So why don’t children read the classics anymore?

I am delighted to introduce you to Anna, a 14 year old reader with some strong views on why children don’t read the classics anymore.  Her opinions are music to the ears of writers and publishers who are trying to create a more varied and interesting diet for young readers.  ENJOY!
“I’ve read countless rants from old people on facebook to old people in the guardian who oddly take some sort of pleasure out of voicing how this degenerate generation doesn’t take pleasure in reading from paper any more.  Not bored of saying kids don’t read enough, it appears that they also read the wrong books. I read recently in the guardian that the number of kids reading classics like The Secret Garden and The Chronicles of Narnia have decreased as readers move over to David Walliams and the Hunger Games.
But why is this? Why have children lost interest in the classics, and what makes modern YA so popular?  Here are some of my thoughts and to explain some of my points, I’m going to choose five classic books: The Secret Garden,The Chronicles of Narnia, Five Children and It, The Wind In The Willows and The Railway Children.
These are some of the most loved books by ‘older generations’ and now overlooked by kids. No doubt they deserve their status as classics as they are all fantastic in their own way.  And in contrast five modern books that are popular books, The Hunger Games, Refugee boy, The Boy in the Dress, The Fault in our Stars and The Percy Jackson series. These books have overtaken as the favourites on modern day book shelves.

Between the classic and modern titles, there is far more diversity in the modern books. Yes, there were books like Amazing Grace, but without the help of google, I couldn’t think of any books containing ethnic minorities, disabilities or LGBT that fits in to the classic bracket. Yes, that is because of my limited knowledge of classic kids literature. But at the end of the day, a modern younger kid would not have any more knowledge of classics than I would, unless of course they actively searched. But when you have modern diverse books in your school library, a kid wouldn’t look any further than them (of course this is a sweeping statement, but bare with me.)
Going back to the classics I chose lets look at them a little more closely.  There is The Secret Garden – we have an orphan (white) moves into a rich family’s house (white) and befriends a boy who lives on the grounds (white.) Granted, Colin is disabled and the mother is dead. But I’ll get on to that later.  Next there is Five (white) children and it, a wartime story, The wind in the willows, (animals) The chronicles of rich white children in Narnia, a wartime story and lastly The (white) Railway Children another war time story.
The modern books I chose are different. You have The Hunger Games (okay they are mostly white) but we have single parents, secondary characters who are more diverse, and at the centre, a definite lack of rich family with the token tragedy trope.
Then we have Refugee Boy, a mature kids book about an Eritrean/Somalian refugee in Britain. There is The Boy in the Dress, with a poor single fathered family and a cross dressing eleven year old.  The Fault in our Stars, which has two cancer patients, and lastly Percy Jackson, with a single mother, a black protagonist and a dyslexic main character just in the first book.

The raw truth is the classic books are full of either very rich/very poor, very white and very healthy characters. While in contemporary books, all the kids who aren’t white and 100% able bodied and Neurotypical have representation and heroes.
I have to admit that for bereaved children and poor children, classic books do deliver. But now we are finally breaking into an age where ethnic minorities, refugees, cross dressing, gay, bullied, and outcasts but most notably the kids with learning difficulties have heroes. I haven’t even mentioned the steep rise in heroic female characters. In the past all the girls seemed to watch from the sidelines and cry occasionally, then need a rescue from time to time, and if we are lucky they would scream. That was about as good as our female heroes got. Now a new age of Katnisses are here and ready to be a role model for all the little girls a bit left behind on the hero scene. But we definitely shouldn’t stop here, there is still a really tragic lack of diversity in contemporary teen and YA literature.

On the whole the situations in modern books are a lot more realistic than in the classics. Real people, real conditions, real issues. Readers can directly relate to more of the presented issues in modern novels such as using phones and social media, and the wider scientific knowledge we have today means characters with illnesses have their conditions named and explained. Take Colin’s miraculously cured and completely ambiguous illness in The Secret Garden and compare it to The Fault in our Stars, where the two kids have a definitely incurable and terminal cancer. It’s quite hard to empathise with Colin if you’re in a wheelchair. But on the whole he wouldn’t be a bad role model right up until he gets up and goes for a little stroll. It must have been a bit annoying for all the kids reading The Secret Garden.

