Children and the Magic of Bookshops by Jen Campbell


Little girl (pointing to a cupboard under one of the bookcases): ‘Can you get to Narnia through there?’
Me: ‘Unfortunately, I don’t think you can.’
Little girl: ‘Oh. Our wardrobe at home doesn’t work for getting to Narnia, either.’
Me: ‘No?’
Little girl: ‘No. Dad says it’s because mum bought it at IKEA.’

From ‘More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops‘ by Jen Campbell


I maintain that children say the best things in bookshops – from the young girl who declared books to be her ‘quiet place,’ to the boy who told me I should hire a dragon to guard the bookshop when I’m not around. Recommending books to children and watching them fall in love with reading is the best part of my job. Sure, sometimes they try and climb the bookcases, too; they’re not perfect, but I’ll let them off because their passion for discovering new things is infectious.

I’ve worked in bookselling for nine years, since getting a part-time job when I was studying for my degree. The Edinburgh Bookshop in the heart of Bruntsfield specialises in children’s fiction and, when I worked there, we had a bookshop dog called Teaga – a giant Leonberger who looked like Nana from Peter Pan. Sometimes the children would try and ride her like a pony (and we’d have to run to poor Teaga’s rescue) but mostly they stroked her in awe, got her to sit down and calmly read books to her. Teaga dutifully listened – a dog full of stories.

I’ve worked in both new and antiquarian bookselling over the years and I hear from customers time and time again: ‘Kids don’t read these days, do they?’ To which I always want to laugh. If you haven’t already noticed, we seem to be a bit pessimistic in the book trade (‘The book is dead!’ ‘The publishing world is over!’ ‘Bookshops are doomed!’). When I researched my most recent book, The Bookshop Book, I discovered that a bookseller in Florence had declared the book trade dead in the water in the 1500s due to the invention of the printing press, but in actual fact we’re doing just fine: children are reading and UK sales of children’s books in 2014 were up eleven percent on the previous year.

And it’s little wonder, really. Stories are the foundation of what makes us human. We’re the only known species to make up tales to bring us together as communities. When we don’t understand something around us, we’ll make it up – whether that’s right or wrong – and when we’re young everything is new, everything is exciting and our imagination knows no bounds. I was in Sweden last week on book tour and spoke with several young bookshop customers there. One, a young boy of maybe seven or eight, told me ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a Viking warrior, with a robot unicorn who writes books about tigers… on rollerskates.’ And why the heck not? Another beckoned me over and whispered: ‘I’ve written a book’ and when I asked her what it was about, she uttered wise words known by authors all around the world: ‘I don’t know. It’s in my head. I haven’t read it yet.’

Like many bookworms, I spent a lot of time in both libraries and bookshops as a child and I’ve always thought of them as safe places. I’d hide out in the children’s corner of Hill’s in Sunderland scouring through the Animal Ark books and I’d check out Lynne Reid Banks’ novels from the library for the dozenth time, too. Now, whenever I travel to a new town, one of the first things I do is locate the nearest bookshop and work my way around from there. I’ve been asked many times why bookshops are such wonderful places, and why – when we find a good one – we are drawn back to it again and again. I could write a whole book on the subject but, for me, when it comes down to it: bookshops are portals. In a world where the internet, as wonderful as it is, can offer us anything we know we want, a good bookshop shows us what we didn’t know we wanted. They are the curated physical mindspace of the person who owns it; you can hop from shelf to shelf, from story to story and lose yourself in worlds you never knew existed. Children are aware of this and I see it every single day.

When it comes to antiquarian bookshops, too, let’s not forget the grown up children who come in looking for lost parts of their childhood. Books they remember holding at ten years old, fifty years ago, that probably had a red cover and possibly, maybe, perhaps had a flower on the first page and the word ‘elf’ in the title. I spend a lot of my time as an antiquarian bookseller piecing together memories, tracking down stories and why? Because books when we’re young become such an important part of us that we want them back when we are older. We want to hold them, and quite possibly smell them (there’s a scientific reason books smell so good, you know, but that’s another story) and we want to re-experience that escapism we had as a child. Perhaps it’s a bit of a Neverland syndrome. Somewhere in our memories the books we read when we were younger are still there, still chatting away with our younger selves. Some parts of us never grow up and we’re never too old for a good story.

