Monday, February 28, 2011

Shaun Tan: Author Focus [Oscar Update]

STOP PRESS - Shaun Tan today won an Academy Award  for Best Animated Short for his 15 minute film 'The Lost Thing' based on the picture book of the same name (see below). He accepted the award as Director with his British producer, Andrew Ruhemann

This post is an updated version of one that I wrote in 2009 on this blog

1. About Shaun Tan

Shaun Tan was born in 1974 and grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia. In school he became known as the 'good drawer'. Later he studied at the University of WA and graduated in 1995 with joint honours in Fine Arts and English Literature. He currently works full time as a freelance artist and author in Melbourne.

Tan began drawing and painting images for science fiction and horror stories in small-press magazines as a teenager, and has since become best known for illustrated books that deal with social, political and historical subjects through surreal, dream-like imagery. Many of his books have been widely translated throughout Europe, Asia and South America, and enjoyed by readers of all ages. Tan has also worked as a theatre designer, and as a concept artist for the films 'Horton Hears a Who' and Pixar's 'WALL-E'. Over the last two years he was worked on a short film based on 'The Lost Thing' with Passion Pictures Australia. You can view a clip of the film below.

2. His Books

It is difficult to categorise Tan's books because they are often heavy on illustrations and light on text ('Tales from Outer Suburbia' is an exception to this) and while looking like books for young children, they generally cover content that is more appropriate for older readers. Some have suggested that his work should be put in the Graphic Novel category, but to my mind many of his works sit more comfortably in the picture book category, as long as you don't assume that picture books are just for young children. He describes his books this way:

"They are best described as ‘picture books for older readers’ rather than young children, as they deal with relatively complex visual styles and themes, including colonial imperialism, social apathy, the nature of memory and depression."
In reviewing Tan's book 'The Arrival' in the Sydney Morning Herald (here), Angie Schiavone made this comment on his books:

"Tan's books, while marketed as children's, tend to explore quite complex issues. Yet they manage not to alienate younger readers, rather challenging them to develop empathy and (perhaps more realistically) better visual literacy skills.......Whether a child is up to the challenge of Tan's picture books is, of course, a decision for parents and teachers..."
Most of Tan's books have themes and issues that are well beyond most young children but visually they can capture the interest of readers of all ages. Below I have provided a more detailed description of the book that has been most highly acclaimed book, 'Tales From Outer Suburbia', and a brief description of his other books. They are presented in reverse chronological order.

Eric (2009)

Eric is a small, Eric-sized edition of one of the most popular stories that originally appeared in 'Tales from Outer Suburbia' (see below). It has been edited with some new artwork and layout design. Eric is a foreign exchange student who comes to live with a typical suburban family. Although everyone is delighted with the arrangement, cultural misunderstandings ensure, beginning with Eric's insistence on sleeping in a pantry cupboard rather than a specially prepared guest room.

This is a deceptively simple story that has many layers. It works its way to an unexpected ending, as Eric suddenly leaves. Those who are left behind are touched by his presence and by the trace of magic that remains.

Tales From Outer Suburbia (2008)

Many see Shaun Tan's latest book as the pinnacle of his work. 'Tales From Outer Suburbia' won the 2009 Children's Book Council Australia award for 'Older Readers'. Tan is the first author/illustrator to win this section of the awards; an illustrated book has not won previously. This is a remarkable work from a remarkably talented illustrator, who in this book shows us that he can also write; something that some critics have doubted in the past. It is an anthology of fifteen very short illustrated stories. Each is about a strange situation or event that occurs in suburbia - a visit from a nut-sized foreign exchange student, a dugong that appears on someone’s front lawn, a new mysterious room discovered in a family home, a description of what happens to all the poems that people write, a grandfather's puzzling story about his wedding, a wise buffalo that lives in a vacant lot and gives directions. Central to each story is how ordinary people react to and make sense of these experiences.

The judges praised Tan's work suggesting:
"Tan breathes life and wonder into each story using his trademark illustrative style to increase meaning and enjoyment.....'Tales from Outer Suburbia' is an immense achievement.
I love this book too. Perhaps the kid in me loves the absurdity of the stories. The first story sets the tone for the book. It tells of a water buffalo in a vacant lot at the end of the street. He would slowly point people in the right direction, "But he never said what he was pointing at, or how far we had to go, or what were supposed to do once we got there." This is the type of silliness that my grandchildren fall about laughing at when I tell them stories - the mysterious, the ridiculous, the confusing, the "I don't get it" story that intrigues.

One of my favourites is "Broken Toys". Two children meet a 'crazy' person wandering down the street in a 'space suit' (well, a deep sea diving outfit). For fun they direct him to the house of another mysterious and misunderstood person in their street, 'Mrs Bad News', a strange Japanese lady. The outcome of their stunt has a surprising outcome. What child hasn't had a 'crazy' person down the street? I did! The fear of the 'other' is a real human fear as we grapple with difference and try to cope with people not like us. This is a theme that seems dear to Tan's heart. It makes a reappearance in 'Eric' the story of an exchange student who lives in the narrator's house, does unusual things and disappears mysteriously leaving something just as interesting behind. It is back again in the guise of class difference in 'Our Expedition' and then terrorism and war in 'Alert but not alarmed'.

