Shout out for the ‘quiet book’: Nicky Singer at #IBBYCraft

The 22nd annual IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference took place on 14 November 2015 at the University of Roehampton. This year’s theme was ‘Steering the Craft: Navigating the process of creating children’s books in the 21st century’. This week on the NCRCL blog, alumni and current NCRCL students will be reporting on various aspects of the conference, including the speakers, panellists and parallel sessions.

Shout out for the ‘quiet book’: Nicky Singer at #IBBYCraft

By Suzanne Ellen Curley

Nicky Singer, author of the wonderful Feather Boy, ended the first morning session with a wonderful, funny, ranty, but above all, informative talk about the publishing process. The movement of importance from quality to quantity in terms of sales, and where the writer fits in to this new equation.

Already one of my favourite authors, I had high expectations of the talk, and she did not disappoint.

She spoke of how the power has shifted from the editors to the marketers. As she quoted in her own blog post on the subject, “what happens to children’s books when the definition of success is how many units you can sell, rather than how many souls you can nourish?”

Singer began by speaking of the lack of ‘Quiet Books’ in modern children’s fiction, and the new fashion for simple books that can be summed up in a single sentence for marketing purposes. She explained how her own book Island, was turned down by publishers for being ‘too quiet’ and too literary. It was too challenging, and not a mainstream, easy-reading adventure story. Therefore it would not sell the required ‘shed loads’ in order to make lots of money.

Riddell Island
A sketch for the front cover of Nicky Singer’s Island by Chris Riddell

She told an amusing anecdote relating to these issues with her experience in rewriting Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, which she had to drastically change for today’s supposedly fragile child audiences. She had to remove the hams hanging from Badger’s ceiling, as this would allegedly make it difficult to sell to Muslim audiences; she also had to remove much of the colourful literary language. And the clincher for me was her having to remove the references to weaponry, which are an important part of story’s climax, due to American children who are clearly too innocent to come across guns in stories.

Singer argued that children are, in fact, more resilient than adults give credit for. She argued that violence in children’s books does not necessarily lead to violence in real life, and that books are actually a safe space to test morality and should not be censored so thoroughly.

She also mentioned that, for this book, she had not yet signed a contract, and was at risk of losing respect from many publishers, editors etc, and according to her lawyer husband, she may never work again due to the talk, and her subsequent blog post on the subject.

Luckily however, in a bookshop, she met a relatively influential chap named Chris Riddell, who went on to illustrate Island, generating interest from publishers all over the world.

Nicky Singer met illustrator Chris Riddell by chance in a Brighton bookshop

The story came to a happy conclusion, however, her morals and ethics are still firmly as they were.

I admire her for standing her ground and opening up about the state of the industry, despite a lot of (in her words) DGB (Doom, Gloom and Bitching),

Riddell Singer
Doom, Gloom and Bitching: Another sketch by Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell.

I learnt a lot about the publishing industry and how difficult it is for writers to publish what they want to write.

I strongly believe that there is an audience for Quiet Books, and I found Singer’s talk brilliantly engaging and enlightening.

Suzanne Curley is currently in her second and final year of a part time MA in Children’s Literature at Roehampton University, where she has a particular interest in 19th century children’s books. Follow Suzanne on Twitter: @suzanne_curley.

Hidden histories of illustration: Parallel session E

The 22nd annual IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference took place on 14 November 2015 at the University of Roehampton. This year’s theme was ‘Steering the Craft: Navigating the process of creating children’s books in the 21st century’. This week on the NCRCL blog, alumni and current NCRCL students will be reporting on various aspects of the conference, including the speakers, panellists and parallel sessions. 

Hidden histories of illustration: Parallel session E

By Lesley Smith

Two speakers talked about the illustration of children’s books, showing lots of examples.

First up was Sarah Lawrance, with her talk “Drawn from the Archive – hidden histories of illustration“.

Sarah works at Seven Stories which is the National Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle. One important function of the centre is to collect and store book illustrations. They have 35,000 books dated from the 1930s onwards. The material ranges from wood engravings to digital art, sometimes showing the development of a work from original sketches, sometimes showing the life’s work of an artist.

Preserving this material enables researchers to:

  • explore the creative and design processes which have shaped a book
  • trace developments in printing
  • understand how artistic aims sometimes conflict with commercial ones.

