflect what they hear, what they see. They need to recognise their situations in a book”.

It is natural for parents to want to protect their children from what’s going on in the world. But children are also citizens of the world, and older children who are aware of life’s cruelty need books to help them process it. In A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay, a young boy deals with his mother’s cancer through talking it out with a monster who visits him nightly. Jim Kay’s illustrations create an atmosphere of foreboding that anyone who has been touched by illness can recognise and appreciate, and this book bridges childhood and adulthood by representing a loved one’s illness in a child’s terms; a monster hiding in the dark.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Jim Kay

Often in children’s books, illustrations help to fill the gaps when not everything can be expressed in words. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book is an excellent example of the importance of interplay between word and image when dealing with difficult subject matter. This book explores grief and depression in an accessible way, with Quentin Blake’s illustrations alternately lightening the mood and reinforcing the sadness of the text. The image below is among the most evocative illustrations in the book:  the dearth that a loved one leaves after their death is explained simply through a blank space.

 Michael Rosen's Sad Book

For children who have experienced the death of someone close to them, this is a straightforward visual representation of death itself, and of how it feels. Someone was there, and now they’re not. There is simply an empty space.

Maia and What Matters is another book that uses illustration to explore family situations that are hard to discuss in words. Maia’s grandmother’s loss of speech after a stroke is represented by illustrator Kaatje Vermeire in an image of Maia and her grandmother out to sea, perched on the edge of a boat. The water swells around them, isolating them, while a squirrel struggles against the swell, trying to reach out a phone to the boat. In Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, research interviews show even the youngest children to be very adept at picking up visual metaphors. Where language fails small children, they express themselves in pictures, and this allows them to read images in a way that many adults lose. Trying to explain loss of speech to a young child in words may seem insurmountable, but a lot of children will associate the idea of someone holding out a phone with a memory of talking to their grandparents. Children can read the image and realise that the phone being lost at sea means that Maia can't speak with her grandmother anymore.  Visual cues that adults might miss are honed in on by children, and in this way illustrations can open up a discussion.

Maia and What Matters

Not just for children

As all wise grown-ups know, children’s books are not just for children. And illustrations can also help adults process difficult emotions. One of our most popular books with adults in the shop has been The Big Question, in which a committee of animals ask the question “How do you know when you love someone?”. There are a range of different answers, but they all leave the chairperson, a small ant, feeling lonely. If any book tried to manage this same story in passages of text, it would feel heavy handed, but the picture book format leaves space for us to feel things without having to process them consciously.

Reading children’s books later in life also links us back to our own childhood. The journalist Bruce Handy has written extensively on the subject of enjoying children’s books as an adult, and wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he “really hadn’t expected to be turned into an emotional puddle by Winnie the Pooh”. He spoke of reading the Pooh books to his own children, and the new layers of meaning he could come to appreciate. He was particularly moved by the passage at the end of The House at Pooh Corner where Christopher Robin struggles to explain to Pooh that he might not be around so much anymore…because he is not going to be a child forever. Tissue, anyone? 

Winnie the Pooh print by E.H. Shepard

Educating the next generation

As children’s books are written by adults, there are certainly always elements of them that we can only understand when we have grown up and seen what the world is like. But the likes of children’s authors Tomi Ungerer and Maurice Sendak would argue that even sheltered, happy children should be exposed to the adult world, including things like war, violence and injustice through books. Tomi Ungerer writes in the treasury of his work that “children should be exposed to what war is like as early as possible. If you don’t share stories like this, how are you going to bring awareness?”. For Ungerer,  books are an important tool to teach young people about prejudice and injustice so that they can go into life wanting to improve the world. (For more on Tomi Ungerer and his unique outlooks and experiences, see our previous blog on his work).

Otto by Tomi Ungerer

A little boy says goodbye to his soldier father in Tomi Ungerer's Otto

For Ungerer’s friend Maurice Sendak, children’s books also have an important function. Sendak had a difficult childhood and felt alienated from the happy-clappy world of conventional children’s books. In the 1990s he approached Tony Kushner to adapt Brundibar, a Czech opera, into a picture book. The resulting book functions on two levels, it is a colourful tale of working together to defeat unfairness, full of rhyme and song. But its historical background can help parents teach children about history. The opera this book is based on was performed by the children of Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp, in order to fool Red Cross inspector into thinking camp conditions were acceptable. Maurice Sendak’s childhood was affected by the death of many family members during the Holocaust, and today Walker Books donates a portion of proceeds from the book to the Holocaust Educational Trust.

Brundibar by Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak

Children inhabit a world of imagination, and that’s what makes childhood such a unique and special time. But whether we like to acknowledge it or not they also live in the real world, an adult world with all its contradictions and questions. Children’s books can help build a bridge between this world of play and imagination and the darker side of human life. The best books for children don’t talk down to children, but understand their natural curiosity about all aspects of life, even the unpalatable ones. And even when we grow into adulthood, children’s books can help us process things about this world that are hard to understand.

 View our full hand-picked range of books here

 

 

 

 


More than Moomins: The Life and Works of Tove Jansson, our Illustrator of the Month August 02 2017

Tove Jansson and MoominsTove Jansson self-portrait © Moomin Characters™

Our ‘Illustrator of the Month’ blog series focuses on some of our favourite illustrators, their lives and their works. This is a chance to learn more about the people who illustrated your favourite books, the influences that shaped their art style and storytelling, and some of their lesser known projects.

So far we’ve written on contemporary gamechangers Jon Klassen and Tomi Ungerer, and the classic Swedish children’s author Elsa Beskow. Now it’s time for another iconic Nordic woman, the incomparable Tove Jansson!

Tove Jansson is best known for creating the Moomins, those whimsical hippo-like creatures who first appeared in the 1940s and later exploded across the world. The Moomins are a sensation across central Europe, Scandinavia and Japan, and are recently also becoming more popular in Ireland, the U.K. and the U.S.  Though best known for her Moomins, which starred in a series of novels, picture books and a daily comic strip, Tove Jansson was also an accomplished painter. She was a very unconventional character, and her unique contributions to the world are still loved and appreciated by millions.

A Bohemian Upbringing

Tove Jansson was born in 1914 in Helsinki, Finland, to a sculptor father and an illustrator mother. Her parents encouraged their daughter’s creativity from the moment she was born. When she was only three years old her father wrote to her mother : “Maybe our Tove will grow up to be a great artist. A really great artist!”. And he was right! Tove learned to draw almost before she knew how to walk. Many have seen the influence of this Bohemian family in the Moomin family, who are famously laid back, always inviting newcomers into their home and choosing creativity and spontaneity over the practicalities of life. Though intensely prolific as artists, the family also loved to throw parties. And as anyone who is familiar with the Moomins knows, they too love to entertain!

Who Will Comfort Toffle

Tove’s family were also an important influence in terms of gender equality. When Tove’s father dreamed that his daughter may become a great artist, he set no limitations on her because she was a girl. Tove’s mother Signe was a strong feminist, pursuing outdoor activities and an independent career despite societal expectations at that time that women should be reserved and dependant. Signe was involved in starting a scouting society for girls, as the scouts had previously only been open to boys. She is still remembered for this contribution in Finland. The inhabitants of Moominvalley, the idyllic world in which the Moomins reside, are famously androgynous. Tove’s niece Sofia told The Guardian that even now people still write to the family asking about the gender of certain characters, and they respond that it does not matter. The Hemulen, an inquisitive researcher who hangs around the Moomin house, is known to be male but wears dresses! If it helps with his ease of movement while collecting specimens, then why not? Anything goes in Moominvalley, as long as you’re not hurting anyone.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Tove began publishing illustrations in magazines while still a teenager. In her teens and early twenties she studied art both at home in Finland and abroad in Sweden and Paris, and she had her first solo exhibition in 1943, aged 28.

Tove Jansson early painting

An early painting by Tove Jansson, Before the Masquerade, 1943
Photo: Helsinki Art Museum, Hanna Kukorelli
© Tove Janssonin kuolinpesä

In that same year, her first Moomin-like illustrated character appeared in Garm, an anti-fascist satirical magazine. The official Moomin website blog gives an interesting insight into the genesis of this first Moomin figure. The story goes that Tove invented the main Moomin character, Moomintroll, to get back at her brother when they were bickering as children. She drew the ugliest creature she could think of on the outhouse wall of their summer cottage, naming it “Snork”!

The name Moomintroll came later when Tove was staying with her uncle as a student in Stockholm. To discourage her from midnight snacking, Tove’s uncle told her that frightful creatures named Moo-oo-oomintrolls lived in the kitchen cupboard and behind the tile stove, and at night they would come out to press their noses against your leg and blow cold air down your neck! Tove herself said that if she were to pick one formative influence into the design of Moomintroll, it would be the big-nosed trolls drawn by Swedish artist John Bauer.

