Lots of tall tales for small people
With the annual Children's Book Festival taking place throughout the month, we look at what it takes for a modern author to really connect with young readers
During the month of October, the 20th anniversary of the Children's Book Festival will be marked across the country, with a number of events and activities running in libraries, schools and arts centres to celebrate the best in contemporary children's books, authors and illustrators. There is, undeniably, a lot to celebrate.
Developing a love for books as a child is something very special. The characters we discover when we are young feed our imagination, inspire us, scare us and excite us in equal parts. No wonder then that the tales of immortal characters like Tigger and Pooh, Alice and the Mad Hatter, Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, are passed on from generation to generation.
The fact that these stories unfalteringly endure in a world unrecognisable from those our literary heroes inhabit is testament to the sheer brilliance of the writing and illustration in these timeless classics.
However, while many of the books from our childhood refuse to age or be surpassed, others haven't stood the test of time as well. Take, for example, Enid Blyton's The Famous Five or The Faraway Tree series whose words, phrases and social references are glaringly outdated in the politically correct, diverse world our children live in.
So much so, that new editions are being produced to update out-of-touch phrases such as "awful swotter", "house mistress" and "dirty tinker".
Irish author Bob Burke, whose 'Third Pig Detective Agency' was awarded the Eilis Dillon Award in the 2010 Bisto Children's Books Awards, offers his view on the 'old school' books from his childhood.
"It's interesting to look back on the books I read as a child all those centuries ago and realise that, with the honourable exception of Roald Dahl, much of the writing was patronising and written by adults with no inkling of how children thought."
He attributes the success of modern writers to providing great stories "without being afraid to credit younger readers with intelligence and address the issues that children face in a way that's relevant, accessible and doesn't adopt preachy or moralising overtones".
In recent years, a breadth of new writing talent has emerged, creating characters that have captured the imagination of the more astute children of Generation Y. Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl, Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant and, of course, JK Rowling's Harry Potter are just some of the famous names of contemporary children's fiction.
Reassuringly, the more 'unsavoury' characters remain as popular as ever among children, with Andy Stanton's evil Mr Gum a firm, nasty favourite!
For younger readers, there cannot be many parents who haven't read the words, "Oh help! Oh no! It's a gruffalo!" Written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, 'The Gruffalo' is a true modern classic and tops 'favourites' lists time and again.
Julia Donaldson began her career writing songs for the BBC. "Then an editor got in touch with me saying that one of my songs -- 'A Squash and a Squeeze' -- would make a picture book," says Donaldson.
"'A Squash and a Squeeze' was based on a traditional tale. I then had confusing advice from different editors -- one said 'don't do another traditional tale and don't do it in rhyme' and another said 'do something based on a traditional tale and do it in rhyme.'"
The story of 'The Gruffalo', says Donaldson, was loosely based on an old Chinese traditional tale.
"At first the main character was going to be a tiger, but when nothing seemed to rhyme with tiger I created 'The Gruffalo', which has lots of rhymes."
The success of Donaldson's books is in no small part down to the memorable artwork of Axel Scheffler. "It was the publisher who put Axel and I together. He was their third choice, so I am absolutely delighted numbers one and two fell out!
"Illustrations are so important in picture books. The parent is concentrating on the words when they are reading, but the child is always looking at the pictures as that is something they can do for themselves."
When it comes to creating her books, the development stage is just as important as the writing itself.
"Every picture book takes ages to gestate in my mind and for the story to be worked out. Some never see the light of day. The actual writing takes a number of weeks."
Donaldson sees a simple reason for the lasting success of her type of literature. "I think picture books for younger children are quite universal because they're often based on folklore or fable."
Award-winning UK author and illustrator Mini Grey (whose 'The Adventures of The Dish and the Spoon' has been deemed one of the best books for children aged between five and seven), explains the importance of illustration in engaging children in books.
"In picture books, words and pictures are a fantastic double act, each doing a different job, maybe even telling a different story -- but you need both of them to have the whole story.
"Even the very youngest people are expert readers of pictures, but there are still things your own imagination has to fill in as you turn the pages, so the reader is a vital collaborator in telling the story."
The 2010 Children's Book Festival will have a strong focus on illustration, providing an opportunity to showcase some of Ireland's own talent in producing excellent children's picture books.
"Ireland has, for many years, boasted some of the most talented and internationally successful children's authors and illustrators. Many people will be familiar with the book 'Guess How Much I Love You' but may not be aware that it was written and illustrated by Irish duo, Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram," says Conor Hackett, Walker Books' Irish agent.
He also highlights a number of emerging Irish talents, such as Chris Haughton, whose book 'A Bit Lost' has received high praise and won gold at the Association of Illustrators annual awards recently.
"Illustration and particularly picture book illustration is a very exciting area now," Chris says. "Although we were always well known for our literary output, Ireland was never a country known for illustration or design. That has really turned around in the last few years."
Technology is inevitably having an impact on the way in which children's books are created. Kevin Waldron, who designed the artwork for the festival and collaborated with former UK poet-laureate Michael Rosen for 'Tiny Little Fly', has embraced technology in his work.
"The computer is a marvellous tool for creating smooth shapes with flat colours, excellent for communicating with a young audience."
He notes that a general acceptance of technology has only occurred relatively recently.
"I only started showing my portfolio around the publishing houses in London five years ago, and noticed a reluctance to use illustrators who worked with computers. There have since been so many such books with mass appeal that it's not an issue any more."
So, whether you are a die-hard fan of an old classic or have recently found a new family favourite, there are many reasons to join in the Children's Book Festival events, and celebrate all that is wonderful and captivating about children's books.
- 'Tiny Little Fly' by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Kevin Waldron, is published by Walker Books.
Kevin's first title, 'Mr Peek and the Misunderstanding at the Zoo' will be the featured bedtime story on children's TV channel CBeebies on Oct 22
- 'The Story of Britain', a history book by Patrick Dillon, illustrated by PJ Lynch, is published by Walker Books.
- Bob Burke's second title 'The Ho Ho Ho Mystery' is available from Oct 28