Perhaps one of my favourite moments as a bookseller is one where a ten-year-old girl called Imogen and her father were browsing through the shelves for half an hour. Suddenly Imogen looked up and said ‘Dad, where’s Henry?’ at which point I blinked in disbelief. What parent doesn’t notice for a full half hour that their son isn’t with them? However, it turned out that Henry was not Imogen’s brother – he was her hamster. She’d brought him along with her in her pocket and now couldn’t find him. We spent a slightly manic twenty minutes hunting through the shelves, desperately trying to find him, knowing it was an impossible task and that Henry was probably destined to wander the overflowing shelves forever before being somewhat unceremoniously squished under a pile of old children’s annuals. Poor Henry. But, after nearly giving up, Imogen gave a squeal of surprise – Henry hadn’t made a bid for freedom after all. He’d nibbled at the lining of her pocket, buried deeper into her coat and was very happily asleep, completely unaware of the utter chaos around him.

“Maybe I’ll write a book about that one day,” Imogen grinned, holding a sleepy Henry in one hand and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr tightly in the other.
Jen Campbell is the Sunday Times bestselling author of the Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops series and The Bookshop Book. She’s also an award-winning poet and short story writer. Her poetry pamphlet The Hungry Ghost Festival is published by The Rialto and she runs a Youtube channel over at where she talks about all things books. Follow Jen on Twitter @aeroplanegirl


The Last Taboo: What Interactive Print Says About the Digital Revolution by Elizabeth Bird

There was a time, oh best beloved, when picture books could be considered ‘edgy’ simply by breaking down the ‘fourth wall’ in some manner. Grover did it in The Monster at the End of This Book and it rocketed the book above and beyond the usual media tie-ins. Later the jaw-dropping success of Mo Willems’s Pigeon series

and Herve Tullet’s dots in need of pressing (Press Here) would spur all kinds of meta-imitators.


We like these books and perhaps have even uploaded their apps onto our iPads, feeling only the vaguest twinges of guilt as we did so. Yet what are we to make of a publishing industry that has now found ways to encourage something that gives many a children’s librarian reoccurring nightmares? Thanks to the internet, books have never been more interactive. And thanks to a current boom in interactive print, neither have physical books.

The twenty-first-century children’s librarian has to put up with a lot of sticky notes. Parents and teachers stuff full the pages of the picture books they borrow with multicolored stickies often failing to remove them before returning the books to the libraries. And though we grumble as we pull them off by the handful, honestly we’re grateful. A sticky note is a painless way to mark up a book. We’ve certainly all encountered books that may have written on their pages a kind of running commentary or stage directions from an oblivious adult. There are no excuses for this, adults should know better. As for the children, they’re prone to making mistakes but they’re still learning. It’s not as if books have been actively inviting little hands to write in them. Well, until now.

Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett (illustrated by Matthew Myers) is specifically designed to shock. The essential premise is that a well-meaning grandmother has purchased an innocuous picture book for her grandson on his birthday. The book ‘The Birthday Bunny’ tells the all-too familiar story of a furry woodland creature distraught after it thinks all its friends have forgotten its ‘special day’. What the grandmother doesn’t know (one hopes) is that Alex, her grandson, has taken great pains to improve upon this story. The book appears to have been extensively drawn over, transforming its saccharine storyline into one of war, carnage, and world domination. The final result is ‘The Battle Bunny’, a book that has the potential to be accidentally discarded by libraries nationwide when well-meaning library employees mistake it for a book that has been heavily edited by a child’s hand.


It could well be that this is where the picture books that toy with the nature of the ‘fourth wall’ lose a bit of their subversive power. Where books by Willems and Tullet offer the thrill of giving the reader the faux sense that he or she has some kind of direct influence on a book’s storyline, stories like Battle Bunny by Scieszka and Barnett go one step further. After all, sticky fingers touching a book and sticky fingers actually drawing in a book are two entirely different things. They’re toying with a deeply forbidden lure: at the end of the day it still comes down to books and what’s seen as the ultimate taboo of drawing in them.


Not that the idea of a child drawing in the very book you are reading is necessarily new. Still in print since its publication in 1995, Chris Van Allsburg’s Bad Day at Riverbend tells the tale of cowboys facing an unspeakable enemy. As the story progresses, it becomes increasing clear that our heroes are all coloring-book characters coming to terms with their scribbly fate. The final shots in the book are in Van Allsburg’s realistic style, where a child is seen exiting the room, leaving her ‘Cowboy Coloring Book’ behind. And while not all reviewers were duly impressed (the School Library Journal said, “this effort is pretty much a one-trick pony that most libraries can easily skip”) most took it as a clever step in a new direction.

