Today we are lucky to be joined on the blog by author and illustrator Steven Lenton who has written a guest post for us to celebrate the publication of his new picture book Let's Find Fred. With its brilliantly captured detail, bold colours and humorous cameos, this book is a pleasure for children and adult alike and the girls have been enjoying it on bedtime-story repeat for the last couple of weeks - not least due to the movable panda eyes on the front cover.
For any art-lover, the book is worth buying simply for the double page spread where naughty Fred, chased by his exhausted zoo-keeper, escapes through a gallery filled with cleverly panda-ized art and artefacts... from Egyptian panda deities and Warholed versions to Mona-Bear and the Bear with a Pearl Earring. If you look closely through the story, you can also spot the Beatles and other cultural cameos.
For his guest blog post, we asked Steven to tell us about where the inspiration came from for his book, and how the creative process works. He's also treated us to a glimpse of some of his early sketches and concept designs. I love looking at these images - they are an unparalleled chance to see where picture book illustrations begin, and give us a glimpse of the hand of the creator behind the polished result we only usually get to see.
"Let’s Find Fred was created
from an original concept by Scholastic and my fun animal character
designs that they spotted in both my earlier picture books and greeting
Over the years I have loved visiting zoos and have drawn lots and lots
of animals in both my sketchbooks and final artwork for picture books. I
love drawing and designing animals so when Scholastic approached me
with this project I leapt at it like Fred at a Candy Floss factory!
Creating the aesthetic for Fred was a very collaborative process and I really enjoyed designing a new Panda character.
Here are some early concept designs:
I always start my books with lots of pencil sketches of the main
character, then any subsidiary characters, in this case Stanley the Zoo
keeper and the other animals.
The large, round fluffiness of Fred works nicely with Stanley who is
very angular and sharp – inspired by the Mr Man, Mr Rush – his
triangular nose always pointing in the way of the chase!
Once I have designed the characters in my sketchbook in black and white
(VERY handy for a Panda!) I then move on to colour – in this case I
thought it would be great to give Fred a red accessory and a tie seemed
to be the perfect fit for Fred – I tried a regular tie but it made him
look too much like a business panda and was a bit too serious, so a bow
tie it was!
The Scholastic team and I wanted to create a fresh, bold look for Fred
and I researched lots of ‘Spot the…’ genre of books to get an idea of
the kind of styles that work well with this kind of book. I decided on a
colourful, minimal-lined style, not dissimilar to my usual work but
with a simpler, less chalky edge. This was mainly because, as there a
lot of small details and characters among the varied city scenes, bold
silhouettes, clear to read expressions and acting were essential.
The background elements such as vehicles, signage and foliage were
fairly simple to design once the characters had been set – bold, simple
lines and colours with a varied palette on each spread to enhance the
atmosphere and theme of each scene.
The final look and feel is hopefully a nice combination of contemporary
design and a warm, cuddly, fun collection of characters, vehicles,
environments and narrative. I hope everyone enjoys the book – it really
was such fun to create!"
I love the sort of story book adventure that re-imagines famous art through the eyes of other creatures. It gets you to really look at why certain works are so recognisable, even when adapted, and it is always a joy to see how the unique styles of artists have been so effectively captured as part of other worlds. Two others I'd recommend are ones I collected a while ago and they are both great introductions to art as well as lovely stories. The first is part of the well-known suite of original Babar books. Here the royal family of elephants turn to philanthropy and create a museum to house all the work they have collected over the years - modelled on a combination of the Musee D'Orsay and the Met in New York, and containing much of the canon of famous works (plus an artist in residence - Pollock!). The family move through the museum discussing what they like and why - its a great exploration of what museums and art are really for and how they can serve as inspiration for our own creativity. The second is a sweet tale about a group of cats who are unimpressed that little of the art they see contains images of felines. They set out on a journey round the globe to rectify the situation. Of course the Mona Lisa needs a cat to cuddle, Van Gogh's chair is far too empty and there are always cats in homes. Where is Las Meninas' cat? This pair of books are a great addition to any little Culturebaby's bookcase.
With Valentine's Day around the corner, I'm reminded of one of Culturetot's favourite themed sensory baskets: an extremely simple to produce love-themed mixture that has been resurrected for two years in the run. I found a set of heart-shaped measuring
cups and threw in a base of Risotto rice and tiny pasta stars, foil
and satin confetti, dried flower petals, feathers, wooden hearts and -
the absolute winner - pom poms of various shapes and sizes. Culturetot
really enjoyed scooping and pouring, sorting the items, collecting the
pom poms and stacking the cups. All great for sensory awareness, fine
motor development and colour matching practice. The last basket stayed around for months.
