As a reader of a great many stories, what do you look for most in a children’s book? Are you looking for pictures full of colour, artistic drawings, humour? Do you like your books to be large or do you prefer books designed for little hands? Are your shelves rammed with all the firm favourites? And do you admit to hiding some to avoid reading it for the 100th time that week?
We are fortunate to live in an age where our choice of books is infinite. We can source affordable books in multiple languages, books that reflect diversity and books that sing to our own tunes and those of the children we care for.
There might be something about getting older that makes you more nostalgic. For me, that’s certainly the case when it comes to children’s books. My earliest memory of learning to read is the “Janet and John” books and, in particular, lingering over the illustrations in the hope that would help me to decipher the word that I was stuck on.
While they are learning the complex skill of how words are formed and the sounds they make, illustrations enable children to read the visual image long before the written word. They can explore, wonder, and recognise similarities between themselves and the characters and environment.
It was illustrator Helen Oxenbury’s observation of her own daughter’s fascination for other babies in a mail order catalogue that inspired her to produce her first baby board books. It’s from here that she decided to draw babies in real life situations: babies in nappies and vests, babies pulling on socks, poses and expressions that capture the very essence of a toddler with warmth and humour.
As Helen's baby daughter grew, she used her acute observations of parenting and children’s desire to learn and assert themselves to create a new series of books aimed at pre-schoolers. You may remember some of these “The Dancing Class”, “Eating out” and so on. They are written from the child’s point of view and the illustrations cleverly resonate spectacularly with the reader.
If any of you are fans of “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” you may be interested to know that this was an old folk song that poet Michael Rosen used to include in his one man show, performed in schools. It was David Lloyd, the editor, that saw the potential for it be turned into a children’s book, illustrated by Helen.
If, like me, you imagined that the writing and illustration of books happened in collaboration, you would be wrong. In this case Helen took 18 months to complete the illustrations and Michael only saw them then.
He admits that at the time of the great reveal, he "didn’t get it”. It wasn’t what he had imagined for the story. He liked the pictures but couldn’t see what it was all about. It was only after Michael saw children and adults sharing the book that he “got it”.
He says “Helen took the words and created a new story, a story that is not told in words, a story about a family group struggling - we know not why - with the elements that the world throws at us”. “As it happens the traditional chant offers a surging repetitive, rhythmic framework that most children know almost before they know it. But the depth and emotional body of the book comes from Helen's pictures”. (Helen Oxenbury, A life in Illustration)
Though my own children are now adults, Helen's books still rest on our shelves as a reminder of the joy of great illustrations, the incidental chatter, and the warmth of sharing books with children.
Images from www.booktrust.org.uk
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