Spring reads for budding bookworms launched at Heffers Children’s Bookshop

Authors and illustrators Celina Buckley, Jessica Meserve and Puck Koper came together to celebrate the publication of their new books ‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’, ‘What Clara Saw’ and ‘Where Is Your Sister?’ at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge on 24th April.

The Cambridge-educated authors and illustrators secured book deals following the successful completion of master’s degrees in children’s illustration at the prestigious Cambridge School of Art.

Their books, which each have something unique and appealing to offer young readers, were launched in an intimate ceremony attended by local Cambridge book lovers, and regulars to Heffers Children’s Bookshop.

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Left to right: ‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’, ‘Where Is Your Sister’ and ‘What Clara Saw’ on display at Heffers Children’s Bookshop, Cambridge.

I caught up with the authors before the ceremony, to talk about their inspiration for being a children’s book author and, crucially, the advice that they would give to anyone wanting to follow in their shoes.

About the authors and their books

‘Where Is Your Sister?’ by Puck Koper

‘Where Is Your Sister?’ by Dutch illustrator Puck Koper is a revamp of the classic children’s search and find adventure – a set of ‘Where’s Wally’ training shoes for the next generation of puzzle heads.

Picking through the colourful madness on each page, readers set out to find Harriet, a young runaway, lost, or hiding, in a manic department store. The madness intensifies on each page, as more and more people join in the hunt, before Harriet is finally reunited with her family.

The book’s author, Koper, an illustrator from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, previously illustrated several children’s books, before writing and illustrating ‘Where Is Your Sister’ as part of an MA in Children’s Book Illustration from Cambridge School of Art.

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Puck Koper

The book is a crafty riot of patterned dots, stripes, squiggles and checks, and was printed using Pantone ink to ensure that none of the colourful madness in Koper’s original illustrations is ever lost during production.

“I loved making the busy scenes,” says Koper, while chatting about the method behind her illustrations. “For example, I have a toy department in [the book], and I really loved to think about what should be there, and who should be there.”

“I have all the characters listed in the endpapers of the book, at the front and the back, so you can look out for them, and check out their little stories and follow them,” she says. “There is actually a thief in the book that you can follow – and as a little clue, he isn’t on the last page, he doesn’t make it to the end.”

The illustrations in Koper’s book are certainly unique, but the author hopes that some Dutch readers might be able to notice one particular illustrator from whom she takes some inspiration – “Her name is Fiep Westendorp, she’s a hero,” she says, laughing.

“Really, I think you get inspired by everything, by movies, by things you see in the street – by people you see in the street,” she says. “My book is filled with people I saw somewhere, matched up with things I saw and people I know – I get inspiration from everywhere.”

‘Where Is Your Sister?’ is published by Pan Macmillan, and available to buy online from Amazon and Waterstones.

‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ by Celina Buckley

‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ is a beautifully and creatively illustrated children’s picture book which retells an Irish legend about an enchanted salmon with the power to impart all the knowledge in the world to the first person who eats it.

A much-beloved tale among children all over Ireland, the original fable was a childhood favourite of illustrator and author Celina Buckley, from Rylane in County Cork. A primary school teacher by trade, Buckley says that she has always loved art and illustration, but was never sure how to truly develop her passion.

Celina Buckley
Celina Buckley

“When I was training to be a teacher, I remember looking through some picture books for teaching practice and I just thought, this is something that I could do, and I would absolutely love it,” she says.  “I did the week-long summer class at Cambridge School of Art, and I loved it, and then I applied to do the children’s publishing MA and I was accepted.”

Buckley completed her masters in illustration while on sabbatical from her teaching job – she developed ‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ as part of her final project.

“Irish legends are often word heavy, they are mainly text with just a few illustrations, so I wanted to make it into a picture book that younger children could read from start to finish,” she says, when asked about her inspiration for the book.

“This one had a big impact on me when I first heard it. So I decided to start with that story. I would like to do a series of Irish legends – and then write and illustrate my own as well. I want to keep going… and improving,” she says.

A traditional legend that children are sure to love, it is the illustrations in ‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ that really make the book stand out. Buckley used observational drawing to develop her artwork, using collage to build up individual scenes and experiment with colour and texture.

“The forest in the beginning of the book is the forest by my house, and it’s really nice… to draw it from observation, and then to collage it, and then see it in the book – all those places mean something more to me,” she says.

