Saturday, 27 August 2016

Ten Pieces II: The Proms for Kids (Or the day my daughter became a Wagnerian...)

There's nothing quite like seeing your daughter falling in love with music; magnificent, passionate music that paints pictures and pins a 4 year old to their seat, gripped and inspired, and leaves them reminiscing, singing and dancing for weeks. For me it was racing to safety behind a sofa as the stone door to the Hall of the Mountain King swung shut, beating an imagined hammer to the Anvil Chorus and dashing through the snow on a horse drawn sledge with Lt Kije to Prokoviev's Troika. For Culturebaby it has also been The Nutcracker and now the swift-winged Valkyries. I've also been immensely grateful for the BBC's fabulous series Melody, which animates a piece of music for children in each episode, and Disney's Fantasia.

Towards the end of July Culturebaby (almost five) and I headed off for a 'big girl' day to the BBC Proms 12; a fantastic celebration of a set of iconic classical pieces performed for and with school children. Building on last year's huge 10 Pieces success, this year's Ten Pieces II was aimed at early secondary school children, combining dance, animation and a plethora of musical offerings.  However it was pitched, it suited the pre-schooler just as well. We listen to a lot of classical music and attend concerts regularly but there was something completely awe inspiring about the size and scale of a full orchestra in the spectacular rotunda of the Albert Hall, and Culturebaby was completely bowled over from the moment the huge organ began with Bach's (slightly unnerving) Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

Culturebaby has declared that she loves 'big' music. She watched open mouthed the organ thundering out its Fugue and the enormous choir of children perform the epic Day of Judgement from Verdi's Requiem. However, since the concert it is the Ride of the Valkyries that has been requested over and over again. She has re-lived the clever way in which the Proms presenters built up the arrival of the Wagnerian characters using breaking 'news' videos - explaining that there had been numerous sightings of flying creatures above london and strange occurrences of glowing rings of fire on buildings and objects that shape. Finally these warrior goddesses descended upon our own circular theatre, emerging from various locations around the audience carrying glowing fragments to form a large golden ring on the stage before us. It was very effective and clearly had a remarkable effect on her. I spotted her acting out the scene with a troupe of Barbies yesterday as she hummed the tune.

Throughout the performance we were treated to ten well chosen iconic pieces of music from Bizet to Bernstein, introduced by presenters (and even a very ambitious Joseph Hayden who considered the selection of only one piece of his work rather insufficient); but we also had the chance to experience the creative responses of a whole range of talented young people in between. Following a beautiful solo performance of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending by an award winning young musician, we saw school boys from Northern Ireland acting out wartime corrsepondence with loved ones. Culturebaby was really impressed by an original composition by a sibling pair. We heard about the bravery of Shostakovich in the face of a constricting communist regime and watched dancers acting out the vicious portrait of dictator Stalin. We danced to the Mambo from Westside story and we watched several groups of brilliant young musicians - notably the stunning Animate orchestra performing quirky jazz and the Able Orchestra, which included some severely disabled members who created computer art in response to the music performed by their peers.

I couldn't have hoped for a better introduction to the Proms for Culturebaby, nor might I have expected that I would emerge with a pre-school Wagnerian. Ten Pieces aims to open up the world of classical music to a generation of children, representing a range of styles and eras, and it has certainly had success in our household. I'd highly recommend these concerts to families and very much hope there will be Ten Pieces III next year.

Programme included excerpts from:
J. S. Bach
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
Bernstein
Mambo (from West Side Story)
Anna Clyne
Night Ferry
Haydn
Trumpet Concerto in E flat major – 3rd movement
Gabriel Prokofiev
Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra – 5th movement
Shostakovich
Symphony No. 10 in E minor – 2nd movement
Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending
Verdi
Dies irae and Tuba mirum (from Requiem)
Wagner
Ride of the Valkyries (from Die Walküre)

Disclaimer: We received two tickets to the Prom for review purposes. It was genuninely magnificent and all views are my own. You can see the trailer for the Ten Pieces II shown last Christmas on the BBC here to give you a flavour of it all. There will be highlights shown on CBBC on Sunday 11th September.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Into the Night Garden...

Some things in life provide wonderful experiences because of their simple and arresting joy. In the Night Garden Live is an adorable production for the very young and rarely have I witnessed such unparalleled delight in little people as at the arrival of these household names in larger than life form before their eyes.

