Fancy something new to read?



How delicious it is to sit down with a magazine and not be entirely sure what you are going to find between its page, to have a sense of excitement and curiosity about what will be there.  That is the feeling we are hoping to engender and encourage when people subscribe to Scoop.

Scoop is a new magazine for children between the ages of 8 and 12.  It will be jam packed full of wonderful content by a fantastic range of writers and illustrators offering all sorts of different children something to tickle their reading fancy.

From Catherine Johnson to Gareth Jones, Emerald Fennell to Piers Torday, Chris Priestley to Lucy Coats the fiction will be a rich mix of voices and perspectives.  From a look at the fun of cycling to how to paint a flower like Georgia O’Keefe we will have a range of activities.  From writing a play to writing a poem we will encourage interaction.  There will be graphic novel fiction and non-fiction, quizzes, competitions, reviews of exhibitions around the country as well as  reviews of books.  There won’t be a moments boredom and all this and so much more from the likes of Tom Stoppard, Neil Gaiman, Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin ….

So, who are we?  We are Clementine Macmillan-Scott the founder of the magazine.  She has worked as Coordinator of the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka and the Galle Children’s Festival. And me.  Editor-in-Chief, commisioning content and working with contributors.  Our Marketing Director Joanne Owen, a children’s and YA author and reviewer, who has worked for Bloomsbury Children’s, Macmillan Children’s, Walker Books and Nosy Crow.  We all love reading, care about what children read and want that to be fun, quality, accessible and challenging.

Our aim is to enthuse children about the written word in as many ways as possible and publishing monthly at £3.99 per issue it is an irresistible purchase.  The website goes live in the 1st September with lots of exciting content until then you can visit the site to register for a subscription  We are on twitter and instagram @scoop_the_mag and the first issue will publish on the 23rd September.

Why not subscribe for someone you know.  At £39.99 what a perfect year round birthday, Christmas or any-day present.

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




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

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

A Celebration of the work of David Roberts


“A book can never be too young for you, a book can be too old for you but it can never be too young for you … “ David Roberts.

To celebrate the publication of A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting by Michelle Robinson and David Roberts I met David for coffee and to talk about his career in publishing, his books and the joys of illustration.  Here is some of what we spoke about …

David went to art school in Manchester where he studied Fashion Design. And whilst he was on the course two visiting lecturers introduced him to his future – a milliner to a passion for hat making and a fashion illustrator opened his eyes to the possibility of earning a living as an illustrator. He found that his tendency to draw characters that look like him made his choice of fashion illustration as a specialism a little tricky “They weren’t the most attractive lets say … so I didn’t really get much work”  he tells me.

David went to Hong Kong where he worked as a milliner and while he was there he started to work for local newspapers and magazines doing art for their horoscopes, fashion pieces and articles which started him on his career as an illustrator. One of the pieces he did, about the people in the fashion industry which he based on a hybrid Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous and Ivana Trump, he had made into a postcard through which he met his agent Christine Isteed of Artists Partners with whom he has been every since.
It was Christine who guided him to being a children’s book illustrator.   She pointed out to him that he draws characters with a story and she took him on telling him that she would find him work in children’s publishing.

It was exactly what David wanted to do and was the start of his amazing career. “For me at that time Christine was the one that gave me that boost. I wanted to do children’s book illustration but I never believed I was able to do that. So when she said ‘Go away, come back to me when you have reworked your portfolio, take a few nursery rhymes and illustrate them…’ that was the start for me.”   David’s first book was with Wayland called ‘Frankie Steins Robot’ by Roy Apps and he has since gone from strength to strength and work by him must be present on almost every child’s bookshelf with a range of titles covering everything from pre-school to YA.

David does not see himself as a writer, rather as someone who is an illustrator of other peoples books. This is despite his wonderful Bertie series of books which cover the escapades of a little boy called Bertie who has some pretty revolting personal habits that appeal hugely to a young readers. David created the character and wrote the first two books and the writing is now done by Alan Macdonald while David continues to illustrator both the picture books and fiction titles that are published around the character.


Dirty Bertie published by Little Tiger
Dirty Bertie published by Little Tiger Press

“I soon realized after doing those books that writing is not for me” David tells me “what gives me the real thrill is someone else’s imagination, and what they come up with can then take me down a road that I never would have been able to think of myself. I need someone to open that door for me.”




David acknowledges that the challenge of illustrating dinosaurs for Julia Donaldson’s Tyrannosaurus Drip meant that he was pushed out of his comfort zone – and had to come up with characters for animals that don’t wear clothes as clothes mean to so much to him when creating character.

