Wendy Cooling on new talent in children’s books
The wealth of children’s writers and illustrators currently at work is one good reason not to be constrained by those `Lists’ but instead to give children access to the widest possible range of books. Our aim is surely to encourage children to develop their own taste in reading and to hope that they will choose to read the best of the new books as well as the best of the old.
So what is the best?
Different for all of us perhaps, but one element I’m looking for is what Margaret Mahy would call `astonishment’. I hope all the books mentioned have something in them that will astonish the young reader – will give them a moment to sit up and think `WOW!’. The writers and illustrators I’ve chosen are all developing in interesting ways and have all been enthused about by young readers – they’ve all been picked by me and at least one child.
Helen Cooper has been writing and illustrating children’s books since 1986, but I first took real notice of her work when I saw her magical illustrations in Saviour Pirotta’s Soloman’s Secret. 1993 was a good year for Helen as she had three books published, books that really show us an extraordinary artist and storyteller developing. In Chestnut Grey she re-tells and illustrates a Russian folktale in which a supernatural horse enables a poor boy to win the hand of a princess. We’ve heard the story before, but this is a very fresh interpretation as the story is told in simple and effective language and illustrated with elegance. She uses space and colour well and the result is a well-designed, whole book.
The Bear Under the Stairs looks at childhood fear in an imaginative way – it was shortlisted for the Smarties Prize. William is afraid of bears, especially the one that lives in the cupboard under the stairs. He tries to keep the bear happy by throwing in food whenever he passes -‘He fed it bananas, bacon and bread. He fed it hazelnuts, haddock and honey …’Soon bad smells drift under the cupboard door and William and his mum investigate. They find the rotting food, but no bear. The rather gentle pictures tell a different story – we see a bear arriving, exploring the house, hiding from the family and in the end packing up and leaving when the food supply is withdrawn. This rather beautiful book is a delight to read with under-5s who have so many questions to ask, questions that can’t be answered, for, who knows, is it all in William’s imagination or does the shadowy bear really take up residence?
Helen’s illustrations are even more inventive in The House Cat as she shows the cat making two great and contrasting journeys. The first journey is shown through the eyes of the cat peering through a hole he’s scratched in his travelling box – he remembers it all ready for the journey back – alone. I loved the return journey across the tops of cars, by raft and rope across the river, up a tree and home! Helen Cooper uses the page in exciting ways to express mood and movement and has produced a book to delight cat lovers, children and adults alike. What I wonder will 1994 bring?
Korky Paul’s contribution to children’s books is very exciting – he’s not a newcomer but does he really get the attention he deserves? His work is crammed with humour and details, it’s lively, full of movement and forces the reader to turn the page. Winnie the Witch, published in 1987, won The Children’s Book Award and has become a classic. It’s clearly a huge hit for I often see children in primary schools drawing witches with orange and yellow striped legs. Both illustrations and story are hugely memorable.
In Captain Teachum’s Buried Treasure, shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal, he uses the pages imaginatively and creates a fantastic pirate character, surpassed only by `Mrs Pirate’ who is really in charge and makes the wickedest pirate in the world do the washing-up. The Fish Who Could Wish is even more wonderful with amazing underwater scenes really supporting the rhythmic text in which wishes, as always, are badly used. The poetry books Korky Paul has produced in partnership with John Foster are surely a must for all primary classrooms – the illustrations match and extend the poems rather than just decorating the pages. My favourite is Dragon Poems – it’s full of dragons of real character, all colours, shapes and sizes and in all sorts of situations. The stunning page of ice dragons reflects the power and range of the artist’s imagination. Incidentally, these books are extremely good value at under £3.00.
I loved the female scientist in Professor Puffendorf s Secret and the colour and detail in the pictures of her laboratory are mind-boggling for young readers. Last year Korky Paul again made the Greenaway shortlist with The Dog That Dug, a book that looks sensational from cover to cover – including end-papers – and where the illustrations bring the rhyming text to life. Dare I go on about Sanji and the Baker, a tale of wisdom in which Sanji is taken to court, accused of stealing the Baker’s smells – the artwork is so evocative that I could smell the fresh bread, the cinnamon buns, the sesame biscuits and the date nut loaves!
Sonia Holleyman’s Mona is loved and laughed at by readers of 5+. Mona the Vampire came first and was followed by Mona the Hairdresser and Mona the Champion. Mona, a crazy, cartoon character, is never short of an answer – she needs money for a new bicycle so she sets up in business as a hairdresser, with disastrous results, of course. The preparations, Mona in her hairdressing clothes and the hairstyles she gives her clients are hilarious. In Mona the Champion she takes her cat, Fang, and her shark fin to the swimming pool which amazingly is soon empty and perfect to swim in. These mad and lively illustrations are adored by children and the books have wide appeal, even to the most reluctant readers.