In The Night Garden is one of those utterly bizarre, and probably genius, Cbeebies programmes that have captured the heart of a nation. At the slightest whisper of threat to children's programming, parents declare war in defence of Upsy Daisy the pacifier and Iggle Piggle the entertainer of their miniature brood. I'm not sure a few years ago that I could have imagined I'd be writing an article about this surreal toddler wonderland, but there too leapt I into the giant showdome, pre-schoolers in tow, and found myself surrounded by the Richmond parenthood chanting along in one voice to the unintelligible but gripping choruses of Makka Pakka, Akka Wakka, Mikka Makka moo! and Igglepiggle, wiggle, niggle, woo! 
I wonder what a future anthropologist falling upon some ancient footage might deduce from such scenes: who are these furry deities depicted on materials from dining equipment to painted bedroom walls, treasured in effigy and emitting strange and otherwordly chanting? But to the 2 year old, who sees true friends and companions in these colourful puppets, the whole phenomenon makes total sense.

There are two shows available this summer, each covering a simple tale. Let's be honest these are not (for the adult observer) complex and gripping tales of adventure. In ours Makka Pakka travels around the garden, introducing a range of his buddies and washing their faces. At one point he loses a sponge. The sponge is consequently recovered. There are bubbles. There is dancing. But the joy created in this showdome is utterly infectious. It was a thoroughly happy event, with audible expressions of delight throughout from young and old alike. It isn't cheap and inevitably is rather commercialised, but it is a great child-friendly performance and good option for a first experience of theatre designed entirely for and on a perfect wavelength for the very young.

My four year old, who in hindsight didn't consider herself too mature for the whole experience, was particularly taken with the sense of scale and use of various sized puppets to bring the Night Garden alive. A larger Makka Pakka emerged alongside the Pontipines, whilst a smaller puppet was used beside the enormous Iggle Piggle. There were glorious moments when Iggle Piggle's boat appears amongst the waves, when Upsy Daisy finally danced onto stage, and when projections of stars onto the ceiling made the whole experience multi-dimensional.

As I circled my toddler's palm with my finger as the show began and witnessed her childish awe at the familiar spectacle unfolding before her, the emotion associated with the brevity of this tiring but wonderful phase rather bowled me over. I found myself wanting Oliver-like to bottle the whole experience. For In the Night Garden - for better or for worse - seems to be a right of passage for today's toddler and now, as then, I recall the immortal words of Evelyn Waugh:

"I should like to bury something precious in every place that I have been happy, so that when I'm old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up, and remember."

 In the Night Garden Live runs annually and tickets can be booked at this site. The final leg of the 2016 tour opens soon in Manchester.

We received a family ticket in exchange for an honest review of the performance. As always all views are very much my own. Photographs courtesy of In the Night Garden Live.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Sadlers Wells Family Day: Exquisite Snow White


Family Weekend balletLORENT Snow White 25 & 26 March © Ian WestWe love Sadlers Wells, with their creativity, brilliant performances and mission to inspire young people and involve families in their programming. Last year a friend attended their Miro-inspired Family Weekend. This year Culturebaby and I were delighted to be able to spend a big girl afternoon together at the simply exquisite production of Snow White from balletLorent and re-told by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Whilst some productions for children are technicolor and twee, this evocative production was refreshingly un-Disney. The colours were melow and the storyline was haunting and at times dark. This ballet by the award-winning BalletLorent was not for the feint hearted. There were tears in the loos from some quarters but Culturebaby never fails to surprise me with her capacity for challenging themes and she was hugely impressed by this interpretation - closer to the Grimm than the Disney - with a mother (not stepmother) who grew jealous of her daughter and a woodcutter groom not a prince. The former was food for thought that all mothers should protect and celebrate the beauty and youth of their innocent offspring and never unwittingly fall into jealousy or a desire to live through them. The latter was thoroughly welcome - a fairy tale encouraging women not to look for the rich and vain in their future mate - but the strong, courageous and good. Carol Ann Duffy captures this angle well when she says:
"I didn't expect to fall for the story of Snow White. Like so many of the Brothers Grimm fairytales, I felt that I vaguely knew a version of the story, and was most familiar with Disney's 1937 interpretation. It was only through my research that I found out that in the first published version it was Snow White's actual mother - not her stepmother - who was so jealous of her offspring's beauty that it drove her to want to murder the daughter that she had so wished for. I was hooked; it suddenly became such an important story to tell. So many of us live with a complicated and unhappy relationship with our reflection in the mirror, and this fairytale warns us of the dangers of self-criticism, brilliantly looking at the cost of our beautifying and anti-ageing efforts."

