Interview: Doorstep Library

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Doorstep Library is a charity that sends out teams of volunteers to read stories to children in low-income areas. I talked to Emily at DL about the challenges they face, the books they read and the difference their volunteers make.

Why is it important for children to read outside of school?

It is important to separate reading for pleasure from academic work. Children too often connect books with something challenging that they ‘have to do’ for school, and therefore miss out on the excitement and imagination that stories can bring. Encouraging reading outside of school – particularly of the books that they want to read – shows them that books can be fun, enjoyable, and can open up new worlds they never thought existed.

Also, when children start reading for the sake of reading itself, they are naturally practising, which will then support their school work.

What are the challenges in terms of other distractions? What are books competing with for kids’ attention?

Modern life is full of distractions and stimulations, particularly with technology. A lot of the children we visit have never thought to pick up a book for pleasure as they would rather be on their computer or watching TV. Even very young children are learning how to use iPads before they understand how a book works. These challenges are not insurmountable, but more promotion of books is needed now than in the past. It’s not that children don’t like books anymore, but with so many more competing pastimes, they are just not always aware of the pleasure they can bring.

We work in disadvantaged areas, so many of the families we visit are on a low income. This creates other challenges. When a parent is stressed or overworked, they can have little time or energy left to encourage their child to read or share a story with them. Parents are the biggest influence on a child’s development, but for many families reading together is not something they are able to prioritise.

How do you make sure reading doesn’t feel like too much of a chore, or more schoolwork?

We offer the children a wide range of books from conventional novels and storybooks to factual books, joke books and comics. We show children that there is something for everyone in the world of books. If you have an interest in Space – a book can nurture this. If you find a thick chapter book daunting – try a comic book instead. We ask the children what they want us to bring and do our best to fulfil their wishes, even if it means buying the requested book especially. This makes children feel confident in their own choices and listened to.

We are careful to let the child lead the reading sessions – if they don’t fancy a story one week, we’ll just swap books. If they are too tired to read out loud to us, we’ll offer to read to them. We want to make sure that our visits, and therefore books and reading, are associated with something fun. For the very little ones, regular interaction and conversation around a story book normalises reading from a young age, so hopefully it will feel much less like a chore when they do start school.

The charity relies on volunteers, but how much of what you do is about enabling parents outside of these sessions?

A big part of what we do includes involving the parents in the reading sessions. We find ways to engage with them and encourage them to stay in the room or join in. We talk to them about the books their children are reading and their progress. We are just volunteers who like reading with children – not teachers, not experts. We want to show parents that anyone can do this, and what’s more, it’s a hugely enjoyable experience and an important bonding time with their child.

Parents can also observe our volunteers interacting with the children – asking them questions, talking about the story, counting objects on a page – which helps them not to expect their child to necessarily sit down and quietly concentrate on an entire story. They can make the story up or just talk about the pictures. Many of the parents we visit do this already, but there are those who don’t know how to go about reading with their child in a rewarding way – perhaps they were never read to as a child, perhaps they don’t feel they have the time, perhaps they aren’t confident with their own literacy. We show them by example that the sharing of a book in any capacity is a valuable and enjoyable experience.

Any particular books you and the volunteers have had a great reaction to?

So many! Anything by Julia Donaldson or Nick Sharratt are winners with most children. For the older children, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, and books by Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo are always popular.

imageWe have recently discovered an author called Hervé Tullet who creates very unique and interactive books. Volunteers delight in reading Press Here with children – there’s a page where you’re told to press a painted dot, then you turn over the page, and find it’s changed colour. Or you shake the book and find on the following page that the dots have fallen out of alignment. The reactions from children as young as 3 up to those as old as 11 – and even our volunteers – have been of wonder and excitement.

Go to www.doorsteplibrary.org.uk to learn more about Doorstep Library and watch a short video about the work they do.

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Interview: Sangeeta Bhadra

imageI chatted to Sangeeta Bhadra, author of Sam’s Pet Temper, about books from her childhood, inspiration and taking Sam into schools.

You mentioned that a lot of your favourite books as a child were British ones. Can you remember any that you particularly loved? What was it about these books that really spoke to you?