Dystopia and war is a noticeable pattern in popular modern novels. But why do kids love things like Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner? These are the big daddies, the most popular. I believe that these books tick every box for today’s readers:  diversity, tragedy, and a really messed up future.  A theory I found on google is that ‘It represents how teenagers feel oppressed by old people and want to stop them ruining everything’ which I think makes sense. In the stories it always seems to be teenagers who seemingly can’t tie their shoelaces that manage to take down the unbreakable and corrupt governments. So does it ignite and exercise that inner thought everyone has what it takes to take down the government? These YA books contain ‘politics with stabilisers’.  Very black and white and unrealistic dictatorships, a government where you have to blow it up and start again to change anything. I think kids read political YA to feel grown up, and feel like they have a good understanding of the real world after reading it.”

‘My name is Anna.  I’m fourteen. I don’t read that much because I prefer movies, but when I do read, my favourite genre is horror and sci fi. My favourite books are: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I don’t have a favourite author so far. I like to read to pass time, because it is like a movie that you can direct and make in your head, and there is more explanation than a movie. Book covers and titles are always the reason I get attracted to books. My pet peeves: forced romance, adventure, boring heroes and books that are the same but slightly altered variables. I buy books mainly because they are nicer when new and it is something to call your own. I look for a good motive, good characters, an interesting story and scary/ strange themes.’

Friendship is everything – the world of Brian Conaghan

Brian Conaghan is relatively new to the world of children’s books but not to the world of young people.  He was a teacher for 17 years before giving it up to become a full-time writer when he secured a publishing contract with Bloomsbury for his first book with them, When Mr Dog Bites. He explained that as a child he didn’t read until he was about 17 and he considers himself to have been what is now termed a ‘reluctant reader’   He said “I hated the idea of people telling me what to do” and he feels that readers have to learn to enjoy reading rather than be forced to read.  With this in mind he says that he read all sort of books with his pupils and felt that his motivation was to ‘grab’ readers with books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Refugee Boy, and early Roddy Doyle novels.  Books, he tells me proudly “with swearing in them and about people like them”  It is a literary canon that his own powerful novels very happily sits amongst.  “Swearing doesn’t have a profound effect on kids but what does have a profound effect is when characters open up their emotions and express love through the pages to these kids” he asserts.  When Mr Dog Bites garnered much praise for its original and brave story telling and also suffered some criticism for the amount of swearing in the book.  But it isn’t possible to imagine an honest portrayal of such a complex character without the swearing.  As a writer Brian aims to represent real life in his books and in the case of the books hero, Dylan Mint, real life includes having Tourettes Syndrome and an incredible ability to swear. Like all writers Brian makes a choice about who is going to represent and it is the good fortune of many many readers that he is choosing to go to the less frequently fictionalized characters for his heroes.

Brian goes on to explain that he is “interested in the individual who is lost and not heard and oppressed within the school environment and the social environment.   Who isn’t valued by their society and their community.  You see them constantly as a teacher.  Kids at the back of the classroom, do the work, don’t give you any bother or hassle and it just seems that no one has asked them their opinion or their thoughts or feelings.  These are the voices and kids I am interested in.  The disenfranchised.”  And to create these characters Brian has an incredibly original and unique voice himself.  Amongst the very crowded shelves of teen and YA fiction there are few authors prepared to go so out on a limb and Brian comments that “ignorance is bliss.  I can’t say I’ve read all these other books.  I think we live in a derivative world.  It is very difficult to be unique but what I do think you can be is honest, and I think you can be true, and I think you can represent people accurately.”

“The reason I like writing about teenagers is that I feel sometimes that irrespective of where you live in the world, which direction your life is taking and the social and economic political situation I think sometimes that what unifies teenagers is that we have all got the same fears about ourselves, about our bodies and about how other people see us and about how we see ourselves.” And it is this understanding about the universality and shared emotional world that we inhabit that gives Brian’s characters such universal appeal – regardless of the particular circumstances of their stories.  He tells me “I just feel we are not that different.  Other than the aesthetics and the language of it all we are not that different. I feel it is what’s in your head and in your heart that counts.”  And in that Brian reveals the profoundly humanitarian and kind pulse of his books.    Brian’s second book with Bloomsbury has just published and I am delighted to review The Bombs That Brought Us Together which has the hallmarks of the unique Conaghan voice, the unlikely hero, and a brave approach to telling the truth for his readers, but this time he sets his characters in a much bigger political arena.