At times I think that Tan tries just a little too hard to make his ideological points, but as soon as I start thinking this, I'm forced to smile at the next absurdity and his sheer cleverness. My favourite 'story' is his graphic collage of writing fragments as he explores the question "what happens to all the poems people write?" You'll need to read the book to find out; I'm not telling you!

I can see bright boys (and girls) aged 10 plus loving this crazy, whimsical and thoughtful book that tries to do new things with Tan's special brand of image and word playfulness, rare creativity and delightful illustrations.

The Arrival (2006)

'The Arrival' is a 128 page sepia-toned, photo-realistic picture book that tells the story in images of a man's migration to a foreign place. He experiences temporary separation from his family, bewilderment and loneliness as he tries to make sense of his new home. The absence of words, along with the mix of real and at times surreal images, evokes a sense of how the man might have felt in a new place where everything seems strange including the people, food, animals and language.


The Lost Thing (2005)

'The Lost Thing' is a humorous story about a boy who discovers a bizarre-looking creature while out collecting bottle-tops at a beach. Having guessed that it is lost, he tries to find out who owns it or where it belongs, but the problem is met with indifference by everyone else, who barely notice its presence. Each is unhelpful in their own way - strangers, friends, parents are all unwilling to entertain this uninvited interruption to day-to-day life. In spite of his better judgement, the boy feels sorry for this hapless creature, and attempts to find out where it belongs.

This is the book (of course) that was the basis of the short film that has just won the academy award. You can view a short clip from the film below.

The Viewer (2003)

Known for his horror stories, 'The Viewer' was written by Gary Crew and illustrated by Tan. It tells of a boy whose obsession with strange artefacts leads to the discovery of an unusual and mysterious box at a dump. It turns out to be an ancient chest full of optical devices. One of these captures his interest. It is a complex mechanical device that carries disks of images. These carry scenes of violence and the destruction of civilisations over time. The boy is scared, but cannot help himself and looks into the machine.

The Red Tree (2001) 

In 'The Red Tree' Tan uses a balance of simple words and his usual detailed and exquisite illustrations to address the sensitive topic of depression. This is not your typical childhood topic, but as I said above, Tan is writing for older readers, and sadly depression is very much part of the life of children and adolescents. The story essentially follows the life of a little red-haired girl, her everyday feelings and her realisation that life can be difficult. Almost unnoticed in his illustrations is a small red leaf (perhaps symbolising hope) that recurs. The story ends with the girl standing and smiling at a flourishing tree with red leaves growing in her bedroom.

Memorial (1999)

'Memorial' is a beautiful picture book written by Garry Crew and illustrated by Shaun Tan. It tells the story of a tree planted by returned servicemen near a war memorial monument, in a small country town. Years later the tree has grown to be very big and is a problem as it begins to damage the statue next to it, creating a traffic hazard in a part of the town that has grown more busy and less tranquil over time. Tan uses a very organic style against varied backgrounds (including hessian bags and picture frames) and the recurring tree in brilliant colours. The text raises many questions beyond the basic dilemma of whether to cut it down. What place do memorials play? Do those who view a memorial recall memories that it is meant to honour? And what is the consequence for the loss of such links to our memories and our lives? What price the past when compared with the future?

The Rabbits (1998)

'The Rabbits' is written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan. While John Marsden is one of Australia's best writers of adolescent fiction, the text in this graphic novel doesn't quite reach the heights of Tan's illustrations. The story depicts Australia's white settlers as rabbits. This none too subtle use of metaphor is a little obvious even for children. Its message is a retelling of the 'stolen generation' in Australia, the practice of removing Indigenous children from their parents when the family was seen as dysfunctional. This occurred from 1869 to 1969. The illustrations are wonderful and have the usual Tan creative mix of styles and techniques. In this book he uses some wonderfully drawn landscapes, collages and more 'graphic' stylised images for the rabbits. It is a mix of light and shade, colour and 'darkness'.

Other works

'The Haunted Playground' (2007) was written and illustrated by Shaun Tan.

'The Deadly Doll' (2007) was written by Janine Burke and illustrated inside the book by Shaun Tan (not the cover).

Trapped' (2007) was written by James Moloney and illustrated by Shaun Tan

3. His Awards

Shaun Tan has won many awards including being the first Australian to win the International 'Illustrators of the Future Contest' in 1992. His collaboration with John Marsden on 'The Rabbits' won the 1999 Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Picture Book of the Year Award. 'The Memorial' was an Honour book in the CBCA picture book category in 2000. 'The Red Tree' was an Honour Book in the CBCA awards in 2002. In 2007 he was named Best Artist at the 'World Fantasy Awards' in New York for his 128 page wordless picture book 'The Arrival'. The same book won the CBCA picture book of the year award in 2007, as well as both West Australian Premier’s and New South Wales Premier's Book of the Year Awards. In 2009 his book 'Tales from Outer Suburbia' won the CBCA award for 'Older Readers'; another first.

His Oscar for 'The Lost Thing' is one of many awards for this short film released in 2010.