I particularly like Sonia’s illustrations in Humphrey Carpenter’s What Did You Do at School Today? – they cleverly reveal the difference in the thinking of children and adults. The Frankenstein family and the human friend created to illustrate Tony Bradman’s Frankie Meets a Friend are very popular with children as the young Frankie gets what he wants in the end.
A cockerel falls in love with a beautiful chicken in Tanya the Chicken, which Sonia Holleyman both wrote and illustrated. He has to rescue her in a flying machine built by his farmyard friends. The book is a first reader in which the story is well-told and the large black-and-white drawings support and divide the text into manageable chunks. It’s good to see this artist branching out in her work so successfully.
It was Nick Sharratt who gave Jacqueline Wilson’s wonderfully readable books – The Story of Tracy Beaker, The Suitcase Kid, The Mum-Minder and The Bed and Breakfast Star – their own distinctive `look’. His illustration is exactly right -just enough to help newish readers along, yet giving them space to imagine so much for themselves – excellent book design, I think.
In partnership with Jill Bennett, he’s produced Machine Poems, People Poems, Tasty Poems and Noisy Poems – bright and exciting combinations of poems and pictures that really do switch young readers on to poetry. The illustrations are full of variety and humour – look for Uncle Paul of Pimlico’s cats, the ‘Yickety-yaks’, the thunderstorm and the ladies dressed for winter weather. Don’t share Tasty Poems with a 6-year-old who’s just beginning to read unless you have time to go through the book five or six times, allowing for a little finger to follow the straw from chocolate milk to mouth, to count the snow-cones the octopus has in its tentacles and to describe the taste of a mango.
As well as illustrating, Nick is now writing. In Don’t Put Your Finger in the-Jelly, Nelly! he uses photographs for the first time in his work. The resulting book invites children to put their fingers into all sorts of foods with surprising results. Coming this month is Ketchup on Your Cornflakes? which looks like being very tasty – clearly, as he admits, eating is his `favourite pastime’.
I first came across Malorie Blackman’s writing in School Tales, a book of short stories by young women. Hers is the final story, `Child’s Play’, a tale of bullying, revenge and murder; it’s tightly constructed, shocking and completely unexpected. Here I thought was a writer with ideas, ideas that needed bravery if they were to be used in children’s stories. `Child’s Play’ was published in 1990 and Malorie Blackman has since given up her job in computing, become a full-time writer and written successfully for a range of age groups.
Her Betsey Biggalow stories, set in the Caribbean, are for children newly confident in their reading and they’re a delight – the books look enticing and the stories are fun, moving and very real. In Betsey Biggalow is Here!, the story of Betsey’s longing for a special, and expensive, pair of trainers reflects an understanding, or a clear .memory, of how children think. These are stories for 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds to fight over.
Then there are her books like Hacker and Operation Gadgetman! for the next age group. Hacker is a thrilling detective novel in which Vicky’s passion for computers plays a central part. It’s not just an exciting thriller, for it touches on issues of family relationships, adoption, colour and self-image in a thoughtful, non-preachy way – it’s a most satisfying read on many levels. In Operation Gadgetman!, Beatrice, known to all but her teachers as Beans, is the central character. Her father, an inventor who seldom gets things right the first time, is kidnapped for the plans of his latest invention and so it’s Beans to the rescue! A good story, full of humour and excitement that’s sure to turn lots of young readers on to books.
Malorie has also written short stories for teenagers as in Not So Stupid!, again full of original ideas, and Trust Me, a novel for young adults. I do wonder what this talented writer will produce next.
The four published novels of Melvin Burgess deal with difficult subjects – hunting, witches and homelessness – and do not end comfortably, but they do all reveal a very skilled storyteller. The Cry of the Wolf (which has one of the best covers ever) and An Angel for May were shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and surely the quality and power of his writing must bring him an award one day.
Burning Issy, set in Lancashire during the witch hunts of the seventeenth-century and strongly rooted in fact, is for me his most powerful novel. Issy, badly burnt as a baby, is taken in by the kindly Nat and brought up with love, but her past is a part of her that has to be faced and that involves her in witchcraft both good and evil. The author vividly describes a time when men talked about God but were taken over by their fear of the devil.