So many of the great children’s books are British that it’s no surprise they’re some of my favourites. I loved going on adventures with Paddington Bear and Pooh Bear, with Alice and Peter Pan, and journeying to Narnia. My fondest memories belong to Beatrix Potter, probably because I was very young when I first met Squirrel Nutkin and the rest of her characters.

I adore Roald Dahl. Matilda is a very special book for me; I remember reading the words, ‘books transported her into new worlds’, and understanding at that moment why I loved reading so much. Also, the books I loved appealed to me because the writers didn’t speak down to children and didn’t feel the need to educate. They simply told their stories.

How did the idea for Sam’s Pet Temper come to you and why was it a story you wanted to tell?

I’m often asked whether I had temper tantrums as a child (no, never) or if I researched the topic before getting started (again, no). I didn’t plan on writing a book on this topic at all. I consider Sam’s Pet Temper to be a gift, really. I was working on another story at the time when the idea just came to me –  ‘But it’s not my fault, it’s my Temper!’ ‘Well, control your Temper!’ My head was so full of this story that I dropped what I was doing and got the first draft down in one sitting. I honestly have no idea why I chose the name Sam.

The main challenge with the story was to sneak in the ‘moral’ without being didactic. Books with overt lessons did not appeal to me when I was a child so I was especially careful to avoid this.

What has the response been like taking the book into schools and libraries in Canada? What do you think is the impact of author visits on children?

The response has been very positive so far. Writing is a lonely, although fulfilling, process. Through readings and school and library visits, a writer is able to get a sense of how their work is being received – and with children’s books especially, your audience will be very honest about what they think!

On the other side, author visits are wonderful experiences for children, and can be quite inspirational. I loved books and enjoyed creative writing, but it took an author visit to my school at age eight to fuel my ambition of being an author myself when I grew up. I think I must have realized then that regular people had written the books I read, which opened up possibilities for me to dream about.

What’s next for you? Any other books in the pipeline?

I have several projects in the works at the moment that I can not wait to share…

Speaking of sharing, here’s a link to a fantastic Sam’s Pet Temper activity sheetDraw Your Temper activity

Interview: Josée Bisaillon

 

front-backJosée Bisaillon, illustrator of A Fish Named Glub, talks to me about her work.

You work in a lot of different mediums, but what is it you like in particular about illustrating picture books?

It’s really difficult to work on a picture book, to capture the right mood, to make the perfect characters, and to be consistent throughout the entire book. But even though it’s so much work, it’s a lot of fun.

I guess what I like most is to enter a different world each time. When I start illustrating a picture book, I feel like I’m building a house. I have to ‘build’ something that children and their parents will feel comfortable in. process2Using different mediums allows me to use different materials to build my houses. That’s why sometimes my work is different from one book to another. Sometimes I feel like the story would need more collages to be bolder, sometimes more ink and watercolor to make it softer, for example.

I love to think that there are actually real children around the world that are going to enjoy my work. It’s so gratifying, and it still feels like a dream come true.

You’ve recently worked on the Hansel and Gretel story for a Korean picture book (images below). What do you think the continuing appeal of fairy tales is? Is your approach to illustrating a well known tale different to working with original material?

I don’t know what we like so much about the old fairy tales. They are always a bit scarier and my kids love them. Maybe we like them because it brings back good memories, or because they are just really well written.

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When I began working on Hansel and Gretel, I was very honoured, but I was petrified. It was like touching a sacred story. It has been illustrated so many times that I was afraid of adding nothing new to the story. I looked at a lot (and I mean a lot) of illustrations from previous versions of Hansel and Gretel and I felt overwhelmed by them, so I decided not to look at them anymore and I began sketching and trying to illustrating this as if it was a brand new story. I made it with my style and my vision, and I think it worked in the end.

How important was reading to you when you were growing up?

I remember going to the library and coming back home with a ton of books, but apart from that I don’t recall my parents reading to me, even though I’m sure they did. There were always books in my house. When I was a teenager my favourites were The Babysitters Club books and gamebooks (choose your own adventure books). I still read every day before going to bed.

How important is reading to your own children?