Two hundred and fifty authors and illustrators are represented, including Ruth Gervis, Edward Ardizzone, Judith Kerr and Sarah Garland. See the Seven Stories website and blog for more information and plan a trip to Newcastle!

Parallel Session E
Victorian lunatic asylums really did stage tea parties, and Carroll visited one – inspiration for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, explained Franziska E. Kohlt.

Next up was Franziska E. Kohlt, from the University of Oxford, who spoke on “Illustrating Alice, Then and Now: Victorian Visual Culture and the Politics of Modern Children’s Book Illustration and Adaptation”.

Franziska said Alice has proved to be a successful franchise for 150 years. Her adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have been reprinted many times and adapted for stage, screen and video games.

Originally, Lewis Carroll illustrated the story himself, but he was no artist, so employed Tenniel to improve on his efforts. Tenniel worked as a cartoonist for “Punch” and his illustrations reflect his own social/political stance.

Their relationship was not smooth, but some collaboration occurred: Carroll scrapped a scene featuring wasps when Tenniel refused to draw them. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is less fantastical than we might think – lunatic asylums did stage tea parties and Carroll had visited one.

Franziska displayed many different examples of artwork but made the point that few illustrators have managed to completely break free from Tenniel’s influence, even though Alice has experienced sex, drugs and rock-and-roll in the 1960s and travelled as far as Japan!

In conclusion: Alice is a scary book – it makes abstract ideas visible and, as society changes, so does Alice.

Lesley Smith is a distance learning student on the MA Children’s Literature programme at Roehampton University.

Dahl in Welsh? And other questions: Parallel session D

The 22nd annual IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference took place on 14 November 2015 at the University of Roehampton. This year’s theme was ‘Steering the Craft: Navigating the process of creating children’s books in the 21st century’. This week on the NCRCL blog, alumni and current NCRCL students will be reporting on various aspects of the conference, including the speakers, panellists and parallel sessions.

Dahl in Welsh? And other questions: Parallel session D

By Demet Hoffmeyer-Zlotnik

The session started with Siwan Rosser, from the University of Cardiff, with her topic: “Do we really need Dahl in Welsh?” First of all, Rosser described the situation in Wales right now. English versions of the same novel are easier to get and for many new Welsh speakers, who only learn Welsh in school, they’re also easier to read. She explained that the novels by Roald Dahl which she was looking at also required an extended knowledge of English from the reader, since, for example, quotes from Dylan Thomas were kept in the original English.

But this is not the only problem Rosser addressed in her talk. She also drew attention to the fact that 50% of the books published in Welsh are translated. Since a translation comes at a lower cost and risk for the publisher, it is both the enemy and the friend of lesser-spoken languages. Not to forget that it creates a one-way road of cultural flow.

With all these prominent problems, do we need Dahl in Welsh?

Siwan Rosser thinks: yes, we do! Translations of famous authors like Dahl or J.K. Rowling are important to encourage readers to read books in Welsh, “but we should not forget to raise our own Dahl” and keep on developing Welsh language and culture.

Translations of well-known books into Welsh can encourage readers new to reading the language.

After this great start into the session we went on directly with Yan Zheng from the University of Glasgow talking about “Story Apps and the Touch-Screen: Challenges and Opportunities for 21st Century Storytelling”.

During her talk, Zheng described her experience with several app developers and their different apps that she had the opportunity to test. The biggest problem she pointed out in her talk were the numerous software bugs she discovered during her research. Compared to simple typing errors in a book, software bugs can heavily disrupt the reading experience of the user. In one of the apps Zheng focused on, the characters would start reading out random sentences if the user failed to interact with them in time. Zheng also mentioned that these story apps are not yet adjusted to users flipping through the book, which is something a usual reader of a picturebook does a lot.

With all those malfunctions in mind, why should we tell a story in an app and not in a book with less problems?

A touchscreen is a very interactive medium which can open a whole new reading experience for us, if we focus on how better to transfer from one medium to another.

The last speaker in this parallel session was Kerenza Ghosh from the University of Roehampton talking about “Children and Teachers’ Experiences of Book Making and Authorship”.

In her talk Ghosh described her work with two different classes of 4 and 5 year olds, in which each of them got a different book to talk about in class and then adapt into their own picturebook. The result of her project was, overall, positive. In general the children became more confident and independent. She even stated that “as young children work in creating art […] they gain practice in holding attention”. The book-making process helped the children to think more critically about the book and analyze the characters and their motivations. Even when they copied phrases, they still gave them their own twist and showed in this way a deeper understanding of the words and their meanings. In addition, the children showed interest in the general book-making process and in book art.