It’s not just the artwork that benefitted from Buckley’s love of collage, as she also created her own font to compliment the book’s interior. Each letter in the alphabet was intricately cut out, before being and scanned in and edited to create a font that is truly unique to her style.

‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ is published by Starfish Bay Children’s Books, and available to buy online from Amazon and Waterstones.

‘What Clara Saw’ by Jessica Meserve

Taking inspiration from a true story about a unusual relationship between a tortoise and a baby hippo, ‘What Clara Saw’ is a clever and charming tale about one girl’s enlightening trip to a wildlife park, and the lessons she learned from the animals.

Having previously published several children’s books, and illustrated several more, Jessica Meserve embarked on an MA in Children’s Book illustration from Cambridge School of Art in a bid to further develop her artistic personality. ‘What Clara Saw’ was developed as part of Meserve’s final project for the MA.

Jessica Meserve
Jessica Meserve

“I was really inspired by a book [about] unlikely friendships between animals” says Meserve, smiling. “There was this lovely story about… this little baby hippo [that] was taken to an animal reserve [and] became enamoured with a 150-year-old giant tortoise.”

“Scientist always try to say that it is because the tortoise was about the size of a female hippo, or there is some other reason, and I think there are just some relationships that you just can’t explain,” she says. “This is one thing that I wanted to get across in the book.”

“The other thing that I wanted to get across is a celebration of children being able to see these things which adults sometimes over analyse, or try to explain, and children can sometimes see them more clearly.”

One of Meserve’s main passions, she says, is drawing children, and developing her characters based on the ‘quirky’ behaviour of those around her – particularly her own daughters, whose individuality and unique world view are a source of constant inspiration.

“I have two lovely girls of my own, and one thing they struggle with is having differing opinions from teachers, and I really wanted to celebrate children being able to question authoritative figures,” she says.

The ‘authoritative figure’, or ‘bad guy’ in ‘What Clara Saw’ is a primary school teacher – aptly named Mr Biggity. “He’s not really a bad guy,” laughs Meserve, “but he is a little bit narrow minded!”

“I want children to feel like they are allowed to question grownups, and they can make their own judgements about the world. Children’s opinions really matter, and sometimes they can see things much more clearly because their judgment isn’t clouded by what they think they can see.”

‘What Clara Saw’ is published by Pan Macmillan and available to buy from online from Amazon and Waterstones.

 

Dr Seuss: How The Grinch Stole Christmas | 60th birthday

It’s that time of year again, and this one is a special one, because one of the world’s best-loved children’s Christmas stories is turning 60, and it’s had a special makeover to celebrate.

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This beautiful new edition of Dr Seuss’s Christmas masterpiece ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ is the perfect addition to any Christmas list. The illustrations and charming storyline remain the same, but are joined by a welcoming introduction by Charles D Cohen which explores the origins of the story, and the true meaning of Christmas – this is all contained within a beautiful clothbound cover and presentation box.

I absolutely love the Grinch, I include the 1960s animated short and even the Jim Carey feature in this, but of course nothing is a patch on the original. It is one of Dr Seuss’s best known stories, and with good reason. It took just a month to write, and two months to illustrate, but no other book so perfectly explores and presents the true meaning of Christmas.

You all know the story, and I’m sure I don’t need to bore you all with an explanation of the excellent storyline, writing style, or even illustrations – that said, Dr Seuss’s illustrations never cease to amaze me, in with this book in particular I love the use of red and black, making the pages seem at one dark and festive.

The story itself remains the same, a true Christmas classic, but the really nice thing about this new edition is the introduction.

It is said, and I cannot help but agree, that most people think of Dr Seuss as the Cat in the Hat – but remember that even the happiest people have their bad days. Dr Seuss, whose real name, for those of you who didn’t know, was Theodor Geisel, actually based the grisly, green-eyed character that stalks the page of this Christmas caper on none other than himself.

As his stepdaughter Lark Dimond-Cates once said: “I always thought that the Cat… was Ted on his good days, and the Grinch was Ted on his bad days.”

Seuss created the Grinch as a character at the tender aged of 53, on the day after Christmas day 1956, as an expression of his own concerns about the festive season. It’s an alarming thought, that someone who wrote such wonderful, magical children’s book could struggle with the spirit of Christmas, but Seuss did, and he used the Grinch to help work out exactly how he felt about the holiday.

So the intro says, Seuss was looking into the mirror, brushing his teeth on that Boxing Day morning, when he saw the Grinch peeking back at him.

