Posted in general and welcome, parents' and adults' corner

Is digitalisation paving the way for more illustration?

This might not seem like the most relevant post for a children’s book review site, but many of the illustrators cited have worked both in children’s and adults’ literary arenas.

In a blog post for the Guardian from the Edinburgh International Book Festival, popular children’s illustrator Chris Riddell is getting excited about what he sees as ‘a new era for illustration’.

He opens the piece talking about the brilliant illustrator EH Shepard, who was as comfortable submitting cartoons for the satirical magazine Punch as he was drawing the unforgettable pictures in Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows.

A scene from The Wind in the Willows, with Ratty and Moley (Image courtesy of

As adorable as always: Winnie and Piglet (Image courtesy of


When EH Shepard was at the peak of his career, illustrations were commonplace in literature, and not just for little ones: older children to adults were catered for. However, as Riddell explains: ‘… in the latter half of the 20th century, illustration went into decline. Children’s books that in Shepard’s day would have been automatically illustrated were deemed no longer to require an illustrator’s input. A case in point are the defiantly un-illustrated Harry Potter books.’


Picture prejudice?

It’s interesting to ponder why this might be so. Did a prejudice emerge against illustrations? Did pictures make a book seem less worthy – as though images were needed to add value to the written word? Some of the children I work with think that books containing illustrations are in some ways more ‘babyish’ than ones without any, while Holly doesn’t feel hard-done-by because of the lack of pictures in Harry Potter:  ‘You can imagine things more without illustrations.’

It appears that a change in technology is behind the drop in commissioning illustrators, and presumably linked to this are cost implications. ‘In newspapers and periodicals, Photoshop and montage replaced illustrators and cartoonists,’ says Chris. ‘No mainstream publisher these days would dream of commissioning illustrations to a new edition of Pepys’ diaries. In fact, by the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, illustration had vanished from adult literature more or less entirely.’


Drawing a conclusion

Riddell feels that traditional print publishing is going to have to change thanks to what is going on in the digital world. Today’s smartphones and tablets and iPads and iPods present information in a visually stimulating way, combining text with stunning images. To keep up with readers’ expectations, he argues that ‘we need illustrators of the calibre of EH Shepard more than ever.’ It’s already happening too: ‘…look at Posy Simmonds’ wickedly perceptive novel Tamara Drewe, David Roberts’ brilliantly quirky illustrations to Mick Jackson’s Bears of England and Shaun Tan’s surreal and exquisite wordless story The Arrival. Like Shepard, these illustrators’ work reaches all ages.’

When I think about it, this has been happening for a long time in the cinema. Many of the films aimed at children in the last decade or so have been so technologically advanced in the way they have been filmed that adults have been lured in and are often as enthusiastic as children to see the latest Shrek or Ice Age.

I feel quite excited at the prospect of beautifully illustrated adult books. There is definitely a place in literature to combine the written word with images, and not just in a cartoon or graphic novel way (I can’t actually read these books because I find there’s too much competition on the page for the reader’s eyes). But, used effectively, images can complement words, as any fantastic children’s picture book will show you. Let’s hope they get it right for the adults if Riddell’s predicted movement happens.


What do you think? Do pictures have a place in older children’s, young adults’ and adults’ literature?

Posted in general and welcome, literacy, parents' and adults' corner

It’s a boy thing…

News is out today that boys are still lagging behind girls in reading. While this may seem like old news, perhaps newer to us is the recognition that there is no official strategy to deal with it.

To be honest, we probably all knew this anyway. Schools put a lot of effort into trying to encourage boys to read but, for myriad reasons, some are not engaging. Sensibly, the report, compiled by the National Literacy Trust for the Boys’ Reading Commission, states that there is no clear way of tackling this educational issue, instead suggesting that effort must take place both inside and outside school.

Why boys may not read as much as girls (or at least succeed in it)

Some of the reasons the report cited included:

  • Lack of suitable material – some boys do want to read but just don’t have enough books to choose from of interest to them.
  • Lack of awareness about what boys like reading – this ties in with the point above: teachers and other staff often might not be aware of what it is that could motivate disengaged male readers. One of the reasons for this is because primary school staff are predominantly female.
  • Lack of male role models. Boys often see reading as something ‘nerdy’ to do, or something that only girls really participate in. A good, popular, male role model from the celeb world could help drive things forward. Equally, it tends to be mothers who read at home, rather than fathers. If dads could get involved more, it might help show their sons that reading matters.