War and Moomins

The first Moomin novel, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was published in 1945. It was written earlier, upon the breakout of World War Two. Tove’s brother was dispatched to fight and it was a time of great anxiety for the family. Tove herself was depressed by the war and wanted to write something innocent to escape from it, a kind of fairy tale for adults. It wasn’t until years later that a friend pointed out that if the story was finished and illustrated then maybe it could be published as a children’s book.

The Moomins and the Great Flood by Tove Jansson

The book is illustrated in sepia tone watercolours, as well as the pen and ink drawings that would become the hallmark of later Moomin novels. The Moomins and the Great Flood went largely unnoticed but it’s sequels Comet in Moominland and Finn Family Moomintroll made Tove Jansson and Moomins household names all over Scandinavia. Several novels followed, and in 1952 Tove published the first Moomin picture book, The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My. Of course she used the picture book format to its full potential, and this is a dynamic book full of bold colours, graphic shapes and cut out segments that lead the action from page to page.

The Book of Moomin, Mymble and Little My by Tove Jansson

In 1954 The Evening News, a London newspaper, commissioned a Moomins daily comic strip, which had 20 million daily readers in over 40 countries! Understandably, Tove began to find this Moomin saturation detrimental to her other projects. It’s hard to comprehend her workload in the 1950s; her range of public and literary commissions during this decade included everything from a mural for Helsinki’s children’s hospital to illustrations for a Swedish translation of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark.

The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Tove Jansson

The demands of a daily comic strip meant that Tove had no time to paint, so her brother Lars took over the comic strip duties in 1960. That same year, she created one of her greatest picture books, Who Will Comfort Toffle. According to the official Tove Jansson website, she wrote this story after a little boy wrote to her about his insurmountable shyness and fear, and signed the letter “Toffle”. In the book, a shy little boy goes on a journey to comfort a scared little girl and defeat the menacing Groke. It was Tove’s belief that the only way to overcome shyness and fear is to find someone even more downtrodden than you are, and support them. That way both of you will find a friend and be able to face things together. Throughout her long career, Tove always wrote back to any “Toffles” who sent her letters, especially if they were children.

Who Will Comfort Toffle by Tove Jansson

Who Will Comfort Toffle was followed by the last Moomin picture book, The Dangerous Journey. Loosely based in Moominvalley, it is a surreal journey through dramatic landscapes and weathers and shows off Tove Jansson’s outstanding command of form and colour.

A Dangerous Journey by Tove Jansson

TV and merchandise

While Tove Jansson continued to work on new projects, Moomin merchandise was becoming increasingly popular. The Finnish crockery company Arabia brought out the first range of Moomin accessories at the end of the 1950s, and a relaunch in the 1990s made their Moomin range wildly popular. These products, especially the mugs, are still highly sought after collectibles. Arabia continue to release new limited edition mugs each year, and discontinue old ones, making collecting them a highly competitive pursuit! So far this year they’ve released two new mugs, one to mark the summer season and one to celebrate the opening of the first Moomin museum in Finland.

The summer mug features illustrations from Moominsummer Madness, in which an earthquake forces the Moomins to shelter in an old theatre. The Moomins don’t understand what a theatre is, and wonder why this house is full of old wigs and staircases that lead nowhere. They think whoever Mr. “Props” is must be very important, because he has his own room with his name on it! The mug is beautifully designed and coloured by ceramic artist Tove Slotte

Moomin summer mug available instore

The Moomin museum mug is the first Arabia mug ever to use Tove Jansson’s aquarelle’s paintings as opposed to her line drawings. It was made in collaboration with Tampere Art Museum, which houses most of Jansson’s archive, to celebrate both the opening of the Moomin museum and the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence.

Moomin art mugMoomin art mug available instore

                                              

As well as merchandise, TV animations also helped Moomin-mania go global, with many Irish people’s first impression of Moomins being the Polish stop motion series which was broadcasted in Ireland during the 1980s.

Moomins Polish stop motion

                                                                 Moomin animation by Polish studio Se-ma-for

Legacy

The obsession continues with Moomins long after Tove Jansson’s death in 2001. Moomin merchandise continues to grow, with everything from coffee to pillowcases getting the Moomin treatment. Our Moomin range alone includes prints, children’s cutlery, crockery and more. There are even Moomin theme parks! This year the Southbank Centre in London hosted an immersive Moomins exhibition, which will run until the end of August. And this autumn, Dulwich Picture Gallery will hold an exhibition of Tove Jansson’s other work, including a large body of her self portraits and paintings. This exhibition will seek to reintroduce Tove as an artist of amazing scope and versatility, as during her lifetime she had begun to lament that Moomins had taken over from any appreciation of her as a fine artist. For those unsure where to start with Tove Jansson and Moomins, any of the books will hook you in immediately! Take a leaf out of Moomintroll’s book and just dive in.

.Moomin greeting card  

Browse our full range of Moomin prints and accessories,  and Tove Jansson books.


For Our First Birthday: A Look At Childhood Through the Ages July 19 2017

It’s our birthday! Our Drury Street store was one year old last week and we have celebrated by giving out gifts in our massive sale and our social media competitions! 

Tales for Tadpoles Drury Street

To celebrate our first year, we’ve been thinking about one year olds through the ages; how they were raised and most importantly what they read! We’ve picked out some of the best children’s books published in every decade from the 1920s up to now, and taken a look at some of the popular parenting advice of their time.

 

Childhood in the 1920s

One year olds in the 1920s were an unfortunate bunch if their parents followed the popular parenting advice of the day, which ranged from touching the baby as little as possible to having it spend as much time outdoors as possible. Robert and Mary were the most popular names for babies, so while sitting alone on the lawn all day, little Mary or Robert may have found some comfort in the great picture books published in that decade, which included The Velveteen Rabbit and Clever Bill, both illustrated by William Nicholson.

Baby 1920s   The velveteen rabbit

And who could forget the beloved Pooh! The first Winnie the Pooh collection of stories was published in 1926, so perhaps these 1920's parents may have read it to their little ones out the kitchen window, while keeping a safe distance of course. 

Winnie the Pooh E.H. Shepard print

 

1930s

1930s baby cage

In the 1920s the emphasis on the need for fresh air and sunshine for babies persisted from the previous decade, and led to parents in high rise tenement blocks in places like London and the U.S. installing wire "baby cages" on their windows so that their toddlers could spend enough time outdoors! The '30s also saw the introduction from Vienna of a theory called “democratic parenting”, a method of kind but firm childrearing that aimed to treat children with more equality to adults than was common in that era.

Among the most popular baby names in the 1930s were Margaret and John, and these babies were treated to the adventures of Babar the Elephant, the popular series of books about King Babar and his wife Celeste. A.A. Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, said “If you love elephants you will love Babar and Celeste. If you have never loved elephants you will love them now".

 

Babar the Elephant

1940s

1940s ad baby The Little Prince hardback

In 1946 a new parenting book was published by Dr. Benjamin Spock, advocating parents to reject the previous decades’ distant parenting style and reconnect to their natural nurturing instincts. This brought more focus to warmth and bonding than in previous years. Good news for little John and Margaret, who were still the most popular names! This decade was also a great one for children’s books, with one of the most popular children’s books ever, The Little Prince, being published in the original French in 1943. The Little Prince is the third most translated book in the world, after the Bible and the Koran! For children in Scandinavia, Moomins were also starting to make an appearance, with The Moomins and the Great Flood being published in the original Swedish in 1945.

The Moomins and the Great Flood

1950s

1950s advertisement

Because of advertisements like the one above, 1950s common wisdom about what was healthy and correct is the source of much amusement these days! However some people have started to question whether they might have had some things right after all. Because factory production hadn’t returned to pre-war levels, more parents made their children’s toys by hand and used reusable cloth nappies, and with television still uncommon at home, young children were likely to be read to often. And what a choice of books those children had! Our perception of 1950s culture these days is usually of a conservative mainstream culture, but in children’s books as well as other areas a lot of artists were reaching new heights of innovation. Little Susan and David, the most likely names for babies born in the 1950s, may have grown up with the wacky Dr. Seuss as a household name, and Tove Jansson's Moomins also exploded in popularity during this decade.

Dr Seuss greeting card

1960s

1960s baby

In 1962 a paediatrician called Walter W. Sackett Jr. published Bringing Up Baby, a book which recommended that babies as young as 10 weeks should be eating bacon, eggs and even coffee, to acclimatise to the family’s eating habits! In the same decade, Harry Harlow’s controversial experiments on baby monkeys showed that infants prioritise warmth and comfort from a parent over basic needs. The Sixties was a good time for children’s books, with little David and Susan ,(still the most popular names!), likely to grow up with now-iconic characters such as Miffy.

