Playing by the book

Reviews of kids' books and the crazy, fun stuff they inspire us to do

The Katie Morag Treasury / Books with a strong sense of location

Posted on | November 13, 2014 | 6 Comments

Over the last couple of year’s I’ve read quite a lot about how children’s books with a very specific cultural setting are not favoured by publishers because it is hard to sell rights widely; publishers are keen for “universal” stories which translate (literally and figuratively) well across borders and languages.

Whilst I understand publishers’ drive to maximise sales, I think a great deal is lost if we ignore stories boldly and vividly set in specific and identifiable locations and cultures. Indeed, considering the current drive for increasing diversity in children’s books, I would argue that books which are culture specific have a vital role to play.

And of course, a great book will be “universal” whether or not it is set in a specific time, location or country; enduring stories speak to that which we share whatever our differences.

I have been a fan of Mairi Hedderwick’s books for as long as I can remember. She writes and illustrates rural Scottish island life in a magical way. She captures truths like poetry can in her watercolours of Hebridean life, whilst her stories are full of acute observations about family life that’s more or less the same wherever you are in the world, exploring issues such as sibling rivalry and intergenerational relationships.

katiemoragetreasuryThe Katie Morag Treasury by Mairi Hedderwick is a glorious book, bringing together a mix of the most popular previously published Katie Morag books and new stories and illustrations first heard and seen on episodes of the highly acclaimed BBC Katie Morag TV show. It really is a treasury, with a range of witty and poignant stories, illustrated in ink and watercolour in a way that invisibly and movingly marries romance and realism.

For kids listening to these stories Katie Morag’s tales act as mirrors; yes she may live in a community vastly unlike the one the young reader or listener lives in, but that only makes it more interesting and reassuring to read that Katie Morag has the same sort of worries, plays the same sorts of games and quarrels with her parents just like they do. Thoughtfulness is a consistent thread in all these stories, and Katie Morag herself is a terrific role model; full of strength and imagination she is not afraid to explore, to try new things, or to be kind.


This is a keeper of a book, one which works well both as a read-aloud, or for children who can read themselves. Indeed the lovely hardback binding makes this ideal for older readers who might not want to be seen reading picture books any more.

Last year when we were holiday in Scotland we collected a stash of shells and sea glass and re-reading these fabulous Katie Morag stories inspired us to get our jars of them out of our natural history museum, and play with them using a home-made light box.


I borrowed one of our large plastic boxes which we normally store lego in, lined it with white tissue paper, and then put a load of fairy lights inside it. With the fairy lights turned on, and all the other lights turned off and curtains drawn we entered something of a soothing world where the girls could then make patterns with the shells and sea glass, with soft light shining through.


If you don’t have any sea glass, you could do this activity with florists’ glass (vase) pebbles instead, making light imbued mosaics.


Music which goes really well with Katie Morag stories (though maybe not with the light box activity as much of it will get you up and dancing) includes:

  • My favourite radio programme – available worldwide online – Travelling Folk. This is BBC Radio Scotland’s flagship folk programme and it’s full of treats each week.
  • Arrangements of songs like you’ve never heard before from Billy McIntyre and his All Star Ceilidh Band, who I’d love to hear live because they are just WAY out there…. Pop! goes the Ceilidh is a hysterical album with covers of lots of pop classics (eg Living on a Prayer, Robbie William’s Angels, Billy Idol’s White Wedding) redone with fiddle, accordion and more. It will put a crazy smile on your face.
  • Anything by Skippinish but especially Land below the Waves that always gives me goosebumps:

  • Other activities which you could try out alongside reading The Katie Morag Treasury include:

  • Creating a sand imprint roller (!) like we did when I reviewed audiobook versions of the Katie Morag stories.
  • Making stone soup, as per one of the six folk tales told at Grannie Island’s Ceilidh, and reproduced in The Katie Morag Treasury. If you’ve never made stone soup here’s a recipe to get you started.
  • Adapting a pair of shoes to make your own tap shoes; Katie Morag learns to tap dance but uses her wellies and a little bit of ingenuity. Here are some ways you can turn your regular shoes into tap shoes.

  • What are your favourite children’s books which have a very strong sense of location?

    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of The Katie Morag Treasury by the publisher

    It’s an Orange Aardvark!

    Posted on | November 10, 2014 | 6 Comments

    I do love a book full of holes.

    Tights with holes? No thank you.

