Illustrator of the Month: Elsa Beskow July 05 2017
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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."
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Illustrator of the Month: Tomi Ungerer June 08 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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…
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
Mode of transport: Wanders about going “lippity- lippity-, not very fast”
Tiny jacket rating: 10/10
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!
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.
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
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.
3. 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.
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
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.
The White Rabbit consulting his pocket watch (Helen Oxenbury) and breaking into a run (Robert Ingpen)
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
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.
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
De Longpre Ave. Hollywood by David Hockney from hockneypictures.com
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.
When it comes to stories, it seems that the secret to immortality is reinvention.
"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.
"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" (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."
"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."
Sketchwork for "Colourful Imagination".
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.”
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.
Detail of "Colourful Imagination" (based on Alice in Wonderland).
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.”
"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.”
“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.
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.
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:
- Overcoming the monster - Beowulf, War of the Worlds
- Rags to riches - Cinderella, Jane Eyre, Pretty Woman
- The quest - The Iliad, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Serial
- Voyage and return - Alice in Wonderland, Toy Story, Where the Wild Things Are, The Little Prince
- Rebirth - Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol, The Shawshank Redemption
- Comedy - A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Four Weddings and a Funeral
- 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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
3. Loving ... Logic
For when it’s time to cut through the nonsense with some rock-solid, well-reasoned insights.
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.
5. Loving ... Dressing the Part
For the fashionistas who can successfully make the vintage into the distinctly modern.
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).
7. Loving ... Friends
For those who know that what makes doing nice things really special is doing them with friends.
8. Loving ... Pets
They give all their love and ask nothing in return, which makes us love them even more.
9. Loving ... the Weather (Even Winter!)
For when you’re soaked through and far from home but still can’t resist splashing through puddles.
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.
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.
12. Loving ... Good Food
For those who love flavours that tickle their fancy and tingle their taste buds!
13. Loving ... Having Everyone Together
If it’s truly worth doing, then it’s definitely worth doing with your nearest and dearest.
14. Loving ... Each and Every Day
For reminding yourself, and others, that every day is a gift to be thankful for.
6 Beautiful Books To Keep Children Inspired All Year Round January 30 2017
So the days are still short and the weather retains a nasty chill, but there’s no reason to feel glum about the year ahead. To help restore your excitement about all that’s to come, we’ve put together a list of children’s story books that will lift your spirits and rekindle your sense of wonder in the everyday.
If insects could talk, what would they say? Could we even understand them? Du Iz Tak? (which was recently honoured at the prestigious Caldecott picture book awards) easily engages its readers by bringing them into the story through the use of an ingenious (and often very funny) visual language that’s sprinkles clues, prompts and great little side stories throughout its wonderfully illustrated pages.
The more attention you give to the details, the more the story reveals of itself, until finally you can almost understand exactly what our little neighbours are saying to one another.
Imagine a bicycle with square wheels (“you wouldn’t get very far”); a door without a room (“would you be indoors or outdoors?”); a teapot without a spout (“you would get very thirsty”). These are just some of the odd and unusual scenarios and their consequences that illustrator Norman Messenger asks readers in Imagine, a book for the unbridled invention of young and curious minds.
By using images that have a surreal or seemingly illogical flavour (Salvador Dali and M.C. Escher come to mind as influences), Messenger creates compelling puzzles and allows readers to interact with many of the pages by opening flaps or spinning wheels to reveal exciting new concoctions that will keep them guessing, thinking, and imagining.
It’s a natural tendency at this time of year to look forward to the warm summer months, taking picnics in the park or relaxing on a beach. But if you take a moment to think about it, you’ll see that there’s something uniquely special about each month of the year.
This is the precise message of Elsa Beskow’s Around the Year, which puts together simple verses with gorgeous, evocative images to remind us of the joy to be found in everything from tucking into freshly baked food in the depths of February, to the first blooming of flowers in April to the ripening berries and glowing cornfields of August.
While the Findus books are best known for the vibrant adventures of farmer Pettson and his cat Findus, this one is a little different. Findus, Food and Fun instead offers readers a creative compendium of things to do whatever the time of year.
From propagating grass seeds in old socks to making boats out of tree bark; from baking delicious treats using berries to creating a teeming aquarium of creatures from ponds and rivers, Findus, Food and Fun encourages constant invention and shows there’s always lots to be done when you decide to embrace seasonal change as well as appreciate it.
A wordless tale written by a poet, Footpath Flowers relies on its bold visuals to tell the story of a little girl who gradually brightens up the world around her through small acts of kindness and appreciation.
The glorious black and white illustrations serve only to accentuate those beautiful splashes of colour that the young protagonist adds as she shares her creativity and compassion with those around her.
From picking flowers to petting dogs, the story teaches us just how important it is to never lose sight of the small things in life.
A book that revels as much in words as it does in the actions they represent, Let’s Join In is divided into four chapters with the titles “Hiding”, “Giving”, “Chatting” and “Bouncing”.
With lavish illustrations throughout, each chapter helps bring both the word and its associated activities to life using a simple formula that fuses everyday examples into a simple narrative highlighting the many joys to be found in exploring the world as if for the very first time.
It reminds readers, young and old, that the commonplace is in fact extraordinary.
How a 7-year-old's imagination can take us to amazing new worlds September 12 2015
A few weeks ago my seven-year-old nephew Cuan had an accident involving a golf club, which is odd since he's never actually played golf. Happily, while he was mending up, he poured his energies into another, somewhat safer pastime – drawing.
Days after his accident, I paid Cuan a visit to see how he was doing. I found him sitting at a very chaotic kitchen table, busily working away on a collection of original character illustrations. The more I watched him at work, the more I came to suspect that a child’s brain is like some kind of portal into other dimensions. And as we got chatting about his drawings, so it proved to be.
Drawing one: Masked Feline with Hammer
Cuan had already started on the Masked Feline before he asked me for any ideas. He was doing just fine without my input anyway. All I suggested really was a tail. ‘Cats use them for balance’, I told him. ‘And a cat is stealthy too, so if it had a weapon it’d probably be something like a sword, or maybe a sai [an ancient Japanese knife-type device – I know because my favourite Ninja Turtle from when I was a child carried two of them]. ‘I’m going to give it a hammer’, he said. An interesting choice.