Tyrannosaurus Drip published by Macmillan
Tyrannosaurus Drip published by Macmillan

He says he enjoys illustrating other peoples books so much more that trying to come up with his own texts and this is also perhaps why David’s work, while being so distinctive, meshes so well with different writers from Chris Priestley to Sally Gardner, Julia Donaldson to Michelle Robinson. There is great mutual respect between the two creative halves and never a feeling that one is trying to impose its will on the other..

David is surprised that his work is often talked of as being gothic as he is not a fan of anything even remotely scary. He says he couldn’t even watch Sleep Hollow with Johnny Depp which is hardly hardcore horror! But he acknowledges that he likes to illustrate darkness “creepy and sinister and the oddities of things, the shadows. What I loved so much about Chris Priestley’s stories is that they allowed me to remove the characters because he didn’t want things revealed.   I could literally draw a room with a shadow and that was enough.” And this was a new way of thinking for David who found himself freed of having to create a character and could focus on creating an atmosphere. Which he does brilliantly.

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror published by Bloomsbury
Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror published by Bloomsbury
Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth published by Bloomsbury
Tales of Terror from the Tunnel’s Mouth published by Bloomsbury
Tales of Terror from the Black Ship published by Bloomsbury
Tales of Terror from the Black Ship published by Bloomsbury








It isn’t too much of a surprise to find out that one of the reasons that David wanted to be an illustrator is because of his love of Edward Gorey’s books. He became captivated by Gorey’s work while a student because “there is something about the way that it is so static. Its just these captured moments that really really appealed to me in the way that I also really loved Victorian photographs where a scene has been set and you are posed. I learnt a lot from looking at Edward Gorey and Gustave Dore and Charles Keeping. I learnt about tone and light and depth and how to leave the white space and how to cross hatch from looking at their work.”


David is the master of leaving the space. He does not over explain or over illustrate and leaves the reader lots of room to use their imagination and fill in the gaps. David is also a wonderfully humourous illustrator and much of this is conveyed through the charm of peoples faces, and ‘wide eyed’ innocence. David admits that he loves to draw people, to think of who each character is, what they would wear and how they would move through the world. He thinks this is at odds with his solitary life as an illustrator who doesn’t get to spend a lot of time with people and it is the humanity he invests in his characters that I think make them so compelling to the reader.

Image taken from The Troll written by Julia Donaldson published by Macmillan

David’s reputation is building around the world and while he is published in many countries and is working directly with American publishers he doesn’t feel he has to adapt his style to suit his projects abroad. Working directly now with Abrams on the books Rosie Revere Engineer and Iggy Peck Architect by Andrea Beaty with a third one on the way.

Jacket image book published by Abrams
Jacket image of book published by Abrams
Jacket image of book published by Abrams
Jacket image of book published by Abrams









He notes that his books published in the American market are often noted for their ‘Britishness’ and he knows that in the end it would be a mistake to try and contrive something for a market “always just be yourself, do it how you see it and then let other people take from that.”

David is amused by conversations in which people assume that his ability to create children’s books is because he “has the mind of a child”.  He says “I don’t really think about the child when illustrating a book, I only ever respond to the text.   I never ever think what would the child want to see.”   Like other original and successful creators of children’s books his ambition is to create the best and not to double guess what the audience might want.

Yet at the same time David is conscious of the orthodoxy of a classical training.   “I always felt that there was this secret method which I didn’t know about because I hadn’t trained that way. That you had to be so pure about things and if I was doing watercolour I would feel I couldn’t possibly pick up a coloured pencil and add that to it because this is supposed to be watercolour. And then I found a copy of John Burningham’s Mr Gumpy’s Outing and something flicked in my mind. I just looked at it and saw that it was a case of whatever is on the desk he picked up and drew with it so it could be a crayon, or pen and ink or watercolour. It was so free and it instantly made me think whatever I want to make the mark with I should make the mark with. It made me a little less frightened.”

David feels that there is no right and wrong way of doing something and this confidence has meant that he has developed a wonderful distinct style that is always recognizably him. Despite the difference in the audiences from his picture books to his black and white work in YA novels the art is always clearly his. He loves the fact that he can move between black and white and colour work and that the illustrations for each take a different energy from him. The variety he feels keeps him fresh, and interested. He suggest that his most unusual work and the one that will surprise his fans the most is Tinder by Sally Gardner which came about because Sally asked him to work in a different style. He found the opportunity such a freedom and it was he says, rather like having time to draw for himself and experiment.

