This Books for Keeps is mostly about picture books.
A lot of picture books have been published in the last twenty years but some stand head and shoulders above the rest. They are the work of the mould-breakers – artists who have taken the picture book form and given it such a shake that it can never be quite the same again. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (Bodley Head and Puffin) for example is not just a story with pictures. The design of the book is part of the story. Max makes his first mischief in framed pictures. As he is sent to bed and his fantasy takes over, the pictures flow out to the edges of the page and onto the next until the wild rumpus is a series of double spreads with no text in sight (the big test for readers aloud!) For his ‘return’ the process is reversed and the five final, reassuring words appear alone on a white page. Perfect.
In his ‘Shirley’ books (Come Away from the Water, Shirley and Time to Get out of the Bath, Shirley, Cape) John Burningham also makes the form of the book work as part of the story. Each opening of the book offers two pictures: on the left monochrome reality, on the right the highly-coloured world of Shirley’s imagination; and below is the text, the routine utterances of an automatic parent.
In this issue of Books for Keeps – our second picture book special – we have three mould-breakers, Shirley Hughes and Janet and Allan Ahlberg, whose creative talents in exploring what can be done with a book have given us Up and Up (Bodley Head), Each Peach Pear Plum (Kestrel) and Peepo! (Kestrel). The Ahlbergs (see Authorgraph, page 14) both get involved in designing their books. Allan, we discovered, also studied art during his teacher training and, he says, got the same marks as Janet. In the autumn comes their latest book The Baby’s Catalogue (Kestrel). They have taken the idea of the baby’s book, words and pictures of familiar things, and raised it to quite another level. Shirley Hughes’ new book is testing the limits of another form: the longer story for older children. In Here Comes Charlie Moon she started tentatively with black and white line drawings at the top of each page. Charlie Moon and the Big Bonanza Bust Up (Bodley Head) has drawings popping up all over the page and helping to tell the story. If any book can rid children of the prejudice that books with pictures are ‘babyish’, this is it. And it’s compulsory reading for anyone who has ever been involved in a Book Fair.
The story on the cover is completed in the two pictures on this page, from Moonlight.
Shirley Hughes (who writes about picture books on page 4) is one of the judges for the Mother Goose Award. The winner this year is Jan Ormerod for Sunshine (Kestrel) (see page 21). A glance at last May’s Books for Keeps will show you it was our tip for the award as soon as we saw it, and we didn’t change our mind; so it’s particularly pleasing to have Jan Ormerod’s second picture book. Moonlight (Kestrel) on our cover. Like Sunshine it is based on Jan’s family. Paul Ormerod says that if you bumped into the family you would have no difficulty recognising them, except that he has just shaved off his beard.
In one way both books are very much for younger children, and they have been published at a time when publishers seem to have decided that books for babies is the answer to cuts in spending in libraries and schools. But it would be a pity if they got dismissed as not for older children.
The best books often work at many levels. Sunshine, Moonlight, Peepo!, The Baby’s Catalogue, and Shirley Hughes’ Alfie books certainly do that. Whether as ways of telling stories, looking at families, or remembering babyhood with a nostalgic and slightly indulgent smile, these are rich sources for all ages.
A Royal Read
I first saw the artwork for Moonlight last year at the Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ Spring Conference where the first Children’s Book Award was presented. This year’s winner is Leon Garfield for Fair’s Fair (Macdonald), (see page 22), a story which children of all ages took to their hearts. The illustrator, Margaret Chamberlain, was delighted with the children’s comments about the pictures, especially as they are not being used in the American edition of the book – the publishers thought they were ‘too horrifying’. Comment from one very young Briton, ‘It’s nice to know people who look ugly can be kind.’ A good lesson perhaps for the royal baby who will have this book and the others in the Federation’s Top Ten on his or her royal bookshelf as a gift from the Federation.
News of yet another picture book, and more evidence that we were in good tipping form last May. Our cover featured Quentin Blake and Michael Rosen’s Can’t Catch Me (Deutsch) which we had seen and couldn’t wait to tell you about even though it wasn’t published till the autumn. We’ve just heard it has won the Signal Poetry Award. The judges, Margaret Meek and Peter Hunt praised it for being a book which has many levels and is approachable by a wide range of children. They feel it is also unusual in that the blend of pictures and text make it attractive to children who are not usually readers of poetry. There are no official runners-up in the award but Strictly Private, Roger McGough’s anthology (Kestrel and Puffin) was also commended.
Testing books out on children is not part of the Signal Award’s judges’ brief; but from the responses we’ve seen to these two books many children and young people would endorse their choice.
The award was, of course, initiated by Signal, which means by Aidan and Nancy Chambers, winners of this year’s Eleanor Farjeon Award (see page 28). We are delighted to tell you that Aidan will be writing in the next issue of Books for Keeps when we look at the American contribution to children’s books.
This issue celebrates picture books – and not a football in sight. So I’m not even going to mention Ladybird’s crude, comic-strip adventures of Naranjito (little orange, for non-Spanish speakers) the World Cup mascot. I can’t understand how a company that produces such very good information books and which has just done excellent biographies for children of Pope John-Paul and the Princess of Wales can publish such rubbish. Instead I’ll finish with a real master of the comic-strip, Raymond Briggs who since Father Christmas has been doing some determined mould-breaking. His latest book When the Wind Blows (published by Hamish Hamilton on the adult list 0 241 10721 0, £3.95) is a potent, tragically funny and thought-provoking statement about nuclear warfare. It should be in every secondary school, and lots of junior and middle ones too if the capable and informed discussion I often hear in them is anything to go by.
Here’s to survival – and lots more picture books to enjoy.