Miffy by Dick Bruna

In the U.S., artists like Tomi Ungerer and Maurice Sendak led a swerve towards darker and edgier books for children, such as Ungerer's The Three Robbers. And cutting edge designers experimented with children's illustration in books like A Balloon For A Blunderbuss

The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer A Balloon for a Blunderbuss

1970s

1970s baby

The 1970s saw the rise of a more child-centred and intuitive parenting style proposed by Penelope Leach. In contrast to the parenting styles of previous generations, mothers and fathers were now encouraged to put the baby’s needs above their own and to trust their instincts. Jennifer and Michael were popular names for babies, and little Jenny and Mike grew up with Judith Kerr’s scatty cat Mog, who is still loved to this day. 

Mog on Fox Night by Judith Kerr

Other books that '70s kids might remember include When Tom Beat Captain Najork by Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake.

1980s

1980s baby    Brambly Hedge

This decade’s babies were likely to be named Sarah or Paul, and they would have grown up with more TV than previous generations. Children's books were still an important part of early childhood though, and some of our favourite books were published in the '80s. Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge stories were first published in this decade, along with Shirley Hughes’ Alfie books.

Alfie and Annie Rose print by Shirley Hughes

David McKee’s Elmer was reissued to major success at the end of the decade, and Jane Hissey's Old Bear series made its first appearance. 

Elmer by David McKee

And when these '80s kids grew up a bit more, they were lucky enough to be among the first people to read The BFG and Matilda!

Matilda Print

1990s

1990s

            Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen demonstrate the 1990s trend for attachment. 

By the time the 1990s came along, Michael and Jessica were the reigning babies! Guides advocating attachment parenting became popular, which is reflected in one of the most popular children’s books of the decade, Guess How Much I Love You.

Guess How Much I Love You

 

Nowadays

Jacob and Jack,  Emily and Sophie have all been popular names in the last few years, and social media has meant that childhood is more publicly shared and discussed than ever before. Children’s books have been booming with award-winning artists like Jon Klassen, Carson Ellis and Oliver Jeffers enjoying mass popularity. Klassen’s ‘Hat Trilogy’ may be remembered by this generation’s children as the iconic books of their childhood.

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen      We Found A Hat by Jon KlassenThis Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

And in 2016, a little shop on Drury Street opened, with the aim to bring the best illustrated books from the last 100 years to children and grown up children in Ireland and beyond! A big thank you to all our customers for your valued support in our first year. Here's to the next hundred!

You can view our full collection of illustrated children's books here


Illustrator of the Month: Elsa Beskow July 05 2017

Elsa Beskow

Our ‘Illustrator of the Month’ blog series focuses on some of our favourite illustrators, their lives and their works. This is a chance to learn more about the people who illustrated your favourite books, the influences that shaped their art style and storytelling, and some of their lesser known projects.

So far, we’ve written on the modern-masterpiece-maker Jon Klassen, and the cult illustrator Tomi Ungerer. Now it’s time to hark back to the old classics, with the timeless Elsa Beskow!

Elsa Beskow was a Swedish children’s writer and illustrator who published dozens of books during the early 20th century. She is often referred to as “the Beatrix Potter of Scandinavia”, and children in that part of the world have been growing up with her stories for over a hundred years. She was a very prolific worker, and her stories reflect her interest in nature and the freedom of childhood.

Early life

Elsa Beskow was born Elsa Martmaan in Stockholm, Sweden in 1874, the second of six children. As a small child she was already a natural born storyteller, and her older brother Hans would help fill in the words when her imagination was bigger than her vocabulary! She grew up surrounded by fairy tales and nursery rhymes, and would later create her first picture book The Tale of the Little, Little Old Woman from a nursery rhyme her grandmother taught her. When this book was originally released, the publisher convinced her to add in an ending with the Old Woman's cat running to the woods and never coming back, because this was the way he remembered the rhyme from his own childhood. But years later she added an extra page to say that maybe she came home in the end, so that children wouldn’t be sad! The Tale of the Little Little Old Woman by Elsa Beskow

When Beskow was 15, her father died, leaving her mother penniless, and the family moved in with her unmarried aunts and uncle who were already living together. This living arrangement later inspired the Aunts series, some of Beskow’s most popular books. The stories feature Aunt Green, Aunt Brown, Aunt Lavender and Uncle Blue, who take in the unfortunate children Peter and Lotta and educate them at home.

Escapism

Beskow began publishing the Aunts series during the First World War. The war traumatised her and recalling childhood memories to create an idyllic world was a way of escaping from reality. The generosity of the three aunts is a hallmark of these stories:

For now and then Aunt Brown put toffee and gingerbread in their pockets, Aunt Green secretly told them they could eat all the gooseberries and pears they wanted from the garden, and Aunt Lavender kept calling them into the kitchen to taste her berry syrup.”. - Aunt Green, Aunt Brown and Aunt Lavender, 1918.

Sweden suffered food shortages during the war; bread and sugar were rationed, followed by meat, eggs, milk and butter. Women went on strike demanding food for their children, and there were even outright riots over the shortages. The bountiful world of the Aunts series was an appealing fantasy for Swedish families at this time. 

Aunt Green, Aunt Lavender and Aunt Brown by Elsa Beskow

Providing for the family

Elsa Martmaan met Nathaniel Beskow at art college and she became Elsa Beskow when they married in 1897. They had six sons. Although they met when they were both studying art, (Elsa was a model for Nathaniel’s paintings), Nathaniel changed direction suddenly and went back to his abandoned theology studies. This career didn’t bring in much money, so Elsa became the main provider for her growing family. She described her married life and career as “every year another book and every other year a boy”. One of her sons, Bo Beskow, (who became a successful artist in his own right, with some of his work being housed in the United Nations headquarters), looked back with amazement at his mother’s work ethic in his book Krokodilens middag:

"How did she find the time to work with her picture books! She had to produce one a year in order to support the family…We understood that father’s work was important; he was not to be disturbed, but mother only drew and painted – it was fun and we could disturb her as much as we wished. Mother was always available; she didn’t have her own work room, she wrote and drew at a large white table in the parlor. Everything and everyone in the house that moved passed by there, someone always needed her help with something."

Elsa Beskow

The financial pressure to provide for her family explains why Beskow was such a prolific author and illustrator, with 21 books by her in our collection alone! Her sons made their way into her books, she used them as models for her illustrations, and wrote books for each of them. She also used her garden as inspiration for the plant life in her books, and was interested in nature all her life. Working in a domestic setting didn’t limit Beskow’s imagination. In Krokodilens middag her son said his mother “could work magic. Sometimes when it was gray and cloudy, she would take a stick and stir up the clouds and say: ‘Come out sun!’ and the sun came out.”

Commercial success

Beskow’s first book was The Tale of the Little, Little Old Woman, but her first major success was her second book, Peter in Blueberry Land. It was first published in 1901 and translated into German in 1903, Danish in 1912 and English in 1931. In this book, Peter gets shrunken down to tiny size by the King of Blueberry Land, while collecting fruit in the forest for his mother. Beskow often combined her love of nature with her fairytale imagination, and in this book Peter gallops on mice with the blueberry boys to meet Mrs Cranberry and her five daughters.

Peter in Blueberry Land by Elsa Beskow

Beskow’s illustration style is as gentle as her stories, with delicate watercolours and rosy-cheeked children, but as a writer she was not as conventional as she may seem to modern audiences.

Daring

The aunts and uncles who helped raise Elsa Beskow had progressive views on childhood and education, and founded a school where enjoyment and games were central, and emphasis was placed on helping children understand what they were learning, as opposed to teaching by rote. This probably influenced her stories, as they are full of children showing their initiative and striking out on adventures of their own. Even though this doesn’t always end well, (like when The Children of Hat Cottage end up accidentally burning their mother's house down when she’s away on errands!), these stories reflect Beskow’s upbringing and the belief that children should decide things for themselves to fulfil their unique potential. Beskow’s attitude to class struggles and women’s liberation can be seen in another of her popular books, The Flowers’ Festival, in which the haughty flowers dismiss the weeds as “rabble”, but the weeds refuse to be silenced.

The Flowers Festival by Elsa Beskow

Some critics have even suggested that Mrs. Chestnut, who wears a loose, flowing dress, is depicted as pregnant. If true, this challenged the conservative Swedish bourgeois view at the time, that pregnant women should be hidden from view. 

The Flowers Festival by Elsa Beskow

Legacy

Like all great children’s authors, Elsa Beskow believed that childhood was special and that children’s imagination should be respected. She enjoyed creating her picture books, saying that “there is something blessed about children, they are always willing to meet you halfway”. Her work still stands up over one hundred years after it was created, and her books are now also interesting from a cultural history perspective as they detail clothing and interiors from turn of the century Scandinavia. Her illustrations are still inspiring designers to this day, recently details from her work were reworked by Catharina Kippel in a beautiful range of kitchenware from Design House Stockholm.  

Elsa Beskow mug            

        Elsa Beskow espresso mugs

 

Beskow is considered the earliest Swedish author to have had mass popularity outside Sweden, and her work has been translated into nineteen languages. In 1958 there was a prize named after her, the Elsa Beskow Plaque, which awards excellence in Swedish picture books. 

