Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Book?

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Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Book?

A picture book by Lauren Child

There are lots of things which author and illustrator Lauren Child does (not just in Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Book? but in her numerous other stories too) which goes against the general advice from children’s publishers. She uses words and old style phrases unfamiliar to contemporary children like ‘bedraggled’ and ‘dressed up to the nines’ and she places text

scattered

all over

the

page.

However, it doesn’t seem to make a difference to her book sales and there’s a reason for that: she writes witty, playful tales illustrated in a humorous and distinctive style. You can see the illustrations and text are equally important to her and she loves to capture the imagination of all. This is why she’s become a huge name in children’s fiction and why she can get away with such brazen individuality in her illustrations and text placement.

Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Book? is a story about Herb, “he wasn’t a very good reader, it didn’t matter because he could tell a lot from the pictures.” He read everywhere but the consequence of that was his books were messy. Lauren not only comments that it’s okay not to be the best reader to enjoy books but she makes a reference to the importance of the pictures right from the outset. Setting out right from the beginning that Herb is ‘normal’ and it’s all about the enjoyment the child receives.

One night Herb reads a fairy tale book and falls asleep with his head in the page. When he ‘wakes’ he’s inside the book being shouted at by an angry Goldilocks. Lauren accompanies Herb falling asleep with some tumbling text to mirror his actions. She also uses different fonts and sizes to highlight words like “Whoops” and “Seize him!”  Creating emphasis and an interest in words and language.

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Herb jumps from story to story. In the middle of the book he approaches a door which was, “difficult to open because the illustrator had drawn the handle much too high up”. Herb jumps for the handle and enters into a ball on a four page, fold-out spread.  He finds a palace with the queen sporting a biro moustache looking for her throne and a king searching for Prince Charming. We discover Herb was the graffiti artist and not only that, he’d cut out Prince Charming and the throne and had placed them somewhere else. Lauren has welcomed the child reader into, not just the book, but the imaginative world as she shows them how their actions might change the world for the characters in the story. By referencing the illustrator and Herb doodling on the characters she mixes reality with imagination: blurring the boundaries between the two.

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Herb tries to draw a throne for the demanding queen but it’s not to her exacting standards – he uses green crayon instead of gold as he hasn’t got gold and, “the queen did not look impressed.” Herb escapes the raging queen by snipping a hole in the floor which creates a hole in the page for the child reader to see through.

When Herb is transported home he finds Prince Charming and places him back in the ballroom. However, “His dancing would never quite be the same again due to severe leg creasing.” Herb fixes everything, and even includes a couple of humorous additions for grumpy Goldilocks.

The story is fun with illustrations to match, but you get the feeling Lauren has a more serious message underlying the humour. I think she wants young readers to love books and reading but at the same time to respect the creations of both the text and pictures without being precious. She even attacks the text, her own writing, when she uses it as a means of escape for Herb, “Herb grabbed hold of the letters and scrabbled up the sentences. Some of the words were a bit weak and the whole lot started to wobble.” Her statement shows how important each chosen word is to the reader and how one ‘weak’ word can ruin the story.

Her love of writing and illustrating for children is abundantly clear and you really get can see she takes it seriously. Never read a Lauren Child book? Not sure where you’ve been but take your pick, there’s no shortage, and enjoy the love of childhood innocence and creativity.

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A Creative Day

A Creative Day

Quote: “Creativity comes to those who don’t plan.”

Sometimes you have a day of writing planned or you have organised a trip to an exhibition, but sometimes a creative day comes at you from nowhere.

Easter Cakes

I was looking after a couple of girls for the day; one was imprisoned (self-imposed) in her room studiously revising for her exams and the other was 9, so we could do what we wanted. I had nothing scheduled but I knew 2 things: 1, we were going to the cinema later to see a subtitled film about Laos and 2, I needed a coffee.

After a catch up interspersed with readings and giggles from Calvin and Hobbs, we began discussing books and writing and I said I love Choose Your Own Adventure. The girl replied, “I have one but haven’t done it for ages.” So she ran to get it and there began our morning of rolling dice, battling creatures and pointing swords at old crones. This book was a little more advanced than the ones I used to read where you only got the option at the bottom as to what page to turn to next; this one was more suitable to Sheldon and the boys in The Big Bang Theory. It had need for a pen, some paper and dice (but if you didn’t have any then cleverly there was a picture of them at the bottom of the page so you could flick the pages and that was your ‘roll’). You could also buy things such as the Armband of Strength and the Headband of Concentration as well as potions and weapons. Once we’d left our morals at the door, entered a pretty useless waterfall cave and riled numerous creatures we decided to pause while still alive and go for a coffee.

Phew! We were parched after such an adventurous morning. Refuelling took place at Lavish Habit in Balham for a cappuccino and a hot chocolate. Next was the collation of materials for the afternoon’s events: Easter cake baking. Yay!

We baked and decorated like elves making toys at Christmas. Our cakes had carrots half buried in the middle so it looked like it was in a garden, Easter eggs, rabbit faces, flowers and colourful sprinkles. What was nice was teaching the 9 year old how to pipe icing, make carrots and create flowers – although I gave up on teaching not to lick your fingers whilst making the cake as it was a losing battle.