His latest novel, The Baby and Fly Pie, is set in the world of the homeless where children need the protection of the `Mothers’ they scavenge for if they’re to have any security. Three of Mother Shelly’s children find a dying gunman and a kidnapped baby and see a chance to escape to a better world – if they can only return the baby and claim the reward, they’ll be able to leave Mother Shelly, the dump and the city. Sadly, their problems follow them and there’s no fairytale ending to this compulsive and harrowing book. How I wanted things to work out for the children, but this writer involves the reader, plays havoc with the emotions and is certainly not about cosy endings.
Robert Swindells wrote: `I’m a Stephen King fan and Chris Westwood comes as close to matching the Master as any writer I know.’ Now I had to read Stephen King when students of mine, usually those reluctant to read, chose to write their GCSE Open Studies on horror books – I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. Chris Westwood I read willingly, but admit that his most recent novel, Brother of Mine, to do with the horror that can build up in a real relationship rather than with haunting, murder or possession, is for me by far his best book. Readers of 12+ won’t all agree with me and will find the suspense and horror of Calling All Monsters, A Light in the Black and Personal Effects chilling and compulsive. The writing is powerful and the plots original and well-sustained as the books rush to sometimes shocking endings – as in Calling All Monsters.
For me Brother of Mine really demonstrates how much Chris Westwood has developed as a writer as he explores the relationship of twin brothers, trapped by their similarity and by their differences into a hatred of each – other. When Tony meets Nick’s girlfriend and allows her to believe he’s his brother, the hatred grows and Nick looks for revenge. Alternate chapters tell the story from both points of view and at times, like Alex and Vicky, I found it hard not to confuse the two. This is a well-shaped novel, shockingly realistic and very disturbing; its high quality offers promise of even better to come.
1993 saw the arrival of three exceptional new writers for readers of 10+. Pat Moon gave us two books and Double Image, her first book for older readers, was shortlisted for the Smarties Prize. The central character, David, goes reluctantly to stay with his grandad after his nan’s death and the discovery of an old photograph leads him to investigate a long-kept family secret. The past, not talked about for years, is suddenly faced and the family are able to laugh and cry together again. It’s fast-paced and I couldn’t put the book down. Pat Moon’s development of character is strong, particularly in the growing relationship between David and his grandad.
The second novel, The Spying Game, is of the same high standard and reflects a real knowledge and understanding of young people. 11-year-old Joe is hurt and angry; his dad has been killed in a road accident and somebody must pay. Talking is impossible and Joe alone decides that the other driver involved has ‘murdered’ his dad and must be punished. Joe begins to persecute the Moss family cruelly and things really get out of hand when he starts a new school and finds Alex Moss is in his class. Joe slowly faces the truth of the situation, understands the results of his own dreadful behaviour and so begins to cope with big issues and with simply growing up. Pat Moon provides gripping reads and really gets into the minds of her totally convincing characters.
Sylvia Waugh’s first novel, The Mennyms, is very different and certainly not rooted in reality. It’s a book that demands a strong response; you’ll love it … or hate it! I loved it as I was immediately intrigued and captivated by the imaginative leap of the writer. The devoted Mennym family have lived at No 5 Brocklehurst Grove for over 40 years. They’re life-size rag dolls who ‘came out of their silence and methodically took over the house’ when the old lady who made them died. An unexpected letter from Albert Pond, their Australian landlord, proposes a visit and life at No 5 is never quite calm again. Read it now if you haven’t already and join in the argument. I’m eagerly awaiting Mennymns in the Wilderness promised for July this year.
There’s a lot to celebrate in the world of children’s books but I can’t think of anything more worth celebrating than the publication of Someone Came Knocking by Anne Merrick. She tells the story of Tod, a boy cruelly treated and abused by the man he supposes to be his father, and the journey he takes to regain his memory and his home. Tod’s companion is Mint, a doll with forget-me-not blue eyes and a red bow of a mouth, made as a Guy to earn him some money for the journey: Mim seems to speak to Tod, to somehow prompt his memory with scraps of old rhymes and songs and so help him as he travels ‘over the hills and far away’. Anne Merrick is a wonderful storyteller and has given the book a touch of magic that makes the incredible events of the journey seem credible. She forces the reader to care about the characters and uses all the elements of the traditional story to move the novel to a most satisfying ending. This really is a very special book from an exciting new writer and I give the last word to an 11-year-old girl living a life full of problems who talked to me after reading Someone Came Knocking and said: ‘That Tod, is he real? I didn’t know other people forgot things they didn’t want to remember.’
[Ed’s note: Two of the books mentioned here are included in our paperback review pages – see The Dog That Dug, page 9, and Burning Issy, page 12.]