Jacket image of book published by Orion
Jacket image of book published by Orion

David does all his work manually and does not use a computer. An artist with immense drawing skills David is also someone who creates a colour scheme for each of his books which is special and personal to each text. For A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting 

Published by Bloomsbury
Published by Bloomsbury

the colour scheme was his first approach and also his first way into the text and didn’t involve any changes of heart or direction from him as the book developed. He says “I had this idea of orange, and yellows and orches and pale blues – these were the colours that I though the bears would look good against. With this book it was straight away right. “

Publishing in February David loved illustrating Michelle’s text. He says it was an opportunity for him to combine his black and white cross hatched line with watercolour and a perfect opportunity to bring those two creative worlds together.


Images from A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting published by Bloomsbury



“I had so much fun with it. The text is so new and so open, it felt like I could take it in so many different ways and it was so refreshing to think ‘how shall I do this’

David also enjoyed the process of working with Bloomsbury on the book as he felt no one was trying to ‘guide his hand’ on the book and that in being left to ‘have a go’ and then to adapt anything he might have got wrong allowed him to get it right.

For a child that is a little bit unsure about reading David realizes that Illustration is a way of making the reading experience easier. He remembers not being a confident reader and how much art helped him build his confidence. That pictures can offer clues to the words as well as a small break in the reading is important to how David structures his illustrations and in the Bolds by Julian Clary David aimed to have an illustration on every page to help young readers with both pace and clues.

The family in the Bolds is a family that David feels the reader wants to be part of and that they are always laughing and finding laughter in their experiences. “Its nice to illustrator laughter” David tells me and “when I am drawing I pull the expression on my face of the expression I am drawing. I found that when I was drawing the characters in the Bolds I have this crazy grin on my face the whole time.”

The Bolds written by Julian Clary published by Andersen Press
The Bolds written by Julian Clary published by Andersen Press

The Bolds written by Julian Clary published by Andersen Press











David doesn’t often get a day off but if he did on his wish list would be a visit to see a Hockney exhibition, an artist that he adores. He says that Hockney’s work from the 1970’s heavily influence Iggy Peck Architect and that he shamlessly stole a garden sprinkler from a Hockney painting for the book. It is clear that David’s influences are wide and his appreciation of the detail in other peoples art is something that is reflected in the painstaking care he puts in to his own work.

Image from Iggy Peck Architect published by Abrams

He also really likes exhibitions like the Viking exhibition and the Pompeii exhibition as he loves real stories about real people and he would love to do some non-fiction, biography even. He would be interested in people whose lives are interesting, whether or not he agrees with their politics. Margaret Thatcher for example would give him plenty to get his teeth in to … miners strikes and all.

For the coming months however he is unlikely to have time to start the Iron Lady’s life. He has several books in the pipeline, including his first book for Walker Books which he is delighted about as it was the first children’s publisher he was every really aware of. This after a career that spans, if you include all the educational titles, book covers and other projects, over 150 books. We have a lot more to look forward to from David in the future.

A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting is available now in hardback. Visit and follow them on twitter @kidsbloomsbury and on instagram @bloomsburypublishing.

Follow Macmillan Children’s Books on @MacmillanKidsUK

Follow Abrams on @abramskids

Follow Andersen Press on @AndersenPress

Follow Orion Books on @orionbooks

Follow Little Tiger Press on @littletigerUK



Once Upon a Time in Singapore: Local Spin-offs to Foreign Fairy Tales by Rhoda Myra Garces-Bacsal and Sarinajit Kaur

…fairy tales come in many versions and are in turn interpreted in varied ways that speak to specific social concerns, struggles, and dreams.

Bacchilega, 2013, p. 3


Modern fairy tale adaptations for a digitally-savvy generation are not uncommon, as well-loved tales of grand balls and royalty, glass slippers and happily-ever-afters are re-imagined to provide more contextualized meanings and give space to varying realities beyond the original Eurocentric stories. This is a testament to the timelessness of fairy tales that lend itself to hybridization and transformation allowing readers to not only be passive consumers to the enchantment it provides, but active agents of societal change. The localized permutations may serve as subtle acts of subversion or a more innocuous turning over of beloved characters on their heads, infusing them with culturally-relevant sensibilities with the stories transfigured to include socially-approved norms and moral values. Singapore, a country which has just celebrated its 50th year of Independence in 2015, has its own spin-offs to foreign fairy tales as evident in award-winning Singaporean author Cyril Wong’s Strange Tales: Let Me Tell You Something About that Night in 2009. These are fairy tales for adults told with moribund twists, surreal trans-figurations of characters (male elf turned woman), dark places that defy (or even scoff at) happy endings – all the while challenging gendered expectations of heteronormativity, womanity, and masculinity. Singlish (Colloquial Singaporean English) versions of fairy tales have likewise been written by local designer Casey Chen in 2013: The Three Little Pigs Lah and The Red Riding Hood Lah, providing a delightful parody of well- known fairy tales suffused with familiar colloquialisms such as leh, lah, lor, hor, die die. However, the author himself admitted that while based on a child’s fairy tale, he claims that it is “not very suitable for children” with its use of Singlish and graphic language that is frowned upon by some ultra modern and conservative parents (Ang, 2013).