Kirkus Reviews said that, “Van Allsburg demonstrates in a self-conscious — and tempered — way what happens when two different drawing styles (coloring-book outlines, generally created by adults, and children’s doodles) overlap, and when two genres (an entertaining Western adventure and a coloring book) meet. It’s a book that starts with one point of view and steps into another. The average bildungsroman accomplishes this kind of transition in several hundred pages; Van Allsburg does it in 32, and leaves the flower of children’s bookmaking blooming in the desert town of Riverbend.”

So no, I’m not particularly surprised when I see Battle Bunny on my shelf. What does surprise me is when I look around and realize that by daring to bring up the notion of coloring and drawing in books, it may well be part of a larger trend.

While children have always personalized their books with their pens, they’ve rarely been encouraged to do so. Now we have a generation that is not only being given permission but is also being encouraged by the publishers themselves to indulge in a direct interaction with the text like never before. How else to explain the recent rise in activity books featuring popular children’s literary characters, drawn by their own creators? When Mo Willems published Don’t Let the Pigeon Finish This Activity Book in 2012, I could not have been the only librarian agog at what I was seeing. Here we had a book intended to be drawn in from start to finish but which also contained an original Mo Willems story involving his beloved characters, Pigeon and Duckling.

Yet even before Willems was denying libraries the latest Pigeon tale, Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid sparked an activity book revolution of its own when its first Do-It-Yourself Book was published in 2008. Resembling other Wimpy Kid books in form and design, the book revealed itself to be an activity book actively inviting to be drawn and written in. How many library systems dutifully purchased vast quantities of the title only to find that, horror of horrors, the book was written with the express purpose of allowing children to write in it. In the past ephemera (as we call such materials) were easy to spot and easier to avoid. Now I find myself scrutinizing every single Big Nate, Origami Yoda, and Dork Diary published in the hopes of nipping such purchases in the bud.

Considering the plethora of titles encouraging kids to draw and color in them, it wasn’t a surprise when Britain’s Templar Publishing announced that they were launching a new imprint of coloring books called Pictura, and these wouldn’t be just any old coloring books either. Great authors and illustrators would contribute, including Shaun Tan, Sophie Blackall, Tomislav Tomic, Helen Ward, The Hobbit concept artist John Howe, and many more. Interestingly, Pictura did not feel the need to go digital and none of their titles are available as e-books. Amanda Wood, Templar’s creative director, commented, “We all need to get our hands dirty again and really engage with that practical aspect in the creation of art. A lot of things have moved over to digital, [but] I see a bit of a swing back.”

Perhaps Wood has hit on something here. It could well be that this increase in real, physical books starring our favorite characters that can be written in is a kind of unconscious backlash against the virtual world, where everyone is trying to go electronic. When Bexar County, Texas opened up an all-digital public library, NPR interviewed Sarah Houghton, who directs the San Rafael Public Library in California, who said: “it will take more than 100 years before all libraries are paperless. But in fact, ten to twenty percent of libraries could go bookless in the next decade.”

That prospect dangles before us, and has been dangling before us since the first ebook made its debut. Yet even though children are reading ebooks, they’re changeable, flipping between print and digital mediums without much thought. For all that they love ebooks, and they do, they also naturally gravitate to the books that allow them to pick up a crayon or a pencil and really dig in. The thrill of potentially doing something naughty along the way is almost impossible to replicate virtually and there’s also the undeniable satisfaction to be found in the physical pages of a book. Maybe printed books will indeed be a relic of the past in a hundred years, but the awesome power and privilege of paper just begs to be defaced. And that, crazy as it may sound, could be what saves it in the end.

Elizabeth Bird. 

Follow Elizabeth on twitter @FuseEight and enjoy her blog on


Inspired by looking at Cordel literature I noticed on my bookshelves other books with wonderful woodcut art.  The Head of the Saint, a novel by Brasilian author Socorro Acioli is obviously designed with the tradition of Cordel in mind.  IMG_2879

Set in the backlands of Brasil the story is set directly in the area in which the publishing of Cordel originated and remains popular.  It is a story of homelessness, and family, faith and miracles and it is a charming and wonderful book and the authors first title to be translated in to English.