Betsey Biggalow is Here!, Piccadilly, 185340 172 2,£6.99; Mammoth, 0 7497 14211, £2.99 pbk
‘Child’s Play’ in School Tales, ed. Jill Dawson, Livewire, 0 7043 4922 1, £3.99 pbk
Hacker, Doubleday, 0 385 40278 3, £8.99; Corgi, 0 552 527513, £2.99 pbk
Not So Stupid!, Livewire, 0 7043 4924 8, £3.50 pbk
Operation Gadgetman!, Doubleday, 0 385 40337 2, £8.99
Trust Me, Livewire, 0 7043 49310, £3.99 pbk
(from Andersen unless stated)
An Angel for May, 0 86264 398 8, £8.99
The Baby and Fly Pie, 0 86264 4615, £9.99
Burning Issy, 0 86264 3813, £7.99; Knight, 0 340 59024 6, £3.50 pbk
The Cry of the Wolf, 0 86264 308 2, £6.99; Plus, 014 034459 4, £3.50 pbk
The Bear Under the Stairs, Doubleday, 0 385 40210 4, £8.99
Chestnut Grey, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0725 9, £7.99
The House Cat, Scholastic, 0 590 54117 X, £8.99
Soloman’s Secret, Saviour Pirotta, Mammoth, 0 7497 0934 0, £3.50 pbk
(Orchard unless stated)
Frankie Makes a Friend, Tony Bradman, Andersen, 0 86264 378 3, £6.50; 0 86264 420 8, £2.99 pbk
Mona the Champion, 185213 549 2, £7.99; Mona the Hairdresser, 185213 305 8, £7.99; 185213 499 2, £3.50 pbk; Mona the Vampire, 1 85213 240 X, £7.95; 185213 328 7, £2.99 pbk
Tanya the Chicken, 185213 239 6, £5.99
What Did You Do at School Today?, Humphrey Carpenter, 185213 388 0, £7.99; 185213 5212, 0.50 pbk
Someone Came Knocking, Spindlewood, 0 907349 32, £9.95
Double Image, 185213 496 8, £8.99; 185213 7615, £3.50 pbk
The Spying Game, 185213 623 5, £8.99; 185213 624 3, £4.99 pbk
(Oxford unless stated)
Captain Teachum’s Buried Treasure, with Peter Carter, 0 19 272230 1, £2.95 pbk
The Dog That Dug, with Jonathan Long, Bodley Head, 0 370 31652 5, £7.99; Red Fox, 0 09 998610 8 £3.99 pbk
Dragon Poems, with John Foster, 0 19 276108 0, £2.99 pbk
The Fish Who Could Wish, with John Bush, 0 19 272240 9, £2.95 pbk
Professor Puffendorf s Secret Potions, with Robin Tzannes, 0 19 279925 8, £6.95; 019 272261 1, £2.95 pbk
Sanji and the Baker, with Robin Tzannes, 019 279960 6, £6.99
Winnie the Witch, with Valerie Thomas, 0 19 279847 2, £6.95; 019 272197 6, £2.99 pbk
Don’t Put Your Finger in the Jelly, Nelly!, Scholastic, 0 590 54085 8, £7.99
Ketchup on Your Cornflakes?, Scholastic, 0 590 54151 X, £6.99
With Jill Bennett, from Oxford:
Machine Poems, 0 19 276114 5, £2.50 pbk; Noisy Poems, 0 19 278219 3, £2.50 pbk;
People Poems, 0 19 276086 6, £4,95; 0 19 276110 2, £2.50 pbk; Tasty Poems, 019 276109 9, £4.95; 019 276133 1, £2.50 pbk
With Jacqueline Wilson, from Doubleday:
The Bed and Breakfast Star, 0 385 403216, £8.99; The Mum-Minder, 0 385 403216, £8.99; The Story of Tracy Beaker, 0 385 400756, £8.99; Yearling, 0 440 86279 5, £2.99; The Suitcase Kid, 0 385 401752, £8.99; Yearling, 0 440 863112, £2.99 pbk
The Mennyms, Julia MacRae, 1 85681 208 1, £8.99
(Viking hbks, Puffin pbks)
Brother of Mine, 0 670 84770 4, £7.50
Calling All Monsters, 0 14 0344217, £3.99 pbk
A Light in the Black, 0 670 82726 6, £5.99; 014 034075 0, £3.99 pbk
Personal Effects, 0 670 38799 1, £6.99; 0 14 034759 3, £3.99 pbk
Wendy Cooling is now working freelance on consultancies and in-service work. Before that she taught for 20 years in London schools and was, for all too short a spell in BfK’s view, Head of the Children’s Book Foundation.