When Mr Dog Bites
When Mr Dog Bites

BombsCover

After the huge critical success and a Carnegie Medal shortlisting for When Mr Dog Bites, Brian Conaghan’s second book with Bloomsbury, The Bombs That Brought Us Together, has just published. How do you follow a debut that caused such a sensational amount of interest? By writing something else brave, original and complex it seems.

In this moving novel Brian takes us on a more overtly political journey than its predecessor, yet at its core remains a touching portrayal of boys and their friendships. Brian explained: “I try to write tenderly about boys and I look at my own friendships as a kid and while we were into football and underage drinking we loved each other intensely and were always very open and honest with each other.”

When Charlie Law meets Pavel Duda it is at a time of great social unrest in Little Town. A suffocating regime is firmly in place with the laws laid out for all to obey and the enemy, in the form of Old Country, lurking menacingly across the border.  Pavel’s story of migration from Old Country to Little Town, arriving with nothing but a flimsy understanding of the native language, is particularly resonant today. Brian started writing the book in 2014 as wars were being fought at the edges of Europe and the humanitarian crisis in Syria was sending shock-waves across the world.  Struck by the nightly news pictures of families walking out of war zones, often with their entire lives packed in a small rucksack, he felt moved to write on their plight. .  The people in the news stories, Brian understood, are just like the rest of us; not in any way less human or empathetic because of the cards that life dealt them.   He was also aware of the Scottish Referendum and considered the imbalance of power between Scotland and England and he says “it got me thinking, what if this big place, a mighty powerful neighbour, would become a bully.”

The Bombs That Brought Us Together is inspired by and reflects  real life events. The book creates a relatable story that humanises and personalises those events for the reader. At the core of Brian’s writing is the desire to understand  his characters and their motivation. He wants to paint portraits that are honest and through the portrayal of those lives allow the reader to get closer to  understanding a bigger political context.

Brian believes that today we “live in a culture of fear. We have to look for answers as a country and as a community and look at why we are demonising young people”. He argues that this demonisation comes from a wider attack on working class values and working class communities being vilified by the media and politicians. Brian wants to show his readers that people are fundamentally not that different and when any differences are emphasised it is done in the name of greater political ambitions. In Little Town these differences are amplified to create a culture of fear in order to help the regime maintain the skewed power balance. Pavel’s arrival shows Charlie that he has been taken in by the propaganda, blindly accepting its sweeping generalisations, and the friendship that Pavel and Charlie go on to form is a safety net for both of them. While on the surface it might appear to the reader that it is Pavel who has most to gain from the friendship, we soon see that both boys benefit from the relationship in a profoundly important way. When Old Country invades Little Town and Charlie and Pavel find themselves on the wrong side of the regime, it is the courage and confidence that their friendship has given them that gives Charlie the strength to resist and take a course of action that will change their lives.

Dealing with big political issues in The Bombs That Brought Us Together is something that Brian feels is very important. He was brought up to be politically motivated and he is concerned that the disenchantment felt today about the democratic process is down to a failure of the system. He feels that books like his, that directly address political themes, are empowering young people and offer the opportunity for readers to realise that they have a part to play in the narrative and that they can question the disparity of power. He writes to give voice to the silent, both in the personal and domestic arenas and the larger political arena.

In the end The Bombs That Brought Us Together is full of optimism and hope for the future as, at its core, is the belief that people can overcome their hardships; that they can change; that they can find strength and security through friendship and love, and that caring for their friends and families has its own reward

The Bombs That Brought Us Together is a powerful book about important issues. It is a book with a strong voice and a book that doesn’t shy away from looking directly at a problem,. Like the best YA writing, its power is in its characters and their interplay as they contend with moral and social dilemmas that the reader can empathise with. Brain Conaghan’s book joins others such as Maggot Moon, in giving the world a different view of boys, their friendships and their hopes and dreams.  Brian is a thrilling writer whose respect for his audience is such that he doesn’t shy away from the truth. Happily for us, he tells me that he is a fast writer and that there are other books in the pipeline, which I for one am very much looking forward to.