Ghosh has not yet decided how or if she wants to further develop this project, but so far it seems to show huge educational value.

With this the parallel session ended on a positive note for everyone attending.

Demet Hoffmeyer-Zlotnik is a distance learning student on the MA Children’s Literature at Roehampton University.

The Ryde Mennyms: An insider view of parallel session C

The 22nd annual IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference took place on 14 November 2015 at the University of Roehampton. This year’s theme was ‘Steering the Craft: Navigating the process of creating children’s books in the 21st century’. This week on the NCRCL blog, alumni and current NCRCL students will be reporting on various aspects of the conference, including the speakers, panellists and parallel sessions.

The Ryde Mennyms: An insider view of parallel session C

By Judy Digby

This year I was part of the group presentation about a community crafting and storying initiative inspired by Sylvia Waugh’s Mennyms books. We came over on an early ferry from the Isle of Wight with a car full of the life-sized cloth figures and braved some slightly disapproving looks bringing them into the prestigious Portrait Room at Roehampton. But the project had been about adults and young people creating and playing and about how the characters invited interaction so we felt we had insights to share.

The Ryde Mennyms making themselves comfortable in the Portrait Room. Photo via @Jane_S_Carroll

Carol Jaye, the Chair of Ryde Arts Festival and Jo Dodd, Library Supervisor, spoke in the parallel session about how they had dreamed up the project and secured funding. Jo shared data, which showed a steep rise in the borrowing of Mennyms books. Carol explained how she had overcome obstacles to make contact with Sylvia Waugh and involve her in the project from her Gateshead home.

Teresa Grimaldi, the artist in residence in the basement of the library, gave her account of the making of the figures, from inspiring collages and makers’ journals, lengths of calico and polyester wadding, buttons for eyes, charity shop finds and items stolen from family members. The sensitive way she allowed the participants to develop their own Mennyms and their own stories came across. Her other job is as atelierista in a Reggio Emilia nursery and she shared her understanding of the storying process in young children and how it related to the project.

On display were the newsletters produced by Hannah George, who unfortunately could not attend on the day. I read out her report about these broadsheets and we showed the Ryde Mennyms Facebook page. The newsletters combined strong images and faux reportage as the Mennyms emerged and events were arranged. Then I showed my PowerPoint about the making of Soobie, the blue Mennym, and the community building aims of the festival.

When the slide of Soobie appeared in the presentation, my husband interrupted in surprise, “Hey, those are my shoes.” “Not any more,” I said.

There was plenty of time for questions and discussion with the small but select audience. The ‘uncanny’ nature of dolls was raised but we described many instances of townspeople relating in an amused and friendly way to the inanimate and potentially scary figures. Cloth and sewing related metaphor in story making was another interesting thread. We were really gratified to find out that one of the group, who contributed searching questions, was a newly appointed executive at Seven Stories. In fact Soobie and Appleby have now gone up to nearby Gateshead to be part of an event in the library with Sylvia Waugh.

Ryde Mennyms
The Ryde Mennyms enjoying the sun on Ryde Esplanade in August 2015. Photo (c) Julian Winslow.

The Mennyms have woven themselves into Ryde town life, travelling on the train, going to cafes and being part of a shop window spotting competition. A new chapter in their ‘lives’ was completed with their trip to the wonderful IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference and we were very grateful to be invited with them.

Judy Digby is currently studying for a Masters in Children’s Literature at the NCRCL at Roehampton. She has worked as a primary school teacher and as a local authority Teaching Consultant for Elective Home Education. She has a Masters in Education from the Open University and a special interest in reading difficulties. She has run a Creative Learning Centre for home educators and has devised and delivered arts-based courses for young people on the island and at Baha’i Arts Academies. She was attracted to the Ryde Mennyms project because it combined her love of working with textiles with her admiration for the Mennyms books and she was curious about whether creative crafting and storying in the community could come together and create something new.

Steering the Craft: A distance learning student reflects

The 22nd annual IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference took place on 14 November 2015 at the University of Roehampton. This year’s theme was ‘Steering the Craft: Navigating the process of creating children’s books in the 21st century’. This week on the NCRCL blog, alumni and current NCRCL students will be reporting on various aspects of the conference, including the speakers, panellists and parallel sessions.

