Monday, 30 September 2013

Christmas Press: Two Trickster Tales from Russia

A few weeks ago, I was lamenting the fact that there didn't seem to be any 'good and proper' fairy tale books anymore. Where were the traditional retellings? The beautiful illustrations? As it turns out, award winning author Sophie Masson, artist David Allan and artist and designer Fiona McDonald were all thinking the same thing and decided to do something about it. Enter Christmas Press.

Christmas Press was formed early this year and their first book Two Trickster Tales from Russia has just been launched. Sophie Masson has (unsurprisingly) done a beautiful job retelling Masha and the Bear and The Rooster with the Golden Crest. The illustrations by David Allan are rich and detailed, with a touch of humour, being influenced by the great Ivan Bilibin and Arthur Rackham. It's everything a fairy tale book should be.

Sophie said these two tales were chosen for several reasons - they are fun and pertinent tales about unwitting those who wish to do us harm and are ideal for retelling. They can easily be read aloud to younger children, or enjoyed by independent readers. And it's expected these tales may also be a new discovery for some readers as while they're popular in Russia, they are not so well known in the West. I I certainly found this to be the case as I hadn't heard The Rooster with the Golden Crest and enjoyed reading this to my kids while not knowing what was going to happen myself.

From the positive response and support Two Trickster Tales from Russia has received, it's obviously filling a much longed for gap in the market and with plans to continue publishing traditional tales. It's wonderful to think that a new generation of children will have their very own 'new' fairy tale books to treasure.

So pop on over to Christmas Press and order a copy or two and let's support this trio in their quest to bring solid fairy tale books back to life in Australia.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Story Arts Festival Ipswich

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend Story Arts Festival Ipswich. The adults program ran over three days and consisted of talks, panel sessions and workshops by leading children's authors and illustrators. It was a great opportunity to learn from the pros and meet with other aspiring authors and illustrators.

Sam Sochacka has written wonderfully detailed posts on all the sessions here, so this is just a brief run down of the highlights for me.

Alison Lester gave a fascinating talk on the development of her latest book about Antarctica, Sophie Scott Goes South and then ran a workshop on making art fun for kids, focusing on stenciling and wax resist. Most of us were relieved to find that Alison's words were true: No-one can make a bad stencil. Here's my rooster:

I attended sessions on topics that I didn't know too much about - like illustration. I'm certainly no illustrator but loved listening to Gus Gordon and Leila Rudge speak about their illustrative process. Gus spoke about the importance of kids' art - being that it's loose and imaginative (and I had quite the pang of guilt over the number of drawings from my kids that have ended up in the bin). He spoke about the many preliminary trial drawings and his technique of incorporating collage in to his work. Collage is his favourite medium but he cautioned against letting it dominate and distract from the story. There was the philosophical questions of: Is it more important doing technically proficient drawing, or conveying a story? And he quoted Herve Tullet: A book for a child is a book for a child. Not a book to show how good you are at drawing. 
Gus is a big fan of end papers, as being a way to bring another layer of narrative to the story and immersing the child in the story from the moment he/she opens the book. Incidentally, I was the first oboe player that Gus had met and we had a fun chat about the psyche of oboists.
Leila's workshop was fun - we pored over her visual diaries (wow!) and by the end of the workshop I was quite chuffed to discover I could indeed draw dogs - several of them in fact, all with different characteristics.

Meg McKinlay gave an insightful talk on her writing journey and process. A large part of her session focused on drawing inspiration from real life events but she made it clear that these are only the seeds of the story - life events usually don't have the shape that you need for a narrative. Narratives from our own life need to be transformed as often real life character's motivations are not interesting enough for a fictitious story.
Other words of wisdom from Meg included: An idea is not a story - a story comes as the voice of the character is revealed, and you can't really know who a character is until you know their motivation.

Mark Carthew and Mike Spoor gave a lively presentation on their author-illustrator relationship. Mark had us all engaged from the start with the call and response: There was a little turtle, and again at the end when he read The Gobbling Tree. They spoke about their influences - Mike's being Lakes District in England where he grew up. A lot of these landscapes, textures and shapes make their way into his work. And Mark, with his back ground in primary school teaching and music, spoke about rhyme, rhythm and music and how literacy devices also evident in his text. Mike shared a lovely insight he had about his role as an illustrator: The illustrator in a craftsman, in service to the text.