BalletLorent's mission to create high quality dance for all ages is commendable. In this touring production, they have offered the opportunity for 12 children aged six to nine years to rehearse and perform with them. These lucky children receive professional training and an opportunity to perform as part of the troupe. We were hugely impressed by their contibution and, like many productions which feature children, to an audience aspiring to follow in their footsteps their roles offer a tangible next step for other aspiring miniature dancers. By opening up productions so effectively for families both in the audience and in the production itself, as Amy Reid, a teacher in a participating school notes: "It's great to be planting that seed now instead of later on. They are little enough for this to make a difference."




Sadlers Wells supplemented this fabulous ballet with a wider programme of creative and themed activities, available free before the production. Children were invited to explore costumes, make a magic mirror or crown, write on a wall of dreams and discover hidden leaves and objects through crayon rubbing on a giant mat. Of the many productions we have seen in recent years, this is one of those that has remained with both me and my daughter and is still talked about months on. The whole experience was welcoming and evocative. The costumes and props were simple in hue but stunning in design - Snow White's wedding dress fills the entire stage. The family weekend at Sadlers Wells comes round annually. We await their next instalment with baited breath...

"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales." Albert Einstein

"The fairytale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alternation. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin readbreast in a cage." Philip Pullman



Disclaimer: We received review tickets in exchange for an honest review of the production. As always, all opinions are all entirely my own. Photographs of the performance itself are courtesy of Sadlers Wells and photographer Ian West

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Top Ten Picture Book Dads (and a giveaway)

This is a quick post to celebrate and honour all the fabulous Dads out there on Fathers' Day. I never could have realised until I became a parent quite how generous my own father has been with his time and energy throughout my life. So nappies were never his bag, but I have wonderful memories of walks, camping and boats, old houses and nature; learning to paint with watercolours on a beach; and painstakingly handcrafted wooden puzzles that have been passed to the next generation. Living on the outskirts of Manchester, Dad supported my friendships by ferrying friends to and fro from our house to the other side of the city, he manned the lights at am-dram rehearsals, and (though I was immensely cross at the time) he came to collect me from club nights and escort me safely home. I'm grateful for his amazing selflessness and love him very much. My little Culturebabies are also blessed with a wonderful father who is so full of life and love for them. Here's a little selection of, what I think are some of the best depictions of fathers or father figures and their relationships with their children in our picture book collection.
Firstly we'd like to introduce a new book for 2016 from Sean Taylor and illustrated by Emily Hughes, whose stunning work Culturebaby was fortunate enough to peruse in its developmental phase last summer. A Brave Bear is a beautiful portrait of a father and child who set out together on a simple adventure. Full of joy and fun, the story also charts the progression of little bear's growing bravery with such a solid support to guide him, pick him up when he falls, comfort him, carry him and give him the self confidence to conquer challenges himself. The writing is beautiful and uplifting and the illustrations are exquisite. At bedtime on a recent holiday, two year old Culturetot begged Daddy to take her on an adventure (round the surrounding site), and, no matter the time, he did. This gorgeous book encapsulates that excitement in simple discoveries, the joy of quality time alone with a parent and the optimism such devotion can bring: "On the way home, the sun was glowing. The air was glowing... Even tomorrow was glowing".

This theme of the importance of quality time and passing on the awe and wonder of life from generation to generation continues with When Dad Showed Me the Universe by Ulf Stark and illustrated by Eva Eriksson. It was originally a popular Swedish classic and this English volume from Gecko press (which specialises in English versions of curiously good books they discover from around the world) is a really original read about a father who really wants to show his son the Universe. Keen to make it a special occasion and daring adventure, the surprise is kept as such until all streetlights are left behind and in the wilderness the Dad lifts up his child to reveal to true magnificence of the night sky. Peppered with scientific facts which betray the passion of the father for science, and humorous interludes, this story is rather unusual. On the face of it, it is a great adventure with a father and a comic ending. But it is also rather more interesting for older readers too. The father with his head in the clouds fails to see the mess on the ground he wades into; he worries that a great adventure has been ruined because it contains such a moment. The delight and message, of course, is that even if the best made plans are imperfect for the child, both the intimacy and wonder of sharing a parent's passions are utterly unforgettable. 