4. Other related posts

Sydney Morning Herald article on Shaun Tan's Oscar win (here)

All Author Focus posts on this blog (here)

Shaun Tan's personal website (here)

Monday, February 21, 2011

12 Great Books for Boys

If you're a reader of this blog you know how I feel about the importance of literature. In just my second post on this blog back in 2007 I wrote on this topic (here). Reading literature, or having literature read to you as a child is an essential foundation for learning and life.
Literature teaches us about the world
Literature helps us to understand the past, the present and contemplate the future
Literature teaches us how narrative works
Literature helps us to learn about ourselves and deal with the issues of life
Literature helps us to understand how language works
Literature expands our world and expands our minds
Literature stimulates the imagination and creativity
I've written previously about the importance of picture books, and eventually, the need for children to move on to chapter books. But don't be in too big of a hurry to do this (read my post on this HERE). When you do start to encourage children to start reading chapter books, parents and teachers will read them to the children. Later you will share the reading with them and eventually the child will take over completely. In practical terms, chapter books offer children:
  • More complex narrative forms and plot development
  • Richer and more complex language
  • New areas of knowledge about their world and the human condition
  • Different literary devices
  • They train your children to be able to sustain longer periods of reading
As well as the above, chapter books will enable you to build an even richer shared literary history with your children. Shared books will become part of your shared knowledge and experience within the family or the classroom, and more broadly, they will help to connect your children to a literary culture that others will share with them.

In this post I wanted to share a dozen great books for sharing with boys. There is great benefit in fathers sharing these books with their sons, but they can also be experienced with mothers, grandparents and teachers. These are not meant to be the 12 first chapter books but rather books that I know will work with boys at different ages. I have other posts about boys (here) and fathers (here) on this blog. 

Great Books for Boys

1. 'Boy: Tales of Childhood' by Roald Dahl (1984)

This is one of my favourite Roald Dahl books. It is a collection of stories from his childhood that draw forth all of the emotions. Some of the short stories are hilariously funny and offer an illuminating insight into the childhood that shaped this wonderful writer. The tales include the Great Mouse Plot that brings undone the dastardly Mrs Pratchett who owns the local lolly shop. But there are also the recollections of a wonderful day in Norway, a visit to a doctor for a 'surprise' tonsillectomy in the days before anaesthetic.
"It won't take two seconds", the doctor said. He spoke gently, and I was seduced  by his voice. Like an ass, I opened my mouth. The tiny blade flashed in the bright light and disappeared into my mouth....
Any boy will love these stories that all keep you turning the page. Suitable for boys aged 7-12 years. 

2. 'Prince Caspian' by C.S. Lewis (1951)

'Prince Caspian' is the 4th book in the 'The Chronicles of Narnia'. While you could read virtually all of the Narnia books to most boys, this one has special appeal. The Pevensie children are back in the land of Narnia but something is wrong. The glorious castle is in ruins and everywhere they look it is silent and empty. A Dwarf arrives and they learn of the fate of Narnia. Civil war is destroying the land under his father King Miraz. Brave Prince Caspian with the guidance of Aslan takes up the challenge to save Narnia and restore freedom and happiness.  Boys aged 8-12 will love this book (and others in the Narnia Chronicles).  

3. 'The Hobbit' by J.R. Tolkien (1937)

The Hobbit is a fantasy published to wide acclaim in 1937. The full (but rarely used) title is 'The Hobbit, or There and Back Again'. It is set in a time "between the Dawn of Faerie and the Dominion of Men". A company of dwarves set out on a quest to gain gold that is guarded by a dragon. Bilbo Baggins, an unambitious Hobbit, is a reluctant partner who shows great resourcefulness along the way as giant spiders and evil goblins are encountered. Bilbo's episodic journey covers many territories as each chapter introduces specific creatures of Tolkien's Wilderland. The book led Tolkien to write 'The Lord of the Rings' as a sequel but this became an even more ambitious project.

It was published on 21 September 1937 to wide critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction. This is more demanding but bright boys aged 8-12 will love this book, of course younger boys will generally need you to read it with them.

4. 'Rowan of Rin' by Emily Rodda (1993)

This was the first book in a series of five books that boys aged 7-12 just love.

To the villagers of Rin the boy Rowan is a timid weakling, the most disappointing child ever. Yet, incredibly, it is his help they need when the stream that flows from the top of the Mountain dries up. Without its water, their precious bukshah herd will die, and Rin will be doomed.

The six strongest villagers must brave the unknown terrors of the Mountain to discover the answer to the riddle. And Rowan, the unwanted seventh member of the group, must go with them. The witch Sheba's prophecy is like a riddle, a riddle Rowan must solve if he is to find out the secret of the Mountain and save his home.

Each book is a complete story with a classic quest storyline that has a series of riddling mysteries to be solved by the unlikely hero Rowan.

5. 'Merryl of the Stones' by Brian Caswell (1989)

This is a story of time travel and magic that begins in Sydney with Megan Ellison the only survivor of a car crash that takes the lives of her parents. She wakes to dreams and memories that haunt her and seem to be fragments of a previous life. When she recovers she returns to her native Wales and the home of relatives. She feels strange and alone until she meets Em a bright and rebellious boy with nightmares of his own. Together, they discover Megan's true heritage, a secret gift and a duty to right an ancient wrong with an adventure that spans two millennia. This is a fantasy that boys (as well as girls) aged 9-14 will love.

6. 'The Machine Gunners' by Robert Westall (1975)

Chas McGill has the second-best collection of war souvenirs in Garmouth (near Newcastle-on-Tyne in England), but he wants to have the best. As World War II is waged all around them a group of boys build special collections of the fragments of war. His chance comes to achieve his goal when a German plane crashes near his home. A dead German, a broken plane and a fully loaded machine gun; but how would he remove it and add it to his collection? As well, how will he hide it from the Home Guard who find it has disappeared from the plane? 