Over the last twelve months or so we've also read a host of brilliant new books on the theme of love and I've been saving them for a round-up like this. There are no traditional marry-a-prince tales in this selection. Rather, I've chosen a set of books that speak to our little ones in different ways about the nature of love - from friendship, to sacrifice, the journey of belonging, to a passion to improve the world for others. You'll find many others of this nature in one of our most popular posts Books to Change Children's Thinking. Here are a few more thought-provoking numbers both new and vintage.
No list on love would be complete without the classic tale from McBratney and Jeram which coined that gorgeous phrase "I love you to the Moon and back" and to celebrate 20 years of Guess How Much I Love Youthere's a lovely shiny new hardback version just been released this Spring. It's a beautiful, simple little story about a small rabbit's endeavour to explain to his Daddy quite how much he adores him. Whether to the ends of his toes, as far as he can stretch, or even to the Moon, his Daddy's love is able to stretch even further.
Next up, and first published in 1963, Fly Away Peter by Frank Dickens and Ralph Steadman has been republished for today's children by Pavilion. Jeffrey is a downhearted Giraffe; his neck is too short and he is unable to play with his peers. One day he stumbles across a kindred soul; a bird who cannot fly. Neither have friends and they find solace in each other's company. Through their friendship and care for each other, and a surprising game of hide and seek, they each find help and their hearts desire.
I recently watched the film of TheVelveteen Rabbit for the first time with the girls, and, my goodness, what a heartbreaking and inspiring story. It isn't a book I knew well as a child, but even discovering it more recently, I can still relate to the childhood soft toy as an extension of one's self and the immense fear and sadness of losing a precious old companion. First published in 1920, this beautiful classic reminds us of the truth that it is love that makes us real. I particularly love this quote, and reading it with my girls and my threadbare old bears Mishoo and Edward still looking on, there is little that captures the first loves of our childhood so well, or the real message behind Valentines Day:
"Weeks passed and the little rabbit grew very old and shabby, but the Boy loved him just as much. He loved him so hard that he loved all his whiskers off, and the pink lining to his ears turned grey, and his brown spots faded. He even began to lose his shape, and he scarcely looked like a rabbit any more, except to the Boy. To him he was always beautiful, and that was all that the little Rabbit cared about. He didn't mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic made him Real, and when you are Real shabbiness doesn't matter."
Next a little classic from my childhood Just For You by Mercer Mayer, which I'm delighted to see is still available. It's a hillarious tale of a little creature who wants desparately to show his mum how much he loves and wants to help her, but unfortunately everything he attempts goes wrong. "I wanted to not splash in my bath just for you... but there was a storm." The pictures are fantastic, the troubles endearingly funny, and of course, as is the case for every little person trying to do their best, a moment of love and huge toddler effort erases anything that has gone before.
Finally in the classics, a new offering from the eternally brilliant Shirley Hughes Alfie and His Very Best Friend. We've encountered Bernard many times before. Annie Rose likes him, he is funny and makes big art. He and Alfie are different - they don't always behave in the same way or like the same things, but they are best friends - and that's what matters. My favourite part of this lovely book features a scooter race for the under 5s. Alfie scooted as hard as he could, but Bernard who was excellent at scooting was much faster. Then disaster - Alfie skidded and fell off his scooter, hitting the ground with a big thud. Seeing what happened to his best friend, Bernard stopped, lost his lead and went to help his friend. In the end someone else won the race and Alfie and Bernard came in later, crossing the finishing line together. This image really reminded me of my Bernard. She is called Kate. We were both pretty hopeless at running and we had a fundamental objection to being forced to run the 3000 metres because nobody else wanted to do it. We jogged one lap, walked the next and linked arms to cross the finishing line together. She's still a best friend and I cannot think of one time she has ever let me down. "You are a true friend" Dad told Bernard when the race was over. If my little women can be friends to others like that, I'll be immensely proud, and I hope they too find their Bernards and their Kates. On Sharing and Sacrifice
There are some great books around on sharing and the greater importance of having a friend than material possessions, and one of the most brilliant is We Found A Hat by Jon Klassen. In the simplest of tales, two tortoises discover a hat, but there is only one hat. It looks good on both of them, and they both want it. "But it would not be right if one of us had a hat and the other did not..." How will both parties deal with this difficult decision? Quirkily illustrated and extremely perceptive, this picture book teaches a crucial lesson to even the tiniest of readers.
A couple of other great titles include the simple and effective Two Can by Smriti Prasdam-Halls and Ben Javens. Using only very few words and striking images, the book plays with the word 'can'. I can swing alone, you can't (too small). One can build a sandcastle, two perhaps cannot. But two are required to see-saw, two can be friends and two can encourage the other when they can't go it alone. It's a simple message for little people that playing together and sharing is much better than being alone.