AFCC (Asian Festival of Children’s Content)

At the end of May Singapore will host the AFCC – a wonderful conference with delegates from around the world talking about  all forms of creative content for children.  Each year the focus is on a different country and this year the focus country is Japan.  Held in the National Library the talks span the interests of a vast range of audiences from writers of picture books to YA books, film makers, illustrators, academics and publishers.   It is a fabulous opportunity to find out about all sorts of things you didn’t know about as well as to take time with other people in the business to talk about this specialised and special area of the creative industries – content for children.

For the full picture of the range of talks and activities visit the web site and if you are anywhere in the country, or in the region, do go along.  There is so much to be discovered, shared and enjoyed.  http://afcc.com.sg/

Bologna 2016 and plans for 2017

Bologna Children’s Bookfair has finished for another year with lots of really great good news stories coming out of it.  One of the most exciting initiatives is the plan to launch an international children’s festival in Aarhus in 2017 which will include a publication of the best 39 European writers of YA literature under 40.  Come on everyone … lets get behind and support this.

https://www.hayfestival.com/aarhus39/index.aspx?skinid=29&currencysetting=GBP&localesetting=en-GB&resetfilters=true

Megaphone updates … interviews with shortlisted authors

Leila Rasheed is running a series of interviews with the shortlisted Megaphone authors.

Megaphone is a new writer development scheme, specifically aimed at BAME (Black, Asian or other Minority Ethnic) writers who would like sustained support as they write their first novel for children or teenagers. It is funded by Arts Council England and The PA Children’s Book Group in association with EQUIP (Equality in Publishing). Melissa Cox has made an additional donation to cover one participant’s fees. For further details please have a look at the FAQs page and the Who’s Involved page.

http://megaphonewrite.com/2016/03/30/meet-danielle-megaphone-participant/

 

The Enchanting Enchanted Lion

We all have publishing houses around the world that are our go-to lists for quality, beauty, wonderful content and sheer charm.  One of my absolute favourites is Enchanted Lion, the Brooklyn based publishing house with a list of picture books that are simply delightful.  Follow this link to read a profile of the company from Publishers Weekly

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/64017-enchanted-lion-a-visit-with-the-brooklyn-based-indie-publisher.html

 

 

 

Megaphone: some reflections on the present and ideas for the future by Leila Rasheed

I am delighted to post this blog by Leila Rasheed looking at the journey of Megaphone so far as well as making a call for action in the future.  Leila believes that children’s literature is not the niche interest it’s often assumed to be but rather it is a foundation of society.  Her work on Megaphone goes someway to ensuring that all children, and writers, get to benefit from the power that literature holds.

In late 2015 Megaphone (www.megaphonewrite.com) , a writer development programme aimed at BAME writers of children’s fiction, opened to applications for the first time. I’m delighted to say that our five participants – Danielle Jawando, Tina Freeth, Joyce Efia Harmer, Nafisa Muhtadi and Avantika Taneja – have just been selected from more than sixty excellent applications. A panel of editors and publishers helped make the final choice from a shortlist of ten. I’m truly excited to begin working with these talented writers, who are writing on a wide range of subjects and in a range of styles and voices, and I feel this is a good time to take stock and look forward.

So what have I learned so far?

The applications came from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, broadly in line with national demographics, and overwhelmingly from women. The decisions were made on the basis of anonymous writing samples – we asked for letters of application also, but these were just to ascertain the writers understood the commitment that would be necessary for a year-long course. The successful participants had all taken creative writing courses or written in other modes previously (though as stated above we did not make the selection on this basis). All applicants had made big sacrifices for their writing – investing money and time, taking sabbaticals from work and so forth. Several were writing in the face of substantially difficult circumstances.