In 2014, modern retellings of foreign fairy tales specifically aimed for a childrens audience have been tackled by a few of Singapore’s luminaries in various fields (theatre, drama, food) in three Singaporean permutations of well-known foreign fairy tales. The sale of the books which carry a social enterprise mode will have part of the sales proceeds go to the Society for the Promotion of ADHD Research and Knowledge (SPARK). All three books make use of relocation (Bacchilega, 2013) as their primary adaptive strategy by situating the stories in places such as an HDB (Housing Development Board) flat in Ang Mo Kio in Hansel and Girl Girl, Upper Thomson in Goh Bee Lock and the Three Boars, and Katong Community Centre and HDB flat in Pek Kio in Little Red in the Hood.


Hansel and Girl Girl is written by Adrian Pang, a well known TV celebrity and the artistic director of Pangdemonium, a Theatre Company; and illustrated by Cultural Medallion recipient Serbian-Singaporean artist, Milenko Prvacki, a Senior Fellow at Lasalle College of the Arts.

Image used with the permission of Epigram Books, Singapore
Image used with the permission of Epigram Books, Singapore

While there are certain elements that are retained (evil and rejecting stepmother, passive and largely ineffectual father, a house of candy owned by a witch-like woman, brother-sister who had each other’s backs), there are a considerable number of modifications. Instead of a gingerbread house (which is not an item in Singaporean culture), the reader sees The Sweety Sweet Shoppe managed by a scary Auntie (a term used to describe older females in Singapore) with a beehive for hair and wearing a sarong (a kind of wrap around skirt worn mainly by the Malays). In this version, it is Girl Girl who is locked up as the Auntie plans to fatten her up as an entry to the Plump Girl Contest (a satirical reference to the element of competition in Singaporean society) in the hopes of winning a cash prize of SGD $100,000, a car and a condo (affectionately known as the 3Cs that mark financial success in Singapore). Hansel, then, needed to come up with a strategy to free his sister, tapping into the locals’ love of freebies and giveaways (an allegory to typical local penchants), allowing the siblings to escape unnoticed and take the MRT ride back home (the Mass Rapid Transit rail system of Singapore). Similar to most Asian folktales, the didactic elements are as compact as the nonya kueh chang (glutinous rice dumpling – that the siblings were asked to purchase by their stepmother), with the story ending with an injunction “A little candy is nice, but too much candy is too much! I will never, ever, be greedy again!”


Image used with permission of Epigram Books, Singapore
Image used with permission of Epigram Books, Singapore

In Goh Bee Lock and the Three Boars, there is still a discernible moral evident from the first page of the story: “She had to study hard and could only play educational computer games, but only after she had finished her homework.” There is also reference to her mummy’s shoe collection and her daddy’s golf sets – constant allegories that provide an insight into generalized local behaviours of the pursuit of academic success, love for shopping and golf as favourite adult pastimes. While there remains a consistent ‘moral’ vein running through the story, this was ingeniously underplayed by the infusion of a wide range of culinary elements. This may be attributed to the fact that the author, J F Seetoh is known as Singapore’s foremost food guru and champion for hawker food. Naughty Goh Bee Lock, despite the parents’ well-meaning advice, snuck out to the nearby Pierce Reservoir where she discovered a small house in the middle of the forest. Instead of three bears (which are not naturally existent in Singapore), this is home to a family of three boars, also quite common in what-passes-for-Singapore’s-jungles. Here, the author allows readers with ample contextual knowledge to make reference to a recent national concern of over population of wild boars as well. Goh Bee Lock is no simpering, golden-haired girl either as her mere presence caused the three boars to faint on the spot, giving her the brilliant opportunity to transform this unconscious family of boars into a delectable meal of “wild boar satay with a dip made from sambal and crushed peanuts,” and Singapore’s famous “bak kut teh” with garlic and pepper cooked over low fire, and the delectable kong bak ba (steamed buns filled with wild boar meat). There are commendable attempts at subtlety in the interplay between text and art, with visual elements added by artist Gavin Goo that are not articulated in the text. The overall design and layout provide a more dynamic feel which may also be attributed to Goo’s being an art director. The presence of the big bad wolf in the end added a layer of intertextuality, reminding readers of other fairy tales with the wolf as villain. The story ends with Goh Bee Lock promising to never be naughty again and the father holding up a plastic takeaway container of her favourite braised pig’s trotters.



