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Reading “Feelings”

Feelings

This week marks Mental Health Awareness Week, a week designed to raise awareness and start conversations. My picture-book, Feelings, aims to start those conversations about the emotions we experience much earlier – getting children to recognise and understand what feelings are.

Picture books are magical things. They introduce children to wonderful creatures, imaginary places and the art of storytelling but that’s not all. They also teach children to read pictures and to understand imagery before they can even read words. Feelings, uses picture book principles to help children read and understand how emotions feel without prescription and, most importantly, without judgement.

Feelings is a peek-through picture book that looks to take the reader on a journey through a range of emotions they might experience, with the philosophy of:

Looking from the outside, I may seem the same as you, but deep beneath the surface feelings bubble, stir and brew…”.

The same character appears on every spread, by way of a central cutaway, to explore the emotional spectrum. My Publisher, Thomas Truong, came up with this format to give readers a ‘guide’ and illustrator Richard Jones deliberately made the character androgynous so not to exclude any readers from the journey.

Illustrator Richard Jones explains what it was like to tackle the huge subject of feelings through art:

The moment I read the text for Feelings I knew it could be not only a thoughtful, magical book but a useful one too.

Having worked in a busy children’s library for nearly 15 years I was aware there are very few accessible books for children that tackle the complicated, knotty subject of feelings.

Although there are many tangled distinctions between feeling and emotion it was my role as the illustrator to focus on the feeling – the unique reaction to an emotional response that makes us the person we are. 

Each page needed to be imaginative, inventive and interesting to young eyes but not so specific or abstruse that the reader cannot relate to the feeling portrayed.

FeelingsFeelings is a book designed to start conversations about how we feel, to help make children feel comfortable and confident in talking about or drawing their emotions. It can be used both in the classroom for art projects and poetry lessons or as a one-on-one storybook, allowing parents to guide their child. We’ve had some lovely responses from teachers and bloggers posting the pictures children have done to show how they feel and we’d love to see more! Use the tag #FeelingsBook to share and discuss – join the conversation.

 

Feelings can be purchased online (Amazon, Waterstones, etc.) or in your local bookshop.

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A Dahl A Day – The Enormous Crocodile

The Enormous Crocodile.jpg

In the biggest brownest muddiest river in Africa, two crocodiles lay with their heads just above the water.

When the Enormous Crocodile decides to journey into the village for a snack of small children, the jungle animals are shocked and appalled. How could he think of doing such a terrible thing? And surely the children will run a mile as soon as they see him? Ah, but the Enormous Crocodile has secret plans and clever tricks to help him get his lunch – but are they as clever as he thinks?

The Enormous Crocodile is Dahl’s first foray into picture books and I’m happy to say that he packed as much humour and characterisation in this short tale as he does in his novels. The names of the jungle creatures alone are signature Dahl – Muggle-Wump the Monkey, Humpy Rumpy the Hippopotamus, the Roly-Poly Bird and Trunky the Elephant – and they are so much fun to read aloud! The key repetition pattern of picture books is present throughout, allowing children to join in even if they are unable to read independently themselves and Dahl creates a villain in the titular character who poses just enough of a threat to enthralled but not terrify!

Not only is The Enormous Crocodile a fantastic picture book read but it was the first collaboration between Dahl and, the man who came to be his illustrator, Quentin Blake. This professional ‘marriage’ of illustrator and narrative style has created possibly the greatest, or at least the most recognisable, product in the whole of children’s literature – the dynamic duo were born with The Enormous Crocodile. It’s worth a read just to witness where the magic began…

4 star

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A Dahl A Day – The Minpins

The Minpins

Little Billy’s mother was always telling him exactly what he was allowed to do and what he was not allowed to do.

My first review on TTW was Dahl-based. It was a review of his first, and little known, picture book called The Gremlins, a fun tale of tricksy little pests that tamper with aeroplane engines. Today, I turn my attention to Dahl’s last ever book. Published posthumously The Minpins explores a mystical and mysterious forest and the types of creatures that might roams between the trees.

Billy is sick and tired of being good. He is always being told to behave by his mother, until suddenly he just can’t take it anymore! Quietly, he sneaks off into the forest behind his house where his mother has forbidden him to go… Will he come across the Terrible Bloodsucking Toothplucking Stonechuckling Spittler she warned him about?

If it weren’t for the strange names of the monsters, you could be forgiven for not immediately recognising Dahl in the pages of The Minpins. The delivery is quite straight-laced and it lacks the trademark tongue-in-cheek humour he is famous for. This tonal change makes The Minpins a very different beast to Dahl’s other works and yet the imaginative story, once kicked up a gear, is classic Dahl – little people living in trees, who wear suction boots to stay on the bark and ride around on birds… just brilliant!

