Illustrated Children’s adventure series launched at Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum

The first in a series of illustrated children’s books, aimed at encouraging children to take an interest in visiting museums, has been launched by an independent group of adventure-seeking artists, just in time for the summer holidays.

Riddle of the White Sphinx is the first of the ‘Hidden Tales’ – a series of adventure stories with inbuilt treasure hunts, where children are invited to trace the journey of characters, follow clues, crack codes and uncover a hidden artefact located somewhere within their city.

More than 300 young bookworms attended the launch event at the Historic Sedgwick museum on 29th June, where they were joined by author Mark Wells, producer Sorrel May and illustrator Jennifer Bell.

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Author Mark Wells signs a copy of Riddle of the White Sphinx at the Sedgwick Museum book launch.

Attendees were able to get their hands on a pre-release copy of the book, as well as take part in themed activities and competitions being held across the museum – though many were seen heading into town, eager to get stuck into the treasure hunt.

Speaking about the inspiration behind the book, author Mark Wells said that he hoped the book would instil a “spirit of adventure” in all those who read it.

“When you open a book or step out your front door, there are so many things to discover – but you have to open your mind to see them,” said Wells. “The Hidden Tales is all about going outside and embarking on a real-life adventure, one where you physically visit places and work collaboratively with others to solve a mystery together.”

To find out more about the inspiration behind the Hidden Tales, check out my interview with the author.

The book follows the adventures of two children, Nina and Leo, who discover a dark secret lurking in Cambridge after they hear a mysterious, bodiless voice, calling out to them from a museum exhibition.

The story guides readers on a journey through the city streets, to locate secret portals in seven of the city’s historic museums, identify a trapped historic figure and discover the artefact that binds them there.

Want to know more? Click on the image below to open up a handy Hidden Tales infographic for a rundown of how the book works.

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Speaking at the launch event, producer Sorrel May said: “Seeing so many children and their families gather for the launch of the Hidden Tales was a wonderful feeling. The excitement on the faces of the children as they opened up their new books made all the hard work we had put into the project over the last two years feel worth it.”

It’s not just children who couldn’t wait to see what the book had in store, check out my video review below:

The launch was also attended by a small group of lucky ticket holders chosen from schools around Cambridge, who were given a special tour of the Sedgwick with the first clues to the treasure hunt whispered to them over the museum’s audio guides.

“The launch was really fun,” said Kim Wheeler, a trained teacher, and one of the many Cambridge locals who attended the event. “It was great to see so many things for the children to get stuck into, to leave them raring to start the puzzles in the book afterwards.”

“I really love how the clues you need are embedded in the story,” she continued. “It makes you dig deeper and think about the writing more. It would be great for getting children to use their comprehension skills in a really meaningful way.”

If you missed out on the launch, you can still get a copy of the book online or from Heffers bookstore. The Hidden Tales are also planning a series of fun and immersive events relating to the launch throughout the summer – check out the website for more information.

 

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.

 

The Grotlyn – Benji Davies

I am a little late to the party with this one – but I love it all the same!

It was the cover that first drew me to this book. Some might call it clichéd, a sparse bedroom, complete with gas lamp, lit only by the pale glow of the moon, a wrought iron bed, a tiny, pale figure peeking above the heavy sheets. I think it’s timeless. This is exactly the kind of cover, and theme I would like to have for my children’s book – if I ever get around to finishing it…

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I know when the Grotlyn’s been
Slipping through your house unseen…

The Grotlyn is a new(ish) rhyming picture book by lyrical genius and acclaimed children’s author Benji Davies. This is more than a book about things that go bump in the night though, it’s beautifully illustrated, playfully constructed and comes complete with an important life lesson for all children afraid of the dark.

As much as parents might like to try to stop their little ones watching scary movies or frightening YouTube videos, some ghostly goings on in story books is almost like a rite of passage. You know as soon as you see the cover of a creepy children’s book that it’s not going to be ~that~ scary, but I’m willing to bet that the majority of children who own this book were hoping it would be…

The story itself, though short and sweet, is loaded with suspense created by Davies atmospheric Victorian-esque illustrations, and simple, almost creeping, rhyming style. The two combine to create a spooky yet playful scene – a mysterious shadow slinking through the smog slicked city streets, slipping from page to page, raising the neck hairs of all it passes.

