Spring, it seems has finally sprung; and a sun-filled Easter provides exactly the right background for writing about this BfK Picture Book Special. Fingers crossed that the sky is still as blue when you read this in May. We could certainly do with some relief from the current gloomy educational outlook. Good picture books give a lift to everyone’s spirits and there are lots in this issue. Among other things we are celebrating the source of a steady ten year stream of heart-warming titles from Fontana Picture Lions. Rosemary Sandberg who started the Lions lists is a talented and exciting editor who has had a real impact on children’s paperback publishing. As a publisher and as a person she is committed to making it possible for children to discover the pleasures of books and reading, and to getting good books to more children. Helping teachers to find out about books, Rosemary believes, is one of the best ways to achieve this and for several years now she has served on the board of the School Bookshop Association. We invited her to talk to us about Picture Lions (p. 8). By a nice coincidence we discovered that this autumn Picture Lions are publishing the first Ron Maris paperback – the delightful Better Move on Frog. (Barbara Jones writes about Ron Maris and Reg Cartwright on p. 24.) And Rosemary has also just secured the paperback rights to Tony Ross’ Towser (p. 28), although it will be a while before the books appear as Picture Lions.
Shirley picks Patrick
One of Picture Lions’ `birthday’ books is Alfie’s Feet (another story about the small boy who had such a successful debut in Alfie Gets in First) by Shirley Hughes, the very special subject of this issue’s Authorgraph (p. 14). Everyone loves Shirley Hughes. Rosemary Sandberg sums up all our feelings: `She has everything as far as I’m concerned and a humanity such as is rarely found in any kind of writing. Her own spirit, her joy, her involvement and enthusiasm come out in every line she draws and every word she writes.’
As one of her many contributions to children’s books outside her own work Shirley is a judge for the Mother Goose Award (Chris Powling reports on p. 10). The little man making shadow plays on our cover is Hob, as drawn by Patrick Benson, this year’s Mother Goose winner. This is how Hob appears on the endpapers of four books of stories about him, written by William Mayne (Walker Books). Here is some of the best writing this year too: quirky, resonant, funny, observant. Each of these small, square books contains five stories of Hob, the house spirit, who lives in his cutch – or cupboard in the stairs – and watches over the family – the children can see him, the parents can’t. Pictures and text are in complete harmony in this beautifully designed series which is very collectable.
News of other awards (p. 10-12), includes the FCBG’s Children’s Book Award in which children have a say. The Book Marketing Council’s latest promotion also gives children a voice (see News p. 23).
It’s interesting that of the hardbacks they chose seven are pop-ups (no sign of a decline there!): six are non-fiction, and there’s not a single novel among them. Are stories now exclusively associated with paperbacks among children? And hardbacks with information and novelty books? Most of the stories that figure have high profile already from TV (Grange Hill and Marmalade Atkins) or word of mouth (Supergran and The Twits). Confirmation also that children pass up the new (The Witches) for the familiar (The Twits) even when the author is as well-known as Dahl – conservative readers, children. I can’t help wondering on what basis they made their choice. How different would it have been. say, if they had had to part with their own money for the books: or if they had known the books would really be their own for keeps?
It’s clear that not all of the children had read all of the books and it’s likely that the least read would be the longer stories. Even if some stories were much enjoyed by some children they would not appear in the voting – to get to the top in this system you have to appeal across a wide range and it’s not in the nature of most longer novels to do that. This result shows once more how crucial the right kind of adult intervention is in helping children to extend the range of their reading beyond the familiar and immediately attractive, especially where longer and more demanding stories are concerned. This promotion may sell more books; it’s not likely to do much for children’s reading.
Of more use to teachers thinking about how to spend a meagre book allowance (apart from Books for Keeps that is) are the second editions of The Good Book Guide to Children’s Books (Penguin, 0 14 00.7134 2, £3.50) – tried and tested favourites with some updating from last year’s publishing: and The Signal Review 2 (The Thimble Press. 0 903355 14 0, £4.50) – selections from 1983 which its editor, Nancy Chambers, refers to as ‘not a set of definitive judgements, but an informal discussion document’. Very useful.
Those hoping to get children going with stories might well consider £3.45 for a cassette of Maureen Lipman reading Jill Tomlinson’s The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark money well spent. It is an excellent performance: one hour and ten minutes of complete and unabridged delight. Cover to Cover, the company which produces the tapes is the brain child of Helen Nicoll (see p. 21) who as well as being a joint creator of Meg and Mog is dedicated to putting stories and novels on tape – unabridged. Children’s stories form o small but significant part of what is so far available and if the rest are as good as the one we tested they should be in every classroom and library that values listening and stories.
A Need for Talk
Another candidate for school-wide coverage is the latest from Dr Seuss (Dr Theodor Geisel who celebrated his 80th birthday in April). The Butter Battle Book (Collins, 0 00 195006 1, £2.95 pbk) is not the first of Dr Seuss’ books with a `message’: but it is he thinks, his most important. With his customary swinging rhymes and inventive vocabulary he tells the tale of the Yooks (who eat their bread butter side up) and the Zooks (deviant butter-side-downers) who threaten each other with an increasingly destructive series of weird and wonderful war machines. On the last page one Yook and one Zook face each other angrily, each clutching the ultimate weapon – the Big-Boy Boomeroo. Who will drop it? `We’ll see. We will see . . .’. The End, but, Dr Geisel hopes, `a starting point for the discussion that must take place between adults and children on this crucial subject.’ Children have a right to be involved – it’s their future. This book reminds adults of that.
Also out, at last, and on the same theme is Robert Swindell’s Brother in the Land (OUP, 0 19 271491 0, £5.95) which we wrote about last September. The end of this story is without hope: the result for the older readers of this book, is to make discussion equally urgent.
There is so much to love, so much to learn, so much to lose: good picture books can show us that too, at any age. We are lucky to have so many.