Image used with the permission of Epigram Books, Singapore
Image used with the permission of Epigram Books, Singapore

Little Red in the Hood raises the bar in these three stories with the presence of a loud, muscled, kickboxing Grandmother named Rambo outfitted in white singlet and sweat pants; and a cute granddaughter named Little Red who likes drawing bright red wolves and making fluffy red bags (an apt reference to red as a colour of auspiciousness in Singapore culture). The story makes reference to the typical local lifestyle of most young parents and common childcare arrangements – “Little Red’s parents were property agents. They worked all day, leaving Little Red in the care of her grandmother” – providing an apt insight into Singaporean life and practices. Unlike the first two adaptations which aimed to close the stories neatly with a clearly- defined lesson, there are no such attempts here with leading film and theatre director Glen Goei turned children’s book author, eschewing such moralistic expectations and simply having unapologetic fun in twisting the narrative. Instead of Grandmother falling ill, it is Little Red who gets sick with a high fever. Rather than a basket filled with home-made goodies, Rambo “made a frantic trip to NTUC Fair Price” (a popular local grocery store frequented by many in Singapore) to buy ingredients to make chicken soup. The sinister undertones (that will make for a thrilling read-aloud) are retained as Rambo slowly finds her way to Little Red’s metal gate (a typical feature of HDB flats) “on the seventh floor of the oldest block in the estate. It was run-down and shabby, and home to an odd mix of people.” Instead of finding Little Red, Rambo encounters a tall woman with a red hooded sweater and a long skirt admiring her loud and acerbic voice: “My, what a sharp tongue you have” to which Rambo replied “All the better for me to scold people with.” This ‘scolding’ by Aunties and old folks are fairly common in Singapore where filial piety and respect for elders are valued highly: with the Auntie here representing the more experienced and wise elder whose advice/scolding is actually revered. It turns out Rambo is in the wrong flat and Little Red chided her apparently-poor-sighted Grandmother for screaming at Auntie Devi: “And why are you shouting like that? So garang to her for what?” The infusion of local colloquialisms (garang meaning fierce) and sound effects that tap into local people’s sensibilities (Hiiyaa! and Pak! as Rambo attacks Auntie Devi) render even greater authenticity and further sealed the Singaporean ownership to this tale. The story ends with no moral injunctions but with Little Red accompanying Rambo to an optometrist to buy prescription glasses. The dynamism of the story is heightened with Eisner-nominated-artist Andrew Tan’s (also known as Drewscape) rendering the illustrations with a comic book feel to it with storyboard panels and localised sound effects. Through subtle permutations and hybridization from the original fairy tales, the content which is infused with a myriad of local references and allusions, provides a cultural insight into the peculiarities and essence of Singaporean lives. The Singaporean authors successfully provide a sneak peek punctuated with items, behaviours and places close to the Singaporean heart. This is authenticated further with each book bringing in an angled lens specific to the respective author’s area of expertise coming quite clearly through each depiction. While these three stories would have benefited from a Glossary of Terms for those who are unfamiliar with local delicacies and unique linguistic expressions, this may serve as a post-reading activity that teachers can consider asking their young students to do in the classroom.

Jack Zipes (2012, p. 17) noted: “All tales want to be relevant, in the same way that we seek to make ourselves relevant through storytelling. Tales do not have agency. They are not alive, but they breathe and are vigorous, and as they are passed on to us through traditions of storytelling, they almost assume a life of their own.” In these three Singaporean fairy tales, readers get to see beloved tales transformed and given new life with a distinct “gula melaka flavour puddled under the tongue.”


About the authors:

Rhoda Myra Garces-Bacsal is an Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.  She is the Programme Leader of the Masters Program in High Ability Studies and Gifted Education. She serves as the Chairperson of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content held annually in Singapore. As a passionate reading advocate, she has also edited three books on the rediscovery of children’s literature in Asia. She has three book clubs in Singapore with children and adults, and shares her passion for reading and book hunting in her website

Ms Sarinajit Kaur, MEd (Special Education) joined the Early Childhood and Special Education Academic Group as a Teaching Fellow since 2011. She currently teaches and coordinates a myriad of courses across various cohorts in initial teacher preparation as well as in service courses. She serves as in service coordinator for courses which equip mainstream teachers in inclusive practices and in supporting diverse learners. She is also engaged actively in supporting trainee teachers and allied educators during their school experience and practicum periods. Her interests include teacher training, mentoring and on how these impact positively on the inclusive mainstream educational landscape.