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“Something had gone wrong with Christmas, I realised, or more likely with me. So I wrote the story about my sour friend, the Grinch, to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.”

This is, in fact, alluded to a little in the text “For fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now! I must stop this Christmas from coming! … But HOW?”

The introduction goes on to explain a little more about the books notoriety. It was first published back in 1957, an interesting year for Christmas which saw the launch of three separate which encouraged readers to rethink the true meaning of Christmas. These included: The Year without Santa Claus, The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It became a year when people were forced to think about what Christmas really meant to them – and people loved it! All the books received prominent praise, and went on to become films in their own right, but none was quite as special as the Grinch, who became a Christmas staple, paling only in comparison to Santa Claus, and Rudolph.

However, unpleasant the Grinch character may seem at first, the book reminds us of an important fact – Christmas is about more than just presents. There is a deeper meaning to the book, though, expressed through the image of the Grinch, and the Whos coming together, that no one should be alone on Christmas, and that anyone can be part of a community.

The poor Grinch has never had a friend, or a family, and certainly never been part of a community, and cannot understand the Whos. In particular, he hates the Who-Christmas-Sing, a time when the Whos “would stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing. They’d stand hand-in-hand. And the Whos would start singing.”

Through the magic of Christmas, and seeing the Whos resilience even in the absence of presents, the Grinch learns to enjoy the true meaning of Christmas and to spend time and share a meal with the Whos, and as such to become a part of their community.

It is not a religious story, Seuss made sure of this. Like many of his books, Seuss wanted to ensure that the Grinch would teach children that people who look different, and come from different places can still come together as friends. A message we could all do with remembering at such troubling times.

As the intro concludes, most readers can notice a little something of the Grinch in themselves, I know I definitely can. I love Christmas, but I have had my troubles with it in the past, fed up with the endless money, presents and complete and utter faff that comes with it. At some point, though, I realised how I was only depriving myself by feeling this way, and by doing away with my own faff, I learned to enjoy Christmas for what it is, a time to be thankful, to spend time with friends and family and celebrate life, a time for quiet, reflection – and now I love it again.

The Grinch is an important holiday figure, and the Grinch, as a story, is one I can never get through the Christmas season without reading. I didn’t realise, until I saw this new edition, that the Grinch was approaching its 60th year in publication. I had already decided to start a little ‘tradition’ with my youngest nephew, of buying him a Dr Seuss book for his birthday and Christmas each year, this year’s Christmas present was to be the Grinch, and I am delighted that there is a special, beautiful new edition that I can share with him.

 

Happy Roald Dahl Day!

The last two weeks have been crazy – many a lost purse, blocked drain and sick cat to keep me busy, so I do hope you’ll forgive my radio silence.

Couple of pieces of good news for you:

Firstly, I have recently received a beautiful copy a super-exciting new children’s book, The Grotlyn, by Benji Davis, the much-loved author of The Storm Whale – I’ve read it, and it’s fantastic, so keep your eyes peeled for a review in the next couple of days, and maybe consider buying a copy in the meantime.

Secondly, but most importantly, it’s Roald Dahl Day!

I hope you have all managed to take a little time out to appreciate, or celebrate in some way, this wonderful children’s author. As for myself, I plan to watch the film adaptation of The Witches the second I get home tonight – the book has always held a special place in my heart – partly, but not just, due to the present of mice.

I love mice, after all, mice, I am fairly certain, all like each other. People don’t.

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In the meantime, to keep myself ticking over, and for the personal enjoyment for each and every one of you reading this, here is a little excerpt from the book. It’s quite possibly the loveliest thing you will read all day, and sure to breed all the good thoughts – remember, if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely 🙂

“How long does a mouse live?”

“Ah,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that.”

There was a silence. She sat there smoking away and gazing at the fire.

“Well,” I said. “How long do we live, us mice?”

“I have been reading about mice,” she said. “I have been trying to find out everything I can about them.”

“Go on then, Grandmamma. Why don’t you tell me?”

“If you really want to know,” she said, “I’m afraid a mouse doesn’t live for a very long time.”

“How long?” I asked.

“Well, an ordinary mouse only lives for about three years,” she said. “But you are not an ordinary mouse. You are a mouse-person, and that is a very different matter.”

“How different?” I asked. “How long does a mouse-person live, Grandmamma?”

“Longer,” she said. “Much longer.”