The design carefully considered the tradition of woodcut folkart and cordel which I think helps root the story in its geography.  FullSizeRender(2)

The illustrator is the British artist Alexis Small and the designer also London based Jet Purdie.  The Head of the Saint is published by Hot Key Books and was translated by Daniel Hahn.

Then I found A Farmer’s Alphabet by Mary Azarian which was the result of the Vermont Board of Education commissioning the artist Azarian to create 26 letters of the alphabet and to create scenes that young readers will find familiar.

IMG_2880(1)The artist is a full-time printmaker who lives and works in Virginia, USA and she has created 26 wonderful scenes that are full of charming detail, delightful humour and wit and imagination that will delight readers young and old.

In the book Mary Azarian talks about the inspiration for her making this book which she says came in part from realising that the rural enviroment was changing so rapidly in the USA that soon concrete and asphalt would cover the ground where farms once lived.  She also felt that rural children are given alphabet books in which they learn that M is for Macdonalds and S is for shopping Mall and that, while these are things that children will know, they also know Maple Syrup and Stoves and it is important for books to represent the diversity of a child’s experience.


However she says in choosing each image she avoided the purely quaint and went instead for objects and things that have relevance to a modern child’s life.

What these two books share, along with Cordel Literature of the Northeast of Brasil is power.  The art is bold and brave.  In its blocks of shape and colour we are given a no-nonsense image, something that emphatically states what it is and in its simplicity and lack of pretension communicates the object in a pure way.


And for lovers of art and illustration there is a sense of the hand that made the work in the shading and texture, the hand that cut the wood, rolled the ink, laid the paper on the image.  It is a traditional art form that has relevance in the modern age.


A Farmer’s Alphabet is published by David R Godine.

Follow Socorro Acioli on instagram:

Find out more about Alexis Snell at

Follow Daniel Hahn on twitter @danielhahn02 or visit his website



CORDEL – Literature by and for the people

Literatura de Cordel or Cordel Literature, perfectly named as they are small pamphlet books displayed traditionally on strings (cordel is Portuguese for string) is part of Brasil’s rich literary tradition.   Found mainly in the North East of the country it is a literary tradition which is delightfully accessible and unpretentious and has a simple and direct approach to story telling.


The stories in these small booklets are short and concise and cover just about every genre and style available in literature generally. Told in poetry they are generally composed by unschooled poets who are considered to have the ‘gift of poetry’. Printed in 8, 16 or 32 pages they are photocopied and staple bound and then sold around the country-fairs, towns and cities of the North East of the country.



There are no subjects that are out of bounds and poetry, fantasy, romance, political tracts, everyday advice and historical fiction all appear in this accessible and highly affordable medium.

Often illustrated with woodcut images they feature art by some of the countries most loved artists including the wonderful Borges whose workshop is open to visitors in the state of Pernambuco. IMG_2853

Some have colour covers with a decidedly commercial appeal.IMG_2856 (1)

Much of the canon of Cordel literature celebrates the lives of the infamous Lampiao (Virgulino Ferreira da Silva) and Maria Bonita (Maria Déia,) who roamed the sertao with their gang.   When they were caught and killed in 1938 their heads were taken on tour of the regions cities and towns to ensure that the population of the backlands believed that this Robin Hood figure and his beautiful girlfriend had indeed been vanquished.  IMG_2857

Cordel literature can still be found in the Northeastern Brazilian states, and the diversity and complexity and sheer brilliance of their design and subject matter are a joy to behold.

Catarina Sobral – an illustrator and author Q&A

Meet Catarina Sobral.  She is an illustrator who lives and works in Lisbon, Portugal. She is the artist responsible for The Read Quarterly visuals and is the creator of many fine books for young readers.

Tell us about yourself?

Many people ask me when did I start to draw. It’s a strange question because everyone starts drawing during childhood. The difference is that illustrators don’t stop drawing as they start writing. Actually, we don’t stop drawing other things when we start drawing letters. So, I kept drawing everything. I like particularly to draw trees, clouds, hats, shoes, bicycles, cars, birds and… letters. I design a different typeface each time I make new book, because every single thing about book design communicates sense.