This illustrates that it takes a lot of investment in one’s writing to reach even the stage of being selected for a writer development programme such as Megaphone. Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to invest in their writing – not everyone can afford it, or easily access opportunities. I believe we ought to develop more targeted opportunities to create a ladder of development for children’s writers. This is the only way we will get a range of voices in children’s literature that represents the whole spectrum of British life – and we need such a range, because I feel strongly that children’s literature is not the niche interest it’s often assumed to be; it is a foundation of society, the art which has the most impact. It is where the next generation learns not only its values but also its understanding of what a story is and how meaning is made – the very structure of thought. I also believe that everyone should have the opportunity to connect with the next generation. This needn’t always mean writing for mainstream publication; it could (for example) mean creating projects where older people can write stories from their life in a way that will engage and entertain their grand-children. Megaphone has a very specific aim, which means that it has to work on the principle of selection, but there is room for many other schemes to develop. I would love to see more of these ‘rungs’ created – and see them made available across the UK.

I was struck by how many people in their letters of application expressed a feeling that Megaphone was not merely opportune, but really needed. Many felt excluded from mainstream publishing and were delighted to find a project that specifically targeted and welcomed them. We know from the Writing The Future report (https://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/resources/view/writing-the-future) and from the recent, excellent Bare Lit festival (http://barelitfestival.com/ ), that BAME writers are often bypassing mainstream publishing altogether because they do not see themselves supported and valued there – and that is no different in children’s literature. Nosy Crow’s call for BAME writers (http://nosycrow.com/blog/an-update-on-our-open-call-for-childrens-fiction-submissions-from-debut-bame-writers/ )is great news and has already drawn many submissions, but I wonder how many more writers have not even heard it because they’ve already decided that mainstream publishing wasn’t open to them and are not tuned to those channels.

I know from the amount of support I’ve been generously offered with Megaphone that mainstream children’s publishers really do want to publish a more diverse group of people. My experience so far leads me to believe that they should begin by asking themselves: how does my organisation, how does my website, how does my list look to non-white people? Does my publishing company look welcoming to them? Or does it look like somewhere they will always be the odd one out, asked embarrassing questions, be expected to change the most important things about themselves and their writing? Does it look like somewhere they’ll find themselves fighting a cover whitewash? Does it look like somewhere that expects BAME readers to buy their books, or somewhere that would be surprised to hear that non-white people read? To attract BAME writers, I believe mainstream publishers need to think about BAME readers – they are the same people after all.

It is a struggle for any writer to find their voice and the confidence to use it, but especially so when the contents of the library and the bookshop provide so little evidence that the world wants to hear what someone like you has to say. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote, describing the hostility that faced female writers as opposed to the indifference that faced male ones:

“The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?”

Too often, the world’s message to British BAME people is simply, ‘You don’t write’. I hope that Megaphone can contribute to changing that message.

The future

One thing I learned when I studied children’s literature at Roehampton is that children’s literature has always been radical and engaged with society; from Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies to Jan Needle’s Wild Wood. This is a history we can celebrate and build on. All of us who are involved in children’s literature need to be more willing to identify and critique the effect that growing up with literature that has until recently either excluded non-white people or presented them only as stereotypes has had on us. Just as I internalised the idea that I couldn’t write about myself, it has had an effect on our assumptions, on our cultural values, on what we include and exclude, on what presences we have come to expect and what absences we have learned to tolerate. So these are some things that I personally would like to see in the future:

Sound research into how BAME people engage with children’s fiction. This will be the bedrock for targeted and effective action. I want to know exactly how many picture books with Black or Asian or other minority ethnic main characters are published per year in Britain. I want to know how BAME parents feel about buying books for their child, and where they buy books and why, and what change if any they would like to see. I would like to know how many books by BAME authors are shortlisted for major children’s literature prizes. I want to know what the gaps and absences we’ve not thought to question yet are.

We need BAME writers and publishers to keep on writing and talking about their experiences and sharing them. We need to define the problem before we can fix it. We need white writers to keep being conscious and positive about equality, to counterbalance those who are not.

We need projects that work for everyone. I do think that Megaphone legitimately offers publishers something of real value: they would love to cast their net for writers wider, but they aren’t a school for writers and they quite reasonably want to publish books they can sell. Megaphone creates a conduit from writer to publisher. Editors need a close-to-perfect manuscript, but a writer development programme can work with what comes before that – and potentially can keep people writing and submitting rather than giving up.