View our large range of Elsa Beskow books and accessories here.

 

 

 


10 Lessons for Modern Life from Elmer the Patchwork Elephant June 21 2017

Elmer the Elephant

 

It seems that the modern world is more unstable than ever. With political upheaval and debate ongoing worldwide, it’s important have a positive role model in the public eye. And who’s to say that role model can’t be a multicoloured illustrated elephant? David McKee’s character Elmer first appeared in 1968 in the book of the same name, and since then he has been inspiring children and adults with his infinite wisdom. So, what can we learn from Elmer?

1. Embrace difference

For those who don’t know Elmer, he is a multicoloured elephant who lives happily among a grey herd, and after he tries and fails to hide his true self, he learns that his friends love him for his uniqueness.

David McKee wrote Elmer after witnessing an upsetting racist remark aimed at his daughter. He told The Guardian that the story is important to him because, “we are all different, with so many differences, difference of colour, of accents, but also of size, shape and how we dress. The differences are what make the world so rich. It’s strange because we humans seem to like difference in other things- in dogs and trees and flowers, but we don’t accept it in people. If people aren’t like us, we don’t accept them”. As long as there are people in the world who need to hear that message, books like Elmer will continue to be important.

Elmer by David McKee

2. Don’ t be afraid to play

We all know life can be hard, but the elephants surrounding Elmer are a happy bunch. This is because of Elmer’s constant joking around and his happy-go-lucky personality. He is a reminder to look on the brighter side of things and to not be afraid to play.

3. Get to know your neighbours

In today’s world, it has become less common to know your neighbours and talk to people in your community, or on the street. When Elmer passes through the jungle, his distinctiveness means all of the animals in the jungle know him by name, and say hello when he passes by.

Elmer by David McKee

 

4. Make use of the natural resources surrounding you.

When Elmer decides to disguise his patchwork, he roves in the jungle until he finds a bush of elephant-colour berries to paint himself with. An excellent example of foraging for local natural resources!

Elmer by David McKee

5.Lead by example

Elmer doesn’t need to tell others what to do, he just lives the way he sees fit and others are inspired by his example. Because Elmer learns to embrace his patchwork, all of the other elephants decide to paint themselves multi-coloured once a year and celebrate a carnival of colour!

6. It’s okay to admit when you’re wrong

Elmer thought that he wanted to be standard-elephant-colour like the other elephants, but when he sees them all standing stock still, grey and silent, he realises he was wrong and lets out a big "BOO" to tell them he’s back! Sometimes acknowledging that you’ve made a mistake is the hardest thing about making one.

7. If something’s not fashionable, that doesn’t mean it’s not fabulous

Elmer was originally published in 1968, but went out of print until being redrawn and reissued by the Andersen Press in 1989. Since then there have been numerous Elmer books, a wide range of merchandise and a TV series, with the latest Elmer book being released as recently as 2016. Although David McKee never lost popularity, (Elmer’s creator was better known throughout the seventies for his Mr. Benn character), Elmer’s resurgence shows that it’s not worth giving up on something just because it’s not popular immediately.

Elmer by David McKee

             The original 1968 edition of Elmer. Image from itsmariemade.blogspot.com

8. Maintain a compassionate outlook

In Elmer and the Hippos (2003) the other elephants in the herd tell Elmer to get rid of the newcomer hippos who have set up a home on the river, but after speaking to the hippos, Elmer decides this is unfair. Instead he and his cousin Wilbur plan to remove the rocks damming the river, and the hippos and elephants work together to make the river flow. David McKee never lost touch with what made him create Elmer in the first place, and when he noticed growing negativity around the issue of immigration, he created this book to highlight the importance of acceptance.

9. Be yourself

Elmer teaches us that everyone has something unique to bring the table and there's no point trying to disguise your true self. Always be yourself, especially if you are a multicoloured elephant.

Elmer soft toy

10. Spread the message of Elmer

Did you know there are still people among us who don't know about Elmer? How sad for them! You must take it upon yourself to educate them. 

You can view our full range of colourful accessories with which to spread Elmer-ness far and wide, here. And read Elmer's story in the book by David McKee, here.  

 


Illustrator of the Month: Tomi Ungerer June 08 2017

Tomi Ungerer

Our new ‘Illustrator of the Month’ blog series focuses on some of our favourite illustrators, their lives and their works. This is a chance to learn more about the lives of the people who illustrated your favourite books, the influences that shaped their art style and storytelling, and some of their lesser known projects.

Last month we started with the brilliant Jon Klassen. Up next it’s the subversive, whimsical and extraordinary Tomi Ungerer!

Tomi Ungerer is a French cult illustrator who was part of the turn towards more unusual and edgy children’s books in the US in the sixties. He started out in advertising and quickly gained a reputation for his visual playfulness and his bold experimental style, which was at the time wildly different from the traditional and homely style of many American magazine illustrators. He became one of the most prolific and popular children’s author-illustrators of that decade, but for a time his boundary-pushing art became too much for the establishment and he is only recently reclaiming the level of recognition that he deserves.


Absurd humour for absurd humanity

Tomi grew up in Strasbourg in the Alsace region of France. As a young child he witnessed occupation under the Nazi regime, which he says has had a huge influence on his outlook on life, and on his work. His books are known both for their sense of social justice and for their absurd humour, and both of these sensibilities were influenced by what Tomi witnessed during the war and after liberation. He speaks in the brilliant documentary Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, about the absurdity of war and how he always felt caught between two identities, as Alsace straddles the border of France and Germany.

When Alsace was liberated the city of Strasbourg rejoiced, but soon afterwards the French liberationists burned all of the classic German books in the library. The hypocrisy and contradiction of these actions made a young Tomi keenly aware of the absurdity of humanity, so his books combine a strong sense of morality with a darkly satirical humour.

Growing up under the Nazis gave Ungerer a sense of fear that never fully left him and some of his best known books explore this sense of anxiety and unbelonging. Otto: the Autobiography of a Teddy Bear tells the story of a bear belonging to a Jewish boy, who loses contact with his owner during the World War II. Even though it is told through the voice of a teddy bear and has a happy ending, this is no cutesy story, and it doesn’t try to conceal the brutalities of war. Ungerer writes in the Tomi Ungerer Treasury that “children should be exposed to what war is like as early as possible. If you don’t share stories like this, how are you going to bring awareness?” For Ungerer, the only way to change things for the better is to educate younger generations on injustice, so that they will grow up seeking to improve a flawed world.
Otto by Tomi Ungerer

Searching for belonging

Ungerer’s adventurous spirit meant he soon left his native patch seeking opportunity and new experiences. In 1956 he touched down in New York City and began seeking work as an illustrator. In the days before television, illustration was big business in newspapers and magazines, and he trawled his way round publishers’ art departments with a box full of drawings until he found work.

He quickly built up a reputation for his witty imagination and bold graphic style, and it wasn’t long until he made the transition to children’s books. This was fertile ground for Ungerer with his childlike ability to see through the contradictions of the adult world. Books such as The Mellops series, The Three Robbers and Adelaide  were a wild success and for years he was one of the leading children’s authors in America.

This was a boom-time for bold and innovative children’s illustration, with other author-illustrators like Maurice Sendak (who called Tomi Ungerer a “spectacular graphic genius”), also challenging the accepted modes of children’s books in both subject and style. While the trend in recent years had been for sweet and cuddly stories like Goodnight Moon and Harold and the Purple Crayon, Ungerer favoured characters and animals that no one else would think to make the hero of a children’s book; bats, vultures, octopuses and snakes all became lovable protagonists.

His stories thus teach us that everyone has something to bring to the table, and that when you tap into your unique and authentic self you can reach your full potential. Take Emile, the octopus, who because of his many arms makes an excellent multi-instrumentalist.

Emile by Tomi Ungerer


Tomi’s experiences as an immigrant in New York inspired one of his most beloved books. Moon Man tells the story of the man in the moon visiting earth to join in the fun, only to find that he is treated as an invader and thrown into jail! The Moon Man is just looking for a place to fit in where he can have some company and enjoy the fruits of our planet, but the government officials of earth want to keep tight control of borders and distrust any form of difference. Written during the Cold War, the story is as relevant today as when it was first published. Children who read this book will pick up on its message about welcoming and respecting differences and newcomers, without it having to be spelled out. Ungerer’s work never talks down to children, but has utmost respect for their natural sense of curiosity and exploration.

Ungerer packs a lot of punch into his stories but the actual word count is often minimal; he lets the pictures take a leading role. Moon Man features double page spreads of colourful pen and ink paintings. The illustrator uses tempera, a method of painting with pigment mixed in a solution, so that his illustrations are textured with brushstrokes, ink bubbles and streaks of colour. The gentle blue wash of the shimmering Moon Man emphasises his gentleness in contrast with the bold and brash colours of the earth upon which he has landed.