What boys apparently like reading

When I read with my boys from school, there is huge agreement on what is cool for them to be seen with. There are two clear winners:

  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney

  • Mr Gum, by Andy Stanton

They love the craziness of it all, the evilness of Mr Gum and the wimpiness (is that a word?) of the Wimpy Kid. These are quite interesting opposites, actually: evil versus powerlessness. Is it that they kind of admire one and empathise with the other?

One boy I introduced Mr Gum to hooted with laughter because of the writing style, particularly the heroine Polly, who uses double negatives and all sorts of grammatically incorrect language. ‘But the author is writing stuff that is wrong!’ he exclaimed to me, eyes shining happily. ‘That’s because after you’ve learned the rules of grammar and writing, you can break them,’ I explained, hastily adding, ‘When you’ve grown up.’

What about the classics?

I picked up a book in a second-hand shop the other day entitled Classic Boy Stories, chosen by Michael Morpurgo.

What I found interesting was that all of the stories had a male as the central character: Flat Stanley, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Jungle Book, Beowulf, Oliver Twist, Treasure Island, etc. It would seem to be a logical assumption to make that boys will identify best with male characters in stories, as in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid BUT although  Mr Gum is the star of the Mr Gum series (obviously!) his arch-enemy (and the one you root for really) is a girl. Equally, in David Walliams’ popular novel Mr Stink, Chloe is the heroine. Perhaps for boys there has to be an equally strong male counterpart in any story rather than just a girl calling the shots.

Burps, toilets, farts and non-fiction

The other day Holly and I were talking about the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and other, supposedly, boy-oriented books. I said that because we were writing a blog on children’s books we ought to review some that are aimed at the opposite sex.

‘No,’ she flatly refused.

‘Why?’ I asked her.

‘Because they’re always about burps, or toilets, or farts, or wimpy kids,’ she replied, disdainfully. ‘I do NOT want to read about toilets! That’s disgusting!’

Holly’s preference is for strong characters and great adventures and this ties in with the NLT’s report’s findings:

  • Girls are more likely to read adventures, ghost/horror stories, romance and relationships and animal tales.
  • Boys are more likely to read sci/fi, fantasy, sports and war/spy novels.

I was a little surprised that boys aren’t into adventure more and wondered if reading choices had changed. What about the old Biggles books? Treasure Island and Kidnapped? Don’t boys now read their modern equivalents, if not the old classics?

Moving forward

The report makes interesting recommendations on how we can possibly move forward to encourage more boys to engage with reading. Some of these include:

  • Schools need to have a framework that supports them in how to encourage boys to read, rather than feeling their way around in the dark.
  • Every child should be supported in their reading journey – and a crucial part of this is to foster an enjoyment of reading. Currently, while the systemic phonics system helps young children decode words well (boys particularly) it doesn’t help them necessarily understand what they are reading, and if they struggle with that, then it’s no wonder they turn away from books.
  • Every teacher should know what sort of books can help motivate disengaged male readers. And if not, they should have access to a school librarian who could advise. (This latter point is difficult in an age where schools are lucky to have libraries, never mind a dedicated staff member.)
  • More inter-agency work should be done to identify children who are least likely to be read with at home – libraries could work with children’s centres, for example.
  • Social marketing could be used to encourage parents to help with their child’s literacy.
  • Every boy should have a male role model who reads with them weekly.

I think the last point is crucial. Boys are influenced greatly by their peers and look up to older boys so if some sort of book buddy scheme could be implemented, where slightly older boys read with younger ones, real differences might be seen.

However, as Michael Morpurgo is quoted as saying, any of these will not produce overnight successes. It could take a while for boys to start tuning into books again.

Over to you:

Are you the parent of boys? Do they like reading and, if so, what is it that they choose? Do you work with boys who resist reading? I would love to hear your views.

Posted in general and welcome, parents' and adults' corner, picture books

Beautiful books – are they just for children?

I’d like to thank Broad Conversation, the blog for Blackwell’s Bookshop here in Oxford, for the inspiration for this post. In their most recent post, they take a look at beautiful books for adults. Check it out – there are some gorgeous titles on the list and they don’t all cost a fortune to purchase.

But it’s led me to a question that I’ve been thinking over for quite a while.