A humorous caricature, and one of Culturedad's all time favourite picture books, is the ingenious Anthony Browne's irreverent and distinctively illustrated My Dad. The book begins "He's all right my Dad..." and goes on to list a cocktail of attributes from the normal to the fantastical. The book oozes pride in a father figure, who no doubt inspired this author we know and love. It is catchy, quirky and memorable. We've bought it several times as a present for the men in our lives.  
There's always space on our picturebook shelves for the simple and heartwarming. There are numerous Dad portraits like this around, but one of the cutest is Walsh and Abbot's I Love Dad, which depicts a day in the life of a toddler dragon, hanging out with his Dad. Nobody compares; no one can provide so much fun and entertainment "...make a bedtime story so fantastic, a lion's roar so drastic, a plastic man's kung-fu kick so slick". Its a lovely reminder that little people find joy in the simplest of things. It's about being present.
Culturebaby's current laugh-out-loud favourite is Mabbitt and Blunt's new This is NOT a Bedtime Story. Disatisfied with a repetition of the usual and rather mundane pink kitten tale, Sophie surprises her father with a dramatic revision of the bedtime story inspired by items around her room and featuring lions, helicopters and robot dinosaurs. Recovering from his shock, Dad gets rather into the swing of things. This delightfully subversive depiction of the importance of story time with a parent, the need for space for imagination and creativity and a challenge about what a girl might like to read, is really fun. Culturebaby has demanded this one at least five times in the last couple of days. I even found Grandad perched on the bottom stair reading it, with both girls chuckling beside him.

We've also been enjoying a new read from Michelle Robinson and Nick East. Goodnight Spaceman features two little boys who dream of joining their dad on his adventures in space. In his introductory letter to readers, Tim Peake the astronaut, says "I see my two young sons looking up at those same stars and I remember experiencing the early feelings of wonder and excitement that I now see on their faces... I hope it may inspire a new generation of boys and girls to look up at the stars and not just ask questions, but to go and seek answers of their own." This cute picture book is both informative and smacks of pride at the career of a much loved father. But perhaps it is also useful for children whose father is at times or always rather more distant than they might like.
Next is a much loved classic The Railway Children, retold in the simplest of forms by the wonderful Usborne and their picture book collection. With beautiful illustrations from Alan Marks, E. Nesbit's tale of a family struggling at the arrest of their father, the resilience and optimism of children and the way in which they help to save him, is made accessible to the very young. It's also an important tale to include in a selection of stories about fathers. There will be times in every child's life when their father might feel weak or vulnerable, suffer shocks and familes may experience hardship. It's a good message that children can play a part in the recovery - and save others through their own strength and love.
Finally, I've selected a trio of wonderful books about grandfathers. For many of us, these important  paternal figures will feature strongly in our young lives, and navigating this relationship and the process of eventual loss is a lifechanging one. In the tale of Peter and the Wolf  (a favourite is Ian Beck's edition), the grandfather is the father figure in Peter's life. In a dangerous environment he tries to protect his cheeky and disobedient charge from a wolf who gobbles up the household duck and is eventually captured by Peter. Thundering out his necessary discipline in the serious tones of the bassoon, this role of parent as protector is an crucial depiction. We adore the narrated musical version of this tale, and we've been particularly loving the Royal Ballet's dvd of their production as part of a set of four ballets for children.

A recent discovery in our local library is the tear-jerking My Grandpa by Marta Altes. Depicting the process of aging and how a child might deal with the changes they encounter in a much loved relative, this little and expressively illustrated book stays with the reader. At times Grandad behaves like an old man, sometimes like a child; he loses things and at times the child must be his eyes. But then there are the times for adventure, cuddles and the passing on of history. The book oozes with emotion and would prepare any child in a similar situation to continue to love unconditionally - just as they themselves are loved.
Finally, one of my absolute favourite books of the last year is the beautiful Grandad's Island. It is hard to read - I haven't seen many adults make it through without tears - but it is also one of the most uplifting depictions of handling the loss of a loved one that I've ever encountered. Syd loves his Grandad and spends a lot of time with him, but then one day Grandad takes Syd on a journey to a wonderful island. Here Grandad no longer needs his stick, renovates a little house, and participates in a range of wonderful adventures. Eventually Grandad breaks the news that he will be staying on the Island and Syd must return. Along with the brilliant book Rabbityness, this is a must read for any child dealing with the loss of a loved one - or needing a reminder that even when distant, our loved ones always remain near to us.