This has to be one of the best books for boys that I've ever read. Not surprisingly it won the highest British honour for children's literature, the Carnegie Medal in 1975. This is a wonderful tale of adventure that will stir any boy aged 8-14.

7. 'Strange Objects' by Gary Crewe (1990)

This story was inspired by the horrific true story of the Batavia. The ship hit Houtman’s Abrolhos Rocks off the West Australian coast on the 4th June 1629. Most of the 260 passengers and crew survived the wreck and landed safely on the barren islands nearby. The captain left the passengers and most of the crew and headed for Java in an open boat to get help. He successfully returned 14 weeks later only to find that 120 men, women and children had been brutally murdered by members of the crew and the passengers. The Captain tried the men, and supervised the hanging of 7 after first cutting off their right hands. He showed mercy to two additional young men found guilty but who were seen as minor 'players', one a 17 year-old boy Jan Pelgrom and the other a soldier, Wouter Loos. The boys were marooned with a small amount of water, food and supplies and left to fend for themselves.

Crew's story based on these true events commences in 1986 with a teenager Steven Messenger living with his family in a roadside truck stop in the middle of nowhere along the highway that weaves its way up the western coast of Australia. Messenger discovers some gruesome relics in a cave while on a school excursion and his life changes. This begins a mysterious tale where his life is interwoven with the lives of two of the survivors of the Batavia responsible with others for the murder of the 120 people. Like many works of historical fiction, Crew uses the metaphysical encounters of one of his characters to transport us back to another time. A ring found attached to a severed hand provides a vehicle for regular time slips between his life in 1986 and the events that unfolded when Wouter Loos and Jan Pelgrom were set adrift in a small boat that gave then an outside chance of survival. I have written a post on this book that provides the historical background to the story (here).

The book was winner of the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year for Older Readers, 1991 and will be well received by boys 10-14 years.

8. 'The Pinballs' by Betsy Byars (1977)

This is a contemporary story of three foster children Harvey, Carlie and Thomas J. who are moved constantly from one home to another. When they come together in yet another new home, one of trio, Carlie a girl hardened by her experiences, suggests that they were just like 'pinballs'.

"Somebody put in a dime, punched a button, and out we came ready or not...and you don't see pinballs helping each other, do you?"

Carlie is closed to the prospect of significant new relationship with a new foster mother and the other foster children. She is difficult, and is always ready for a fight. But Mrs Mason doesn't give in easily and Carlie eventually discovers something special with the other 'strays' that she has found herself with in her new home. This is a funny shorter book that children aged 7-12 will enjoy.

9. 'Watership Down' by Richard Adam (1972)

Watership Down is the fantasy story of a group of rabbits.  The novel takes its name from the rabbits' destination, Watership Down, a hill in the north of Hampshire in England. These anthropomorphised rabbits live in their natural environment with their own language and culture.  The book tells the story of heroic adventures that the rabbits share as they search for a safe place to establish a new warren.  As they journey through woods and across streams, meadows and cornfields, they overcome many obstacles including their own fears before they reach Watership Down. But all is not well, something important is missing.  How can a warren survive without female rabbits? Something must be done.
This will be enjoyed by bright boys aged 8-12.

Winner of the Carnegie Medal in 1973.

10. 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' by Mark Twain (1876)

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the story of boyhood adventures growing up in a small town along the Mississippi River. The story is set in the town of "St Petersburg" and inspired by the town of Hannibal (Missouri) where Mark Twain grew up. In the introduction to the story Twain notes that:

"Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest of those boys were schoolmates of mine. Huck Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual—he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew, and therefore belongs to the composite order of architecture."

Tom is the original boy hero, demonstrating bravado, bad behaviour and boyhood exuberance. Whether he is running away to become a pirate with Huck Fin or being a witness to a murder, adventure (and some troubles) are always close at hand. 

Boys aged 7-12 will love this book. The Walker Books edition illustrated by Robert Ingpen would be a wonderful way for any boy to discover this timeless story. See my review of Ingpen's work HERE.

11. 'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeleine L'Engle (1962)

Charles Wallace Murry goes searching through a 'wrinkle in time' for his lost father, and finds himself on an evil planet where a huge pulsating brain known as IT enslaves all life.  The story tells of how Charles, his sister Meg and his friend Calvin find and rescue his father. All the while they are accompanied by a trio of guardian angels - Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. This is an exciting science fiction fantasy thriller.  This is a story that will be enjoyed by boys aged 8-14 years.

Winner of the Newbery Medal 1963. 

12. 'The Wheel on the School' by Meindert DeJong (1972)

This is the story of life in a Dutch village and the relationship between people and the natural world. Lina Sendak is one of six school children in the small fishing village of Shora. She writes an essay at school and asks why there are no storks in their village when other places are famous for nesting storks on buildings. The teacher in their small school encourages them to find out. They discover that the roofs on the village's homes are pitched so steeply that the storks cannot find space to nest on the sharp ridges. The solution is to place a wagon wheel on each roof ridge giving storks a place to nest. The task of finding a wagon wheel in the tiny village proves difficult, and the children meet several interesting personalities during their search. This simple, yet compelling story teaches that if people think and ask why, that they might just solve their problems.

This book won the 1955 Newbery Medal and is suitable for boys aged 7-12 years.