“A mouse-person will almost certainly live for three times as long as an ordinary mouse,” my grandmother said. “About nine years.”

“Good!” I cried. “That’s great! It’s the best news I’ve ever had!”

“Why do you say that?” she asked, surprised.

“Because I would never want to live longer than you,” I said. “I couldn’t stand being looked after by anybody else.”

There was a short silence. She had a way of fondling me behind the ears with the tip of one finger. It felt lovely.

“How old are you, Grandmamma?” I asked.

“I’m eighty-six,” she said.

“Will you live another eight or nine years?”

“I might,” she said. “With a bit of luck.”

“You’ve got to,” I said. “Because by then I’ll be a very old mouse and you’ll be a very old grandmother and soon after that we’ll both die together.”

“That would be perfect,” she said.”

 

‘The Wishing Star’ by M Christina Butler and Frank Endersby

I have a real soft spot for books about mice.

I’m sure it has something to do with how tiny they are – almost the perfect size for living in a doll’s house, and so somehow just right for ascribing human qualities to.

Obviously, ‘The Tale of Two Bad Mice’ was an absolute favourite of mine as a child, but even as an adult I still find myself drawn to any children’s book with a mouse on the front cover – ‘The Mouse and His Child’ and ‘Redwall’, though aimed at a slightly older audience, are two of my favourite finds in recent years.

‘The Wishing Star’ is the latest addition to my children’s book shelf, and one I look forward to sharing with the little people in my life.

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Little Brown Mouse and Little Grey Mouse are the best of friends, and spend all their days together, doing the things that best friends do. They climb trees, and pick berries and have such a jolly time, each content in the others company.

‘I’m so lucky to have you as a friend,” said Little Grey Mouse.

One night, the two friends see a beautiful wishing star fall from the night’s sky and disappear into the nearby lake, and set off in their boat to find it. The night is full possibilities, with so many lovely things awaiting them, like untold adventures, and an unlimited mouse-sized pantry – but there is only one star, and both little mice want to make a wish.

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How will they decide who gets to choose the wish? And what happens if someone gets to the star before them?

‘The Wishing Star’ is a book about friendship, which carries with it important message of not letting little things get in the way of what really matters. Unlimited pantries and adventures forgotten, the two little mice realise that what really matters is that they have each other, and other friends they meet along the way, which is more than anyone could ever wish for.

This book would serve as a good bedtime read to share with younger children, with a good amount of dialogue allowing for adults to express their own creative flair by choosing voices for the various characters. It would also work well as an introduction to reading for those children who are setting off for school this autumn – the charming illustrations, and a simple, thoughtful storyline providing a perfect stepping stone to discover the joys of reading by yourself.

‘Copycat Bear’ by Ellie Sandall

I was drawn to this book by the illustration on the front cover; there was something vaguely nostalgic about the big, scratchy blue bear that seemed to pull on a distant childhood memory and invite me back inside. Who am I to try and resist?

This book is short and sweet, so I will try and keep my review so.

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Mango is little bird with a big attitude, and an even bigger best friend – Blue the bear. The two make an amusing pair, one big, trundling and blue, the other small, swift and orange, but Blue doesn’t seem to care. No matter what Mango does, he always tries to copy her. Whether it’s jumping from branch to branch in the tropical trees or attempting to sing a jungle ditty – he even pretends that he can fly!

Mango cannot stand it!

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When it all gets too much, Mango flies off in a huff – knowing at least Blue can’t follow. But it doesn’t take long before she starts to feel lonely… Where is her copycat bear?

‘Copycat Bear’ is a story of that celebrates friendship, while teaching an important lesson about tolerance and understanding. It reminded me slightly of Rainbow Fish’ – a firm childhood favourite of mine – both in the colours and imagery used, and it its attempt to reflect the importance of kindness and empathy.

The effect is quite something; at times I felt more than a little sorry for Blue.

Thank goodness for happy endings.

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Like all good picture books, ‘Copycat Bear’ is there for children to enjoy, with amusing anecdotes – like a bear attempting to fly – paired with beautifully captivating images, but also alludes to some important and valuable life lessons.

With this in mind there are two main messages running through the book that even young children can learn from. Firstly, that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and though copycats can seem annoying, they might just be the ones who love and respect us the most. But also, and perhaps most importantly, that being different is ok.

‘Under the Silvery Moon’ by Colleen McKeown

The perfect bedtime companion, this beautiful children’s book is soft, sweet, and magical.