Moon Man by Tomi Ungerer

Tomi Ungerer’s illustration always retains a sense of playfulness, even when dealing with serious themes. He draws things that children love to draw, like boats, cars and furry animals, and his scenes are full of hidden detail that can be pored over again and again. In The Beast of Monsieur Racine, a “retired tax collector”, (who else would make a tax-collector the hero of a children's story?!), makes friends with a mysterious beast. The book is full of chaotic crowd scenes which give Ungerer full scope to insert myriad little jokes and references, like a newspaper headline about his friend Maurice Sendak, or a vagabond carrying a spare foot in his bindle - because he has to do so much walking! As well as always appealing to children, his work reminds adults how fun life can be if you can let go and face everything with a wry sense of humour.

The Beast of Monsieur Racine by Tomi Ungerer                             The Beast of Monsieur Racine by Tomi Ungerer

 


A stirred pot boils over

Ungerer’s wry outlook on the world fed into his work beyond picture books too. While the age of revolutions and upheavals was turning the world upside down in the sixties, Ungerer could not sit back and watch, and he used his talents to draw attention to injustice. He created a series of anti-Vietnam War posters that are still as affecting today as they were when they were first appeared.

In Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, Ungerer states that the Nazi propaganda that saturated his youth under occupation actually fed into his design sensibilities. He learned that bold posters can be dangerously effective in getting a message across, but his message was always one of disdain for the political powers of war and destruction.

Tomi Ungerer Vietnam War
 

In an age before the internet ensured that everyone knows everything about everybody, Ungerer was able to work on political projects, satirical cartoons, subversive erotica and popular children’s books, all at the same time! However, eventually the balance between the mollycoddled world of children’s books and the edginess of his other works boiled over, and he was ostracised from the children’s book world. No bookshops would stock his work, he was blacklisted from libraries, and he found himself adrift in a world that had previously embraced him. His love affair with New York had ended and Ungerer set sail again, this time for a complete change of lifestyle, to rural Nova Scotia.

Far Out Isn’t Far Enough

In 1971 Ungerer moved with his wife Yvonne to an extremely remote part of Canada, and set about creating a self-sufficient life in the countryside. He documented this in drawings of course, and the muted tones of rural Nova Scotia introduced a new element to his drawing. He sketched the animal life and the landscapes surrounding him, as well as the people of the town and its dilapidated buildings. These illustrations and his diary entries from the time are collected in a memoir called Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: Life in the Back of Beyond.

Far Out Isn't Far Enough by Tomi Ungerer
This book is an unflinchingly honest account of what life is really like in a harsh rural environment and, true to form, Ungerer doesn’t shy away from depicting the more unpalatable elements of the lifestyle. With more than 150 illustrations, the memoir truly shows what a prolific illustrator Ungerer was and still is. He has spoken in the past about how he would sometimes create a whole book in just a single day!

Finding a home in Ireland

When Ungerer and his wife decided to have children, they realised that their Canadian farm was not the right environment to raise them in. They moved on again, finally settling on the Emerald Isle. The illustrator lives in Cork to this day, and is openly expressive of his fondness for Ireland and its people.

After a long hiatus from children’s books following his fall from favour in the industry, he returned to picture book making with Flix in 1997. Flix is the story of a dog born into a cat family, and reflects the identity dilemma of Ungerer’s upbringing in a Germanic region of France. Ungerer had been doing a lot of work for German-French relations in the intervening years since moving back to Europe, and Flix again shows his knack for subtly reinforcing a message of peace and unity all within an outrageous and funny story.

Flix by Tomi Ungerer

Since returning to picture books, Ungerer has rekindled his imaginative fire. One of his most recent books Fog Island is a love letter to Ireland, dedicated to the country and the people who so warmly welcomed Ungerer and his family. Though published only in 2013, the book has the feel of an old classic. Ungerer is still creating the kind of stories that feel like they’ve always been part of your life.

In Fog Island, two children in the west of Ireland discover an abandoned island with eerie faces carved into the cliffs. There they meet the mysterious man who makes the fog that hovers over the Atlantic!


Fog Island by Tomi Ungerer

With so varied, playful and subversive a body of work, Tomi Ungerer has earned his place among the greatest picture book makers of all time. He has always had a strong cult following, but since the release of the aforementioned documentary and Phaidon’s high-quality reissues of his books, he is getting more of the recognition he deserves in his adopted country. His compassionate outlook is an important one for children to absorb as they grow, and his infectious humour will remind adults what it was like to be a giggly child enjoying the simplicity of its creative freedom.

View our full range of Tomi Ungerer's books here.


Who is the Best Bunny in Children's Literature? May 24 2017

We here at Tales for Tadpoles like to bring you the hard-hitting questions of the day. It’s important to take the time to question your beliefs and make up your mind on where you stand on important issues. So ask yourself this, who really is the best children’s book bunny? We ran a quick poll on Twitter and Instagram earlier this month, but now we want to open this conversation further and delve into what makes each bunny unique. We’ve listed five of the main contenders here, with rabbits from classic literature to more modern picture books. To make it easier we’ve assigned each rabbit a music genre or song, type of cuisine, and mode of transport, so that you can figure out which one you might relate to most. When you’ve decided who you’re backing, make sure to give us your opinion in the comments below!

 

1. Peter Rabbit

                                            Peter Rabbit

 

Possibly the best known rabbit of all the children’s book rabbits. Will score points with the rebellious crowd for his flagrant disregard for the rules in pillaging Mr. McGregor’s produce, just when his good mother told him not to. Perhaps he is also an eco-warrior concerned about food waste in modern farming methods? There’s definitely an undergraduate thesis in there somewhere… 

                                                The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

Peter is a beloved nostalgic figure for many generations, and has been part of peoples’ childhoods for over a hundred years.  In terms of design, Peter is an anatomically correct rabbit, but he wears a tiny jacket and pair of loafers. What a combination! Beatrix Potter’s fine balance between realism and whimsy is what makes her still so popular today.

Soundtrack: Peter is definitely a little punk

Food: Radishes

Mode of transport: Wanders about going “lippity- lippity-, not very fast”

Tiny jacket rating: 10/10

                                               Peter Rabbit and Family Cup and Saucer

 

2. Miffy

                                      Miffy Print

Miffy is everyone’s favourite minimalist, everyone’s favourite bicyclist and everyone’s favourite artist. How she fits all these activities into the day is frankly remarkable, and all without opposable thumbs!

                                              Miffy cycling in rain print

She is an action bunny and has starred in such stories as Miffy the Artist, Miffy’s Bicycle, Miffy is Crying and Miffy at the Playground. Miffy will win points with some for being slightly alternative. She is originally from the Netherlands, where she is known as Njintje, and like all cool, alternative things, she is very popular in Japan. In terms of illustration, Miffy is very different to Peter Rabbit, being created out of minimal strong black lines, block colours and defined shapes.

                                           Miffy by Dick Bruna

Dick Bruna created his own colour palette to work with on the Miffy books so that they would be recognisable instantly. Miffy has been on the scene since the mid 1950s, but Bruna's style of drawing still looks modern today. 

Soundtrack: Minimalist electronica

Food: Sushi

Mode of transport: Bicycle 

Tiny jacket rating: Miffy has many tiny, well put together outfits. Dick Bruna made her a girl bunny because he found dresses more interesting to draw than trousers. Miffy also gains sartorial points for the snow-hat she can sometimes be seen in, which is shaped to cover her entire ears.

                                               

 

Miffy

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh

                                    Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh

Unlike most of the other animals of the Hundred Acre Wood, who are based on Christopher Robin's soft toys, Rabbit is a real rabbit. This gives him a sense of self-importance that he usually fails to live up to. Like Peter Rabbit he is drawn realistically and often shown standing on two feet and gesturing at things. Rabbits can stand on two feet in real life, but whether they gesture at things is a matter of debate. Rabbit is introduced to the Winnie the Pooh stories when he invites Pooh into his burrow for a visit. Pooh, being Pooh, eats too much and gets stuck in the hole on the way out, and for this scene alone Rabbit deserves a place on this list.

                                 Winnie the Pooh print

He loses points for not having a tiny jacket, though at one point he says he would need seventeen pockets to carry all of his friends and relations around with him, so perhaps he has an overcoat in his burrow that we don’t know about. Rabbit is looked up to by the other characters; he is often called upon to settle things, and to take charge of group events. However he usually gets rather flustered and messes them up.

Soundtrack: ‘For Emma’ by Bon Iver: “for all your lies, you’re still very lovable”.

Food: Vegan fine dining

Mode of transport: Public transport, because he is community minded.

Tiny jacket rating: Rabbit is a naturist and wears no clothes.