Some related links

Getting Younger Readers into Chapter Books (here)
The importance of literature (here)
How to listen to your child reading (here)
Supporting comprehension (here)
Helping children to choose books (here)
The benefits of repeated reading of literature (here)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Can the Book Survive?

Abbey of St Gall Library Switzerland
I wrote a post back in 2008 about the posible death of the book (here) and concluded that it would survive. I've also written about e-picture books (here) and in a separate more recent post I've considered the question 'Are Picture Books Dying?' (here). A few weeks ago Nikki Barrowclough wrote an interesting article in the Good Weekend magazine of the Sydney Morning Herald, in which she considered the question too.  This has motivated me to write again, because the question isn't simply can traditional publishing survive, or even literature. We need to ask a number of different questions to unpack the original question:

  • Will literature survive? Yes! The form and delivery might change, but literature will be written and published.
  • Will paper books survive? Yes, but there will be casualties, with the most likely being some less adaptable publishers, libraries and bookshops.
  • Will scientific journals and reference books survive in paper form? No!
  • Will the way we read be changed by e-books? Yes!

The answer to the question Barrowclough posed is complex.  The book as an object will survive, but increasingly it will be in an electronic form rather than simply being a paper object. At the 8th International Conference on the Book (St Gallen, Switzerland) that I participated in during November, there were a number of sessions that considered the future of books. Amongst the presenters were representatives from three of the world's major publishers, academics, content providers, IT specialists and librarians who collectively suggested that:
  • Scientific journals will cease to be produced in paper form within 5-10 years.
  • Increasingly, authors will publish e-books themselves, creating major problems for publishers and even bookshops.
  • Bookshops will only survive if they change to become places where lovers of books meet, chat, eat, share books (in whatever form) and purchase e-books and paper books as well as associated products. Some are already moving down this path.
  • The power of authors will increase as they realise that traditional publishing routes can be circumvented. This is happening already.
  • Libraries will survive but in different forms. They will continue to be archives for books and will still act as mediators for readers, but they will also be virtual hubs and gateways for online resources
  • Electronic libraries and virtual communities of readers will grow in importance and might well lead to more reading of 'books' not less.
  • There will be a different relationship to libraries with readers moving between virtual and 'real' sites for book exchange, discussion and advice; we already see this in universities where our students rarely visit 'real' libraries.
  • Children's literature will be much slower to move from paper to e-book formats, and may not make the transition completely. There are obvious challenges here and the book as an object has great significance for the younger reader, Durability for the young toddler will also be an issue.
  • The importance of the book as an aesthetic object will remain; many of us will still want to hold, smell and stroke books, and visit great libraries like that at St Gallen.
Some Challenges

There will be a lot of challenges as we negotiate this period of transition from paper books to far greater use of electronic books. At the moment the sales of electronic books are low in the non-scientific categories, but they will continue to rise.  What will this mean for our libraries? How do we ensure access to books for those without the resources to buy their own books online? How will we sustain libraries as 'real' communities where lovers of books dwell?

How do we ensure that as electronic forms of the book grow, that children don't end up just 'playing' with books rather than reading them? I have already signalled in my post on e-picture books that children are easily distracted with e-picture books, and play more with the interactive elements on electronic books rather than reading the text (here).

How do we make sure that the reading process isn't changed by electronic books (as it probably is) with detrimental effects for the young reader in comprehension, early learning and enjoyment?

How do we ensure the longevity of books? Is there a chance that the life of an electronic book might be substantially less than the paper book? Some of the world's greatest books have survived for over a thousand years; can we be confident that electronic storage will be able to match this?

Some opportunities

While I've voiced some concerns above, I also see great possibilities. The most obvious one is that books should be available at a cheaper price making them more accessible.

Second, translation of books from one language to another is much simpler and can even be controlled by the reader!

Third, authors should have more power in this new electronic world with the ability to publish and sell their own books if they don't like what publishers do for them.  We have seen this already in both the music industry and the book industry.

Fourth, having books available electronically should increase our access to books in all their forms. Many of us marvel at how much easier it is to buy books today thanks to the Internet. Some of us (like me) have already discovered how much faster and cheaper it is to get books delivered to a reader like the iPad or the Kindle.

Summing Up

There is no doubt that the electronic book is going to increase in popularity in the next few years.  This will cause some adjustments for readers. We need to make sure that nothing is lost in this transition and that all of the best possibilities I discuss above are realised. We have a great opportunity to increase access to books and knowledge using virtual books, but there will be issues of justice and access that we will need to deal with. The issues are no different than for paper books, but there might just be ways to ensure that we do even better at providing access to the world's books for children and adults.

Related resources

'Can the book survive?' Nikki Barrowclough (HERE)
'Alice', the iPad and new ways to read picture books (HERE)
'Literacy and the iPad: A review of some popular apps' (HERE)
'The electronic book: The death of the book?' (HERE)
'Literacy and the iPad: A second review of children's literature apps' (HERE)
'Are picture books dying?' (HERE)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Author & Illustrator Focus: Robert Ingpen

Robert Ingpen is one of Australia’s most successful illustrators and has written and/or illustrated more than 100 books. He was born in 1936 and did most of his growing up as a boy in Geelong. From an early age he was obsessed by stories and says that at times he had trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. Now as a man in his 70s he sets a pace that few could match. He is arguably Australia's greatest children's book illustrator and is one of the best illustrators of our time anywhere in the world.  Such is his energy, that he still accepts commissions as an artist for major works such as the tapestry he designed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Melbourne Cricket Ground

In 1986, his extraordinary gift was acknowledged internationally when he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for Children's Literature (illustration). He is the only Australian illustrator to have been awarded this medal that is the pinnacle for illustrators of children's books. Only 23 people have won the award since its inception in 1956. Remarkably, Australian writer Patricia Wrightson won the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for writers also in 1986 (the only Australian author to win the award for writers).