I’d love to see the history of non-white publishing and writing for children and teenagers collected and recorded so we can see how much has been achieved by people like Verna Wilkins (http://www.tamarindbooks.co.uk/downloads/tamarind_righttobeseen.pdf ). I don’t think we celebrate this enough. A book, a website? A Heritage Lottery Fund project?

I’d like to see BAME readers, parents, book buyers, to make themselves even more visible as a consumer force. I would like to see people getting vocal about this. I’d like to see active questioning: why isn’t my child anywhere in your bookshop? And why should I spend money in a place that excludes my child?

I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks. What should we be doing next?

follow Leila on twitter @LeilaR

 

2016 Hans Christian Andersen Shortlist

Watch this wonderful video with clips of authors and illustrators talking about their work, their commitment to creating wonderful literature for young readers and their amazing artistic legacy.  And put the date in your diary if you are attending the Bologna Children’s Book Fair when we will find out who the winner of this award, dubbed the nobel prize for children’s literature, will be.  2pm 4th April 2016 in the Illustrators Cafe.

Hans Christian Andersen Award 2016

Scottish Children’s Book Awards 2016

At a ceremony in Glasgow in front of 1000 children it is announced today that this years winners for the Scottish Children’s Book Awards are Simon Puttock, Ross MacKenzie and Danny Weston.  This is Scotland’s largest book prize with each winning book receiving £3000 and the winners were chosen this year after almost 30,000 children cast their votes.

Voting on three categories Bookbug Readers (3-7), Younger Readers (8-11) and Older Readers (12-16) children across Scotland were encouraged to read the three shortlisted books in their age category and to vote for their favourite.  All three winning titles feature magic and mystery suggesting that when children get to choose for themselves they will choose books that take them to different worlds.

Midlothian-based author Simon Puttock, who lives in Newtongrange won the Bookbug Reader’s (3-7 yrs) category for his picture book Mouse’s First Night at Moonlight School, illustrated by Ali Pye.

Published by Nosy Crow
Published by Nosy Crow

Published by Nosy Crow, the book follows Mouse on her first day at Miss Moon’s Moonlight School for all the small creatures of the night, but she is very shy, too shy to even say hello. Luckily, with help from Miss Moon and her new friends Bat, Cat and Owl, a game of hide-and-seek makes Mouse feel right at home.

Renfrew-based author Ross MacKenzie won the Younger Readers (8-11) category for his novel The Nowhere Emporium.

Published by Floris Books

    Published by Floris Books

Published by Floris Books, the book explores what happens when the mysterious Nowhere Emporium arrives in Glasgow, and orphan Daniel Holmes stumbles upon it by accident. Before long, the ‘shop from nowhere’ — and its owner, Mr Silver — draw Daniel into a breathtaking world of magic and enchantment.

Edinburgh-based author Danny Weston, who lives in Tollcross, won the Older Readers (12-16 yrs) category for his book The Piper. Published by Andersen Press, the book follows Peter and his little sister, Daisy, who are evacuated from London to the countryside and find themselves on an isolated farm in the middle of a treacherous marshland.

Published by Andersen Press
Published by Andersen Press

As Daisy gets drawn deeper into the secrets of their new home, Peter starts to realise that something very sinister is going on. What is that music they can hear at night? And who are the children dancing to it?

It is an exciting prize which does something that many prizes for children’s literary fails to do: it includes the intended audience for the books in its award process and it categories the award into age ranges recognising that the reading interests of an eight year old and a thirteen year old are literally years apart.  Congratulations to each of the authors.
Follow the publishers on twitter: @nosycrow, @AndersenPress @FlorisBooks

 

 

The New Internationalists by Martin Salisbury

As the Bologna Bookfair approaches now seems a good time to hear from Professor Martin Salisbury, Course Leader, MA Children’s Book Illustration, Cambridge School of Art and enjoy his optimism about the shape of the picture book scene here in the UK.