Stepping away from the quirky stylings of Quentin Blake, it is Patrick Benson that brings The Minpins to life. I like buying non-Blake editions of Dahl, just to see how the first illustrators interpreted the strange and wonderful worlds of Dahl so I’m quite used to different pairings. Benson, like the book, illustrates in quite a classic, naturalistic style. I always imagine the Minpins being a little bit quirkier but the menace of the Gruncher is illustrated fabulously – the billowing orange and red smoke chasing poor Billy through the trees reflects the urgency of the chase perfectly.

There is a sadness that lingers when you discover that this was Dahl’s last book for, much like Prospero’s final words in Shakespeare’s final play, there is poignancy to the final and stunningly beautiful lines of The Minpins. It is as though Dahl is saying his own farewell to his readers with one final recommendation for life:

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.

If you want to see a different side to this wonderful storyteller, then The Minpins might just be the tale for you.3 star

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A Fairly Fantastic Fairy Tale

The Sleeper and the Spindle


It was the closest kingdom to the queen’s, as the crow flies, but not even the crows flew it.

Fairy tales have an ethereal and ageless quality that has allowed them to stand the test of time. Adaptations, rewrites and different formats have kept them fresh for every generation, cementing them in the very DNA of childhood itself. This particular fairy tale adaptation/mash-up by dream-team Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell takes the timelessness of fairy tale and adds a modern feminist twist which results in a truly superb read.

The intricacies and intelligence of The Sleeper and the Spindle is amazing, and the beautiful cover highlights perfectly the treat in store within the pages. The monochrome image, ethereal damsel and flowers and thorns allude to the classical fairy tale and yet the black roses, dust jacket ‘veil’ and side step of naming the damsel as sleeping or beauty suggests that there is more to this tale than a predictable storyline of ages past!

Gaiman has taken the tradition of the ‘happily ever after’ and extended Snow White’s story beyond it for we meet her first as a queen waiting for her wedding day. Instead of walking down the aisle (as tradition dictates) she is alerted to a mysterious sleep plague that is coming over the mountain to threaten her kingdom and so, instead, a quest begins! Gaiman’s writing and wit are as sharp as ever and fans will not be disappointed by this his latest offering. The Sleeper and the Spindle subverts fairy tale expectation, revises the role of the hero and adds a wonderfully eloquent feminist twist to one of the more lacklustre stories within the fairy tale canon.

This is a picture book so it would be completely remiss of me not to mention the stunningly beautiful illustrations by Chris Riddell – I could stare at each page for hours and still not catch every detail! He brings the beauty of Gaiman’s words to life and with every pen stroke adds depth, an extra level of Gothicism and intertextual references to the story – the monochrome images with flecks of gold leaf are just sumptuous! There is one illustrated spread in particular that has provided this book with added attention (Google it for spoilers!) but for me every page is worthy of such hype – it is simply beautiful.

If you haven’t already guessed, I absolutely adore this book! It is witty, clever and striking, marrying the text and image perfectly. The Sleeper and the Spindle will be treasured in my book collection as it is the kind of tale I want to pass down to my future children – and if that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is!

5 star

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Discovering a new (old) Dahl

The Gremlins


It was sometime during the Battle of Britain, when Hurricanes and Spitfires were up from dawn to dark and the noise of battle was heard all day in the sky; when the English countryside from Thanet to Severn was dotted with the wreckage of planes.

With Waterstones and Booktrust launching Maytilda this month to celebrate that splendiferous book turning 25 this year, I thought it was only fitting to start my reviews off with a recent, brand-new experience of the legend of Roald Dahl.

Having read Solo and Michael Rosen’s recent biography of Dahl, the title of The Gremlins kept coming back to me – Dahl’s first children’s book written during the Second World War for none other than Walt Disney. Known as the lost Walt Disney production, The Gremlins was never made into the film it was planned to be, a whimsical and promotional animation for the war. In the end it was scrapped by Disney but published as a book by Random House in 1943, with the author’s name credited as Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl.

Based on his experiences as a fighter pilot, the gremlins of the story are the little creatures that sabotaged aircrafts and caused malfunctions and crashes. The story isn’t what modern audiences would call a children’s book but the subject matter is typical of the time, in an era where Biggles sat on most boys bookshelves. As you can probably tell from the opening line the language is also quite dry and matter of fact but in contrast to this are the heavily-lined but recognisably Disney illustrations that bring the words to life.

I really wanted to use this book to show off, to claim that I had read a relatively unknown Dahl classic but if I’m honest, it doesn’t really come close to his later work. However, what is fascinating and beautiful about The Gremlins is you can see the development of Dahl’s dark humour and imagination straight away. For example the gremlins come in a variety of types, each ingeniously named – we have the widgets (baby gremlins), fifinellas* (females) and spandules (high-altitude gremlins).

*The design of fifinella was so popular that the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots adopted her as their mascot!

The history of this story and links with the film world is utterly fascinating and described in a charming foreword by Leonard Maltin, a film historian. Though it isn’t the lost masterpiece of Dahl that I so badly wanted, The Gremlins is well worth reading even if it’s just to see where he came from and how his style developed into what made Roald Dahl such an amazing children’s author.

3 star