Two final, extremely cute additions to the sharing pile are Crunch by Carolina Rabei - a tale about a ravenous guinea pig who refuses to share his food with his new friend Cheddar at all costs. A hug in exchange for a morsel of food? You must be kidding! But then he turns his back and his friend disappears - Crunch pictures Cheddar starving and alone, and realises that he kept his food but lost a friend. He sets out to find his pal and learns the important lesson of how to say sorry.
We love Emma Chichester Clark's gorgeous illustrations and the girls enjoyed her tale of rivalry between cat and dog Plenty of Love to Go Round. Perfect to share with siblings, or to prepare an older child for the arrival of a baby (see many more recommendations on this theme here) this story focusses on the message that a heart (and indeed cat basket) can expand to include those who may appear at first glance to be our rivals.
Two lovely new reads on the theme of forgiveness are The Lonely Giant by Sophie Ambrose and Frog and Beaver by Simon James. A giant, keen on bashing, smashing and mashing the environment around him becomes sad and lonely when the forest an all its animals begin to recede and all becomes quiet and still. He remembers the beauty of birdsong, and one day sighting a little yellow bird, he captures and cages it - hoping it will sing for him. The bird grows sadder and sadder and can no longer sing until the giant sets her free, saying how sorry he is, and she flies away. He wonders what he can do to bring back the forest, the plants and the animals and sets to work mending all that he has broken; planting, sowing, mending mountains. Then he watched and waited and, after much patience, the forest bloomed again. His joy had returned, and with it, the little bird.
Frog and Beaver are friends, but beaver is frankly too enthusiastic with his dam-building. He will take no advice and ruins the habitats of those around him, who are forced to move. Frog takes matters into this own hands and tries to convince his friend to listen - still no hope. Eventually Beaver's dam becomes so enormous it collapses; destroying homes and almost killing him. Frog saves his life and even the twice-displaced animals forgive him. The girls seem to love this story and it has a great environmental message too.
On Bringing Beauty to Those Around You
A stunning new book from the Fan Brothers The Night Gardener is the most stunningly illustrated we've seen this year. An old man and expert in topiary arrives in a dull village where everyone seems to be going through the motions. He sets to work transforming their environment and providing a focus for rejoicing. His stunning creations are closely observed by young orphan William, who discovers a real sense of wonder and excitment. Something was happening on Grimloch Lane. Something good. One night as William heads home, he stumbles across the night gardener at work and becomes his apprentice. And then day comes, the park is transformed, the gardener is gone - but he leaves a legacy - a young boy with a new passion and a set of shears. This stunning book speaks on so many levels, of the transformative effect of creativity and joy, the crucial legacy of stimulating a love for something in a new generation and how selfless and positive intervention will always leave the world a better place.
Birgitta Sif is one of my favourite contemporary illustrators and here, her collaboration with Alicia Potter has resulted in a simply beautiful little book about the lovely Miss Hazeltine, who runs a home for timid moggies. Miss Hazeltine's Home for Shy and Fearful Cats is a gorgeous tale about the loyalty and love that can come from a relationship with someone who is truly patient and kind, and works with our flaws and fears; loving us through them. The loveliness of this picture book not only reminds us of this, but that often more importantly those we aim to save will ultimately save us in turn.
On Simple Love
Finally, a trio of simple books about love. Firstly one for the very young - This is the Kiss by Claire Harcup, is a simplest illutration of the beauty and joy of the love of a parent - from a wave to a cuddle to a snuggle a goodnight kiss. It is a great early bedtime book.
The second is one of our favourites from last year Oskar loves... by Britta Teckentrup. With beautiful lyrical language and description, and the loveliest of illustrations, adorable Oscar sets out what it is in life that he really loves. From the the smell of spring to sweet red cherries, losing himself in books to the silence of snow. And of course his favourite pebble, which Culturetot was delighted to receive the the post from Oscar and proudly displays on her fireplace. This book reminds us so effectively to stop and look around - and take delight in the beauty and simplicity of the world through the eyes of a child.
Finally - the quirkiest of our Valentines selection, Zurine Aguirre's The Sardines of Love. This originally illustrated and unusual tale from Childsplay publishing is a funny story about an old couple, Lolo and Lola, who are stuck in their ways. Lolo loves to fish and adores sardines. Lola sells and cooks them for him daily - but she hates them. One day Lola sells all the sardines in the shop, and wanting to be sure Lolo doesn't go hungry she goes out fishing alone and calamity strikes -she is swallowed by Jeff the giant Octopus. Faced with no other option she sets up home there and realises that actually she rather likes the only food available - sardines. Lolo, increasingly sad and desperate without his wife floats out to the ocean on a river of his own teams to find himself reunited with his Lola. This is certainly one of the more original books of the last couple of years...
Disclaimer: Many of the newer books were sent to us over time for the purposes of an honest review. I only select the books I particularly like.