A gentle breeze of change seems to have been blowing through the UK picturebook publishing landscape over the last couple of years. It has gathered momentum and is now beginning to resemble more of a brisk wind- a very welcome blast of fresh air. We have a magnificent and long-standing tradition in children’s book illustration in the United Kingdom and in particular the art of the picturebook, a tradition which we have every reason to be very proud of. But for a variety of reasons, it has been clear in recent years that we have fallen behind many other countries when it comes to the picturebook as an object of beauty- in terms of illustration, design and production. A visit to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair would invariable induce for this writer at least, a feeling of envy when visiting the stands of the French, Belgian, Czech, South Korean and German publishers. As a member of the international jury for the Ragazzi Awards and the International Illustration Awards in recent years, I have often found myself facing a barrage of questions from fellow jurors (publishers, artists, designers, critics) about the reasons why comparatively few British books were entered for awards, why so few overseas titles were imported and translated into English, why our picture books seem so much ‘less artistic’, ‘edgy’ or creatively ambitious. I would find myself torn between, on the one hand, the impulse to point out the fact that our books have to appeal to a far wider audience and need to sell more copies than is the case for many of the publishers in other languages and, on the other, the temptation to agree that we have been just a little insular.

Taking my MA Children’s Book Illustration students to Bologna every year has been an interesting experience too. I designed the course in 2000 and student numbers have grown at an astonishing rate. We are now at absolute capacity, accepting around forty full-time and twenty-five part-time students each year, from far higher total numbers of applications. They come from all over the world. On graduation, most return to their native countries but all aspire to be published in English. Visiting Bologna gives them a real insight into the range of picture book cultures around the world. And in previous years, a visit to the British halls would sometimes act as ‘wake-up call’ that they may need to rein in their creative ambition if their hopes of being published in English were to be realized. My colleagues and I often chuckle over a recent experience of a graduate being told earnestly by a British publisher that her work was ‘too posh and too French’.

But almost overnight, we seem to be entering a new ‘Golden Age’. It surely started with the award winning visual publishing house, Nobrow. Worshiped by art students for their highly innovative output Nobrow has evolved from a little print studio into a significant player in the publishing scene. Their children’s book imprint, Flying Eye, was launched in 2013 and has been responsible for a stream of deliciously produced books, culminating in the richly deserved Kate Greenaway Medal 2015 for William Grill’s Shackleton’s Journey. Now we are seeing numerous imprints springing up with newfound confidence in the potential for books that demonstrate real concern for quality design and production. Of course much credit must also go to Tate Publishing, V&A Publishing and now Thames and Hudson- all of whom have moved into children’s publishing in recent years. At last we are seeing the work of artists such Beatrice Alemagna and Isabelle Arsenault in our bookshops. And a special mention is needed too for Julia Marshall at Gecko Press in New Zealand, who has chipped away by introducing international picture books into the English language.

So for the illustration student, these are exciting times. But the illustration student must also take some of the credit for these changes. As more and more of our students arrive form overseas, there is more and more cultural and stylistic diversity on show at graduation exhibitions and in portfolios at Bologna. Our own MA students and graduates have been consistently prominent in the awards at Bologna, the Waterstones Prize, the Macmillan Prize for Children’s Picture book Illustration (our students have taken the top prize for the last five years), the V&A Illustration Awards, New York Times Top Ten Picture books, and in the shortlists for the Greenaway Medal among others. What is also noticeable though is the range of countries that they hail from. In the above awards and shortlists the individuals’ nationalities include Iceland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, Romania, Spain, Taiwan as well as the UK. They are all bringing a rich diversity of visual diet to our culture of picture book-making and helping to drive standards up.

The fertilization process is not just one-way however. With our students attending Bologna and, in the last few years, having the opportunity to present their work at our Cambridge School of Art stand, it has been interesting to see how many of them have gained their first publishing contracts from overseas publishers. Of course this can sometimes mean that print runs and advances are relatively low. But getting into print is a huge advantage in terms of having something tangible to show other potential future publishers. The work of a significant proportion of our graduates has made its debut in languages other than English, or in English but in other lands like New Zealand and the USA.

The following selection of just six of our recently published graduates at Masters and PhD level is relatively arbitrary but contains a range of nationalities and may give some insight into the ‘new internationalism’ that appears to be gaining a toe-hold.