Masked Feline with Hammer
I imagine the Masked Feline to be like one of those rare, exotic animals living in remote jungles that only a handful of photographers ever manage to actually capture on film. And if they do so, their work gets published, celebrated and forever preserved in a National Geographic feature spread. But until then the animal is merely a myth kept alive by undocumented sightings reported by unreliable locals.
Yet here is the Masked Feline in all its glory as it fleet-footedly dashes across the page, Thor-hammer in hand. What kind of sound would an animal like that make I wonder? What would it eat? Might it use sunlight for energy instead? And why the mask? Why the hammer? While its surprised expression seems to suggest that it has been caught unawares in a moment of urgency, the Masked Feline's motives, habits and origins remain shrouded in mystery.
Pay close attention
The mask, which beautifully renders contrasts between positive and negative elements. Also worth a mention is the way the orange inside the ears, on the tummy, paws and tail compliment the character’s vibrant, yellow pelt. Note too the orange rectangle on the bottom left of the image. ‘That’s his colour code’, Cuan told me. ‘Green means it’s not that rare, yellow means it’s kind of rare and orange means it’s really rare.’ So that confirms my suspicions: the Masked Feline is really rare.
Drawing Two: Alien Lifeforms Atop a Rocky Hill
‘What will I draw next?’ he asked as soon as he'd finished, so I began making suggestions and he began to put them on paper. ‘How about a planet where there are only rocks’, I said. ‘But there are people living there too. And maybe there’s hardly any gravity on the planet so the people there are really tall. They might even look like plants’. He listened closely, and this is what he came up with:
Alien Lifeforms atop a Rocky Hill
At first, Alien Lifeforms Atop a Rocky Hill made me feel a bit sad. It looks so lonely there on their barren planet, surrounded by all that empty white space. It’s almost like a lost page from The Little Prince. Then I look a little deeper and notice how happy the Alien Lifeforms seem to be. Notice how they hover above the ground – is it the low levels of gravity on the planet or are they leaping for joy? Maybe they’ve received good news? Or they might be simply overjoyed to have the viewer pay them a visit? The truth is out there...somewhere.
Pay close attention
I’m convinced that they key to unlocking the picture’s secrets lies in the thick outlines around the rocks. The solid black lines suggest that the planet and its rocks are real and fixed in place; but the Alien Lifeforms themselves have no outlines. Why? I think it’s because we’re looking at multi-dimensional beings that shape-shift their way in and out of time and space, and maybe even thought itself. Somewhat surprisingly, I see that the colour code to the lower-right of the image suggests that the Alien Lifeforms are only in the ‘kind of rare’ category. Thankfully, they look like a peaceful lot.
Drawing three: Subterranean Man with Armour
‘Now what will I draw?’, Cuan asked me again, as he quickly tore off another sheet of paper from his little notepad. ‘Okay, how about this time it’s a man who lives at the centre of the earth’, I began. ‘But because it’s so hot down there he has to wear a suit of armour that protects him from all the lava down there.’ And within minutes the Subterranean Armoured Man was before us, comfortably relaxing on a sun-hot bed of lava.
Subterranean Armoured Man
I look at the Subterranean Armoured Man and he looks back at me. What does he do all day there deep down under the ground? ‘Why do you resist my understanding, Armoured Man? Reveal to me your secrets’ I demand of him. And there is silence, until at last I hear his voice, muffled by his lava-proof helmet. ‘My secrets?’, he asks, sounding a little confused, and then is silent once again.
Pay close attention
All that lovely white space. See how it draws the eye to the thick band of dominating red? How it’s used to frame the figure of the Armoured Man, who lies perfectly at the centre of the page? Observe how the strong black lines are used to distinguish the Armoured Man from the bed of lava behind him. It’s amazingly simple, yet at the same time, simply amazing.
Returning home again
When he was finished drawing, Cuan gathered up his three illustrations and handed them to me. 'You can keep them if you like', he said. I was so delighted I actually got him to sign the back of each one. So after no more than twenty minutes of frenetic illustration, I returned home from my short visit with three amazing snapshots into the active imagination of a seven-year-old.
For those who have children, or nephews or nieces, or even friends with kids, try take some time out just to observe how and what they draw. You’ll be all the richer for seeing what they can create. Just be sure to give their creations the attention they deserve, remembering that this is imagination in its purest form. This is where illustration begins.
To fire up your own imagination, have a look through our huge collection of classic and contemporary children's book illustrations right here.
Telling Tales: The story behind our pop-up shop success August 29 2015
Earlier this month we opened our shop doors for the first time and hundreds of you came to visit. Read the story of how it all went down, and what we learned along the way.
Twelve days have never whizzed by so speedily. It seems like no sooner had we our pop-up shop up and running before we were repacking and returning the keys. But now that the dust has settled we figured it was time to take stock and share our fantastic journey with the people who made it all worthwhile – our customers.
It all started back in April when we first applied for a shop space through a Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council initiative that aims to revitalise unused spaces and support local business. The location was on George’s Street Upper, close to the lovely People’s Park in Dun Laoghaire. Though a short trip away from Dublin City Centre, we realised that this was our chance to finally create a space that would showcase what we were all about – a high-quality selection of products based on children’s books and illustrations.
After what seemed like forever (but was in reality just a few weeks) we received the all-clear. But following the first wave of manic glee there came a dawning realisation: we’d only two months to get everything ready. Having never opened our own shop space before, the amount of work seemed a little overwhelming at first. Where would we even start?
It was clearly time to roll up our sleeves and get organised. Thankfully, we already had a good head start: we’d lots of great new stock stored away and ready for display, a range of fantastic suppliers to order a variety of products from, and a small but passionate customer base that could help us spread the word. But still we needed more. After all, if opportunity was knocking, we were going to sprint to the door to answer.
Our storytelling marketing material
While we were busy as bees working behind the scenes, we still needed to somehow win the attention of total strangers and let them know who we were and what we do. We’d also need to do this in a way that represented the qualities that make our products so appealing: imagination, storytelling and creativity.