With apologies to international readers, we can only offer this prize as a hard copy to entrants from the UK. 


Thursday, 16 June 2016

Feel Brave: Stories to help children deal with big feelings

With Culturebaby off to school in September, the arrival of a series of books designed to help children to deal with big feelings and challenges was very welcome indeed. Culturebaby has been blessed with the wonderful children she's grown up alongside. Both girls have been adopted into urban-families of my friends' children from ages nine down to one, who look out for each other and where age doesn't matter. But I know that this won't always be the case, children can be mean and problems can seem insuperable to a little person in a big school. I'm aware that helping her to deal with fears and challenges herself and with the help of others will be hugely important.

The Feel Brave series by Avril McDonald and published today, is a collection of five picture books designed to help children explore positive psychology and emotional intelligence in a safe and non-threatening way, through the art of storytelling. Each tale contains strategy in which to overcome a negative emotion, with the help of a lovable wolf called Wolfgang and his friends. (And I might add so refreshing to see a wolf depicted in a positive light. The poor chaps get such a bad press in fairyland). 

Each of the five books tackles a difficult issue a child may be experiencing at home or at school, with their friends or alone, and provides them with the tools to feel better. This includes low self-esteem; change, loss and grief; anxiety and fears; and bullying. We've been working through them and Culturebaby has been particularly attracted to The Wolf Is Not Invited. At four, children are clearly beginning to decide who they are really drawn to. This partiality can create fantastic friendships, but it can also lead to exclusion and sadness. It's something children have to navigate, and we cannot fully protect them from the inevitable heartbreak this can cause throughout their early years - but this sort of story can help.

Wolfgang also learns to face fear of the dark in The Wolf and the Shadow Monsterbeing bullied in The Wolf’s Colourful Coat and overwhelmed by worry in The Wolf and the Baby Dragon and finally, sadness losing someone close to him in The Grand Wolf. A golden thread through each of the stories is also the power of friendship. Spider is close by to offer another perspective, support and helpful words. 

Avril McDonald had her first panic attack at 8 years old. That attack marked the beginning of Avril learning to live with anxiety disorders and it gave her an insatiable curiosity about the mind/body connection and desire to help children to learn to handle their emotions. “I want to try and equip children with the tools they need to do this and I’m putting all of my faith in a little brave wolf with a big heart to make it happen”. 

Here's a guest post from her with ten great ideas to help children build emotional intelligence:

10 fresh ideas to bring into your home to help children build emotional intelligence and thrive
We now live in an incredibly distracted and fast paced world where we are seeing whole new levels of stress in children.  How can we help children adapt to this world?  Here are ten tips to bring into your home to help children build emotional intelligence and thrive.  

 1. Teach children about their brains with the Cheeky Monkey and the Wise Owl 

At a very simple level, we have two brains; the ‘old brain’ (responsible for basic physical desires, motives and emotions such as the fight, flight or freeze responses) and the ‘new brain’ that sets us apart from animals. This part of the brain enables us to think, imagine and reason and gives us our sense of self.  Our new brain capabilities can easily be hijacked by our old brain feelings, emotions or desires. Like a dog, the old brain is most useful to us if we can train it using our rational new brain.  
Young children can be introduced to this concept by imagining that one part of their brain is a bit like a ‘Cheeky Monkey’ and that another part is like a ‘Wise Owl’. Sometimes the ‘Cheeky Monkey can get a bit too excited or if it feels scared or angry, it might want to scream and run away or do things that might hurt other people like hit or say unkind words. The ‘Wise Owl’ can train (or talk to) the ‘Cheeky Monkey so that when feelings come up, the ‘Cheeky Monkey can stop for a minute while the ‘Wise Owl helps it to do something really good with those feelings (even if the feelings are bad).  
You can make this learning part of a child’s everyday by just talking about their ‘Cheeky Monkey’ and their ‘Wise Owl’ as if they are little invisible friends. Talking like this can start the imagery and fun conversations flowing until they are old enough to take on the bigger concepts e.g. ‘Was that your Cheeky Monkey that just did that?’ or ‘What would ‘Wise Owl tell Cheeky Monkey’ to do?’ You could make puppets or use toys to play out scenarios of what ‘Cheeky Monkey’ did with a situation and what he/she might have done better by listening to what Wise Owl had to say.     
Other great ideas on how to explain a child’s brain to them can be found on the internet such as this one by Dr Hazel Harrison