Steering the Craft: A distance learning student reflects

By Laura Hogevold

The lack of face-to-face contact as a distance learning student has made me feel isolated and detached from reality at times during my first term of study. All of this reading and theorising in a virtual world is difficult to explain to friends and family.

The IBBY/NCRCL conference gave me a great opportunity to legitimise my studies and find out what Roehampton is really like. Within minutes of arriving, I was relieved to meet a fellow student in a similar position to me (although she lives abroad). We hit it off straight away and talked openly about why we had decided to pursue this course at this stage in our lives. We were both the same age, both had young children and had both reached a turning point in our careers. The prospect of finding out more about the children’s book industry was very exciting!

Lisa Sainsbury of the NCRCL introduced the day’s proceedings with a solemn acknowledgement of the previous evening’s atrocities in Paris. It was important to note the presence of IBBY in our neighbouring countries, as well as globally.

The first speaker was Julia Eccleshare, children’s books editor at The Guardian. Julia discussed the role of reviews in children’s literature and explained the importance of new writers being able to navigate the “noise” around books in order to get heard. Independent and objective reviews provide validation and encouragement for authors and this is vital if we want to keep talented writers in the market, she pointed out. They also assist parents and teachers in choosing which books to purchase and recommend, another necessary role.

Next were Jane Ray and Dianne Hofmeyr who guided us through the process of collaborating as illustrator and author on a children’s book. It was a very personal presentation of emails, notes, sketches and communication with editors and publishers. Their book Zeraffa Giraffa has reached The Sunday Times Top 100 Children’s Classics List.

Zeraffa Giraffa

Nicky Singer followed with an emotional and thought-provoking talk about commercialism in the book industry. She discussed how large marketing teams and small editorial teams have become the norm in publishing with books being treated as marketing commodities. She talked about the struggle to get her book Island published because it was apparently “too quiet” for the market with “not enough adventure”. Her frustration and passion spilled out with every word and she received a very long and loud applause from the delegates.

In the parallel session I attended, Siwan Rosser asked “Do we really need Dahl in Welsh?” A discussion of the need to balance the promotion of the Welsh language through literature with the potential loss of readability through translation, and the impact on Welsh writers struggling to publish new books in competition with translated versions of Dahl and others.

Yan Zheng gave us a talk on story apps and the touch screen in 21st century storytelling, asking how we should evaluate story apps and opportunities for future storytelling. There are so many issues to consider when reading a book or taking part in a story app including whether we should try to predict readers’ behaviour – and how to stabilise a narrative when it is in such a dynamic format.

Finally, Kerenza Ghosh told us about her project to encourage Reception and Year 1 children to produce their own picturebooks based on Wild by Emily Hughes – a selection of beautifully drawn and presented books from 4 and 5 year olds. It was a fascinating insight into the activities that help children become engaged in literacy.

After lunch, IBBY President Wally de Doncker gave a humble talk about the importance of the global presence of IBBY and its aim for every child in the world to become a lifelong reader, claiming that “Children’s books are a country’s best ambassador”. IBBY hopes for reading to become a basic right around the world.

Clémentine Beauvais, who writes for both French and UK markets, gave a lively talk about the differences between books in the two countries – namely how little French writers get paid, and how inoffensive the UK market wishes to make books for its children! She discussed what seems to be a fight between writing as a craft, and as a commercial enterprise and gave accounts of “terrifying French picture books” and “unsophisticated UK readers”!

Translator Daniel Hahn allowed us to explore the process of translating a Portuguese book into English: Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head. He gave a step-by-step account of how he arrived at the “translated” book by completely re-writing the story – changing text position, character names, pace and tone and introducing verse, whilst managing to preserve the narrative.

From Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head, translated by Daniel Hahn and illustrated by Stella Dreis, via

Then, we were addressed by three very different publishers – David Maybury, from Scholastic, Barry Cunningham, from Chicken House, and Anna McQuinn, from Alanna Books – who discussed the book world from their perspective and attempted to defend the industry against some of the negative claims made earlier in the day.

The day ended with a chat between Melvin Burgess and Barry Cunningham. Barry explored what motivated Melvin and why he chose to write books that courted controversy. It provided an insight into the intentions and life of a successful author who writes books to inform, educate and provoke discussion with young adult readers.

Laura Hogevold has recently begun her studies with the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature, as a distance learning student on the MA Children’s Literature programme.