 

 

4. The White Rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

                                  Arthur Rackham Alice in Wonderland Print                       

Without the White Rabbit there would be no Alice in Wonderland! There would merely be Alice Sitting on the Bank of a River While Her Sister Reads A Book, which would not have made a very good story at all. The White Rabbit is the first hint that things are about to get weird in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  When he takes a watch out of his waistcoat pocket, Alice realises that not only do rabbits not generally have watches, they don’t generally have waistcoat pockets either. The White Rabbit leads Alice down the rabbit hole and so begins the great adventure we all love! It’s possible that the White Rabbit is the rabbit of most literary significance on this list, with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland having never been out of print since its publication over 150 years ago. Another point to consider is that there is no end to representations of the White Rabbit, so he has something to suit any taste in illustration style.

                                  White Rabbit illustration by Helen Oxenbury    The White Rabbit illustration by Robert Ingpen

The White Rabbit consulting his pocket watch (Helen Oxenbury) and breaking into a run (Robert Ingpen)       The White Rabbit by Sir John Tenniel         

                                                         Sir John Tenniel's original White Rabbit

Soundtrack: Psychedelic rock

Food: Afternoon tea

Method of transport: Running late!

Tiny jacket rating: Most certainly has a waistcoat, and a watch in his pocket.

 

 5. The rabbit in I Want My Hat Back

                        I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

The most recent rabbit on this list, this rabbit is a key character in I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. He is the one seen wearing the hat that looks suspiciously like the hat the bear is looking for in the title.

                        I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

Soon after the bear realises this, the rabbit mysteriously disappears and is never seen again. Like Peter Rabbit, this rabbit is undeniably a petty thief, but unlike Peter, who sheds a tear or two, he expresses no remorse. He is rendered in Klassen’s recognisable clean style, using watercolour and ink, with very expressive (shifty) eyes. Klassen's subsersive sense of humour means the fluffy bunny rabbit is the dishonest villain in this book, so he may deserve your vote for subverting bunny norms.

Soundtrack: 'Smooth Criminal' by Michael Jackson.

Food: Whatever is on someone else's plate.

Mode of transport: Getaway car.

Tiny jacket rating: All this rabbit is wearing is the hat that will lead to his demise.

Please cast your vote and settle this once and for all! And if you have another suggestion for the best rabbits in children’s literature, please let us know - we may even let you include hares

 


Illustrator of the Month: Jon Klassen May 10 2017

Jon Klassen

This week we’re beginning a series of blog posts that will focus on some of our favourite illustrators, their lives and their works. This is a chance to learn more about who illustrated your favourite books, the influences that shaped their art style and storytelling, and some of their lesser known projects.

We begin with a firm favourite among kids and adults alike, a relative newcomer to the scene but one whose books have already become classics. It’s the amazing Jon Klassen!

Klassen is best known for his ‘hat trilogy’; I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat and We Found a Hat, and for his collaborations with writer Mac Barnett; Extra Yarn, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, and the newest addition, Triangle. Klassen is recognisable for his clean and minimal illustration style, using ink and watercolour textures to create defined shapes and strong designs. His characters usually remain very still but are very expressive, their eyes often giving away their intentions and emotions. As a writer he’s known for his deliciously dark sense of humour. This sense of humour is unusual in children’s books and is one of the ingredients that makes him so loved by grown up children as well as little ones!

The road to picture books is paved with good intentions

Jon Klassen was born in Canada and grew up in Niagara Falls and Toronto. He studied animation and moved to L.A. after graduation, where he now lives and works. Before moving into picture books Klassen worked as an animator on films including Coraline and Kung Fu Panda. His illustration work received international recognition when he won the Governor General’s Award for his work on  Carolyn Stutson’s Cat’s Night Out. But it was the release of his first book as author and illustrator, I Want My Hat Back, in 2011 that really made his name.  In a blog for 'Picture Book Makers' Klassen said that he has always enjoyed the stillness in drawing inanimate objects: “I like a story that allows the viewer to wander around a little bit and find it on their own”. This is exemplified in his illustrations for Ted Kooser’s House Held Up By Trees, where it is the house and not the people that is the main focus of the story.

 House Held Up By Trees by Ted Kooser, illustrated by Jon Klassen

 

However in the same blog Klassen explained how this preference for drawing inanimate objects paradoxically led to creating one of his most recognisable characters. He was asked to design some greeting cards for Red Cap cards, and when he sent them sketches of chairs and inanimate objects they asked if he could draw some characters instead. He eventually sent back “a series of animals wearing birthday hats and holding balloons, but their faces and poses made them look, to me, like they had no idea what a birthday was and didn’t really care. I was excited by this approach. It made me laugh, and it got me off the hook”.

Red Cap cards designed by Jon Klassen

From Red Cap cards

The animals on this card are recognisable to anyone who has read I Want My Hat Back, especially the bear in his signature red hat. This was the beginning of something glorious.

 

The movies and the pictures

Klassen’s background as an animator has shaped his approach, both in his design preferences and in the limitations he saw in his own practise. His books are notable for their brilliant pacing and comic timing, and he has found his ultimate form in the picture book. The experience of reading the best picture books feels like something between watching a film and reading a book. Not having a background in writing meant Klassen felt unsure of himself when making I Want My Hat Back, his first book as both writer and illustrator. However it’s these limitations he saw in his own skill set that have worked to the benefit of the book and made it so unique. Because he was uncomfortable writing narration as a non-writer, he stripped back all lines to simple dialogue. And because of his emphasis on the visual, the lines are not in inverted commas but in different colours for each character, meaning that nothing stands in the way of the reader “hearing” the voices of the characters. The language is stiff and straightforward because Klassen wanted the animals to feel awkward saying their “lines”. They also often look at the reader as if they are bad actors looking at a camera. Unlike illustrators such as Quentin Blake, whose expressiveness comes from bold dashes and messy lines of movement, Klassen finds expression in stillness. The animals’ deadpan faces and awkward stances make the high stakes game of a bear seeking retribution for a hat stolen by a rabbit seem even funnier. 

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

We Found A Hat, the last in the hat trilogy, goes even further with the filmic effect. It is divided into 3 parts: Part One: Finding the Hat, Part Two: Watching the Sunset, and Part Three: Going to Sleep. It’s easy to imagine an ad break or interval in between the parts, adding to the anticipation and suspense before we turn the page. As is common in Klassen’s books, the animals’ eyes are a focal point leading the action. When two turtles discover a hat, they seem to be on the same page about leaving it behind. After all it is just the one hat, and they are two turtles. But when one of the turtles is shown looking back at the hat at the end of Part Two, (the only word on the page being "nothing" makes it seem as if these turtles could be in a Samuel Beckett play), we realise that all is not as it seems. There is trouble afoot. 

We Found A Hat by Jon Klassen

One thing Klassen plays with brilliantly is the contradiction between what the image is saying and what the text is saying. He told ‘Art of the Picture Book’:

 “If they're being read to by an adult, I feel that the pictures are the kids’ territory. So if the pictures give out some information that the text doesn’t, there's a secret from the person reading it or maybe even from the person who wrote it”.

When children are being read aloud to, they can stop and question what is being said in words versus what they can see in pictures. This makes the books more interactive and gives children a sense of pride and cleverness, which is one of the ingredients to his success with kids as well as grown ups. In I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat, this interplay between text and image allows us to tell when the devious animals are lying. In Sam and Dave Dig A Hole, it’s used more subtly to create an eerie open ending to the story when Sam and Dave arrive “home”, to a place ever so slightly different to the one they started out in. 

The writer and the illustrator

As well as working on his own projects as a writer and illustrator, Jon Klassen has collaborated with many people to illustrate their stories. He has a recurring collaboration with Mac Barnett, a great children’s book writer in his own right. Their first book together, Extra Yarn, was published in 2012, and its follow up,  Sam and Dave Dig A Hole, was conceived during a chat over breakfast. It’s easy to tell that there is a close relationship between the writer and illustrator here, as the words and images in this book are not completely separate entities but playfully interact with each other. The shapes of words play into the tumbling motion as Sam and Dave fall down the hole in the final pages. 

Sam and Dave Dig A Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

Klassen’s latest collaboration with Barnett is Triangle, another tale populated by devious creatures. Only this time they’re not animals, but shapes. Klassen’s love of landscape drawing shines through here. This book gives him the scope to create layered panoramas of shapes as Triangle runs from his triangular home to Square’s square one.

Triangle by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

Image from Triangle, from Jon Klassen’s tumblr.

Klassen collaborated with the poet Ted Kooser, on House Held Up By Trees. This story was inspired by a real-life house Kooser saw, but Klassen recently tweeted that he deliberately didn’t look at the photo when he was designing the house. (Do yourself a favour and follow him on Twitter and Instagram, he is always sharing process and archive shots and his wry sense of humour transmits very well to social media!) He has said that when researching something, he likes to look at it just once and then work from memory, so that his sources don't influence the finished product too much. In an interview with ‘Art of the Picture Book’, he speaks about his guilt that he never kept sketchbooks as an animation student, and how he approaches other artists’ work as inspiration. Because he did not have a natural impulse to draw from life in a sketchbook, like his classmates who sketched people on the subway and in coffee shops, Klassen’s style is rooted less in anatomy and accuracy and more in impression and mood. He used the artist David Hockney’s coloured pencil drawings as inspiration during Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, but says that his memory of Hockney’s work was more important to him than anything he could get from constantly referencing and trying to mimic it.

