30 June 2010

Top 10 British Children's Authors and Books--MY version of the list

I came across a blog post this afternoon (thank you Mitali Perkins) on the site Anglotopia.net (my kind of blog!) listing the Top 10 British Children's Authors and Books. The article, which was posted by a guest blogger, lists "the most popular British children’s authors and their books which have captured the hearts of children (and adults) the world over." I couldn't find fault with the list; every author is indeed beloved, every book a classic--this list is Canon with a capital 'C'. And yet, I found the list to be predictable to the extreme. I guess that's to be expected with something which lists the most popular of its kind. But there was something in its predictability which lacked creativity. Without data to back up the list--such as book sales, or library borrowing statistics--it just seemed to be a catalog of the best-known English writers (and I say English, because Britain is not well represented by this list; Roald Dahl was born in Wales, and C.S. Lewis in Belfast, but that's it. And Francesca Simon, the author of the Horrid Henry series, is in fact American.)

But what bothered me the most with the list was the complete lack of picture book authors. But have no fear--I have remedied that! England (sorry--but my list will also be guilty of an English bias) has produced some of the most innovative, prolific and--according to the borrowing habits of at least the library where I work--popular writers for children.

So, I present to you, in no particular order, my list of 10 of the Greatest British Children's Authors and Books. You may recognize several of the authors. And those you don't already know, I'm so glad to introduce them to you!

1. Allan Ahlberg

Allan Ahlberg, along with his late wife, illustrator Janet Ahlberg, will probably be best remembered for The Jolly Postman, a whimsical journey through a nursery rhyme landscape, via the letters the famous characters write to each other; letters which the reader can handle for themselves in one of the sweetest interactive books going. But for me, their tour-de-force is The Baby's Catalogue, which perfectly captures all of the joys and agonies of a baby's new life--not to mention the life of a new parent--through a catalog of moments and paraphernalia. The book was later organized by topic and published as a series of board books which were just perfect for the little hands of the youngest readers (this is a case where that over-used phrase is just right!)

2. Raymond Briggs
It has always struck me as odd that The Snowman is such a beloved book despite it's downbeat ending. Unlike Frosty, who scampers off before he can melt, with the promise to "be back again some day." there is no such protection for the eponymous character of this Christmas classic. He melts! The little boy is heartbroken! End of story! And yet, beloved it is. All credit to Raymond Briggs' gentle storytelling and captivating illustrations for putting so much joy into a bummer of a holiday tale. Check out his Father Christmas for a cheerier story, although I use the word "cheery" with a caveat; this is no jolly elf. Brigg's Santa is a working class fellow with plenty to grumble about, not least of which is having to get up at an ungodly hour to complete his Christmas Eve mission. Yet it is wholly original and full of charm.

3. John Burningham
If Roald Dahl wrote picture books, I think they would be a lot like the books of John Burningham. His is a world where the adults don't always "get" the children. It's probably because they are already grown-up and have lost sight of the magic and honesty of a child's world. Burningham's Mr. Gumpy's Outing, a cumulative tale which starts with a warning and ends with a picnic, was listed by children's literature guru Anita Silvey as a must-have book. My personal favorite is John Patrick Norman McHennessy, the Boy Who was Always Late, a book which I was so happy to see return to print in 2008.

Note: I had the chance to meet John Burningham about a month ago, at the 2010 Boston Globe Horn Book Awards Ceremony (and I got myself an autographed copy of JPNHtBWwAL to boot.) What a thrill!He was exactly as I imagined him to be--curmudgeonly and cuddly all in one droll package.

4. Helen Oxenbury
Here's an author who perfectly straddles entry number 3 (her husband) and entry number 4 (an author with whom she created a masterpiece.) Perhaps best known as an illustrator, Oxenbury has written a series of books telling the everyday stories in the life of Tom and Pippo, a little boy and his sock monkey. Their "everychild" adventures are comforting in their familiarity. Oxenbury has repeated the formula of infant and toddler experiences in a series of board books.

5. Michael Rosen
Poet, author, and former UK Children's Laureate (2007--2009)--despite all these accomplishments, Michael Rosen will forever be associated with possibly the greatest story-time read-a-loud out there: We're Going on a Bear Hunt. Sublimely illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, this is the definitive version of the rhyme. 'Nuff said.