It’s really, really important. My husband and I began reading to them when they were very young, around 2 or 3 months. I don’t know if it’s because of that, but the three of them really enjoy picture books. They help to develop their creativity, their vocabulary and their patience. They always ask for a story, we have to read to them before bed, and I love it.

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Interview: Helen and Thomas Docherty

untitledHelen and Thomas Docherty, the creative duo behind The Snatchabook, talk about ambiguity and suspense in picture books, the joy of bedtime stories, and future projects…

Helen, I know you wanted to be writer when you were younger, but you went on to have a career as a language teacher. Did you always know you would go back to writing? 

No, I didn’t. Despite being sure I would become a writer until about 14, I lost conviction in my own attempts as I became more aware of the competition. As much as I loved teaching – especially the more creative side of it – I always felt that in some way I had strayed from my original path. I met Thomas and was reintroduced to the world of children’s literature through his books. I think I knew from the day we met we would end up working together at some point, and a few years later we co-wrote Ruby Nettleship and the Ice-Lolly Adventure in 2010.  However, it wasn’t until my job was at risk that, with Thomas’s encouragement, I made a real effort to start writing myself again. That was the summer of 2011 – I wrote The Snatchabook, and I haven’t looked back!

Thomas, I loved Big Scary Monster, which you wrote and illustrated yourself. How is the process of collaboration with Helen different?

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When I write and illustrate a story I often develop the words and the pictures at the same time, letting them influence each other. Big Scary Monster started off with me thinking about how everything looks small when you are high up. It was a lot of fun working on The Snatchabook with Helen. Illustrating, like writing, can be quite a solitary profession and it’s always nice to have someone else’s ideas and input. I often ask Helen for her opinion on my pictures and it was exciting for us to be able to watch the world she had created come to life.

The Snatchabook starts off stealing from other animals. I like it when the character is morally ambiguous and introduces uncertainty in some way. Is this something that interests you both?

Helen: I’ve always been drawn to characters that transgress in some way – flawed, but not beyond redemption. Dr Seuss’s The Grinch Who Stole Christmas has always been one of my favourites, and was definitely an influence in the creation of the Snatchabook. I wanted to set up a whodunit with a slightly film noir-like atmosphere and to create a dastardly thief…A certain amount of suspense can work really well in a picture book, as long as there’s a happy ending. Of course, once Eliza has caught the Snatchabook, we realize he is just a pitiful little creature who only steals books because he has no-one to read to him; and this gives Eliza the chance to demonstrate compassion and to find a solution, and gives the Snatchabook what he really wanted all along. In my experience, children are fascinated by wrong-doing and have a keen sense of justice.

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Thomas: Deep down, like most people, (the Snatchabook) just wants to do the right thing and be loved. It was fun to create the contrast between the creepy autumn landscapes and the cosy burrows. It is that contrast and how the animals react to it that helps create the suspense in the illustrations. One of my favourite books is Moominpappa at Sea. It’s full of ambiguous characters in an elemental world.

How important was the ritual of the bedtime story when you were growing up, and how important is it with your own children? 

Helen: I was very lucky to have parents who were keen readers and always read to me. I have clear memories of my Dad reading me the Winnie the Pooh stories at bedtime, and both of us being convulsed with laughter. It’s an obvious thing to say, but the more you read to your kids, the more enjoyment they will get out of books for the rest of their lives. I love reading to our own daughters now – it’s the best part of the day.

Thomas: I’m dyslexic and it took me years to get reading properly so bedtime stories were very important to me. If I hadn’t been read to, I might never have developed the love of stories that I have today.

Any future projects you’re working on, together or separately?

Helen: Tom is working on the final illustrations of our next book together, Abracazebra (Alison Green Books, early 2015), about a zebra who arrives in a sleepy backwater with her travelling magic show, and a jealous goat who feels that she’s stolen his pitch. I also have another picture book with Faber (due in 2015), called Do You Remember?

Thomas: I also have some black and white pictures to do for a junior fiction title about a riding school. And I have a new picture book with Templar called The Driftwood Ball (pictured above), written and illustrated by myself, coming out in January. It’s a take on West Side Story with badgers and otters. And of course, a less tragic ending.