    A bike tyre with a hole? What a pain.

    But a book with holes? Yes PLEASE!

    There are some all-time classic books with holes in them: Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar and the Ahlbergs’ Peepo. More recently there’s the exuberant Peck, Peck, Peck by Lucy Cousins, which I adore. But a new contender to join the ranks of honourably holey hits is It’s an Orange Aardvark! by Michael Hall.

    aardvarkThe tale of a small colony of carpenter ants chewing holes in a tree stump, this book covers everything from learning about colours and similes to group dynamics and animal biology. It’s a wonderfully enjoyable read which explores both curiosity and fear. It really packs a great deal within its covers at the same time as being a visual and tactile treat.

    A band of formic brothers are creating holes in their stump to look out on the world outside their home. One is enthusiastic to see what lies beyond their threshold. Another is terribly worried about the dangers that lurk beyond their known and safe world. As they make each window their stump is flooded with colour. What could be the cause of this? Is it something to embrace and delight in or could it be a threat?

    The naysayer is convinced there is an existential threat to them all in the form of an aardvark waiting to gobble them up. As each different colour floods the stump, this poor ant must come up with increasingly outrageous explanations; could it really be a (blue) pyjama-wearing, (red) ketchup carrying, orange aardvark guiding a group of green geckos?

    With a hint of Klassen-style ambiguity in the ending (what really was the source of all the colour?) this book is full of delicious tension, punctured with lots of humour as well as holes which let the colour flood from one page to the next. The bold illustrations appear to be made from collage, mixing watercolour and tissue paper. The torn edges suggesting the tree stump sides give an additional handmade, personal feel to the images, and the use of black and grey pages ensures the colours sing and pulse as they shine through.

    The somewhat American language (“Sweet!”, “Neat!”) may niggle some readers elsewhere in the world but this is a small price to pay for such an inventive, enjoyable read. I do hope it will be released as a board book so that it can be fully explored with the fingers, hands and mouths not just of aardvarks but also of the youngest book devourers.


    Taking the lead from the concentric rings of colour flooding through each hole as it is created in the tree stump, we used tissue paper circles of various sizes to create suncatchers which explored colour depth. You can buy ready cut shapes of tissue paper, but we used regular sheets and cut out a series of circles of various sizes using plates, bowls and mugs as our templates.


    We layered our circles over a sheet of contact paper large enough to then fold back over the concentric circles to enclose them entirely in see-through plastic. An alternative would have been to use laminator sheets, if you have ones which are larger enough for your largest circle.


    Once a we had a selection of coloured tissue paper/contact paper circle sandwiches we stuck them on our patio doors and let the light flood through them.



    Whilst making our concentric sun catchers we listened to:

  • I’m an Aardvark from Sesame Street
  • Carpenter Ant by Tom Cornwell
  • Some species of armadillos feed almost exclusively on ants and that’s why we also listened to Armando Armadillo hot off the presses from Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke.

  • Other activities which would go well with reading It’s an Orange Aardvark! include:

  • Using an old detergent bottle to make an aardvark lamp. Sounds crazy, but you can see what I mean here!
  • Learning about ant behaviour. Here’s an absolutely fantastic ant activity pack created by The Invertebrate Conservation Trust. This 26 page pack includes details of group games to play outside; they would be great for class learning and exploration.
  • Trying your hand at ombré dyeing, where colours get gradually deeper and more intense – whether it’s a pillowcase or eggs these are fun activities to try with your family.

  • What’s your favourite book with holes in it? What’s the most annoying (non book) hole you’ve ever discovered?

    Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of this book by the publisher.

    Over the Hills and Far Away – a breathtaking new nursery rhyme anthology

    Posted on | November 7, 2014 | 5 Comments

    overthehillsOver the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes from Around the World compiled by Elizabeth Hammill and illustrated by 77 different artists is one of those books you might buy as a gift for someone, but then find it impossible to part with. It is one of the most beautiful and interesting books I’ve seen this year, offering doors into children’s lives around the world with rich and varied anthology of nursery rhymes from places as far apart as China and Canada, India and Ireland.

    Illustration from Over the Hills and Far Away by Emily Gravett. Click to see larger image.

    Illustration from Over the Hills and Far Away by Emily Gravett. Click to see larger image.