6. Graham Oakley
I'm on record rhapsodizing about Oakley's Church Mice series, so I won't go on about it at length; regular readers of this blog are well familiar with my feelings on the subject (new visitors can read it all here, here, and here.) 

7. Julia Donaldson
A quick perusal of the current Amazon.co.uk Children's Bestsellers lists shows no less than 5 Julia Donaldson books in the top 25, tucked in between the Twilight and other vampire novels. Spawning a sequel and a tv series--not to mention numerous tie-in toys--The Gruffalo, published in 1999 has been ensconced in the top 10 since it's publication and shows no sign of waning in popularity. Just like We're Going on a Bear Hunt, it's a fantastic read-aloud. Donaldson's longtime collaboration with illustrator Axel Scheffler looks set to become as long-lasting and indivisible as Dahl/Blake. Check out Room on the Broom, a Halloween treat.

Note: The Gruffalo was recently the subject of a BBC article trying to decipher its enormous appeal.

8. Shirley Hughes
Shirley Hughes' Alfie books are synonymous with childhood experiences; the types grown-ups might take for granted but that are monumental in the life of a child. Even when the experience is unpleasant, such as getting accidentally locked inside the house alone, or trying to comfort a neighbor grieving the loss of a pet, Alfie's world is one of patience and understanding and quiet times spent with his little sister, Annie Rose.

9. Anthony Browne
The current UK Children's Laureate is the writer and illustrator of numerous picture books, a format he defends fiercely. Many of his books feature gorillas; all feature a magical realism that is reminiscent of the works of Chris Van Allsburg. Eye-catching, and sometimes eye-popping, illustrations dominate his books, opening the reader's eyes to the wonder of our world and the power of a picture. Two of my favorites are Gorilla and The Piggy Book.

10. Dick King-Smith
I'm rounding off my list with an author who is not known for his picture books (I think the only one he has written is a non-fiction guide to keeping guinea pigs.) But he is an author who was a glaring oversight from the original list. He is everything that is required from a writer for children--he's written loads of books, he is beloved by children and adults alike, and he respects his readers. A farmer at heart, he has based many of his books in the barnyard. The "animal story"is a classic of children's literature, whether used as allegory or simpel literary device. And Dick King-Smith has written some of the best. He earned international acclaim when his Babe: The Sheep Pig was made into an Oscar-nominated film. But before that there was The Fox Busters and, my personal favorite, Martin's Mice.

So there you have it--my list of the Top 10 Greatest British Children's Authors and Books: Picture Book edition. As always, I'd love to hear recommendations and favorites from you.

25 June 2010

Literary Summer Camps--sign me up!

After reading this article in Publisher's Weekly about camps based on the Percy Jackson and Ranger's Apprentice series, it set me to thinking about which books I think would make exciting summer camps. Among fantasy series, there are plenty of contenders: Harry Potter, the Narnia books, the Lord of the Rings, Larklight (endless cyberpunk possibilities!) But what about in the real world--which series or books would be worth living for a week? Here are a few suggestions:

Amelia Bedelia's Super-Literal-Literary-Camp (okay, not really. I would never survive such an experience.)
Fancy Nancy's Stupendous Coterie Experience
Harold's Draw-Your-Own Purple Camp

and for older kids:

Jack and Annie's Time Travel Camp
Camp Noisy Village
Little Camp on the Prairie
Camp Underpants
Encyclopedia Brown's Mystery Camp (could also work for the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew.)

The possibilities are really endless! I'd love to hear any other ideas, just for fun!

22 June 2010

The Church Mouse--Back in Print!

I've been on a brief hiatus while we finished up the school year at home, but I'm back with fantastic news--Graham Oakley's The Church Mouse will be republished in the United States in September 2010! (At this point, insert a mental image of me doing my happy dance!) Readers of this blog know that I have been begging and pleading for this book, and the subsequent titles in the series, to be reissued for a new audience to enjoy--not to mention those old foggies like myself who simply adore them. And my prayers have been answered! Kane Miller Books, which has been steadily introducing high quality books from around the world to an appreciative American audience, are bringing The Church Mouse to our shores. I certainly hope the rest of the series won't be far behind.