2. Mindful breathing 
Mindful exercises have been proven to reduce stress and promote wellbeing.  Slow and deep breathing makes us feel better.  It releases happy hormones (e.g. dopamine) and reduces stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) and can help children move in to a positive mental state where they are ready to learnMindfulness exercisescan be easily accessed on the internet and are a great way to calm down and ‘self-regulate’ our emotions.  

3. Calm down box 
Make a calm down box for children to use at times when they feel restless, over stimulated, angry or upset.  Include things like Lavender scented play doughstress ballsMandala colouring in templatesmind jarssome nice calming music, favourite books, art equipment to draw out feelings etc.

4. Practise empathy by looking for kindness 
The ability to empathise builds social tolerance and helps to develop our support networks which in turn increases resilience. Empathy plays a vital role in preventing bullying. Ask children every day to tell you what they did that was kind or made someone feel good?  Or ask them if they saw someone else do something kind or made someone else feel good today. 

5. Random acts of kindness
Random acts of kindness can help to build a sense of empathy and compassion which is key to developing social competence.  The more we practise empathy and compassion, the more likely we are to recognise situations when others are in need.  Random acts of kindness also strengthen the neural pathways necessary for detecting emotions and releasing our happy hormones (e.g. dopamine). Ask children to secretly plan little ‘acts of kindness’.  Get them to report back each day on any ‘RAK’s’ they did or saw someone else do.  

6. Draw your feelings 
Give children plenty of opportunities to draw or paint.  If they are feeling angry or upset, ask them if they would like to ‘draw’ their feelings to some of their favourite music.  Drawing and painting can help children express and process feelings that they may not even have words for yet.  Drawing can also help open up conversations about any feelings or things that might be bothering them.  

7. Daily stretches
If children can be introduced to a little fun stretching routine each day, it can help them get a taste of just how enjoyable and beneficial a short exercise break can be and how good it can make their bodies and minds feel. There are some fun little stretching routines that can be found on the internet.  

8. Make up new stories about things that worry them
If a child is worried about nightmares or certain situations and scenarios, try creating new stories together and make their scary things become funny or small and cute.  This is a very simple Cognitive Behavioural Therapy called ‘re-framing’.  

9. Role play difficult situations 
Children love nothing more than role playing a tough situation they are facing when you play the part of them or you share a similar story from your childhood.  Role playing gives them a safe environment to try out different scenarios and see situations from a different perspective and to try and process their feelings.  Role play can also be done using a child’s favourite toys or by making a puppet show.  

10. Practise gratitude
Gratitude exercises have been proven to increase happy hormones (e.g. dopamine) and help us change how we view things.  They encourage us to focus on the positive which helps our overall well-being.  Ask children every night what the ‘best thing of the day’ was and get them to think about all of the people they love and mix them in a bowl and drink them like a hot chocolate so that they feel warm inside their hearts.  

About the Author
Avril McDonald is the author of the Feel Brave Series of books (little stories about big feelings for 4-7 year olds) and founder of www.feelbrave.com   She set up the www.friendsoffeelbrave.com charitable arm with the vision to give all children access to tools to help them manage tough emotions and reach their potential. 

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Harold's Hungry Eyes Blog Tour

It is great fun being part of blog tours for new and inventive books being published. We love the classics, and they feature heavily on our creaking bookshelves, but there is something thoroughly exciting about getting a first glance at the dream-weaving, toddler-taming classics of tomorrow. We particularly love great illustration. Kevin Waldron, author of Harold’s Hungry Eyes from creative publisher Phaidon, has used line drawings, block colours and photographic collage to produce a quirky and original picture book. His exceedingly cute, wide-eyed Boston terrier Harold is torn between his twin loves: his smelly old chair and his insatiable appetite for treats. He is content, until the morning he discovers that his beloved couch has been confined to the jaws of a departing refuse-collecting truck. Hot in pursuit, he sets off across an alien city and finally, utterly lost and without the chair, he finds his way home using his rumbling stomach to guide him. 