In fact, my journey to become an illustrator started with a graduation in Graphic Design. I wanted to design book covers, and also posters and album covers, but I always preferred the book as a medium. Or: as a physical object. Soon I discovered these inspiring designers’ picture books, such as La mela e la farfalla, by Iela and Enzo Mari; Henri’s Walk to Paris by Saul Bass; and the books from Paul Rand, William Wondriska and Bruno Munari.

These designers weren’t just concerned about the illustrations. They thought about the book as a whole: the typography, the montage, the relationship between words and pictures, the materiality of the book (paper, size, printing methods, binding structures…), and that influenced me to become an illustrator. I realized how complex, layered, challenging and fascinating a picture book could be.

So, after graduating in Design I did a master in illustration and that was when I published my first book, Greve, the first year final project. And I finished by the time my second book Achimpa was published. Since then I have been focusing on children’s books.

Some of my work has been published in countries including Portugal, Brazil, France, Sweden, Italy, South Korea, Germany, Hungary, Argentina, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. In 2011, I won a Special Mention of the Portuguese National Illustration Award with my first book, which was also selected for Bologna Book Fair Guest Country Exhibition in the following year. Then, my second book was awarded the Best Children’s Book prize by the Portuguese Authors’ Society and the Best Picture Book Illustration prize by the Amadora BD – International Comics Festival. Last year, the illustrations for the book O Meu Avô, my third, were selected for the Bologna Illustrators’ Exhibition and won the International Award for Illustration – Bologna Children’s Book Fair / Fundación SM. Both Greve and Vazio, my fourth book, were selected for the White Ravens catalogue, in 2012 and 2015.


What do you see as the main purpose for you as an illustrator in telling a story in a picture book?

In his list of values to be saved (Six Memos for the Next Millennium), Italo Calvino included ‘Visibility’, the faculty of thinking through images. He starts his lecture quoting Dante, departing from the idea that ‘the fantasy is a place where it rains’. I think that all creative people have an impulse (a rainy cloud) that leads them to create art. Mainly I make books I would like to have: with abstract themes, with humour, irony and a little bit of madness. And I make picture books because they are the medium of excellence for my creative impulse. They have a whole new kind of language: when we place words and images into relationship with each other inevitably the meaning of both changes.

Picture books challenge readers to work hard at filling in the gaps between text and illustration to construct meaning, and that’s my favourite thing in telling a story with images: the gaps. What the words don’t tell that can be told by the illustration. And also what the illustrations can contradict, to add other meanings, to add layers to the book. At the end, picture books have this great quality of making us think in terms of images and teaching us to read them.

Do you think your work should vary according to the text you are illustrating?

I try to vary the illustration technique and the graphic vocabulary in each new project. My books are very different from each other, even though all of them are personal expressions and there’s an identifiable authorship in them. On one hand, the theme of the book, the audience (younger readers, autonomous readers…), the amount of text, etc., leads me to make some choices in terms of layout, colours, references, printing methods, illustration technique. On the other hand, I like to experiment and I feel bored doing always the same thing. So, each time I start a new book I have to discover the right language for the text, the one that challenges me and that reflects myself in that particular moment.


What can art do that words can’t in telling a story?

Words and images are different mediums, they tell different things even when they try to say the same thing. Some stories need more pictures, others need more text to achieve their purpose. If we added text to wordless picture books, the message would be corrupted (in the French filmmaker, Jacques Tati’s, films the dialogues are barely audible because they don’t need to be heard). Telling a story is all about knowing what to say (and how, when, where to say). It’s a hard job, and many times intuitive. And also, sometimes pictures can be too noisy and diminish the power of the words. Sometimes the white space (the silence, the ‘musical pause’) is more expressive than an illustration.

You use colour so wonderfully in your art. How do you make decisions about the range of colours in each book?

That’s an interesting comment (and I hear that often) because, for me, it was always very difficult to combine colours. My first book is very monochromatic, it uses the constructivist white-black-red contrast that always works (in terms of lightness, the red equals 50% black). Then I read The Elements of Colour and, accordingly to Johannes Itten, there are seven colour contrasts. I use the simplest of the seven, pretty much all the time: contrast of hue. Sometimes I use the complementary contrast and I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I used the other five.

Because it’s a very difficult job, and takes time to understand how to balance colours in a composition, I also discovered that black helps a lot to create balance. That’s probably one of my authorship characteristics: few colours, primaries, green (my favourite secondary colour) and black.