 David Hockney's influence on Jon KlassenDe Longpre Ave. Hollywood by David Hockney from hockneypictures.com

 

Klassen-ian tragedy 

Klassen's work is beautiful from a design and illustration perspective but what really sets him apart are his stories. Like all great children's writers, he doesn't speak down to children and he understands their sense of humour and unique outlook on the world. His books are not as dark as some by writers like Maurice Sendak or Tomi Ungerer, but they retain a fairytale grimness that is the basis for a lot of our most well-known stories. Characters are often eaten, but the gory details are left off page and merely alluded to, like the action that happens offstage in a Shakespearean tragedy. Morality is a grey area here and there are no hard and fast heroes and villains. We find ourselves rooting for a thieving fish in This Is Not My Hat and in the final pages of I Want My Hat Back the double-crossed bear who has been the victim all along insists, “I would never eat a rabbit”. Do we believe him?

Children love reading books again and again, and picture books are designed for this. But when someone like Jon Klassen uses the form to its utmost advantage, adults will also find something new to enjoy every time.

Explore our full range of Jon Klassen books here.

Photo of Jon Klassen by Autumn Le' Brannon.

 


Giving a New Look to the Greatest Children's Stories Ever Told March 01 2017

When it comes to stories, it seems that the secret to immortality is reinvention.

Seeing Red UNIT. framed

"Seeing Red" (based on Red Riding Hood). Framed 8"x8" two-layer papercut. Available in-store only.

Take for instance the story of Red Riding Hood, which can be traced back to an eleventh-century Belgian poem. Or another favourite, Sleeping Beauty, whose origins go all the way back to a thirteenth-century medieval romance.

Classic stories such as these don’t endure simply because they pass from one generation to the next – they endure because they invite re-imagining. This may explain their lasting appeal for so many artists and writers who dare to explore original ways of connecting the stories with a new generation of readers.

One such artist is Ger from Dublin-based creative studio UNIT. (the period is deliberate), who partnered with Tales for Tadpoles in autumn of last year to create a dazzling range of pieces inspired by children’s classics such as The Iron Man, Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland, and The Owl and the Pussycat.

The Iron Man Print Unit

"Into View" (based on The Iron Man). Framed 8"x8" two-layer papercut. Available in-store only.

“We’ve focused on a small number of classics for the moment,” he tells us. “There’s a world of great stories to choose from and ideas can come from anywhere, so we had to narrow it down.”

Slowing Things Down

With some pieces designed to be hand-printed and others employing multiple layers of paper, UNIT.’s intention has always been to impart an element of craft and appreciation back into the stories they take inspiration from.

“Digital technology makes everything so much more readily available. That need for instant gratification just leads to things becoming more disposable too, in my opinion. I felt that it would be a total betrayal of such classic stories to produce something that didn’t require plenty of thought and creative energy, so we put a lot of time making pieces that reward concentration – just as the stories do.”

1001, The Arabian Nights UNIT.

"1001" (based on The Arabian Nights). Stenciled print. Available in-store and online.

Given the wealth of source material to choose from, how exactly did the selection process work? Was there a particular set of criteria?

“Choosing the right stories wasn’t really an exact science. Sometimes it was just a tone that appealed. With Red Riding Hood, for example, it was the sense of something sinister lying just below the surface that inspired us; with Alice in Wonderland it was the incredible dreamscape of the world that we found compelling."

The Other Side of What? UNIT. print

"Other Side of What?" (based on Alice in Wonderland. Stenciled print. Available in-store and online.

"Then with something like The Owl and the Pussycat it was a sense of nostalgia. It was actually one of the first nursery rhymes I can remember. It was in an old Childcraft encyclopedia that we had as children. I can remember my mother reading it to us. I loved the illustration that accompanied it too – perhaps that was even the beginning of my love of illustration, design and storytelling.”

Thinking in Layers

Like the source stories whose surface simplicity belie complex layers of meaning, UNIT.'s pieces incorporate complementary elements that require careful consideration.

“Balance, composition, colour, contrasting and complementary elements … There are so many factors to consider when working on a design, but you just go with you instincts and experience to find the right combination”, he says.

“All stages bring their challenges and the process is one of constant iteration and refinement. From the notebook work to the screen work to the coloured paper selection to the mounting – the work requires constant editing and refinement."

Alice in Wonderland UNIT. sketch 2

Sketchwork for "Colourful Imagination". 

UNIT. sketch Alice in Wonderland

Advanced sketch design. 

"Sometimes a piece may work perfectly once it's brought to the Mac but we’ll often need to re-examine the design to make the physical product look as good as can be. The design process continues even after we’ve cut layers, and often some layers are edited and re-cut as new ideas or opportunities present themselves.”

UNIT. Paper selection for Alice in Wonderland

Paper selection for finished product.

Finding Depth through Light and Shadow

Though UNIT. alter their designs to match perfectly with items such as tote bags and prints, it is the higher product range that truly marks their work as unique. Their multi-layered papercuts give scenes and characters from classic stories a heady new dimension.

Alice in Wonderland UNIT. studio detail

Detail of "Colourful Imagination" (based on Alice in Wonderland). 

Alice in Wonderland UNIT print

The finished piece. "Colourful Imagination". Framed A4 multi-layer papercut. Available in-store only (from Monday March 6).

“We use different depths to create new effects and moods. Every time the viewer moves, changes position or walks across a room, the image changes too. It kind of has a more tangible physical reality in a way. It all comes down to the interplay between colour, light and shadow. That’s what helps create that sense of ‘thereness’ really. It brings the images and the stories to life.”

No Ordinary Product

Naturally, the more elaborate the piece, the more effort it requires.

“Those pieces take far more time to create. I say ‘create’ instead of ‘manufacture’ because we make each one by hand and focus on the quality. The whole process begins from scratch for each piece. Even the paper we use we don’t stock in bulk, so every time we get in new sheets of the colour we’ve been using they could still be slightly different to the last order. It means that every edition is a limited edition in a way.”

The Owl and the Pussycat UNIT.

"Light of the Moon" (based on The Owl and the Pussycat). Framed 8"x8" two-layer papercut. Available in-store only.

With so much work involved in the process, the final stage of production takes on almost equal importance – the presentation.

“After so much doodling, sketching, inking, designing, cutting, editing and all the rest that goes into each piece, it’s really important to do it justice by housing it properly. That’s why all the frames are custom made. They just help put everything in balance. They’re made by Michael from Rocker Lane Workshop, who creates beautiful hand-made frames from reclaimed maple. He also happens to be my dad, so I know it’s in safe hands.”

UNIT. custom picture frames

“Once we get the bespoke frames, the next thing we do is sand and fill them. They're then given three or four coats of chalk paint followed by another few coats of sealer – all of which are both odour- and toxin-free. Finally, the pieces are ready to be mounted and housed.”

And that is where the story ends?

“I think the story just continues. We keep experimenting and refining new ways of presenting the stories that inspire us. Other colour combinations, different depths. We just keep trying to bring the stories to life all over again. It’s an ongoing process really, but then is any story ever really finished?”


The Power of Storytelling and How it Affects Your Brain February 23 2017

Once upon a time there was a young man who worked in a museum. Each day the young man would study the precious relics around him and wonder what they were, where they had come from, and who they were created for.

A tablet from depicting The Epic of Gilgamesh

The oldest story in the world: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Amazing as they were, there were still a small number of relics so mysterious that all he could do was look on in fascination. They were stone tablets many thousands of years old and from thousands of miles away. On them were strange and ancient markings that no-one could understand.

To unravel the mystery the young man decided to work hard and study languages so old they were no longer spoken. Languages once used by people in far-off places whose bones were long since dust in the earth.

Finally, more than two decades after the tablets had first arrived at the museum, the young man successfully managed to crack their mystifying code. For the first time in over two thousand years the tablets found a new reader and what they revealed to him was the world’s oldest recorded story.

From Stone Tablets to Podcasts

The young man who decoded the tablets’ puzzle was an English archaeologist named George Smith and the story he unearthed was The Epic of Gilgamesh – an ancient Mesopotamian poem written sometime around 2100 BC.

Despite the date and place of its origin, the Gilgamesh epic showcases many of the same elements and themes still present in the stories enjoyed today by modern readers – a hero embarks on a difficult journey in which there is romance and seduction, encounters with strange and exotic characters, impossible obstacles to overcome, and a final redemptive character arc.

The similarities between old stories and newer ones are no coincidence. Time does not seem to matter much to themes; nor indeed does location.

Princess and the Frog Warwick Goble Print

The Princess and the Frog. Illustration by Warwick Goble.

A 2006 analysis of 90 folktale collections from around the world (from both tribal societies and industrialised ones) reveals as much, with scholars describing the presence of a number of distinctly common narratives covering basic human needs and desires in the stories they examined.