To that end we were blessed to work with the immensely talented Ger from UNIT Design Studio, who immediately understood where we were coming from. After a quick brainstorming session, we let him off to work his magic. A short while after our meeting he got back to us with a concept for a four-part series of A6-size flyers, each opening with the classic fairytale-inspired opening line ‘Once there was...’ and continuing with nice, clear copy that briefly summarised one of four well-known stories. In order to ‘Get the full story’, viewers would simply have to pop along to our shop (all essential details such as time, location and contact info went on the reverse of the flyer).
Our four-part flyer series sitting inside a café window. Design by UNIT studio.
Once printed off, it was off to every café, bar, museum or cultural space we could think of to distribute our lovely new promotional material (always asking for permission first of course!). Anyone who brought a flyer along to the shop also got a 10% discount in store, if they could bear to part with it that is.
Finally setting up shop
After selecting the best products and advertising when and where we’d be opening the pop-up, the next major challenge was actually filling the unit and displaying products in an appealing way. This was probably the trickiest part of the whole process as we had so much more space to work with than ever before. As anyone familiar with the unit will already know, it’s normally used as a shared space as designers, artists, photographers and the like pool their work and resources together to showcase their wares collectively. This time, however, all that space was ours alone.
Before: The pop-up space in Dun Laoghaire before we got to work on it.
To help make the most of it we contacted our friends at Rocker Lane Workshop, who specialise in making beautiful furniture using 100% reclaimed maple (which they normally source from dance halls, school halls and basketball courts from around the country). They provided us with shelving units, a coat stand, frames, stools and dozens of specially made storage boxes that we could use to present our products in the way that best suited them.
After: How the front of the shop looked once we'd set it all up.
To complete the welcoming, personal look of the shop, we spent hours on arts and crafts as we typed, printed and hand-cut all product descriptions and prices. We did the same with little illustrator biographies, which we then framed next to their respective works. For visitors with small children, we also created a little reading room towards the back of the shop, complete with tiny chairs, a table and a selection of books to help keep the little ones happy!
Dun Laoghaire – the place and the people
Dun Laoghaire has always been a place we loved visiting, especially on those warm sunny days when the glorious sea views are most clear. Then there is the meticulously kept People’s Park – happily right across the road from our shop – which offers a real haven of tranquillity for visitors and locals alike. No doubt these are the attractions for which the town is best known, and perhaps rightly so. But it was the people that really made our time in Dun Laoghaire so special. Unfailingly warm, welcoming and supportive of what we were trying to do, all those who visited our shop helped make the experience an unforgettable one.
It seemed that on any given day, there was some kind of treat in store for us: whether it was customers who were excited by the works of a particular illustrator, children (or parents) entranced by musical jewellery boxes, or even a visit by a passing celebrity (Saoirse Ronan and her mum, would you believe!), the pleasant surprises just kept stacking up.
A special mention should go to the lady who described how her niece created a character based on the colour code on the inside of a cereal box. After giving her character the name of Mischievous Melba, the little girl wrote a letter to Elmer creator David McKee explaining how she came up with the idea. Mr McKee was impressed enough to reply with a letter of his own in which he complimented her inspired creation and suggested including it in one of his future books!
What we learned (and where we go from here)
Elmer was one popular elephant among our customers!
The big lesson we took from our all-too-brief time as a pop-up shop was that age does not curtail interest when it comes to illustration. When there’s a connection with certain illustrations or characters, it doesn’t matter whether you’re age six or sixty, the excitement was still clearly in evidence in how you responded to the items we had out, and the space that we displayed them in. It couldn’t have made us happier to see that the appetite for children’s illustration was not just alive, but thriving.
So what now? Well, the very exciting news is that we are opening a little shop on Nassau Street, right in the heart of Dublin City, in October! We’ll keep you posted on the details, but for now just know that your enthusiasm for our shop in Dun Laoghaire was a signal we received loud and clear, and it’s made us even more determined to make the next part of the story the best one yet.
6 reasons we’re so excited about our new pop-up shop July 31 2015
It’s an exciting time. After selling at countless markets over the last year – from Dublin City Centre to Bray, Blackrock and further afield – we’ve finally gotten the opportunity to open our very own Tales for Tadpoles pop-up shop in Dun Laoghaire, where we’ll be open from August 5 to August 16. We may only be there for a short while but we still couldn’t be more excited, and here are 6 genuine reasons why...
A poster for our pop-up shop, designed by the brilliant UNIT studios.
1. We get to meet our customers
There are few things as rewarding as meeting others who share a common passion. Because we love illustration so much, having the opportunity to meet and say ‘hi’ to others who feel the same way is something we’re really looking forward to. It gives us a chance to chat about our products, answer any questions, offer suggestions, and maybe even swap recommendations.
2. We can put beautiful new stock on display
Because we’ve got our own space, we’ll also have more room to display lots of items that we haven’t been able to show at markets before (such as gorgeous illustrated cushions, tea sets and candle holders). It’s one thing to see products online and quite another to be able to pick them up and inspect them for yourself. What’s more, we’ll also be displaying a selection of products that you can’t even find on our website!
3. We get to put our own stamp on the space
We love selling at markets with bustling atmospheres, great camaraderie, and a steady flow of people from all walks of life. But one of the only things we’re not so fond of is the lack of space. Trying to create a vibrant display that truly stands out from the crowd when you’re confined to a small area can be tough going, particularly since you’ve got to pack up everything you’ve brought at the end of each day, meaning your entire display must be small enough to remain mobile. Thankfully there’s so much more freedom with a pop-up shop, and we plan on using it to create as pleasant, impressive and welcoming a space as we possibly can.
4. We really enjoy seeing your positive reactions to products
The best part about putting our products on display is that we get to enjoy the moment customers connect with a particular product or illustration. Sometimes it may be down to a sense of nostalgia and other times it might be because certain images express and speak to some part of a person’s personality – be it playful, complex, witty or wistful. If it makes you happy, then it makes us happy.
5. We can try out new items and ideas to learn more about the things you like
Our goal is to always provide the very best in story-inspired illustration, but naturally this involves some trial and error. Having our own dedicated pop-up shop will allow us to see exactly what items and illustrations you like best so we can continue to refine and grow our stock so it appeals more than ever.