What influences you when making your art?

Other works of art: literature, films, visual arts, graphic design, a lot of illustration. And I pay homage to the authors that inspire me, making references to their work in my books. Sometimes I also represent some real spaces or objects, from the houses I lived in, the cities I travelled, daily life.

Do you have particular favourite sources of inspiration: artists, packaging styles, stamps…?

I’ve been always fascinated by the Avant-garde, the early and mid 20th century visual artists, designers, filmmakers, writers. From contemporary illustration I could name an endless list of authors, but my preference falls almost always to Portuguese and French illustrators.


How important is folk art and the tradition of picture books for you when thinking about your work?

I’ve been learning a lot about the tradition of picture books since I started working as an illustrator. I think as it becomes easier for me to illustrate it becomes harder for me to write. I guess that’s because I’m slowly becoming an expert in my field of study and practice – illustration – and I’m just starting to understand the métier of being a picture-book maker. And as I get a wider knowledge about writing and conceiving picture books I realise the great responsibility of publishing non-stereotyped or restrictive books.


Which picture book artists do you admire and why?

I really admire the subversive picture book artists. The ones that blend humour, nonsense and the poetic: Edward Gorey, Oliver Jeffers, the duos Albertine and Germano Zullo, and Isabel Minhós Martins and Bernardo Carvalho. These two in particular can be very chameleonic; Bernardo as a silent book artist is a master, and they make books that are real interactive paper books. Without the need to make holes, or create pop-ups, or open windows they tell stories with their wide consciousness of the book as an object: using the reading direction, the spine, the white space, etc. I also adore Beatrice Alemagna’s books because they’re great examples of both illustration and story telling. Other two French picture books makers I deeply admire are Blexbolex and Anne Herbauts. They are very different, but both have incredible illustration skills and they conceive true art books with such simple concepts.


How do you feel about ‘personal artistic style’ and ‘national style’?  What is it about the Portuguese visual style that is special? And if you think there is a Portuguese visual style does it influence you at all? Like the amazing graffiti in Lisbon, the beautiful packaging of anything from soap to cakes, the continued presence of old street and shop signage.

We can identify some “illustration schools” or “national styles”: the Spanish, the Polish, the Iranian, the Korean. I think it has to do with the collective memory, because to build our own images, to invent, first we need to inventory. Without vocabulary we can’t create, and our vocabularies were raised in a cultural environment. And as much different as the illustrators can be, there are always some influences. “The Portuguese school” is angular, stylized, mixes irregular geometries and organic shapes, uses plain colours but always some texture or patine. There’s a retro background, something between Charley Harper, Cassandre and Saul Bass (or the Portuguese Victor Palla and Sebastião Rodrigues). And I don’t think that erases the particularities of each personal expression, actually it strengthens individual styles and gives more visibility in foreign markets. In my case it was influential and I got more attention from foreign publishers as they started to recognise my work as being part of the Portuguese school.


What is it about picture books and books for very young children that makes them special?

They are their very own way of communicating. They’re surely one of the most inventive literary forms and they develop visual awareness, creativity and enhance the enjoyment of reading. Picture books also give back the childish pleasure of listening to a story (because they aren’t just for children). All books are for grown-ups but just part of them are suitable for children. That means they have to be more special, somehow. And they are special in the way the illustration and text dance together. Words and pictures can extend the meaning of each other, be coherent or incongruent, and the overall sense of the book is a result of that interplay.

And because they play an important role during a child’s growth their phenomenology is also part of their meaning. Kids are smaller, meaning that the size, shape and weight of the book are perceived in a different way. And the place, time and person who reads the book is an essential part of it as well: the parents just before falling asleep, the teacher, the librarian, in a family activity, etc. The experience of reading a picture book is, therefore, performative.
How does illustration help with literacy?

It helps in two ways: it creates readers and it helps with visual literacy. The ability of reading images is so important as the ability of reading words. A child should see different styles of illustration and understand what they’re seeing. Cause learning how to see and how to think in terms of images is a skill and enhances the creativity.


What do you like about a physical book?