If you are not familiar with the Church Mouse series, here is a brief synopsis: Arthur is a mouse who lives in the church of a busy, unnamed English town. Living is good for Arthur, mainly because he is on friendly terms with Samson, the church cat. Samson is no mouser, after a lifetime of listening to sermons about brotherly love and the meek being blessed. But Arthur is often lonely, being the sole mouse in the church. When he comes upon the idea to invite all of the mice in town to come and live in the church (and here is an example of Oakley's visual wit--Arthur is reading "Exodus" at the time of his inspiration,) no one seems to mind; not unlike the mice who befriend the Disney Cinderella, these rodents are a dab hand at housework.

But it's not all smooth sailing for Arthur, Samson, and the new inhabitants of the church. When a Harvest Festival mishap seems to spell banishment for the mice, they are able to prove their worth to the congregants and ensure their permanent residency as church mice all.

When I read the Church Mice books, I am always struck by Graham Oakley's love for his craft. His experience as a set designer has served him well as a picture book creator. The impressive amount of detail in his illustrations is never wasted. In a double page spread of the church sanctuary where chaos has just reigned, the reader will get as much amusement from the old man sat in the back pew who slept through the whole kerfuffle, as they will from the expressions on the faces of the angry congregants and the crestfallen mice. Each illustration offers so much to look at and enjoy, that it's impossible not to return to these books. They are a joy to read and share, and just as much of a joy to read alone. When I want to show patrons that picture books are not just for kids (har har,) I show them the church mice books. In the past, my church mice books have been held together with an awful lot of binding tape and crossed fingers. What a pleasure to be able to show them a new, pristine edition of this classic.

My work here is done......

Many thanks to Kane Miller Books, who provided me with a copy of the book to preview. They didn't make me beg too much ;)

On my Reading Radar: Agent Q, or The Smell of Danger

I've made no secret of my fan girl admiration of M.T. Anderson, nor my love of the w00t!-worthy Pals in Peril series. So let's all give a big 'Huzzah!' for the return of Lily, Katie, and Jasper Dash in a brand new adventure, due for release in October. Now that the Enola Holmes series is finished, and Larklight seems content to remain a trilogy, "Pals in Peril" has sole possession of the top spot on my "Most Awesome Current Series" list.

02 June 2010

Rave Review: Bats at the Ballgame by Brian Lies

They've been to the beach. They've patronized the library. And now, Brian Lies' adorable bats are going to watch--what else?--a baseball game. The third installment in this highly appealing series is full of charm, visual humor and--if you are a Red Sox fan--a couple of in-jokes for your reading pleasure.
One of the reasons the bat books are so much fun is the opportunity they provide for sight gags. After a couple of double page spreads of bats flying towards the ball park, Lies treats his readers to the sight of bats hanging from the rafters to take in the game, catching mothdogs and Cricket Jack from a flying vendor. Groundsbats prep the mound with a fork. A dismayed fan hides behind his wings. There is so much to see in each illustration--right side up as well as upside down. And in this particular title there is also the scope for word play to add to the humor. Start with the title: Bats at the Ballgame. Everyone knows that you can't play baseball without a bat! It was inevitable that the line "bats at bat" would be used at some time during the story, yet it's still funny when it finally comes round. And the opportunity to accuse the bat ump of being blind.......well, I suppose Lies just couldn't help himself there!

Red Sox fans will notice that the good guys are wearing red caps (and socks!) An old-timer talks reverently of a player, number 24, making an outstanding catch in the field (I wonder if Dwight Evans is a particular hero to Lies.) There is a green, manual--make that, "batual"--scoreboard, not unlike the one on the Green Monster at Fenway. And the mention of a "pesky pole" is just blatant! But even if the reader isn't a member of Red Sox Nation--simply a fan of the game--there is plenty to enjoy in this clever, affectionate, and engaging love letter to baseball and the fans who follow the bats of summer.

Bats at the Ballgame is due for release in September, 2010. Just in time for the postseason.

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