6. Location, location, location
Just a short trip from the city centre by car, bus or DART, Dun Laoghaire is a something of a hidden gem. With a promenade boasting spectacular sea views and a pier you can dreamily stroll along while boat sails tinkle in the breeze, Dun Laoghaire offers a welcome reprieve from the bustle of the city. And not far from the aforementioned pier is the delightful People’s Park (which, incidentally, is right next to our pop-up shop!), where food lovers descend every weekend to sample the delights and delicacies of the Sunday Market. As if you needed another reason to come see us!
The Prettiest Girl and the Wolf that Laughed Last July 23 2015
Arguably the best-known of all fairytales, the story of Red Riding Hood does not always end the way we thought it did. In fact in one very old written version of the story, things go very badly indeed for our young heroine, and Harry Clarke’s illustration perfectly captures the moment things start to go downhill.
Though mainly known for his intricate stained-glass panels, Clarke also produced a trove of beautifully crafted classic fairy tale illustrations (several of which we included in a previous blog post). Owing to the fact that many of these pieces seem to focus on the stories’ darker aspects, few of them – if any – are meant for younger viewers. One excellent example is his unsettling depiction of the first encounter in the forest between Red Riding Hood and the wolf.
At first glance, the image seems elegant and non-threatening – an unconcerned-looking Red Riding Hood, holding her brolly and basket of goods, stops to take notice of a wolf that’s appeared from among the trees. Neither is shown to have an inclination towards a fight or flight response. It all seems rather calm and civilised. However, Clarke’s illustration was based on Charles Perrault’s version of the story, which first appeared back in 1697, long before the more widely known Brothers Grimm version, which appeared in 1812. The main difference between the two could not be starker. In the Grimms’ edition, a huntsman rescues Red Riding Hood and her grandmother before the wolf has had a chance to digest them after consuming them; in Perrault’s version, the wicked wolf hungrily gobbles down Red Riding Hood and her granny, and there the story ends. There’s no saviour, no comeuppance for the wolf, and no happy ending.
Yet this is what part of what makes Clarke’s illustration for Perrault’s intense little tale so unique: it doesn’t just give us a familiar old scene; instead it captures the exact moment when Red Riding Hood’s fate is sealed as the wolf first lays eyes on her. Given this fact, rather than slipping into our roles as interested but passive spectators, we are instead made witnesses as the young girl is delivered directly to a wild and ravenous predator while still blithely unaware of the creature’s terrible intentions for her.
But Clarke’s image does more than just make witnesses of us. It also invites us to interact with what we see and to view the story in a frightening new light. So that’s just what we’ll do.
When Beauty Meets the Beast
From the very first line of Perrault’s tale, we’re told that Red Riding Hood is uniquely beautiful. She is described as ‘the prettiest girl you can imagine’. Clarke takes this as a starting point for his own work, presenting us with the vision of a sophisticated, pixie-like young heroine.
He focuses on the details of her clothing, adding delicate floral patterns to her dress, fur to the front of her heeled shoes, and tassels to the hem of her brilliant red hood. Her delicacy is reiterated through her pale skin, minute facial features and disproportionately tiny hands. She is all symmetry, fine lines, elegance and poise – the perfectly presented nineteenth-century society belle.
The wolf, on the other hand, is portrayed as being the very opposite of grace and orderliness. His fur is presented in a rush of untidy, ragged lines; his colour is mottled rather than pure; and his mouth hangs menacingly open, exposing to us his teeth and tongue. It seems to be a deliberate attempt by Clarke to accentuate the divide between ordered human society and the disordered natural world.
Lost and alone in the forest
This divide is represented figuratively by the winding footpath – an odd, out-of-place human construction in the deep woods – along which Red Riding Hood has wandered. In doing so, she has left behind the safety of her everyday world, with its morals and social conventions, and now finds herself trapped, helpless and alone.
Imprisoned by the surrounding trees, her only hope of rescue seems to lie with the woodsmen who are shown working far off in the background, but they are distant figures on a separate path. The suggestion here seems to be that Red Riding Hood has chosen her own way, and must deal with its consequences alone.
The symbol of the Red Hood
Part of the beauty of Clarke’s illustration is that it offers only clues for interpretation; nothing is entirely certain. Yet the iconic red hood is so noticeable that it appears vital in any search for meaning in the image.
Against a palette of muted, earthly colours, the hood’s vibrant red seems to acquire a symbolic value, but of what? Some have suggested that the story itself is a parable of sexual awakening and the potential dangers it poses for vulnerable young women. Clarke certainly seems to acknowledge this interpretation: notice, for instance, that his Red Riding Hood wears a bustle – a framework that women of the late 1800s wore beneath their dresses to affect a fuller, more alluring figure. In this context the red hood may be seen as a symbol of menstruation and sexual maturity. Under this light the wolf is then revealed as another kind of predator whose altered motivations are just as sinister.
But perhaps a more straightforward interpretation of the red hood is that it is a foreshadowing of Red Riding Hood’s bloody and fateful end. If she is indeed a symbol of the ordered human world, then the wolf may act as a warning against ignorance, or possibly even blind arrogance. After all, for all her outward sophistication, Red Riding Hood is still easily outwitted by the wild yet cunning animal before her. Could it be that no matter how much we think we know, nature will simply always remain a few steps ahead of us?
Whatever interpretation we apply to Clarke’s complex illustration, his major achievement is that though he presents us with an instantly recognisable scene, the more we examine his ethereal vision, the less familiar it seems to become.
Click on the link to view a selection of our classic fairy tale-inspired prints.
There are some childhood memories that we carry with us always, whether it’s the memory of a pet, a family holiday by the sea, or a favourite picture book. Then there are plenty more childhood memories that fade with time. But what determines the memories we keep and those we leave behind? As always with the human brain, there are numerous factors at play. Here, we take a look at 5 of the most interesting facts about childhood memories.
Picture books such as David McKee's Elmer feature strong lines, colours and textures which can stimulate recognition memory in a young child.
1. Infants have memories too (in a way)
The chances are that your earliest memory is not really your earliest at all – it’s just the one that’s lasted the course. The brain actually begins to develop memory from the time we are infants still in the cradle. This is called ‘recognition memory’ and it allows babies to recognise certain sounds and sights such as our parents’ voices and faces. Some researchers believe recognition memory is so powerful that it can stay with us well into adult life. While we may be unable to recall these memories with clarity, certain sights, sounds, colours or smells can still trigger a response that can directly connect our adult selves with certain experiences we first had when just wee tots.