It doesn’t need to be rechargeable or to be switched on. It just needs to be open. The codex form was invented centuries ago and has never been changed: it works perfectly, we can browse through the book easily (I have a physical memory where is the sentence I’m looking for) and it has a more human touch. The possibilities of interaction with a physical book are endless as well: we can make folds, holes, open windows, create paper sculptures, use different-sized pages, different materials and types of paper, vary opacities, use the rollage technique, play with the shape, the size, the spine, the reading direction (turn it upside down, read it backwards, overlay narratives, etc.).



IMG_2775I have a copy of The Last Whole Earth Catalog.  It is a book that gives me ridiculous amounts of pleasure.  I prowl its pages for references to books, and art and thinking and despite being a publishing icon of the 1970s there is something timeless and utterly of the moment about it.  I was showing the book to two people in their twenties and one of them succinctly said that ‘it was a blog of the time’ which really does perfectly sum it up.  A book that ranges across subjects and ideas and information but held together with the principal of sharing information, disseminating information and supporting a world view which (despite its incredible focus on retail) was about a self sustaining ‘do it yourself’ ‘can do’ attitude.

From making your own shoes, building a wood cabin, perfecting your yoga positions, baking perfect bread or smoothing out your throwing skills in pottery IMG_2776and building a kiln to fire it all The Whole Earth Catalog could (and can!) guide you to references and books and people who can help.  I often look up books mentioned in the catalog and track them down on-line, usually second hand and often slightly worn at the edges.  But the information that I am guided to is none-the-less invaluable or appreciated for the greying covers and yellowed pages.

Then today on Radio 4 there was a programme about this perfect publication.  Listen here  Once again my affection for The Whole Earth Catalog took me on a journey of discover and now I know about Ed Sanders and The Woodstock Journal.  More exploring to be done, more to read and discover, more to ENJOY!



Instagram and the pleasure of an image

The Read now has an instagram account – thereadq.  We shall be posting images of (and from) books that we love.  But really it is so we can look at beautiful, inspiring and gorgeous images other people post.

Watch this space for links to instagramers who are really thrilling!

Starting with who post as designfortoday and posting as fisherlibrary


The Magic of Roald Dahl’s Matilda by Toni Stuart

I am delighted to post here a wonderful, personal and inspiring review of MATILDA by the poet Toni Stuart.  A great reminder that reading pleasure is a lasting pleasure.

I was given Matilda as a first communion present from my god parents. I was 8 years old at the time and it was, by far, my favourite of all the presents I received for the occasion. It is also the only one I still have and treasure today. I cannot remember how many times I read the book that year. It must have been a good few, as Matilda is still so vivid in my mind. Her mannerisms, her voice, the way she sits curled up in the armchair reading, the way she tilts her head slightly when considering Miss Trunchbull’s odd stature and way – I can still see and hear them all, as if I had just finished reading it.

But what is it about this story of a young girl with a voracious love for reading and learning that has made such an impact on me? Why is that 24 years later, I still have a visceral experience when recalling Matilda and her story?

At its heart, Matilda is a story about the power of books and reading. It is a story about how we find kindred spirits in those who share our love of words and stories. And, it is a story about childhood, and the remarkable strength and imagination of a child in the face of adults who are unable to truly see her, let alone her extraordinary mind and talents.

In retrospect, and, considering the text through the lens of my adult feminist perspective, what makes Dahl’s protagonist even more remarkable is that she is a woman, and the person who comes to her aid – Miss Honeywell – is a woman. The main antagonist is also a woman. So, here is a story about a young girl, for all children, in which most (let’s not forget Matilda’s father) of the key characters are women – each of whom is strong, intelligent and powerful in their own way. While this is not something I remember at the time, it is certainly something that had an impact on the way I saw myself and imagined my place in the world. As an unashamed book worm, from the age of 6, Matilda was someone I understood from the moment I met her. I did not think I was her, but I believed that I could be like her. Dahl’s ability to gently infuse the lives of his characters with magic is perfectly weighted in Matilda. There is just enough magic for extraordinary things to happen, but not so much that it made it impossible for me to believe that I too could move objects with my mind.   In her quiet and yet fierce way, Matilda learns to navigate the world on her own terms. She does so with her mind, her care for the people around her and with books. My adult self realises that Matilda gave me permission to be myself – a shy bookworm, who loved reading and the world of the mind. My child self simply loved her courage and her magic.

Toni Stuart is a poet, performer and spoken word educator working between Cape Town and London.  She says of herself ‘I am a poet who believes in listening as the catalyst for change.’