Why don’t publishers make beautiful fiction books for adults?

Whenever I go into a children’s bookshop, I have to order myself to step away from the tables and ignore all the new editions crying out to be bought. I’m not just talking about picture books, which by nature must be visually appealing. I am talking about longer novels for children that have received an expensive makeover. Take, for instance, Robert Ingpen’s versions of some of the classics.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Michelle Pauli, in an article in the Guardian in 2006, describes the appearance of these lovely books, two of which we have at home:

“They are beautiful books with heavy covers and thick parchment pages filled Ingpen’s paintings. He designs the whole of the book in each case and the illustrations work as a coherent whole with the story, fully integrated, spreading across pages, and creating a feeling of warmth throughout. Many take up full pages and are stunning evocations of other worlds, combining a level of detail guaranteed to keep children poring over the pages with a light-infused softness reminiscent of the great painters, such as Turner, Goya and Breugel.”

You can read more about Ingpen’s creative processes here:

Aesthetic bribery?

But why is it that we, as adults, are willing to part with cash on expensive but beautiful children’s books when we satisfy ourselves with an interesting cover and plain typescript, and no illustrations, on the inside? Is it because children’s books are seen as important and therefore worthy of expenditure? Do we hope that, because we want our kids to try the classics, they will be more likely to engage if the book looks pretty?

I remember my old Treasure Island that I bought in a second-hand bookshop. The reason I chose the ancient book, half-falling apart, because it was more in keeping with the story than a pristine copy. I could imagine other children and teenagers before me picking up the story and becoming engrossed in it and that was part of the appeal. (Mind you, this was in the days when children’s literature had not become such a massive field as it is now.)

Children’s books (but aimed at adults)

Part of me has this cynical belief that publishers are producing these copies to appeal to the parents, rather than the children. My daughter loves The Wind in the Willows but a hefty but beautiful copy of it wouldn’t necessarily have induced her to want to read it. She’s happy with lighter, but still attractive, copies, perfect for her smaller hands. Hardbacks can be difficult for her to keep open for long periods of time because her hands get tired and the pages cling protectively close to the spine, rather than opening out easily. So are these more coffee-table offerings to treasure rather than practical books to sit down and get close to? The argument could go either way.

Beauty everlasting

Blackwell’s kindly replied to my initial question on their blog.

“There is a school of thought that beautiful books will be the one type that will survive after ebooks have fulfilled their potential. Paperback fiction sales have declined across the board in the past year as these sales transfer to digital. The books that you want to own and cherish will be the ones that you pay for in hard copy…”

I totally agree with this. Children’s books will hopefully always exist in all their wonderful physical glory because we as adults want to give our children something tangible and beautiful to hold. There is money to be made in this area for publishers which is good – children need real books as well as their electronic cousins. And us adults, perhaps reliving our childhood dreams and fancies, will continue financially supporting the trade, buying beautiful books not just for our children but also for ourselves.

Question: What’s your favourite beautiful children’s book? (Or several, if you can’t pick one!) Please share!

Posted in parents' and adults' corner

Bedtime stories with obscenities!

OK, I admit that my title was rather misleading. But I am sure many of you are aware of this title – Go the F to Sleep, by Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortes. I won’t post an image because my daughter and other kids might see it and ask about what it means.

The idea behind this book – a parent’s increasing agitation at their child not falling asleep at lights out and coming up with amazingly inventive reasons not to shut their eyes – is a very funny one. It’s clever visually too – making it look like an innocent bedtime story and then pounding you with profanities which make it anything but. But the gratuitous swearing is what gets to me actually. I know, I know – it’s an inner monologue and not said aloud to the child (though if you listen to Samuel L Jackson’s introduction to it before he reads it aloud he admits he used to say the words of the title so often to his little girl that she could gleefully recite them when he came into her bedroom). But there’s a violence to the language that makes it distasteful and rather unnerving even as an adult’s book.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m a prude! 

What are your thoughts on this?


Image courtesy of 


Posted in parents' and adults' corner

Dealing with the hard issues of growing up… like plastic surgery

Quick edit: June 24

Just to say that this blog came from a post by a fellow blogger Dangers of Children’s Books who also followed a link from another blog Topless Carrot – we’re all writing about it! 😉 Thanks to them for alerting me though to this book!

I was in two minds about writing this post.

The first mind was so outraged at the concept of a book that I had to speak out against it and its corrupt message.