2. Six-month old babies can remember words
What’s known as ‘working memory’ relates to one’s ability to understand and learn. This generally begins when we are just 6 months old. Though still largely without language, it’s believed that a child of that age will have a basic understanding of certain words such as ‘mummy’, ‘daddy’, ‘peek-a-boo’ or ‘din-dins’!
3. Babies can understand basic concepts after their first year
By the time they enter their second year, babies have already begun to develop what’s known as ‘semantic memory’. This relates to their ability to understand concepts such as ‘let’s go for a little walk’ or ‘look at the dog playing with the ball’. Memories formed in this period can be quite strong. Research shows that children between the ages of 4 and 7 can readily recall events from when they were just a year and 8 months old. Unfortunately, these memories mostly fade as the child grows (typically disappearing by the age of 7), which is attributed to the fact that the child hasn’t yet acquired the ability to place those memories in context (see number 5 below for more on this).
4. Between the ages of two and seven, emotions play a greater role in memory
Children are more likely to remember moments that create an emotional response. Image: Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney.
According to Carole Petersen, a professor of psychology at Memorial University Newfoundland, one of most important things in determining whether a memory survives or not is the emotion it has attached to it. This is because between the ages of 2 and 7 a child’s brain is busy soaking up as much information as possible. It’s a hugely important time in a child’s development and, as any parent will probably tell you, children of this age are curious about just about everything. Indeed, some studies report that the average 4-year-old asks about 437 questions per day! Naturally, this means that there’s a lot of incoming information for a young brain to process, and so the things that tend to stick generally have a strong emotional appeal. That’s largely due to the fact that when a person (adult or child) experiences an emotional moment or event, the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes it easier for the person to recall that moment with greater accuracy as they grow older.
5. From age seven, children use stories to improve and order their memories
Remembering is really an act of storytelling. People often need to creatively fill in certain gaps so they can complete the narrative of an event so that it makes more sense to them over time. However, children below the age of 7 have less developed narrative skills and so struggle to keep their earlier memories in later life. This all changes as older children begin to acquire a greater command of language and context since these things help them anchor their memories on more specific details relating to time and place. In essence, the memory is stored in the brain as a kind of story in which the person remembering is the central character. According to the American Psychological Association, remembering the past in this way helps to reinforce a person’s independence and plays a vital role in allowing them to respond confidently to the world around them with their own thoughts and feelings.
Stories can play a powerful role in developing a child's skill to empathise with others. Image: Findus Goes Camping by Sven Nordqvist.
The takeaway: All stories are really part of your own story
Psychologists believe that reading stories to children at an early age can help develop a child’s narrative skills. This is because stories help stimulate parts of the brain that can place the reader/listener in the role of other characters in the story (this is known as neural coupling). Storybooks that feature strong images or illustrations alongside the text may be even more effective as the brain processes images some 60,000 times faster than it does text.
And there you have it. So if you’ve ever wondered why you still remember and love the stories and characters from your childhood, it’s probably because they engaged your mind during its most intense period of development. You might even say that instead of simply letting them into your life for a visit, you were inviting them to set up a little home.
Re-live or recreate your own childhood stories - browse a selection of our illustrated books here.
The Amazing Papercuttings of Hans Christian Andersen July 07 2015
Did you know that in his lifetime, Hans Christian Andersen was as well known for cutting out beautiful shapes in paper as he was for his fairy tales? Well, we didn't. Until an actual living relative of the great Hans Christian Andersen himself told us! (Sort of.)
It happened in February at the Spring Fair in Birmingham, an industry event held at a location (the Birmingham NEC) we’re told is roughly the size of 26 football pitches. We were there to find something special, and that we did.
Sourcing the best products for our lovely customers was exhilarating. Especially when something so unexpected and exciting happened, like spotting a little corner stand that sparkled – literally. Oddly enough, what caught our attention was an arrangement of candle holders – not the kind of thing we were looking for (or thought we were looking for!) – but then these weren’t just any old candle holders. They were specifically themed on the original designs from papercuttings of Hans Christian Andersen!
The Papercuttings of Hans Christian Andersen
Plated in gold and silver and cut in an array of unusual, dream-like shapes, the holders contain exact replicas of just a few of the thousands of papercuttings Andersen created in his lifetime. They depicted ballet dancers and soldiers, angels and elves and more. The Angels and Elves design was created in 1874 as a gift for Elisabeth Moller, the daughter of a local Dean. Her account of his generous gift to her reads:
'Hans Christian Andersen and I were guests at the same time on Holsteinsborg. One day when we had to go to the dinner table, he came and gave me a bouquet. "There should really have been a little flowers paper around" he said, then he took scissors and paper from his pocket and cut it while I looked at it.'
Though Andersen's papercuttings are less well known today than his fairy tales are, they reveal another dimension to his breathtaking creative abilities. Not only was he adept at activating our imaginations through the words he put on paper, but he could also use paper as a means of storytelling in itself.
Preserving Classic Designs
As we know, paper’s quality deteriorates over time. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and while the paper itself might age, the designs themselves wouldn’t. Which begged the question: why limit them to paper when they can be applied to more durable materials such as brass and porcelain instead? If anything, transferring the designs in this way simply means that the designs can be passed from generation to generation in much the same way that Andersen's much-loved fairy tales are.
Keeping up with the Andersens
While browsing the full range of enchanting items on display, an impeccably dressed man with a somewhat indistinct European accent offered to fill in more of the back story. His company had previously been the suppliers for the Danish goldsmith industry but had since turned their attention towards developing unique designs for jewellery, decorations and gifts. He introduced himself to us as Michael Nordahl Andersen. It took another few moments of idle chatting before some distant alarm finally went off in our brains – ‘His surname is Andersen...like, Hans Christian Andersen?’
Putting our keen detective skills to the fore, we asked Michael if he was indeed related to the source of inspiration for his amazing gift products. ‘No, unfortunately I am no relation of Hans Christian...that I know of, at least’, he said.