Leonie Norrington's session was thought-provoking. Growing up south of Katherine, she has a real affinity with Indigenous Australian's from this area and the aim of her work is to be relevant to these communities - in context so it makes sense to them. She spoke about the work she does with engaging Indigenous students in reading and writing, helping them to lose their fear through a series of games. Leonie has obviously found her calling and has first hand experience of the challenges of reading and writing given she did a remedial course in English at the age of thirty.

Sue Whiting, children's author and publisher at Walker Books and Helen Chamberlain, editor at Windy Hollow Books spoke about the perfect pitch - the do's and don'ts. They had everyone's attention over breakfast as we all hoped to hear the magic piece of information that might get our work over the line. The three P's were driven home: patience, perseverance and polish.  And what exactly are they looking for? They'll know it when they see it...!

If I had to pick one highlight, it would be listening to professional story teller Tanya Batt. Tanya travels the world telling stories and her story telling is something you really have to see to fully appreciate. It's akin to having a religious experience I believe! She was utterly captivating and I'm so thankful I had the chance to see her perform.

The next Story Arts Festival will be in 2015 and I can't wait!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?

Musings on the recent spate of fairytale phobia

Once upon a time, parents used to read their children fairytales, but a study conducted last year by the US television channel Watch, caught the headlines reporting a trend that fairytale reading is on the decline.

Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Gingerbread Man, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk are apparently out of favour with parents. Why? Well, the somewhat nonsensical reasons ranged from bad examples about house work, condoning stealing, child abandonment, the awkward endings ie. the Gingerbread Man getting eaten by the fox and because they are unrealistic.

Then in May this year, a UK Booktrust study released findings that were more hopeful citing 70% of parents read their children fairytales with Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk actually among the favourites. Interestingly favourite characters were Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and Rumpelstiltskin. Have a look at, because it insightfully breaks the stories down according to gender (mums and dads and boys and girls), the fairytales themselves and the individual fairytale characters.

But if it's true that parents have a fairytale phobia, then I find it sad, ironic and fascinating. Sad because I think children are really missing out on some great stories that will stay with them for the rest of their life - who can ever un-forget a fairytale? They're missing the valuable cultural knowledge that comes with being well versed in fairytales along with the ability to develop their understanding of abstract concepts such as heroism, wisdom, arrogance, recklessness, deceit, jealousy, loyalty, sacrifice and love.

Ironic because from my readings of blogs posts on the subject, it was interesting to note that while great concern and analysis was given over reading fairytales, a lot of commentators more than happy to read their children Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree and lamented (or were downright outraged), that politically correct versions of these stories had been released.

And fascinating because it had never occurred to me to not read my kids fairytales (I'm not sure what this says about me as a parent though!). My children have heard many fairytales, many versions, many times over (we would read about two most days) and I can honestly say they have never been unduly frightened or upset by the stories. Their emotional responses to the fairytales have been appropriate - sure, when reading The Little Mermaid they squirmed when they heard that walking for her felt like walking on broken glass and they expressed their sadness when she died in the end, but they were accepting that that's what had to happen. Fingers crossed the lesson of the little mermaid stays with them for a long time... Equally, they've laughed at the silliness of the emperor in The Emperor's New Clothes and of course have delighted in the happily ever afters of princess and princes.

So, what do the experts say?
Jack Zipes, a leading authority on fairytales was once famously told by Albert Einstein that if he wanted to do well in life, study fairytales - and that's exactly what he did. Now retired, he was professor in German and Comparative Literature studies and has great things to say in his article Are fairytales still useful to children?  Zipes points to the moral components of the tales, helping children deal with conflict, and confronting anxiety and psychological problems that can be provoked in a safe way, with the child/reader separated from the restrictions from reality.
"Fairytales are uncanny because they tell us what we need and they unsettle us by showing what we lack and how we might compensate for lack."
Author Philip Pullman is a big proponent of reading fairy tales, advocating for parents and teachers to continue reading and performing these to their children. He doesn't shy away from reading kids the scarier bits either "The bloodthirstier the better. Little scoundrels, give them something good."
I recall in Mem Fox's Reading Magic a connection between juvenile delinquency and lack of fairytale knowledge, and for a view on the place of fairytales today and the shock of some of them, AS Byatt has some interesting things to say in her article Happy ever after.

Lots of food for thought!

Of course, it's every parent's right to have the final call on what their children read, and that's the way it should be. That said, I think it would be a great shame if a significant part of literature was ignored purely because of rumour and innuendo, rather than a considered discussion about the facts.