The second mind said that by doing so I was giving publicity to a book that deserves to be ignored.

I guess I’ve opten for Mind Number 1.

Image courtesy of beutiful[sic] 

This picture book has been written by Michael Salzhauer, MD, to prepare children for when their mommies (I don’t believe daddies are mentioned, but I haven’t read the book so may be mistaken) have plastic surgery.

Trying to see the good

I may steam in outrage here but I guess that plastic surgery is common, particularly in the USA (US readers please do feel free to correct me if I am wrong). Therefore, a story that addresses what plastic surgery is does have a place in the market.  

My objection isn’t so much to the desire to placate a child whose mother is clearly more vain than sensible. It’s the other message that speaks volumes through these pages: that mommies aren’t created perfect. That they need help from someone with big scalpel and an even larger ego to manufacture them into an ideal of beauty.

I tried hard to find evidence that this wasn’t the case but even the blurb confirms this:

“Join a young girl as her mommy goes through her plastic surgery experience, and learn how the entire family pitches in to help Mommy achieve her beautiful results.” 

Rather humorously, intended or not, the plastic surgeon in question (whom one assumes is the author himself) is illustrated like a superhero, with bulging muscles and chiselled chin. We are not informed as to whether HE had plastic surgery himself to achieve these inhuman results.

Happy Mother’s Day! Here’s your botox voucher

OK, I know many of us mothers – me included – like to look good, slap on some make-up to feel human and have occasional facials to brighten our skin and make us feel happy. But we’re not essentially changing who we are. We’re not asking someone to suck our extra fat out through a tube to give us a flat tummy. We’re not requesting a different nose. We’re not saying to our children that we just aren’t good enough the way we are so we have to ask someone to carve out a replica before we can be happy.

This is the stuff of nightmares.

In the interest of fairness, I did look for positives on the book. Apparently, when Michael Salzhauer had his draft ready, he showed it to a patient who was worried about how to tell her child about her desire to have a tummy tuck and breast augmentation. She was so delighted by the manuscript that she went ahead with the surgery and spent time afterwards reading the story to her son to explain that the operation wasn’t about pain, it was about feeling good. You can read more in this Newsweek article.

The Newsweek article also contains a quote from a child psychologist, who is rather kind to Dr Salzhauer in her discomfort at the subject matter:

Child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of “Raising Kids With Character,” likes the idea of a book for kids. “If the mother is determined to pursue cosmetic surgery, I think it’s terribly important to discuss it with the child,” Berger says. But she says the book is incomplete. She wishes that the mom had just said something like, “This is silly, but I really want it anyway,” she says. “That is more honest and more helpful to the child.”

Perhaps it would be wiser to give children a copy of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives if we want them to grow up in a world where the plastic and unnatural are seen as the norm.

Posted in general and welcome, parents' and adults' corner, popular authors

Happy Father’s Day! (a day early but we’ll be busy tomorrow…)

We’re a day early here at Childtastic Books but we’re going to be spoiling Holly’s dad Carl tomorrow so chances are we won’t get on to the site much. So this post is dedicated to Carl who Holly says is “nice, kind, funny and caring”. She also said “tall” which is true!

Dad and daughter
Dad and daughter … just a normal family scene!

To be fair, I should show one of Carl with his real hair!

Holly and Carl
Holly and Carl on holiday. If you peer carefully you may see the ubiquitous doughnut on the table!

 OK, embarrassing picture time over. Next, we have a round-up of Holly’s Father’s Day books. She only included ones where the dads were responsible, discrediting Pippi Longstocking’s father for going off and having adventures without her.

Top ten stories about dad (in our library, and in no particular order)

Some of these are written by the same author, so I will group them together.

Numbers 1, 2 and 3: all by David Walliams

The Boy in the Dress

Mr Stink

Billionaire Boy



Image courtesy of

Holly once was overawed and rather tongue-tied when she met David Walliams at a book signing at Waterstones in Oxford. She had first come across his stories through an audiobook I downloaded for a car journey – Mr Stink – and thought he and Matt Lucas were hilarious. When David Walliams chatted to her as he signed her own copy of Mr Stink and his next book, Billionaire Boy, Holly just stood there, mouth agape. I think she managed to mutter something to one of the questions and then skipped away after being offered a Malteser.