Ang, B. (2013). ‘My Singlish is not very good.’ The New Paper; December 10,
2013. Retrieved from online publication: good?page=0%2C0

Bacchilega, C. (2013). Fairy tales transformed? Twenty-first century adaptations and the politics of wonder.Detroit, US: Wayne State University Press.

Zipes, J. (2012). The irresistible fairy tale: The cultural and social history of a genre. Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press.





Tara Books: The Making of a Publishing House by Gita Wolf

I am delighted that our blog post this week is by Gita Wolf.  She is talking about Tara Books, the company she founded 20 years ago and which has worked to produced high quality, innovative and content rich books for young readers ever since.  Tara Books is a truly inclusive organisation, having its books manufactured by a local printing collective, working with folk artists from around the country and concentrating on creating content that abides to its core values of respecting individuals and their cultures.  It is a unique publishing house, based in Chennai and with an impressive international reach.

Sarah Odedina, The Read Quarterly.


Tara Books turns twenty years old this year. When I started the publishing house two decades ago, I had neither a concrete business plan nor a definite programme. The project was tentative and exploratory, with only this overarching idea: to widen the scope of what we think of as children’s literature, particularly in India. I was also keen on exploring visual narratives, and the dialogue between words and pictures. So with the help of a few creative friends, that is what Tara set out to do.

From the very beginning, we felt that the entrenched form and content of children’s books needed to be challenged. Particularly in India, a limited range of themes, styles and renderings had to stand in for ‘what children like’ – and therefore, what they will be offered. But, in our understanding, it all came down to what children were exposed to. We also doubted whether all children (even within a particular age group) were alike in their tastes and preferences. Like adults, children are individuals – some like humour, others love a good mystery, some are serious, others more light hearted. So a genuine variety of perspectives was much needed.

That is what we have tried to create, over these twenty years, and it remains the basic direction that we continue to take. Meanwhile, Tara has grown into a collective of writers, designers and book makers, and it is owned by the people who run it. There are eleven of us in the office, and after years of working out of small rented houses, we’ve now built our own space, called Book Building. Our offices are on the first floor, and on the ground floor there is a bookstore and gallery where we hold exhibitions, events and workshops. Visiting artists have painted murals on the walls, and on the top floor, we have a studio apartment for the artists, authors and designers who come to work with us on projects. Book Building’s reputation as a destination for lovers of books and the arts is growing, and we’re pleased at the number of visitors who come by.1 Book Building_a


We generate most of our titles in-house, but we also collaborate with other adventurous professionals both from within India and abroad. It is these dialogues and interactions, between ourselves, but also with others, which allows Tara to grow – each creative individual sets us off in a new direction.

For instance, a serendipitous meeting with a wonderful silk-screen printer gave rise to the first book we made entirely by hand, from the paper to the printing and binding. That printer is now part of the core group at Tara, taking care of our entire production. Meanwhile his screen-printing workshop, which Tara helped to set up, has grown into an artisanal fair trade collective of twenty-five bookmakers. The unit is located a couple of kilometers away from our office, and is run as an independent entity, producing books exclusively for us.


The work of these printers and binders has ensured that over the years, Tara has come to be known for a range of handmade books, where the art, paper, printing and binding offer a supremely tactile experience to the reader. Because of our unique set up, we’re able to offer what are really limited editions of artists’ books, but at an affordable price to the average book lover.Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 15.39.58

Creation by Bhajju Shyam, with Gita Wolf.  A collection of origin myths from the Gond tribe in central India.

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Gobble You Up  by Gita Wolf, Sunita

A cumulative rhyming story of a jackal that swallows all the other animals. Illustrated in the Meena tribal art style. One of the favourite motifs of Meena women artists is pregnant animals ‑ which led to the idea for this book.

When we started publishing in 1995, there were hardly any interesting picture books for children in India. Ours has been a largely oral tradition, and the notion of children’s literature came from abroad, so Indian children’s books tended to be derivative. They were also very didactic. One of our aims was – and still is – to celebrate the sheer pleasure of reading for fun. All of us who love books first began to read because we enjoyed it. At Tara, we find it particularly vital to foster this enjoyment, as in India, most parents tend to be competitive and ambitious for their children, and are therefore disinterested in books which provide too little ‘information’. Our flouting of this received market wisdom certainly was (and continues to be) a risk, but it’s one we’re willing to invest in.  Two examples of the light-hearted and fun books that we publish are Alphabets Are Amazing Animals and Captain Coconut and the case of the Missing Bananas.