Simona Ciraolo completed her part-time studies on the MA course in 2014 and after interest from several publishers at her graduation show, opted to sign with Nobrow/ Flying Eye, having long been an admirer of their work. Simona is originally from the island of Sardinia. She studied animation at the Film School in Turin and worked as an animator here in the UK for some years before joining the course. The training in animation has stood her in good stead, underpinning her acute, sensitive character observation with secure draughtsmanship. She is a natural storyteller and her first two picturebooks, ‘Hug Me’ Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 15.17.14and ‘Whatever Happened to my Sister’ were both developed as projects during the final stages of the Masters course. Stylistically, there is a hint of mid-Twentieth Century retro but the work rises above trend or mannerism through its depth of sincerity and complete absence of sentimentality. Both books are rendered with simple old-fashioned marker pens. ‘Hug Me’ tells of a lonely cactus who yearns for physical contact. ‘Whatever Happened to my Sister’ is a touching story of the a little girl’s bemusement and sadness as her big sister grows away from her.

Carolina Rabei hails from Romania. As a student, Carolina particularly took to screen-printing in our excellent printmaking workshops. This ancient process originated in China and was used commercially over the years for large-scale poster printing and for printing onto T-shirts and e.g. metal packaging. Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 15.18.57For artists, it is a medium that forces one to learn a lot about the layering of colour. Prior to her first visit to Bologna, Carolina printed a batch of small scale, double sided, folding ‘concertina books’ depicting the Little Red Riding Hood story. Printed in two colours, these delightful objets were used as self-promotional handouts to lucky publishers. One such recipient was Faber children’s Books who were looking for material for their new picture book venture, more specifically to work on a picture book based around Walter de la Mare’s poem, ‘Snow’. Carolina’s work had just the right feel. The second in the series, ‘The Ride-by-Nights’, has just been published. Carolina’s artwork is now generated digitally, for reasons of practicality and speed, but is greatly informed by her experience of screen-printing.

Maisie Shearing hails from marginally less exotic Hull, via an undergraduate degree in Illustration at Edinburgh College of Art. Her work is edgy, witty and occasionally dark. Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 15.19.58These and other characteristics won her the $30,000 First Prize in the 2015 Bologna International Award for Illustration, sponsored by the Spanish publishers, Fundación SM. The prize also came with a contract to develop for publication the book project from which the winning illustrations had come. This was a graphic novel format book, based on Maisie’s mother’s recollections of schooldays, once again originally developed during the final stages of the Masters course, which she completed in January 2015.

Becky Palmer is currently working on a project with one of the UK’s leading publishers but her debut came in the form of a stunning graphic novel for the French publisher, Sarbacanne. Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 15.20.46She did not study Art & Design at undergraduate level but had always drawn compulsively. Currently researching the boundaries between the picturebook and the graphic novel in the form of a practice-led PhD, Becky was an early winner of the Sebastian Walker Memorial Award- a prize sponsored by Walker Books specifically for an outstanding Cambridge School of Art MA graduate. She is in increasing demand as an illustrator, author and teacher.

Yu-Wen Huang – The eye of the émigré artist can often be particularly acute when exploring and describing another culture (think Miroslav Šašek’s ‘This is …’ books for example). Yu-Wen Chuang’s personal sketchbooks teem with anecdotal observational drawings of the everyday life EnglandScreen Shot 2016-02-28 at 15.21.59 and her native Taiwan. One of her final student projects on the MA course was in the form of a visual tour of London that combined observation, pattern and narrative in a rich mélange of painterly colour.

 

 

Katherina Manolessou

Originally from Greece and from an academic background in Chemistry, Katherina studied illustration at the University of Kingston and the Royal College of Art before successfully undertaking a practice-led PhD at Cambridge School of Art. Her research centred on the role of animal character design in children’s picturebooks. This was a fitting topic for an artist who has always populated her work with an array of creatures, when working primarily in the arena of editorial illustration. Katherina’s first picturebook, Zoom Zoom Zoom, was developed as part of her PhD research and subsequently published by MacMillan in 2014 and was one of a small number of books to be selected for exhibition at Bologna that year. The visual characteristics of Katherina’s work are rooted in her work as a printmaker. Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 15.26.00The bold, flat, screen-printed colours would perhaps have been deemed ‘too European’ for the UK market until recently.

 

Follow the artists on twitter:

@MaisieParadise, @Kmanolessou, @_BeckyPalmer, @CarolinaRabei