Ingpen says he had a wonderful childhood, filled with books, storytelling and drawing. His mother was very creative and was trained as a milliner.  His father ran a business that sold goods to local supermarkets.  At school, Ingpen was known for his drawing and storytelling, and was also keen on sport. Academically, he struggled and shared once that the "1950s education didn't agree with me. I was totally lost". Thankfully, an art teacher spotted his talent and encouraged him to do more study. The encouragement and friendship of this teacher continued long after he left school.

At the age of 17 after leaving Geelong College he began to study art and design, graduating with a Diploma of Graphic Art from RMIT (1955-57). In his first year he studied a subject called the Art of the Book that was taught by Harold Freedman. It was Freedman who Ingpen acknowledges taught him about book construction. Ingpen says that at this time, with Freedman's help, he learned how to study properly, as well as to appreciate visual storytelling and how to do it well.

Early in his career Ingpen specialised in relating design to scientific research. In 1958, he was appointed as the artist at CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization). In the late 1960s he set out on a new path as a freelance designer, illustrator and author. His work in science still continued when he served as part of a United Nations team in Mexico and Peru, designing pamphlets on fisheries (until 1975).

The breadth of his artistic talents and interests is shown by his involvement in a number of conservation and environmental projects. These include helping to design the Swan Hill Pioneer Settlement and serving as one of the founders of the Australian Conservation Foundation. He still lives in the Victorian coastal town of Anglesea in a home that he designed and largely built himself. In Geelong, where he grew up, he has inspired thousands of children to use their imaginations. The town has an annual Poppykettle Festival, named in honour of his story, 'The Voyage of the Poppykettle'. The festival has been providing entertainment and arts activities for primary students for 30 years. Each year, the festival attracts 4000-5000 school children to present a parade in costume, performances and artwork for the local community.

His Work

With approximately 100 works (see the list at the end of the post) it is difficult to cover this extensive and varied work in one post, so I will comment on just some of his works and the latest stunning series of classic novels that he has been illustrating for Walker Books.

Ingpen's illustrations always stand out because of the extraordinary detail. He uses a variety of media, including watercolour, pencil, and pastel. But whatever the media, the detail is always amazing and at times almost breathtaking.  I recently reviewed a new electronic version of 'Alice in Wonderland' (here). One of the most dramatic pages on the iPad version that combines movement and the possibility of interaction with the images is at the point where the Queen has ordered Alice's head to be lopped. Alice declares "Who cares for you...You're nothing but a pack of cards!" In the e-book version the cards begin flying around (kids love rattling the iPad to see them fly). But when I opened the corresponding double-page (pp 180-81) in Ingpen's illustrated version, I was moved to say "Now, who needs an e-book with illustrations like this." The image is stunning as is the production and design. On p.178 as Alice's trial ends and the whole pack of cards rises into the air, the line drawing on a taupe coloured washed background seems to bleed across p.179 and into the next double-page that shows Alice's face in stunned surprise as the cards fly about.

Copyright - Do not use without permission

Ingpen is known primarily as an illustrator but he is also a fine writer with 13 works of fiction and over 20 non-fiction. His most recent book as writer and illustrator is 'The Boy from Bowral' which tells the biographical story of Australian cricketer Sir Donald Bradman who is the greatest cricketer of all time. Bradman is seen as a legend in any cricket playing nation and Ingpen provides a lucidly written and historically accurate picture of Bradman's early life in Bowral, his rise to prominence as a cricketer, and his sporting career. The images are drawings based primarily on existing photographs, so the keen cricket fan (like me) will feel that they recognise some of the images. The cover (which wraps around to the back) is a wonderful sequence of images that appear like a series of video frames that capture the classic Bradman drive. I loved this book and any cricket following child or adult will also enjoy it.

But while I love Ingpen's latest book, my favourite is 'The Idle Bear'.  The best compliment I can pay to Ingpen is that in my opinion the text that he wrote is as good as the wonderful illustrations. I have read this book to children as young as two years and to groups of teachers, and the responses while different, are always strong and positive. This is a book that has so much depth. Like many great books, its readers can explore meanings and themes that even the author didn't necessarily anticipate as they connect the book with their own experiences and reading history. I have heard the book described as humorous, warm, moving and poignant, and all seem appropriate.  A reviewer in 'Publishers Weekly' concluded, "such wide-eyed bears, in dire need of family, should find a home in any reader's heart." Some have questioned its appropriateness for children, seeing its language as too difficult, and the narrative as too elusive. But such comments show no true awareness of the picture book. Ingpen knows how picture books work. In an interview with Frances Atkinson, Ingpen suggested that he always makes sure the artwork supports the text, rather than dominating it, "a good story is elegantly wrapped and the child discovers things bit by bit." The 'Idle Bear' is just such a book.