‘But we are from the same hometown of Odense, in Denmark.’ Hmmm. The same surname? The same hometown? The same papercut designs? Our detective instincts told us that this wasn’t some mirage, or a simple coincidence. With a knowing smile and nod, we agreed it was a pity that Michael and Hans Christian were probably not related. At least, not to Michael’s knowledge. But given the body of evidence, we felt we probably knew better. That’s our story anyway, and we’re sticking to it.
Happy Birthday, Fairy Godmother! June 28 2015
Fairies, flowers and a genuine sense of fun is what the illustrations of Cicely Mary Barker have offered fans for years. On her 120th birthday, we take a closer look at her small-scale world.
It would be tough for the even the most expert of experts to keep count of all the numerous ringforts pitted throughout Europe. It’s even been said that Ireland alone has more than 40,000 of them. And as most of us know, these mysterious old places are often linked with stories of even more mysterious creatures – sometimes they’re referred to as ‘The Good Folk’, but most of us know them simply as ‘the fairies’.These otherwordly figures have long held a place in popular imagination. They’ve inspired illustrators from Arthur Rackham to Duncan Carse, and writers from William Shakespeare to W.B. Yeats. And if the growing popularity of woodland fairy trails and fairy doors is anything to go by, they have continued to enchant and inspire wonder in children and adults alike, right into the present day.
The source of much of this enthusiasm comes from a shared imagination of the fairy folk’s appearance and character: they’re viewed as beautiful, magical creatures whose perpetual youth fills them a child-like enthusiasm for mischievousness and play. This popular view is partly a result of the influence that one fairy illustrator in particular has had – Cicely Mary Barker, the creator of the Flower Fairies.
Birth and Beginnings of a Fairy Godmother
Barker was born on 28 June 1895 and began studying art when only 13 years old. At just 17 she was selling images and poems to help support her mother and sister after her father’s death in 1912, but it was not until some years later that she would begin the series that would later make her name as a hugely popular illustrator and artist.
Her Flower Fairy series came into being as a result of a mixture of creative talent and old-fashioned luck. While she honed her art through dedicated hard work, the success of Barker’s vivid, colourful fairy illustrations was helped along by forces beyond her control. For one thing, the timing was perfect: fairy lore and imagery in Victorian England was in high demand. This was probably a response to the rapid industrialisation and technological innovation of the time as people sought to hold onto some of the romance and magic of a parting world. And if that was what they wanted, Barker was happy to oblige. Not only had she the imagination and artistic talent, she also had the perfect source material – the children she and her sister Dorothy took care of in the kindergarten they ran from home.
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
When we think of fairies we often imagine them as figures so small that could easily slip through a keyhole or use a teacup for a bathing pool, but this wasn’t always the way things were. In fact the shrinking of fairy folk is often attributed to their appearance in Shakespeare’s famous play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which fixed their pint-sized form in the public consciousness.
Barker added to this popular idea of them by shrinking the child models from her sister’s kindergarten so that they could sit side by side with garden insects or hide among the flowers.
Just as herbs and flowers could be used to treat physical ailments at the time, some also believed that they could likewise influence one’s relationship with fairy folk, sometimes making them visible to regular people or even offering them protection from fairy enchantment. In Barker’s illustrations both flowers and fairies are brought together, thereby making the plant world (which she was careful to represent as accurately as she could) as mysterious and alluring to viewers as the tiny folk that occupied it. Her message was clear: there is magic and wonder to be found in the most seemingly ordinary of places, no matter how small – from the petals of a rose to the golden leaves of a beech tree in autumn.
A Small World with a Big Impact
Barker’s Flower Fairies may appear to some to be over-idealised creations – even to the point where they seem somewhat divorced from the traditional beings of fairy lore. Yet her creations helped preserve a measure of innocence and wonder at a time when the world seemed to be growing up much too quickly. They did it then, and they do so now. It’s like being placed under a spell, however briefly, by a real fairy godmother.
To look into the magical mini-world that Cicely Mary Barker created, visit our large selection of gorgeous Flower Fairy products.
Happy St Patrick's Day! Did you know that the day that Irishness is celebrated around the world also happens to be the birth date of Harry Clarke?
Most Irish people, or indeed, most people who have visited Ireland, will have come across Harry Clarke's work, whether they seek it out or not. He was hugely prolific and his beautiful stained glass pieces can be seen in various churches and museums throughout the country, with perhaps his best known and most seen work housed in Bewley's on Grafton Street. But he wasn't just a skilled stained glass artist. He also had an interest and an enormous talent in print art too, and it was with this talent that he actually first found fame. He was a key illustrator in the Golden Age of Illustration, and his style is often compared with that of Kay Nielson and Edmund Dulac. He illustrated various books and stories including Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen (1916), Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe (1919) and Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault (1922). We have prints of five of his illustrations from Charles Perrault's fairy tales in stock, and they are simply gorgeous.
Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood
Perrault was a seventeenth century author and one of the first people to write down a lot of the stories that we now refer to as fairy tales. Although some of the stories and characters are instantly familiar and recognisable to us, such as Cinderella (or Cinderilla as she was known by Perrault) and Little Red Riding Hood, the plots often differ, sometimes drastically. Morals are outlined at the end of each one, but there is certainly no guarantee of the "happily ever after" so often portrayed in our fairy tales today. For instance, we are used to Little Red Riding Hood outwitting the wicked wolf, or being saved by a local huntsman. Alas, not so in Perrault's version; it ends with: "Upon saying these words, the wicked wolf threw himself on Little Red Riding Hood and gobbled her up".
'The Fairy' is another story with a somewhat unhappy ending, but this time it is not the heroine that meets a grizzly end, but the wretched, conceited sister. So it doesn't seem so bad for us readers! The story is about a widow with two daughters, one is spoilt but loved unconditionally, the other is beautiful and kindly but treated like a servant by her mother and sister. When she meets an old lady (really a fairy in disguise) at the well when fetching water, and is rewarded for her courtesy and kindness with the gift of flowers and jewels every time she opens her mouth, her sister wants the same reward. However, because this daughter is rude to the old lady, she gets punished with snakes and toads every time she speaks. The good daughter is blamed and sent away in disgrace, but fortunately she meets a handsome prince who proposes to her and she does in fact live happily ever after. Her sister? Well, "she made herself so odious that her own mother turn'd her out of doors, and the unhappy wretch having wandered about a good while without finding any body to take her in, went to a corner of a wood and died".