Anyway, Holly has chosen these books because she says the fathers in them are good examples of how dads should be:

  • “In Billionaire Boy, the dad buys his son everything he needs but when things go wrong and the boy runs off then the dad realises how much he loves him and wants him back.”
  • “In The Boy in the Dress, the dad brings the boys up because the mother has left home. He’s nice but doesn’t know how to show it. By the end though he shows it very nicely.”
  • “In Mr Stink, the dad is nice to the daughter when the mum is not. He treats her well and understands her.”

It’s quite interesting actually, considering David Walliams’ books together like this. There does seem to be a pattern in them in terms of the children feeling like outcasts and uncomfortable in their own skins. The parents don’t appear to know how to handle this (as is often the case in real life) but mums don’t fare quite as well as dads do in his stories.

Numbers 4 and 5, by Roald Dahl

4 Danny the Champion of the World


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5 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


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Roald Dahl is one of Holly’s favourite authors (alongside David Walliams, featured above). I think we’re all quite familiar with his sometimes grotesque treatment of adults and acerbic tongue when describing them but he can be kind too. These two books are examples of how parents, while needing help from their children, can still provide a good example and a loving relationship. Holly chose these two because:

  • “In Danny, the Champion of the World, the father supports Danny when his mother dies, and looks after him, and they have a good relationship.” (You can read Holly’s review of Danny here.)
  • “In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the dad works really hard to bring in money for his family.”

6. Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome


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I must admit I was rather surprised Holly nominated this book because we’ve failed to finish it. However, the father must have made enough of an impression to inspire her to put this in her top ten. When I asked her why she said this book when the father is ‘at sea’  for the duration, she said, “Because he allowed them the chance to go off in the boat. If he hadn’t they wouldn’t have had their adventures.” So an absent but permissive parent is top of the pops. Must remember that.

7. The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank


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Holly came across this one while researching her books for this post. She suddenly remembered Anne Frank’s descriptions of her relationship with her father and how “she gets on better with him than her mum. Her mum doesn’t understand her and they don’t get along.” It does happen, sometimes, and the daughter-father relationship is well-known and documented for its particular closeness.

8. Out of the Hitler Time, by Judith Kerr


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When I was 8 or 9 I remember reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Judith Kerr’s fictionalised version of her own family’s experiences during the Second World War and the rise of the Nazis. I recommended it to Holly, who then took to it with fascination. I bought the trilogy as I thought it would be interesting to follow the story on but I must say that the second and third books were rather more adult in content. We did read them with Holly in the end, but wouldn’t let her read them on her own as some of the issues they deal with are too adult. Holly loved the trilogy and, in fact, loves anything by Judith Kerr, as her review of Mog the Forgetful Cat shows.  

Holly chose this trilogy for the Father’s Day list for very similar reasons to Anne Frank’s autobiography – that the girl in these stories does seem to have more in common with her father. “Her mother was quite stressed a lot of the time,” said Holly, “whereas her father seemed to understand her more.” Goodness, this must happen in this house, as I tend to stress a lot and I haven’t the excuse of World War Two to blame.

9. The Lion King, story adapted from the film by Disney

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We were a little concerned that we didn’t have many picture books in our selection, especially since these are the ones that often focus on dads and how special they are. When we visited a bookshop last week, all the displays were dedicated to baby books about dads but we don’t seem to have any here! Anyway, The Lion King was a good choice as it does portray how far a father’s love for his child will go. Holly thinks this is the utmost in fatherly love: “He saved Simba from a stampede of wildebeests but died instead!”  There is no greater sacrifice, and thankfully this situation is rare.

10. Can You Catch a Mermaid? by Jane Ray

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We have already reviewed this book on the site here but we wanted to repeat it again because it is a lovely portrayal of a daughter-father relationship that seems to be more unusual in books than the typical mother-child bond.  As Holly says:  “He is very nice to his daughter: he’s good and they have a caring relationship.”

Posted in blogs by other authors, fun resources, parents' and adults' corner

2 new and exclusive minibooks from Clara Vulliamy to inspire seaside storytelling!

This is a great post on Playing By the Book – check it out for some fun ideas on how to create mini-books with your children. 

A free, exclusive illustrated mini book full of story prompts on the theme of the seaside (inc beaches and oceans) by author/illustrator Clara Vulliamy

via 2 new and exclusive minibooks from Clara Vulliamy to inspire seaside storytelling!.