Two well-worn bears hanging out together with virtually no distracting background to the images, but for the occasional inclusion of several objects that are cleverly introduced as the story unfolds (or winds, dawdles?).  Ted 'turns' to Teddy and says:
"What kind of a bear are you?" asked Ted
"I'm an idle Bear."
"But don't you have a name like me?"
"Yes, but my name is Teddy. All bears like us are called Teddy."
Ted thought for a while, then said,
"Well, Teddy, I have been Ted forever - at least fifty years, I think."
"Me too," said Teddy,
"at least that long."
And so they continue to talk. They discuss what 'ideas' are as they look at a copy of 'Winnie the Pooh', then Ted catches a memory of where he comes from ('up the street'). The key protagonist Ted then contemplates being taken out and put away as he sits in a 'bear box' (a very bare box!). He discusses his worn out growl and tries to ignore the uncomfortable observation from Teddy that he's full of straw, for he must be too ("but then scarecrows and cushions are full of straw"). He remembers dogs and Michael who he hasn't seen "...for how long?"  "It must be forty years," thought Ted aloud.  And then Ted and Teddy philosophise about their status in life, while sitting on a copy of Webster's dictionary. Ted thinks he's a "worldly bear" while Teddy concludes that he's "an idle bear", but he wishes he knew "...what an idle is.  And he is still thinking about it." If I could own just 10 picture books this would be one of them.

Copyright - Do not use without permission

Illustrated Classics Series

Walker Books engaged Robert Ingpen to illustrate a series of unabridged classic children's books about 6 years ago. Since then they have produced a series of stunning collectors' books. Every book in the series excels in design and needless to say Ingpen's illustrations add a great deal to each of the classic stories. This is all the more remarkable because there have been many illustrated versions of most classic books; so gaining the attention of new generations of readers isn't easy. However, each of these books make me want to re-read every book, because Ingpen's illustrations help you to discover new things in each of them. It's obvious how much Ingpen loves the books himself given the brilliant way each illustration supports and extends the text without dominating it. The books include:
'Peter Pan and Wendy' (2004) written by J.M. Barrie
'Treasure Island' (2005) written by Robert Louis Stevenson
'The Jungle Book' (2006) written by Rudyard Kipling
'The Wind in the Willows' (2007) written by Kenneth Grahame
'A Christmas carol and A Christmas tree' (2008) written by Charles Dickens
'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' (2009) written by Lewis Carroll
'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' (2010) written by Mark Twain
'The Secret Garden' (2010) written by Frances Hodgson Burnett
'The Night Before Christmas' (2010) written by Clement Moore

All of the books in the series are stunningly designed and illustrated. They stand out on any book stand with quality hardback covers (with individually appropriate embossing), quality stitching, dust jackets that are consistent in design, featuring gold lettering for titles and fonts and design features throughout that are suggestive of classic books that are in some cases over 100 years old. The books ooze quality - you can't help but pick them up.

The illustrations utilise all of Ingpen's strengths, with hardly a double page spread in any of the books without illustrations, and many with more than one. The double page spreads, chapter divisions and inside cover images are of superb quality, and show Ingpen's attention to detail.  All the illustrations have the typical Ingpen fine line detail and wash colours that always give a softness to the image. The cover of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' is typical of the design of the latest books.

Above is the UK/US cover
One minor quibble is that in some of the books that have more text (e.g. 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer') the images are occasionally reduced in size to fit. Having said this, there is always a compromise to be made between text, image and book size in any illustrated novel. On the flipside, there are many large images in this wonderful series and a number of double page spreads that have little or no text. Overall, I felt that this balancing act was perfect in 'Alice in Wonderland' but not quite perfect in 'Tom Sawyer'. I also wondered about a few of the images in 'The Night Before Christmas' (which I love!) that depict Saint Nicholas as an almost a gnome-like character, but then again, I'm sure Robert Ingpen had his good reasons for this, and as my wife said "have you ever seen St Nicholas?" This title is a picture book rather than an illustrated novel and features the famous poem written by Clement Moore. This was written for his children and once published (anonymously) in a New York newspaper in 1823 quickly became a classic poem.

His Awards

Robert Ingpen has received many awards.  He was probably first noticed as a great talent when he did the illustrations for Colin Thiele's classic book 'Storm Boy'. This led to a long collaboration with Thiele. His work on 'Storm Boy' won him his first award, 'The Visual Arts Board Prize' presented by The Australia Council for the Arts. The list of awards that followed is significant and recognise his extraordinary skill. As well as the Hans Christian Andersen Medal already mentioned that was awarded in 1986, he was awarded the prestigious Dromkeen Medal for significant contribution to the appreciation and development of children's literature in 1989. He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Arts from RMIT in 2005 for contribution to children’s literature and in 2007 he was made a member of the Order of Australia for service to literature.
  • Another indicator of his standing as an illustrator is the significant international exhibitions of his work. These include:
  • A major retrospective exhibition in Taipei, which travelled to other regions of Taiwan for a two-month period (2009). 
  • An exhibition of the original artworks for 'Around the World in 80 Days' was held in London (2009). In 2002 Ingpen had a solo exhibition in Bologna, Italy.
  • In 2002 Ingpen's work also featured in the inaugural exhibition at 'The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art' (Massachusetts).
A Complete List of Robert Ingpen's writing and book illustrating

a) Illustrated Works

'Storm Boy' (1974) written by Colin Thiele
'The Runaway Punt' (1976) written by Michael Page
'The Australian countrywoman's cookbook' (1977), Country Women's Association
'Running the Brumbies: True Adventures of a Modern Bushman' (1979) written by Colin Stone
'Lincoln’s Place' (1978) written by Colin Thiele