The Ridiculous Wishes
'The Ridiculous Wishes' is probably the most witty of Perrault's Fairy Tales. The story is familiar because every child (and lots of adults) has excitedly discussed what they would do if they could wish for anything in the world. Or imagine if you had THREE wishes! This was granted to the woodcutter in this story who decided with his wife not to rush into any decision over what to wish for, but to think about it first. While he is looking into the fire and thinking, he absentmindedly wishes they had some pudding for dinner. And so his first wish comes true. When his wife is enraged at his stupidity, he angrily wishes the pudding was dangling off the end of her nose. And so his second wish comes true. He has to use his last wish to remove the pudding from his wife's face. And so they are no better off than they were before. (Why, oh, why didn't he just wish for an endless supply of wishes?!)
Riquet with the Tuft
'Riquet with the Tuft' slightly resembles the better-known story 'Beauty and the Beast', and is also about love, and love's power to transform. An extremely ugly prince (in fact "so hideously ugly, that it was long disputed, whether he had human form") is given a gift by a fairy of being able to confer wit upon the one he loves. He meets a beautiful but unintelligent princess and falls in love with her. This love gives her the intelligence she has always wanted and, by coincidence, the same fairy had given her the gift of being able to confer beauty onto whom she loves. And so Riquet is transformed into a handsome prince and they marry. Ah, the power of love!
'Little Thumb' is a satisfying story of a plucky boy, the youngest of seven, overcoming all the odds and saving his family from tragedy. It starts rather like 'Hansel and Gretel', in that his parents can't afford to feed him and his brothers anymore so they abandon them in the woods, twice. Tragic! The first time Little Thumb leaves a trail of little pebbles behind them so they find their way home again, but the second time, he leaves a breadcrumb trail which is eaten by the birds. They end up in an ogre's house, who decides to eat them while they are sleeping. Clever Little Thumb had anticipated this and had placed the bonnets of the ogre's seven daughters on his and his brothers heads. The ogre falls for the trick and eats his seven daughters instead! When he realises what he has done, he puts on his seven-league boots and chases after the boys. Again, Little Thumb outwits him, sends his brothers home and steals the ogre's boots. With these, he makes a fortune and goes home to his brothers and parents and they live ...happily ever after.
Newly Unveiled Stained Glass
If you haven't seen Harry Clarke's master depiction of John Keat's The Eve of St. Agnes in the Hugh Lane Gallery, go see it now! You'll also get to see a "scandalous" section of his infamous Geneva Window which was just unveiled in the same gallery last week. The panel, which depicts a scene from Liam O'Flaherty's controversial novel Mr Gilhooley, had developed a hairline crack so had to be excluded and recreated for the Geneva Window, which is now housed in Miami, Florida. The window was originally designed in 1926 as a gift from the new Irish Free State to the League of Nations in Geneva and was asked for by the Department of Industry and Commerce. However, it was ultimately rejected; it was deemed too controversial to be sent to Geneva, partly because of the disgraced authors represented (Joyce and O'Flaherty) and also partly because of this particular panel, which depicts a scantily clad woman.
It's nice to know a panel, albeit one excluded from the finished window, is now on display here in Ireland. Harry Clarke's work as a whole is a beautiful reminder of our country's complex artistic, literary and political history.
Gorgeous new prints just in! February 07 2015
Out of the others had popped a star and the sun. Before being sent away in disgrace, the girl had been given the choice by her foster mother to be either able to speak and be ugly or be mute and beautiful. She chose the latter before running away into the woods and climbing up a tree to sleep. A prince saw her reflection in the water...
Jessie M King
The Beechnut Fairy
Dún Laoghaire is an old seaside town with a dazzling new library. The dlr LexIcon is impressively spacious with spectacular sea views. But it wasn't the image of the sea that I had come to see; it was the children's illustrations on display as part of Pictiúr, an exhibition of contemporary Irish children's book illustrators.
Curated by the former Laureate na nÓg, Niamh Sharkey, Pictiúr consists of forty-two illustrations from twenty-one illustrators, all of whom are Irish - either by birth or by affiliation - and showcases the extraordinarily rich talent we're lucky to have right under our very noses.
'Oh Yes! They landed on the Moon.' by Niamh Sharkey. From: On the Road with Mavis and Marge (Walker Books, 2010)
What struck me first about Pictiúr was the sheer diversity of the work - both thematically and stylistically. From Niamh Sharkey and Chris Haughton’s bold, child-centred design ...
From: Oh No, George by Chris Haughton (Walker Books, 2012)
... to Paul Howard’s arresting and beautiful image from William Blake's poem 'The Tyger', there is something for everyone, and every age.
'Tyger! Tyger! burning bright' by Paul Howard. From: Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection edited by Michael Rosen (Walker Books, 1998)
There were some familiar images and characters on display, such as Anita Jeram's Big Nutbrown Hare and Little Nutbrown Hare from Guess How Much I Love You...
'"This much" said Little Nutbrown Hare, stretching out his arms as wide as they could go', by Anita Jeram. From: Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney (Walker Books, 1994)
... Oliver Jeffers' Floyd from the brilliant Stuck ...
'An orang-utan to knock down the milkman...' by Oliver Jeffers. From: Stuck (HarperCollins Children's Books, 2011)
...and PJ Lynch's vividly portrayed Jonathan Toomey from The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey.
'After supper, he sat in a straight-backed chair near the fireplace, smoking his pipe and staring into the flames.' by PJ Lynch. From: The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski (Walker Books, 1995)
Then there were not-so-familiar (but equally fantastic) works from the likes of the gifted Alan Clarke, best known for his Ross O'Carroll-Kelly illustrations. His two featured images are indications of the depth and range of his versatility and talent - so different in style and theme from the infamous Ross, so different, too, from each other.
The giraffe who lived in a shoe by Alan Clarke. From: Something Beginning with P: New Poems from Irish Poets edited by Seamus Cashman (The O'Brien Press, 2004)
There was also a welcome surprise in store when I discovered book illustrations by Andrew Whitson that I hadn’t seen before. Somehow I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of exploring the books from which his two Pictiúr illustrations originate: Cogito and Ó Chrann go Crann. They are gorgeous, and I was delighted to find one of the featured books, Cogito, was in stock in the children's library. The book is written in Irish, but you needn't be a fluent speaker to appreciate the mesmerising illustrations the book offers.