Alphabets Are Amazing Animals

4 Alphabets_CoverAlphabets are Amazing Animals by Anushka Ravishankar and Christiane Pieper

Captain Coconut

Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas by Anushka Ravishankar and Priya Sundram

Ace Detective Captain Coconut, who can solve any mystery, is called in to investigate the case of the missing bananas. He soon finds himself on a slippery trail of peels and missing numbers.  This is Anushka Ravishankar at her absurd best. British-Indian artist Priya Sundram’s collage art brings together elements of popular Indian imagery.

At the same time we have always been interested in pedagogy ‑ not in terms of traditional ‘information’ books, but in exploring a more complex yet accessible approach to learning, which does not shy away from difficult social issues. We’d like our books to reflect our own ethical positions on gender equality, environmental engagement and human rights. So, our approach to pedagogy is to frame the theme around a story or an argument, and offer the reader ideas to ponder, as well as practical activities which lead to a more nuanced understanding.

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Trash!  by Anushka Ravishankar, Gita Wolf and Orjit Sen

A combination of fact and fiction Trash! tells the story of a runaway village child who ends up as a ragpicker in a big Indian city. Along the way, it explores a range of issues—from child labour and child rights to waste and recycling.

An area of learning that we’re particularly interested in exploring is art and craft education. For a country as colourful and visually exciting as India, the state of our visual literacy is dismaying. There are barely any art classes in schools, and what there is available tends to be stodgy and unimaginative.

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An art class in action in the Book Building


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8 Ways to Draw an Elephant by Paola Ferrarotti with various artists. An unusual art activity book featuring the Indian elephant that introduces children to a variety of Indian art traditions. The elephant is imagined and rendered in eight different folk and tribal styles, put together by Italian designer Paola Ferrarotti

Of all the art on offer in India, we’ve always been particularly drawn to the incredible wealth of folk and tribal forms. Unlike in most parts of the world, these traditions are not confined to history, and artists who practice them are very much our contemporaries, with a lot to offer us. They often come from rural or remote communities, and their images keep to certain traditional themes and styles of rendering. Originally painted on floors and walls, most of this art arose from common everyday practice: the decorating of homes, community spaces or places of worship. Over the course of time, these artists began to paint on paper, and also to sell their work.

Many of our artists come from poor and marginalized communities, and before they met us, hardly any of them had ever read a book, let alone made one. Some of them could barely read and write. But we found that they had an astonishing wealth of talent, imagination and intelligence – and, equally importantly, they came from a world completely unfamiliar to the middle class urban Indian child. This, to us, was one of their greatest strengths, for along with their skill, they also effortlessly brought in an entirely new way of looking at the world.

Women of the Warli tribe from Maharashtra depict the busy activities of their village on the walls, with special paintings done on ritual occasions. The iconic simplicity and dynamism of the form can translate into a wonderful children’s book as in our book Do!  which was inspired by traditional paintings on walls.  This is a set of action pictures, rendered in the Warli style of tribal art from Maharashtra, western India.

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Women of the Bhil tribe in central lndia draw in a typically colourful, joyous style of painting which uniformly dots all things and all beings and we worked with Bhil artists on both Visit the Bhil Carnival and Tree Matters

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Sample spread from Visit the Bhil Carnival.  Subhash Amaliyar with designers Catriona Maciver and Oliver Mayes.

Before we began working with these artists, Indian children’s publishing had not drawn on these traditions in any significant way. At that time in India, a form of Disney-inspired cartoony style of illustration was considered ideal children’s fare. So our work was quite pioneering, and at the outset we faced a lot of skepticism about how children would respond to such radically different visual languages. We ourselves never seriously considered this a problem as to us taste seemed largely formed by what was available and ubiquitous – how could we pronounce on what children liked, when they hadn’t been given enough choice to decide for themselves?

We are interested in Children’s Books with Folk and Tribal Artists

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Alone in the Forest  by Gita Wolf, Andrea Anastasio and Bhajju Shyam.           A powerful exploration of the psychology of fear, this is the story of how a boy slowly overcomes what he is afraid of. Illustrated by the well-known Gond tribal artist Bhajju Shyam, the inspiration for this book came from Bhajju’s stories of his own childhood.