For journalist and author Christopher Booker, there are just seven of these universal plots, and they can be seen to return time and again in books, television programmes, movies and even podcasts. They are:

  1. Overcoming the monster - Beowulf, War of the Worlds
  2. Rags to riches - Cinderella, Jane Eyre, Pretty Woman
  3. The quest - The Iliad, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Serial
  4. Voyage and return - Alice in Wonderland, Toy Story, Where the Wild Things Are, The Little Prince
  5. Rebirth - Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol, The Shawshank Redemption
  6. Comedy - A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Four Weddings and a Funeral
  7. Tragedy - Hamlet, The Godfather

Though stories often differ wildly in a rich variety of ways, Booker believes that almost all can still be simplified to a core theme that fit neatly into one of the categories outlined above.

Alice in Wonderland Arthur Rackham

The voyage and return narrative is perfectly exemplified in Alice in Wonderland. Illustration by Arthur Rackham.

This has nothing to do with a lack of invention on the part of the writer though. The commonalities in stories around the world merely express shared human impulses, thoughts, fears and aspirations.

“Stories have always been a primal form of communication,” says psychologist Pamela Rutledge. “They are timeless links to ancient traditions, legends, archetypes, myths, and symbols. They connect us to a larger self and universal truths.”

‘What’s the Story?’ How Stories Help Us Understand the World

Not only do stories connect us to the past and express universal beliefs, they can also help us develop a better understanding of the world and those we share it with. This is part of the reason why your brain loves stories.

With around a hundred billion neurons and almost a quadrillion connections between the neurons your brain is an extraordinarily complex organism – so complex, in fact, it borders on the wondrous.

Yet it is still a pattern-seeking instrument that looks to put the chaos of the world into some kind of recognisable order. Stories represent our most powerful and meaningful way of doing just that.

From bedsides to firesides, we regularly use stories to relay our experiences and connect with those of the people around us. We use them to explain events, examine our values and explore notions of meaning and purpose.In this sense, stories offer a perfect common ground for reflection. What makes this common ground all the more precious is that it gives us a glimpse into the lives of others and the everyday situations and struggles they face.

This “peeking” into another life through a story is possible in any number of ways – it could be when you read a book, watch a movie or talk with a friend. Whatever their form, stories are a constant in our lives.

In fact it’s estimated that as much as 65 per cent of all human interactions take the form of social storytelling (i.e. gossip). And where there are stories, there is greater potential for empathy and discovery. As Rutledge puts it: “When you listen to stories and understand them, you experience the exact same brain pattern as the person telling the story.”

Telling a story

Storytelling has been an important tool for social cohesion for millenia.

So by imagining ourselves in someone else’s position we can either affirm or challenge our beliefs and assumptions. Indeed, according to psychology researcher Dan Johnson, simply reading fiction can increase our empathy towards others we may have initially viewed as being “outsiders”.

This is in agreement with the findings of another study published in Science magazine that fiction “uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences.” One alluring implication of this is that our personal stories are therefore never complete; they’re part of a narrative that continually evolves as we try see the world from multiple points of view.

The Power to Imagine New Worlds

There is widespread discussion today about the potential for technology to transport us to new places, with virtual reality a particularly good example.

Yet technology too relies on stories since a good plot and credible characters are essential to deep engagement. It’s even reasonable to suggest that stories are in fact the original virtual reality, since they allow us to experience other places, characters, events and consequences purely by stimulating our imaginations.

As Rutledge puts it “To the human brain, imagined experiences are processed the same as real experiences... Through imagination, we tap into creativity that is the foundation of innovation, self-discovery and change.”

Psychologists refer to this flight of imagination as “narrative transport”. It occurs when we are fully immersed in a story’s world. It’s understood that the greater the level of empathy in the reader, the deeper the transportation experience becomes.

But what is actually happening in the brain as it engages with stories?

The Science Behind How Stories Affect Your Brain

Listening to a story that’s being told or read to you activates the auditory cortex of your brain. Engaging with a story also fires up your left temporal cortex, the region that is receptive to language. This part of your brain is also capable of filtering out “noise”; that is, overused words or clichés. That is why the most skilled storytellers are careful about the language they use, employing a host of literary techniques to keep your brain engaged.

And once it is, other regions soon begin to participate in the process.


For instance, once you begin to feel some kind of emotional engagement with a story it is because the frontal and parietal cortices have been stimulated. Powerful descriptions of food, for example, will also stir up your sensory cortex while descriptions of motion or action will get a response from the central sulcus, the primary sensory motor region of your brain. Indeed, just thinking about running can activate the neurons associated with the act.

Research also shows that all this brain activity can last for several days, explaining why good stories tend to stay with us. Additionally, stories also improve our ability to recall any information embedded in them. One estimate suggests that we can recall facts up to 22 times more effectively when they are part of a story rather than just isolated data. Thus you are much more likely to remember the story of Gilgamesh’s discovery from earlier on than just the facts of the discovery alone.

All this mental activity can also bring about changes in your body. During scenes of high action or tension, the stress hormone cortisol is released into your bloodstream, which leads to greater immersion and responsiveness to the arc of a story.

More character-driven stories will affect the release of oxytocin into the blood, a so-called “empathy” hormone that helps people bond. It is, in fact, the same hormone that's released into the bloodstream of breastfeeding mothers.

Making Childhood Connections

As we’ve seen, the huge role that stories play in our social interactions and views is universal. Their formative impact also begins very early in life.

In just their second year, children have already begun to understand basic concepts (discussed in another blog here). However, they will not hold on to most of their earlier memories because they have no context on which to anchor them.

This changes as soon as a child begins to develop narrative skills. These will give him or her a better mechanism for making sense of the world around them. By the age of four or five a child will also have developed what’s known as “theory of mind”. Essentially this relates to their ability put themselves in another’s shoes, or to be aware of their awareness.

Story time Shirley Hughes

This rapid mental evolution can be seen in a 2007 study by psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario in which researchers found that while three-year-olds were unable to follow the thoughts of an imaginary character (a farmer looking to milk his cows), the five-year-olds in the study were able to do so.

The adventures and characters that children experience through stories are almost certain to have a lifelong impact. This then is a pivotal time in their development, not just in terms of vocabulary or reading skills, but in the broader terms of their ability to think, empathise and imagine.

Find stories worth sharing by browsing our carefully curated selection of books.


The Best of Love in 14 Amazing Children's Book Illustrations February 06 2017

Love is the most potent bond between one person and another, as Valentine’s Day cards are all too eager to remind us. But love also binds us to many other things in our lives that are deeply meaningful to us. So to celebrate the power of love in a more all-embracing way, we decided to put together a list of wonderful book illustrations that celebrate love in its many forms.

Simply click on the images below to view them in our store.

1. Loving ... Your Significant Other

The most obvious one on the list – that powerful love for your significant other with whom you gladly share your highs and lows.

Moomintroll and Snorkmaiden

2. Loving ... a Good Book

For those who love to visit new places, go on amazing adventures, meet fantastic characters and explore exciting possibilities all through the power of a good book.

Matilda - What to Read Next

3. Loving ... Logic 

For when it’s time to cut through the nonsense with some rock-solid, well-reasoned insights.

The BFG: Two Rights

4. Loving ... Siblings

They grew up with you, know just about everything about you, and have helped shaped who you are, which makes spending more time with them all the more precious.

Annie and Alfie Rose Reading

5. Loving ... Dressing the Part

For the fashionistas who can successfully make the vintage into the distinctly modern.

Harry Clarke The Fairy

6. Loving ... Parents

You may not always agree with their advice, but they're always looking out for you (and are probably mostly right anyway).

Shirley Hughes Dad in the Rain

7. Loving ... Friends

For those who know that what makes doing nice things really special is doing them with friends.

Winnie the Pooh Poohsticks

8. Loving ... Pets

They give all their love and ask nothing in return, which makes us love them even more.

Edmund Dulac Snow Queen

9. Loving ... the Weather (Even Winter!)

For when you’re soaked through and far from home but still can’t resist splashing through puddles.

Alfie Splish Splash Splosh

10. Loving ... Nature

It’s not just something to enjoy now and then when the weather is nice, it’s something you’re a part of all the time.

Moomintroll and Snorkmaiden Flowers

11. Loving ... Getting Creative

Whether it’s on a gallery wall or the kitchen wall, if doing something creative allows you to express yourself, then it’s most definitely worth loving.

Miffy the Artist

12. Loving ... Good Food

For those who love flavours that tickle their fancy and tingle their taste buds!

Winnie the Pooh Honey Pots

13. Loving ... Having Everyone Together

If it’s truly worth doing, then it’s definitely worth doing with your nearest and dearest.

Moomins Everyone

14. Loving ... Each and Every Day

For reminding yourself, and others, that every day is a gift to be thankful for.

Alfie Jumping

 


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