How fast the summer goes; a cliché but true! Now we face the activity of autumn, and there will be a spate of new books published demanding our attention. Many of these will be picture books which, in the UK, are almost always aimed at under-5s. Important though these undoubtedly are, it’s a shame that more aren’t published for older children; indeed there are so few that librarians and booksellers have real problems knowing where to put them on the shelves. Older children are so used to exciting visual material that a load of black letters on a white page can look daunting or dull; interesting illustrations can make books much more appealing to them. Illustrations can also really enhance texts. Lewis Carroll understood this: he insisted not only that Alice should be illustrated, but that Tenniel should be the illustrator.
I’ve become particularly aware of the importance of picture books – and in particular wordless picture books – recently, as an important tool to reach out to displaced children and young people, and help provide the emotional support then need. IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People) is supporting initiatives to help Syrian refugees and other children. On the island of Lampedusa there’s a holding camp for people crossing from Africa to Europe; IBBY Italia has pioneered the use of wordless picture books here. All the different national sections of IBBY have chosen and sent wordless books from their country, to make up a collection of a hundred Silent Books. These books truly can ‘reach the places, nothing else can reach’ since they can be used when language is a barrier. I’ve been involved in selecting books from the UK, and am very aware that there is a dearth of wordless books here. Of course, there are some outstanding examples, such as Shirley Hughes’s Up and Away, Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman and recently, Alison Jay’s Out of the Blue, but there are very few when compared to other countries. The Silent Books in the IBBY collection are examples of outstanding illustration showing a real diversity of style, approach, subject matter and ideas. They are books that can open doors, and that would surely be useful in classrooms throughout the country – however almost all of them will be unfamiliar to people in the UK.
However, there are signs that interest is growing among UK publishers for picture books for older children. I have just returned from Bratislava where I visited the exhibition of works submitted for the BIB – the Biennale of Illustrations, Bratislava. This is one of the oldest international awards for children’s book illustrators, and provides the opportunity to see illustrators from countries as diverse as Mongolia and Sweden, Peru and Lebanon. It’s not frantic, like the international book fairs, but is instead a wonderful place to wander and look. Twelve UK illustrators were displayed and two of them won awards for their illustrations for older picture books: Levi Pinfold won a Plaque for his illustrations for Black Dog, while Laura Carlin won the Grand Prix, the highest award, for her illustrations for Ted Hughes’s The Iron Man. The last time the UK received such an honour was in 1995 when John Rowe was the Grand Prix winner. We have cause for celebration! The next Biennale will be in 2017. Bratislava is a lovely city to visit; I am already packing my bags.