'Chadwick’s Chimney' (1979) written by Colin Thiele
'River Murray Mary' (1979) written by Colin Thiele
'I Rhyme My Time: A Selection of Poems for Young People' (1980) written by David Martin
'Turning Points in the Making of Australia' (1980) text by Michael Page
'Night of the Muttonbirds' (1981) written by Mary Small
'This Peculiar Colony' (1981) written by Ronald Rose
'Clancy of the Overflow' (1982) written by Banjo Paterson
'Churchill Island' (1982) text by Graham Pizzey
'Click Go the Shears' (1986) (A traditional Australian song)
'The Stolen White Elephant' (1987) written by Mark Twain
'A Strange Expedition' (1988) written by Mark Twain
'Child's Story' (1988) written by Charles Dickens
'A Christmas Tree' (1988) written by Charles Dickens
'The Nargun and the Stars' (1988) written by Patricia Wrightson
'Peacetimes' (1989) written by Katherine Scholes
'The Great Deeds of Superheroes' (1989) written by Maurice Saxby
'The Great Deeds of Heroic Women' (1990) written by Maurice Saxby
'The Lands of the Bible' (1992) written by Philip Wilkinson and Jacqueline Dineen
'The Magical East' (1992) written by Philip Wilkinson and Michael Pollard
'The Master Builders' (1992) written by Philip Wilkinson and Michael Pollard
'The Mediterranean' (1992) written by Philip Wilkinson and Jacqueline Dineen
'Brahminy : the Story of a Boy and a Sea Eagle' (c1995) written by Colin Thiele
'The Drover’s Boy' (1997) written by Ted Egan
'Jacob, the Boy from Nuremberg' (1998) written by Enjar Agertoft
'The Poppykettle Papers' (1999) written by Michael Lawrence
'Who is the World For?' (2000) written by Tom Pow
'The Tapestry Story : Celebrating 150 Years of the Melbourne Cricket Ground' (2003) written by Keith Dunstan
'The Wizard’s Book of Spells' (2003) written by Beatrice Phillpotts
'The Magic Crystal' (2003) written by Brigitte Weninger
'Peter Pan and Wendy' (2004) written by J.M. Barrie
'Treasure Island' (2005) written by Robert Louis Stevenson
'The Jungle Book' (2006) written by Rudyard Kipling
'Mustara' (2007) written by Rosanne Hawke
'The Wind in the Willows' (2007) written by Kenneth Grahame
'Ziba came on a boat' (2008) written by Liz Lofthouse
'A Christmas carol and A Christmas tree' (2008) written by Charles Dickens
'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' (2009) written by Lewis Carroll
'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' (2010) written by Mark Twain
'The Secret Garden' (2010) written by Frances Hodgson Burnett
'The Night Before Christmas' (2010) written by Clement Moore

b) Fiction writing

'The Voyage of the Poppykettle' (1980)
'The Unchosen Land' (1981)
'Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between' (1983) written with Bryan Mellonie
'The Great Bullocky Race' (1984) written with Michael Page
'The Idle Bear' (1986)
'Out of This World : the Complete Book of Fantasy' (1986) written with Michael Page
'The Age of Acorns' (1988)
'The Dreamkeeper : A Letter from Robert Ingpen to his Granddaughter Alice Elizabeth' (1995)
'The Afternoon Treehouse' (1996)
'Folk Tales & Fables of Asia & Australia' (1992) co-written with Barbara Hayes
'Once Upon a Place' (1999)
'A Bear Tale' (2000)
'The Rare Bear' (2004)

c) Non-fiction writing

'In Pastures Green : the Story of the Presbyterian Church' (1954)
'Pioneers of wool' (1972)
'Pioneer Settlement in Australia' (1973)
'Robe : a Portrait of the Past' (1975)
'Don Dunstan’s Cookbook' (1976)
'Paradise and beyond : Tasmania' (1978) co-written with N.C.K. Evers
'Australian Gnomes' (1979)
'Marking time : Australia’s Abandoned Buildings' (1979)
'Australia’s Heritage Watch : an Overview of Australian Conservation' (1981)
'Aussie battlers' (1982) written with Michael Page
'Australian Inventions and Innovations' (1982) co-authored with Sally Carruthers ... [et al.]
'Colonial South Australia : its people and buildings' (1985) text by Michael Page
'Worldly dogs' (1986), written with Michael Page
'The making of Australians' (1987), co-authored with Michael Page
'Conservation' (1987) co-authored with Margaret Dunkle
'Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were: Creatures, Places, and People' (1987 ), co-authored with Michael Page
'A Celebration of Customs & Rituals of the World' (1994) co-written with Philip Wilkinson
'Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places : the Life and Legends of Ancient Sites Around the World' (1990), co-written with Philip Wilkinson
'In the Wake of the Mary Celeste' (2004), co-authored with Gary Crew
'Imprints of Generations' (2006)
'The Boy from Bowral : the Story of Sir Donald Bradman' (2007)

Other Posts

All posts in the 'Author & Illustrator Focus' series (HERE)