November 27

Guest post: by Meredith C.

‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’, by Brian Selznick, is a novel that uses both words and pictures to tell a mysterious and intriguing novel. The main character Hugo is a young orphaned boy who lives in a train station in France, 1931. He operates the clocks while avoiding being seen by the station inspector.

Hugo spends his spare time fixing his dead father’s machine, or automaton. However, to find the clogs and various other parts he needs, he steals them.

The toy store that Hugo steals from is run by an old, grumpy man. One day when Hugo is stealing something the man catches him and forces to work for him. While working for the man Hugo meets a young, bright girl named Isabelle.

The two children must embark on an adventure to discover the secret of the automaton and what lies within it. They also discover that the old, grumpy man from the toy booth is not how he seems, he has an exciting past.

I found the book interesting to use pictures to help tell the story; it was the first book I read with that kind of structure and I am so glad that it was so interesting and intriguing. I would recommend this book for a teenager. I would personally give it 4 stars.

For more information about Brian Selznick, Hugo Cabret and more of his books visit: http://www.theinventionofhugocabret.com/index.htm

September 7

Really… ‘It’s a Book’!

bookThanks to our rep. from the Children’s Bookshop at Beecroft, we have discovered a great new picture book called ‘It’s a Book’.

This book, by Lane Smith, makes a quirky comment on the digital age through some quirky characters – a tech-savvy jackass/donkey and a book-loving ape. It’s all about comparing the old with the new, the expectations and habits we now have, and the demands that the digital generation face.

‘It’s a Book’ is a book which has already generated some discussion, but not because of its message as a promoter of the merits of books. It does remind us that books need no charging, don’t have bells and whistles, and can be quite relaxing to dip into. It even mentions the library as a place to find more books (if someone hogs the one you were wanting to read yourself…). All interesting comments in this digital age.

The controversy, however, seems to be about a term used at the end of the book. Whether you take offence, I think, might be dependent on your family, cultural or country-of-origin background. And even then, you would be wise to think about the author’s intentions, what he had already established in the book, and certain terms as they are used in the context of the book. Overall, it is meant to be a comment on the fate of books in this digital age.

Funnily enough, ‘It’s a Book’ has used a digital book trailer in its promotion (see below), which is a bit of a back-flip on the idea of promoting books themselves, but the two technologies can obviously go hand-in-hand.

‘It’s a Book’ is suitable at many different reading levels, and I can imagine young (Junior School) students talking about it, just as much as students studying at senior levels. For more about Lane Smith and his books, (he is an illustrator as well) see his web site.

What do you think?

Does it have the power to get people talking? does it speak to you? Or is it the type of book which really just ‘preaches to the converted’ i.e. book lovers? does it have a valuable message for all? (all constructive comments welcome – click on comments tab)

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September 3

After Twilight – Shiver!

shiverReviewFor some time, following the success of the ‘Twilight’ series, a massive number of Twilight-themed books appeared. Even now, bookshops and chain stores are laden with vampire love stories of various qualities. Now is the time to herald a new wave of  books – this time based on werewolves. (For those who are ‘Team Jacob’ perhaps?)

One well-written example of this is ‘the Wolves of Mercy Falls’ series by Maggie Stiefvater. Beginning with ‘Shiver’, the tales focus on the relationships which develop between humans, and those in their community who morph into wolves when the weather cools down – as winters do harshly in the fictional town of Mercy Falls (likened to forested areas just south of the Canadian border).

Grace has had a fascination of the wolves which live in the woods near her home for as long as she can remember. This is in spite of being snatched off a tyre swing and being dragged into the woods as a young child. For her, there was some unexplained attraction to these wild animals, and to one wolf in particular.

We meet Sam, listening to his thoughts about the sensations he feels, tastes and smells, and become aware of his acute instincts towards Grace. These are heightened when he is able to take refuge in her home – a place rarely frequented by her busy, preoccupied parents. This allows them to time to learn about each other and the forces impacting their lives.

A major complication for their relationship is the fact that Sam has, for many years, changed into a wolf as wintry weather approaches. This is the normal cycle – he can only be human for a short time each year – and this time is shortening each year.

Maggie Stiefvater has created some interesting voices in her tale (the first of 3) and gives differing perspectives – from the points of view of the wolves, the wolf pack and the human communities of Mercy Falls, as they exist side by side. You can almost smell the musky scent of the wolves, feel the crispness of the woods, fear the chill as winter approaches, and sense the anxiety of Grace and Sam as their time together appears to be running out.

On her blog, Maggie writes –

As an artist and musician, I can’t work in a vacuum when I write—music and art is always in the back of my head in one way or another. Here on this page you’ll find the stop-motion animated book trailers I made for Shiver and Linger, playlists of some of the music I listened to while writing the book, and the music I wrote for the series. Plus, some links to some real wolf howls because that’s just cool.”

To read this, after reading her book, helps you to see how she has worked to evoke your senses, and to appreciate how her ideas have grown from perceptive ‘all-senses’ observations. The link above also gives you access to some quirky little book trailers she has created, with music she composed especially for the process.

‘Linger’ is the next book, with the final book ‘Forever’ due out next year. (N.B. The film rights have been bought and a screenplay has been written, but whether the series makes it to the screen is yet to be determined.)

Till then / before then, read the books!!!