In scenes, reminiscent of the fertile imagination of a Magritte landscape, hungry Harold sees over-sized pieces of food at every juncture: raspberry hydrants, pizza windows, street lamp sundaes, as he searches for clues to get him home for his breakfast. Waldron hopes, with his surreal cityscapes, to inspire his young readers to use their own imagination when observing objects in their everyday life. Given that toddlers seem to constantly graze and chart distance and hours by access to snacks, perhaps they are not so far removed from this kindred canine - the book certainly gripped the imagination of both Culturebabies.

We leapt at the opportunity to ask Kevin a few further questions about his creative process and influences and display some of his original notebooks and images used in creating the book:

- What inspired you to write the book? Where did the idea come from?

I’ve been drawing black and white cats for years, it’s like hand writing to me at this stage! So I thought I’d draw some black and white dogs. I’ve always had a soft spot for Boston terriers. Around that time I was making a lot of collage art for my own amusement. I brought everything along to a meeting with Phaidon, not with anything in mind particularly, and they saw potential for a children’s book. Making art purely for fun is a great way to start. 
 

- Is Harold based on a real canine? 

suppose he is an amalgamation of all the dogs I knew growing up! I like to watch the vastly wide variety of breeds in the dog runs here in New York - it’s fun and helped when I was drawing Harold’s body position, the position of his ears, etc.

- The illustrations are reminiscent of a surrealist landscape- rather like a Magritte. Are they inspired by this sort of art? What are your other artistic influences?
 
Probably more from eastern European illustrators and artists from the 60s & 70s - Květa Pacovská , Janusz StannyBohumil Stepan, etc. (I've since checked these out and their work is extremely interesting)

who is your favourite artist and why?

I don’t have a favourite artist. Some things stick with you for a lifetime I’m sure, depending on when you were exposed to them, but one thing leads to another to another… I could only say what I’m into now, this month or this week! I was very keen on the paintings of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner a few weeks ago. 

what childhood book influenced you the most?

I have always drawn, I have always wanted to draw but I didn’t know I wanted to make children’s books until I was in my twenties. There are lots of books I discovered then that had a profound effect on me, but from my childhood I just remember what kind of books would appeal to me. Mr Tickle was a favourite! “today looks very much like a tickling day” he thought to himself.

do you exchange a lot of thoughts and ideas with the other author/illustrators you share a studio with? (Oliver Jeffers and Jon Burgerman)

Absolutely, I’m very fortunate in that regard. I’ve learned a lot not just from my peers’ opinions but my own interpretation of their tastes if that makes sense?! A defining moment for me was when I was asked for my opinion on some work and I realised that everything I was saying was equally meant for me. It echoed in my head for weeks and finally started to manifest itself on paper! 

what comes first - the story or the images when you are writing?

The very genesis for me is always a drawing in my notebook. There is always a ‘first time’ that I draw a character even if I’ve tried twenty times. One scrawl will have a mystery that I try to unravel the best I can.  

 - where do you go to get inspiration for a new book?

The answers are usually somewhere in your notebooks already. But I do like to pair visual ideas; it’s like a hook to me. So sometimes if I’m starting a book I’ll go to the library and pull out books from any section I think might be applicable or catch my eye. At the moment I work at a rate of one of my own books to two of another author’s. I wouldn’t accept another author’s text if it didn’t inspire me.

- If you could curate an exhibition with five great artists and five illustrators to show children the breath of creativity in art & imagination. Who would you choose?

If you don’t mind I’d like to amend your question to suit myself, much like a politican! I would like to show the children five animated shorts, because the people involved in creating these marvels are artists, illustrators, storytellers, innovators all rolled into one. 

The Hedgehog in the Fog (1975) directed by YuriyNorshteyn 

The Oompahs (1952) directed by Robert Cannon

Creature Comforts (1989) by Nick Park

Betty Boo in Snow White (1933) directed by Dave Fleischer 

Windy Day (1968) directed by John & Faith Hubley 

Phaidon have created an activity pack and desktop wallpaper to accompany this book. The activity pack can be downloaded here www.phaidon.com/resource/hungryharold-uk.pdf and a desktop wallpaper image is available here www.phaidon.com/resource/harolds-hungry-eyes-desktop-background.jpg. 
Harold's Hungry Eyes was published this week.
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