 Over a period of twenty years, we have created a set of children’s books with folk and tribal artists that, through stories and images, offer very different perspectives on the world. The themes are quite varied, ranging from the artists telling their own stories to collaborations with authors from other background. If there is one basic premise on which this list is based, it is that when the artist is not painting her own tale, she has freedom to interpret a different story or theme in the light of her own visual tradition. In this sense, she is also an ‘author’ of the text, and actively creating meaning. And this in turn means that she actually reverses the usual anthropological gaze. Folk and tribal communities are usually described by others, we rarely find them speaking for themselves. In making this possible, we imply that their skills and experiences are valuable, and worth preserving and passing on.

What do such voices bring to children’s literature? Exposing children to a variety of perspectives sounds simple, but is in fact one of the hardest things to achieve, particularly nowadays. Today, it feels like we have more choice than ever before but in reality much of it is really homogenous – popular books are marketed worldwide, television programmes are beamed across the globe, internet content is available everywhere…This gives us an illusion of unlimited choice, yet all these things often originate from quite similar – and fairly limited – sources. Seen another way, it is the market and the media which largely decides on what is put out and what is worth taking notice of. There are a handful of independent publishers around the world who dare to take the risk of publishing truly unconventional books, but it is a struggle to survive.

One way for us to bring in radically different worldviews is through working with folk and tribal artists. Their perspective is unlike anything any of us normally get to hear or see, so it is not just a question of replacing a white figure with a brown one. Indeed the challenge here is not to set them up as exotic outsiders, or as a niche. We’d like them to be seen as our contemporaries and equals, and that what they have to say is as relevant as all the other voices we listen to every day. When a book is successful, the reader actually identifies with the protagonist, and if that protagonist happens to be an individual who is normally ‘invisible’, or not part of the reader’s everyday experience, then the book has the potential to be transformative. In this case, universality need not be a global sameness, but more an empathy with those who are not like us. We think this realisation is as valuable to an urban middle class Indian child as it is to a youngster from an entirely different background.

And in a larger publishing sense, this mirrors the way we see ourselves: our content may have arisen mostly from within an Indian context, but we think a sizeable number of our books transcend their location to become accessible to readers everywhere. This is obviously not the case with every title – and we do need books that have a purely local flavour and relevance. But by and large, our success with selling rights to our books (we’ve collaborated with about eighty-seven publishers around the world to date) bears out the fact that we are not niche; but rather we are actively a part of international publishing. This is quite unusual in the history of Indian children’s literature as India has always tended to buy in more books than we send out.

What enables so many of Tara’s books to travel so widely? Apart from the universal values which inform them, an important factor would have to be the focus we place on contemporary design and careful production. Clearly, good design plays an important role in re-framing tradition for the modern reader. But there is another reason why design is fundamental to how we conceptualize our books. From the very beginning, one of our core members (who is a designer) has emphasized the idea that the function of design is not merely to embellish a book, but also to contribute to the way that meaning is created.

Exploring the idea of ‘designer as author’ has been an ongoing project for us, not only in order to render traditional art into a more contemporary idiom, but also as an undertaking in its own right. We’re keen on experimenting with typography and layout, and also on exploring radically different forms of the book, to push the boundaries of book design as we know it. This is also where we see ourselves as part of an international conversation.

9 Visit the Bhil Carnival_spread

Sample spread from Visit the Bhil Carnival.  Subhash Amaliyar with designers Catriona Maciver and Oliver Mayes showing innovative novelty elementsCombining the elements of a map, a puzzle, a pop-up, and a storybook, this interactive title is about a wonderful carnival called Bhagoria, celebrated by the Bhil people of central India every year


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The Enduring Ark

Joydeb Chitrakar, Gita Wolf.  This Indian version of the Biblical tale of the great flood is illustrated in the Bengal Patua style of scroll painting. Each flowing fold of the accordion takes the reader from a deluge of water to a rainbow of hope.

From the beginning, our publishing vision has always relied on dialogue. The process continues to be a very collaborative, and through the course of all our successes and failures, what we’ve always enjoyed are the scores of enriching conversations that we’ve had with people. We’ve learnt a lot along the way. Next season, we’re looking forward to a number of books in collaboration with young Japanese illustrators, and along with them, our quest continues to be an old one: what possibilities can we uncover in a world that is increasingly dominated by big business, much hype and the safety of homogeneity? We’re proud to be part of a small group of independent publishers across the world who continue to take the risk of this challenge.


Gita Wolf is a writer and publisher. She founded Tara Books in 1994.  Follow Tara Books on instagram @tara_books and on twitter @TaraBooks.  Their wonderful books are available from bookshops and amazon worldwide.


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



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.).