March 31

Being creative: 1 – Anne Spudvilas

peasant-prince-coverAnne Spudvilas is the illustrator of ‘the Peasant Prince’ – the picture book derived from ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ by Li Cunxin. At the recent Children’s Literature Festival, at Norman Lindsay’s Gallery (on March 20 and 21 2010), she described the journey she undertook to create this book with Li Cunxin.

The first task was to reduce a story, which was first published as an autobiography covering 450 pages…

 “During a holiday at Lorne, in Victoria, soon after he stopped dancing, a friend, Graeme Base, the children’s author and illustrator, persuaded him (Li Cunxin) to list the big turning points he had experienced. This 10-page “general sketch of my life” led to a deal with Penguin. Two years later, helped by two editors, he had expanded the sketch to 680,000 words, then cut them down to 160,000 covering 450 pages.”

(Neil Jillett September 6, 2003. Dance of the Peasant Prince. http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/09/05/1062549014871.html)

For a picture book, this needed to be reduced further – to less than 40 pages! Quite a task! How do you do something like that?

Anne described the process she often follows as:

  • beginning with thumbnail sketches
  • creating a storyboard with these
  • revision with the author (Li Cunxin)
  • additions of descriptions to storyboards (filling out details)
  • use of a databank of images (to find faces, places and realistic detail of the story)
  • concertina of the storyboard (to see how it flows)
  • research into appropriate illustration techniques ( for ‘the Peasant Prince’, this included studying Chinese brush painting)
  • use of post-it notes to highlight details she needed to check for authenticity
  • continual revision  and review with the author

To create ‘the Peasant Prince’, Anne was fortunate to be able to travel to China for 3 ½ weeks, and be with Li Cunxin on one of his speaking tours. She was therefore able to see some of the places and indeed, meet some of the people he wrote about in his autobiography, firsthand. She was also given access to family photos and memorabilia which she used to bring a realistic feel to the book.

To contrast, Li’s poor beginnings in China, Anne used a low colour palette, including the use of found old newspapers illustrating the meagre inside of his family home. For Li’s life in the United States as a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet, she used vibrant richer colours in layers of oil paints and glazes. And the shine on his parents’ faces in the audience scene is glowing in the final pages to represent their great pride in the achievements of their son.

The journey of the illustrator is an interesting tale – a tale about revealing a tale – and the steps along the way are always exciting as they unfold. They are unique for each special book like ‘the Peasant Prince’ and inspiring to hear about. Thank you, Anne.

N.B. Recent titles illustrated by Anne Spudvilas (with links to her website) include:

Baby days | Covers | In my backyard | Jenny Angel | Woolvs in the Sitee

June 17

Tales from Outer Suburbia – Shaun Tan

‘Tales from Outer Suburbia’ is a loose collection of short stories, illustrated and written by Shaun Tan.  The stories are all inspired by life in the suburbs, but have many different themes and styles, and the illustrations are also a conglomeration of styles.  Shaun Tan himself has commented that “an ensemble of different stories can also evoke a single collective concept, something greater than the sum of its parts”.  What seems to bind these stories together is a combination of childlike innocence with adult wisdom and experience.

Shaun Tan says that he was inspired by his experience of being a child growing up in the suburbs, and the world of a child’s imagination.  Each story in this book is imbued with an appealing childlike feeling, often mysterious and hard to pin down.  Overlaid on this are political and environmental issues, dealt with in unexpected ways.

The book begins with the one page story ‘The Water Buffalo’, inspired by the mystery always evoked by a vacant block in the suburbs.  The buffalo is an enigmatic figure with a strange ability to be omniscient.  The drawing is marvellously appealing with the buffalo standing on hind legs, pointing with a tiny hoof.

One of the most appealing and humorous stories is ‘Eric’, about an exchange student that comes to stay.  The problem the family have dealing with Eric is common to all families who have someone unfamiliar with their own language staying with them.  Is your exchange student happy?  Are they enjoying your house?  Do they like the food?  The family don’t know the answers to these questions until Eric goes, leaving behind him a selection of exquisite little presents that commemorate things they did for him.  Added to the pleasures of this story is the fact that Eric is a tiny little person a few inches tall in the shape of an autumn leaf with legs.  There are lots of whimsical little jokes in the illustrations, such as seeing Eric sitting in the car seat belt.

Other stories deal with political issues, such as ‘Alert but not alarmed’, which has a new approach to terrorism in the suburbs; ‘Wake’, dealing with cruelty to animals; and globalisation is looked at in ‘Our Expedition’.  Some of these stories are playful and whimsical; others more serious.  This is reflected in the illustrations which accompany them.  ‘Grandpa’s story’ depicts a bleak wasteland to reflect the hard times he went through.  In ‘No Other Country’, the illustrations are designed to look like a Renaissance fresco or religious painting to reflect the European background of the immigrant families in the story.

Finally, one of the great pleasures of this book is to be found in the endpapers and contents pages.  The end papers are a conglomeration of the little doodles and sketches which Shaun Tan made over the years, many characteristic of his preoccupations and interests.  The contents page is a delight: made up of postage stamps to show the chapter names and page numbers.  The acknowledgements page at the end has an old-fashioned date-due slip and pocket, which brings back many memories to older readers.

‘Tales from Outer Suburbia’ is a book that rewards close study, as it full of hidden delights and depths of imagination.  It will appeal to readers of all ages.  It is highly recommended. – Jane Crew