So often it’s the words or images alone that make a children’s book, with the other standing in the side-lines paying an occasional well-placed compliment. This little book strikes the perfect balance between the two, with beautiful flowing words perfectly captured by magical, moon-dappled imagery.

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“Around us swirls a summer song; it’s whispered through the trees.
The evening wind is blowing through the softly rustling leaves.”

The sun has set, and bedtime has long past, but one little kitten is struggling to sleep. Snuggled up in the hay lofts of a cosy wooden barn, the scene is perfect for slumber, but outside, animals are stirring, and the night-time noises fill the little ginger tom with fear.

Under the Silvery Moon is the softly sung lullaby of Mother Cat, as she guides her little one on a journey through the sounds of the night, stopping to visit each nocturnal creature along the way.

We pass the shadow-like figure of a fox, singing his night-time song, a happy trundling badger, barking with delight, a host of croaking frogs, bathing by the light of the moon, and snuffling, scurrying hedgehogs, out for a midnight snack.

Elsewhere, a mother duck snuggles with her ducklings, and other animals, tired from a busy day, get some well-earned rest – just as little kittens should.

Mother Cat’s soothing lullaby shows the night is full of noises, but none we need to fear.

Under the Silvery Moon is a calming bedtime read, perfect for settling any little one to sleep, the soft rhyming text and beautiful, dream-like illustrations paving the way for a sweet slumber filled with nocturnal adventures.

‘Beijing Smog’ by Ian Williams

Social media is a powerful thing, even in a world where government-sanctioned firewalling attempts to keep it under wraps. In a place where public opinion is learned, not formed, and freedom of expression is non-existent, innocent Tweets, shares and updates can be taken all too seriously. Even the smallest of jokes can end up spiralling out of control.

41Q5eoeLSxL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_So goes the story in ‘Beijing Smog’, the debut novel from Ian Williams, former correspondent for Channel 4 News and the Sunday Times newspaper, who spent more than two decades living, working and reporting on China. Dark, cynical and somewhat satirical, Williams presents a modern Chinese society that is suffocating and depressing, and might prove for hard reading were it not for an entourage of well-rounded, relatable characters, and, what I hope will prove to be, Williams’ signature satirical humour.

A book of multiple pathways, ‘Beijing Smog’ centres first and foremost on the life of Wang Chu, a video-game-addicted computer science student and the unexpected father of revolution, who hides behind the screen of his smartphone, in a world inhabited by crazed monkeys, brain-hungry zombies, and poorly drawn aliens.

Wang’s devil-may-care attitude to social media has a far more prominent effect on his followers than he could have ever imagined. How could anyone have foreseen that an innocuous Tweet, subtly poking fun at the modern Chinese government, could start a revolution? That all it would take to undermine the ruling Communist Party is a simple, crudely draw stick alien with a wide bulbous head and round, sloping eyes? It started life as a joke, but the Party are not laughing.

As he wanders blindly into the heart of the storm, Wang’s story intertwines with that of two others: Chuck Drayton, an American diplomat, sucked into the world of cyber security not by desire, or ability on his part, but apathy and incompetence of everyone else; and Anthony Morgan, a listless British businessman, striving to keep his Chinese partners on track while revealing his true feelings via VPN with gloomy predictions published under the Twitter tagline @Beijing_Smog. As their stories collide, the alien revolution set in motion by Wang takes on an unpredictable life of its own, threatening all those involved, none more so than the Party itself.

This is a book about espionage, corruption, censorship and alienation. Cyberspace and the choking Chinese smog form a striking metaphor of the disorientation that clouds the main characters’ brains and the wider Chinese public. As government sensors work tirelessly to conceal, delete and mould online opinion, businesses boom with the sale of inadequate gas masks and smog apps and university students hide within a world far more palatable than reality. It may seem apathetic; a generation of students unable to look up from their phones and at a total loss when the internet goes down, but it is online that revolution is brewing.

This is not an historical novel, nor an exact representation of life in the People’s Republic, but rather a book which seeks to capture the madness and intensity of life within a highly censored society. This is something that Williams achieves without a doubt, his sparky style and dark satirical humour creates a world where student sinks overflowing with ramen dishware, shabby coffee shops with more tab than substance, and cracked smartphone screens, sit alongside bloated, machete-mutilated corpses, hungry Siberian tigers, and invitations to ‘tea’ with the university authorities. A world where a single slipped word could see a person disappear.

This review was first published online for E&T Magazine