The Grotlyn.

This mysterious creature is causing quite a stir among the townsfolk, and has even stolen a pair of PC Vickers’ knickers.

So what could it be?

Don’t worry, the Grotlyn isn’t some horrific Babadook type – and this book is not going to make any little Klaus’s dance with the likes of Freddie Krueger.  As the, equally magnificent, trailer for this tale so cleanly alludes:

But what at first we think to be
The eye does blindly make us see.
So don’t be scared to sleep – to dream!
For things are not quite what they seem.

Rest easy with the knowledge that the creeping, crawling, knicker-stealing culprit in the story poses no harm, and will be easily, and perhaps hilariously, revealed to be something much less scary than the name ‘Grotlyn’ conjures up.

I can say no more.

I don’t like to judge a book by its cover – but I 100 per cent did with this one and it completely paid off. I won’t be gifting my copy of this book to any little people, quite simply because I want to keep it for myself. That said, I think that ‘The Grotlyn’ is the perfect book for sharing with little ones who like a thrill.

Billy and Ant Lie – James Minter

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” ― Mark Twain

Billy and Ant Lie is the fourth book in James Minter’s ‘Billy’ series – a life learning collection for children entering adolescence. The series focuses on difficult or troubling situations faced by many preteen’s as they embark on their journey towards adulthood. The world is a confusing, complex and ever-changing place, and Minter’s Billy series attempts to help young adults to understand the decisions and situations which they many encounter. The first book in the Billy series – a review of which you can find here – in which Minter’s main character, Billy, has his extra-special birthday present stolen by an older boy, tackles the issue of bullying, and how best to react, and deal with situations in which you find yourself victimised or picked on by other people. The fourth book, which uses a very similar approach to Minter’s first book, tackles the issue of lying.

The book begins with Billy setting off on his bike to meet his friend Ant so that they can ride to school together. It is a simple, ordinary enough day, until Billy and Ant stumble upon a £1 coin in the bus stop. Despite running a little bit late for school the two friends head off to buy some sweets from Mr Gupter’s garage.

There is something to be said for being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, which Billy and Ant discover, when their sweet buying attempt is interrupted by a fleeing shop lifter. Shocked, and presumably a little upset, the pair rush off to school before they can be questioned by anyone else at the scene. Worried that their lateness will land them in trouble, they concoct an elaborate lie to get them off the hook, deciding to say that Ant had a flat tyre, and that they had to return home to get it fixed before coming in to school.

Lies are never simple though, and they rarely get you off the hook. So when the police come to school appealing for any witnesses from the incident at Mr Gupter’s garage it is only a matter of time before the Billy and Ant’s story begins to unravel. When the local Police Constable asks to speak to Billy and Ant about the situation their teacher is shocked – they couldn’t possibly have seen what had happened, they were very specific about their whereabouts during the incident. Billy and Ant realise that it is only a matter of time before the truth catches up to them, and they discover just how much trouble their lie has caused.

The guilt and fear at having told a lie proves to be more trouble than it was worth. When Billy and Any made the decision to hide their true whereabouts from their teacher, they may have thought they were committing a victimless crime, but in reality, like a pebble being dropped into a pond, their lie created ripples that were more far-reaching than either boy could ever have imagined.

The reality is that if they had just told the truth to begin with, they wouldn’t have got in any trouble – their teachers and parents would likely have been concerned for their wellbeing, rather than disappointed and hurt.  By telling a lie, they made things the worse not just for themselves, but for all those around them too.

Billy and Ant Lie is another a wonderful example of a story that young children can enjoy reading along with the parents, while learning a little bit about the world around them. The book is well-written and easy to follow, offering an accessible route for parents to broach an issue that is likely to affect many young children as they begin their journey into adulthood.

Minter’s Billy Books are designed for parents, guardians, teachers and the young minds they care for, to help smooth the journey along the bumpy road from late childhood into adolescence. The books provide lessons and advice for children, as well as a conversation starter for adults wishing to approach these subjects with their young counterparts. By providing a character than children can relate to, the books help children to form an understanding of the real-world implications of their actions.

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.”

 

‘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.