Easter Cake 2

I had a lovely time doing my favourite things. Then she took me outside to so something she liked: archery! A Katniss fan (Hunger Games) she had a bow and sucker arrows to fire at will in the garden. Time out to kick ass in the garden was fun, but short lived as we had to speed off to the Ritzy Cinema, Brixton.

We were seeing The Rocket, a foreign language film with subtitles. (SPOILER ALERT!) Set in Laos, ten year old Ahlo is a surviving twin who is said, by his grandmother, to bring bad luck. This film sees his journey to shedding his bad luck by entering the Rocket Festival: a dangerous competition where entrants compete to win money and to hopefully bring rain.

The films primary focus is on the unexploded bombs dropped on the country by the Americans during the Vietnam War. We see how the bombs have affected the villages and the lives of the villagers and also how outside influences end up determining the locals lives.

Director Kim Mordaunt shoots the film in a documentary style using a lot of non-actors and only a little direction to give a natural feel. The film is thoughtful and beautifully shot capturing poignant images of Ahlo, moving the cinema-goers to tears. Although subtitled there are actually very few and of the ones there are the text is limited, making it easy for the younger viewer to keep up with. There are a few hard hitting and shocking scenes which serve as a reminder to the existing danger these children and their families are still in. By using a Laotian boy as the protagonist Mordaunt hits home this point.

The end of the film is much like the rest but with a smack of sentimentalism. The Rocket Festival serves to stick one finger up at the bombs by firing explosives back into the skies and making a positive out of a negative. The end might perhaps do better to remind us that not everything will turn out well like in the movies. However, it’s a good film absolutely worth seeing and taking your older children to.

If only everyday was this enjoyable. Hopefully in the future I will remember to put some of my more mundane and unimportant tasks aside to allow for more creativity in my life and those around me.

World Book Day with Mr Benn

Quote: “nothing exciting ever happens to me,” Mr Benn.

Mr Benn

With World Book Day Thursday 6th March I thought I’d take on a children’s classic: Mr Benn – Red Knight by David McKee. I acquired a copy from a child I look after and she eyed me with suspicion when I asked to borrow it. I made sure I said ‘borrow’. She said yes but reminded me it was a very special book (as if I didn’t know); I have read it to her loads. But why have I read it to her loads? This tale was first published in 1967 and this girl is 6. So what makes it rise above contemporary stories?

The story goes like this:

Mr Benn, a suited man in a bowler hat, is invited to a fancy dress party. He goes to a fancy dress shop and chooses a red suit of armour to try on. In the changing room there is a second door which leads him into another world. In this world he meets a dragon who used to light the fires for the king but was banished after a matchmaker came to the town. The matchmaker wants to get rich selling his matches so sets a barn on fire and tells everyone it was the dragon. At the same time the king’s horse runs away which makes the king think the dragon has something to do with it (why? I don’t know). The dragon says the horse is living near him but he was too scared to return it to the king.

After telling Mr Benn of his woes he (Mr Benn) rides off on the horse to the castle to explain. The King punishes the matchmaker by imprisoning him in the dungeon and forcing him to make free matches for the people while the dragon returns as the king’s personal firelighter.

Mr Benn has sorted all the problems and returns to the changing room. He decides he’s too tired for the party after all and goes home to dream about all the other adventures he might have.

Mr Benn and the dragon

The idea is genius. It lends itself to vast numbers of adventures for Mr Benn and therefore numerous books and, as we know, television programmes too. The concept of dressing up is a great one for children – they completely understand dressing up and can get to grip with that concept immediately. It crosses the boundary into the wilds of their imagination whilst maintaining a safe familiarity.

An equally important part of this book (and my favourite) is the illustrations. Line drawings, which are akin to doodles, are alternated with bright, child-like, stylised paintings.

Mr Benn line drawing

Back to the text. When reading out loud to a child you’ll notice the difference in sentence length, structure and language. For example, one sentence I always trip over is:

‘The shop bell tinkled and as if by magic there was suddenly a strange little man, with a moustache and an odd hat, standing in front of Mr Benn.’

I think it is because I’m expecting a full stop after ‘tinkled’ and the next sentence to start ‘As if …’ The sentences do feel longer than the current books and the word usage is different too; words like: desolate, barren and triumphal procession are used. Today’s writers for children are told (by publishers and those in the know)to use language children understand and can potentially read without stumbling or wondering what on earth it means. I also feel when Mr Benn meets the dragon and hears of the dragon’s back story it is ‘telling’ rather than showing (which writers always get told off for) and it’s a long and slightly confusing backstory told like a story within a story. I think it would work better if it was told by the dragon and not by the narrator.

Mr Benn and the shops

However, what do I know? The story is popular and has been since 1967. This isn’t the first book from years ago that is still being, not just enjoyed, but loved by children; they don’t seem so confused by the language, they seem to take it in their stride and ask what ‘desolate’ means or understand that no one can possibly know all the words. Children don’t seem to care if they’re being ‘told’ a story either. I think they just want something that taps into their imagination and can take them on a jolly good romp. Hoorah! As Enid Blyton would write.

Line drawing of trees

Enjoy World Book Day! Let me know of your interesting reads.