From: Cogito by Caitríona Nic Sheáin and illustrated by Andrew Whitson (An tSnáthaid Mhór, 2012)
And that is the point of Pictiúr - to show just how important illustration and illustrators are for encouraging the viewer to use a little imagination of their own to see what's going on, with or without the text. These are stories in their own right.
Look at the illustration below by Tatyana Feeney, taken from her book about the familiar trauma of a small child's blanket going for a spin in the washing machine. The image from Small Bunny's Blue Blanket is like a short story without words. It manages to capture a whole range of childhood emotions through image alone. In Tatyana's own words 'I think the repetition of the washing machines captures the feel of how long the wait for Blue Blanket would be for a child. And the bunny's ears, although they are very simple, convey all of the bunny's anxiety, worry and eventually resignation just through their position.'
'It actually took 107. And Small Bunny watched Blue Blanket for every single one.' by Tatyana Feeney. From: Small Bunny's Blue Blanket (Oxford University Press, 2012)
Reading such short excerpts from the illustrators was a good source of insight into some of their reasons for choosing the pieces on display at Pictiúr. After viewing the illustrations yourself - whether for the first time or not - and forming your own understanding of the story, and possibly of the stories within the story, it's fascinating to hear the various thought processes that led to the images, and the feelings of the creators themselves. The illustrators featured in Pictiúr are: Lily Bernard, Alan Clarke, Michael Emberley, Tatyana Feeney, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, Adrienne Geoghegan, Olivia Golden, Chris Haughton, Paul Howard, Oliver Jeffers, Anita Jeram, Chris Judge, PJ Lynch, Oisín McGann, Mary Murphy, Donough O'Malley, Niamh Sharkey, Steve Simpson, Kevin Waldron, Olwyn Whelan and Andrew Whitson.
After a 2-year tour of Europe and Ireland, Pictiúr comes to an end on Saturday, January 31. To mark this farewell, Children’s Books Ireland is holding a conference in the dlr LexIcon next Saturday, January 24, called 'A Day in the Life.' Guests include Pictiúr curator Niamh Sharkey as well as the current Laureate na nÓg Eoin Colfer. Details of this and how you can buy tickets can be found here.
Pooh and Mindfulness November 27 2014
For all that the so-called Bear of Very Little Brain doesn't know, he makes up for it with his rather philosophical musings and his mindful way of life. For those of you practicing or interested in mindfulness, you could learn a life lesson or two from Pooh and how he lives his life in the Hundred Acre Wood.
Lessons like avoiding negative thoughts...
...understanding that cleverness doesn't necessarily lead to wisdom...
...not judging people...
...appreciating the small things in life...
...but most importantly - living in the present moment:
Upon the Wild Waves: A Journey Through Myth in Children's Books November 12 2014
Yesterday I went to see one of the world's oldest and most celebrated illustrated books - the Book of Kells in Trinity College Dublin. If you've never been to see it, now is the perfect time to do so. Not only will you see the book itself in the Old Library building but there is another fine treat in store there.
Perfectly situated in the stunningly beautiful Long Room, 'Upon the Wild Waves' is a fantastic exhibition examining the effect that myths have had on children's books as well as on contemporary culture.
Early children's books and their influence
Early children's literature was heavily influenced by biblical tales. You may be surprised to learn that so too are many classic and contemporary books. CS Lewis and Philip Pullman both used Christian ideas to create their unforgettable worlds in the Narnia books and in His Dark Materials. Even Enid Blyton, best known for her adventure and school stories, took inspiration from the Bible for some of her work. Her book The Strong Giant and Gideon, the Brave Soldier is on display here, but an absolute favourite of mine was The Land of Far Beyond. I must have read it about twenty times (as I did all my favourite books when I was little, oh to have the luxury of time to do that now!), but I wasn't aware at the time that it was a Christian allegory. In fact, I probably wouldn't have read it if I'd known. Terrible, I know, but children do not want to be preached at and it is a constant challenge for contemporary authors and illustrators to instruct and guide children without boring them with sermons.
Lessons taught in a certain way, or by a certain author, can be much more appealing to a child than the original, and this exhibition shows the many ways authors have been successful in this. Interestingly, the exhibition not only displays narratives intending to re-inforce lessons taught by religion or by myths, but it also displays books that have the exact opposite intention – to actually challenge these lessons, so that the reader is presented with an alternative to what was before thought of as 'truth'.
Some texts change one aspect of a story not so much to challenge the central message, but in order for the story to apply to and have resonance with a contemporary audience. An example of this is in the Arthurian section of the exhibition, where the D.C. Comic Camelot 3000 is on display, in which Tristan and Isolde are both women - that one change has a big impact on the story told, but the message in both the original and this retelling is the same: you cannot control with whom you fall in love.
Irish myths today
The Irish Myths section shows many different ways in which an author can be inspired by myths, and different ways they can use them to engage and excite younger readers. No Peace for Amelia by Siobhan Parkinson (another favourite of mine) is displayed with a paragraph highlighted where the character imagines herself as 'a modern warrior-woman, like Queen Maeve or Granuaile'. This is historical fiction set during the turbulence of 1916 and Parkinson combines history and myth to create this beautiful patriotic passage. In contrast, Eoin Colfer uses myths in a more playful way by toying with our notion of leprechauns in the hugely popular Artemis Fowl series where they are re-imagined as LEPrecon: Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance division.
From Irish Fairy Tales, written by James Stephens and illustrated by Arthur Rackham
Fantastic works from classic and contemporary illustrators are on display both in the pages of the books and also hanging in the Long Room: the brilliant PJ Lynch, whose work from The Names Upon the Harp by Marie Heaney is used in all the promotional material for the exhibition, Walter Crane, Maud Gonne, Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham, Niamh Sharkey, Jack B Yeats, and many more.
Visit the exhibition if you can – the above is just a selection of what's on offer, but there is so much more also worthy of your time and consideration. The exhibition runs until April 2015. If you can't make it or don't live in Dublin there is an online version to explore.
Warning: there can be big queues so get there early!
- Page 2 of 2