    There are illustrations from so many of the very best children’s book illustrators working today, including Ian Beck, Eric Carle, Emma Chichester Clark, Ted Dewan, Polly Dunbar, Michael Foreman, Bob Graham, Mini Grey, Mark Hearld, Pat Hutchins, Shirley Hughes, Satoshi Kitamura, Jon Klassen, John Lawrence, Jerry Pinkney, Shaun Tan, and many more. For anyone who cares at all about children’s book illustration, opening this book is like entering the most heavenly sweet shop you’ve ever dreamed of.

    Illustration from Over the Hills and Far Away by John Lawrence. Click to see larger image.

    Illustration from Over the Hills and Far Away by John Lawrence. Click to see larger image.

    Matching the stunning and highly varied illustrations, the choice of nursery rhymes also reflects an extremely interesting and rich mix of the well known (in the UK and US) and the more unusual; rhymes from Yiddish, First Nation, Caribbean and Latino traditions are included, sometimes alongside more familiar verses, allowing reading and listener to draw parallels and make connections around the world.

    Illustration from Over the Hills and Far Away by Allison Francisco. Click to see larger image.

    Illustration from Over the Hills and Far Away by Allison Francisco. Click to see larger image.

    As well as featuring stunning art from some of the best known book illustrators around the English-speaking world, there are also illustrations from three artists who are just starting out in the field. Sian Jenkins, Holly Sterling and Pippa Curnick were the winners of The Over the Hills and Faraway / Diverse Voices Illustration competition for unpublished Illustration students and I recently interviewed all three of them about their work. Below you can read how our conversation flowed:

    Zoe: What journeys did you take to now arrive here, as a published illustrator?

    Sian Jenkins: I have always known that I wanted a career based around art, even from a very early age, but it wasn’t until I joined an art foundation course that I found my love for illustration. My foundation course allowed me to try various different art mediums, and although I enjoyed the majority of them, it made me realise how much I missed simply drawing.

    When I started my illustration course in University, I was still full of uncertainty, as although I had chosen my career to be an illustrator, I was unsure down which path I wanted to go. During the first year, we were given a project on picture books and I knew straight away that it was right for me. I started collecting many picture books, finding both new illustrators and rediscovering my love for books such as ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’. But it was really the more contemporary illustrators such as Petr Horacek, Eric Carle and Mark Hearld that inspired me the most. I love their individual way of working, and how each they approach their work using collage.

    An illustration by Sian Jenkins

    An illustration by Sian Jenkins

    Holly Sterling: Pictures and books have always been apart of my life. I loved reading as a child and found the pictures even more fascinating.

    I remember writing out poems from my books and creating my own illustrations for them from a young age. My mum would staple the pages together like a ‘real’ book for me.

    I remember a particular moment in Year 5 when we created our own version of Monet’s ‘Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies’. My head teacher came to examine our work and had picked mine out as being ‘particularly advanced’. Hearing such positive feedback at a young age had such an impact on me. It was from this moment that I started to grow in confidence and showing a increasing passion for art.

    My parents and my Grandad had noticed my growing enthusiasm. I started spending time painting with my Grandad who was a keen watercolourist. During these sessions, I started to learn about the technical side to painting. He really was my largest influence and my biggest fan!

    When I was eleven, my family moved from London to Kent. I could have chosen to go to a Grammar School for my secondary years, but I wanted nothing more than to attend Astor College for the Arts in Dover, which promoted both visual and performing arts. The teachers from art department were so encouraging and really pushed me to follow my dreams… to follow a career in art/design.

    I went to the University of Sunderland to study Illustration and Design. I graduated with first class honours. During my time at Sunderland I developed a strong interest in different printing techniques and creating characters. It was during this course that I realised that a career in picture books is what I really wanted.

    After graduating I decided that it was time to work! I got a job at Design Company through Sunderland University’s Internship Scheme. It was here that gained my first industry experience, developed my technical skills, worked directly with clients and became business-minded.

    With picture books still being my true passion, I decided that I needed to go back to university to do my Masters. I felt as though I still needed more time to develop as an illustrator and had so much more to discover. I studied at Edinburgh College of Art on a two-year course. This is the place that I really found myself! We were lucky to have amazing tutors, but we also had a lot of external support from other illustrators and authors.

    The fabulous author Vivian French was so influential during my time in Edinburgh. She instils such confidence in her students and goes far and beyond to help them on the road to success. I will forever be indebted to her!

    illustration by Holly Sterling. 'Hiccups!', written and illustrated by Holly Sterling, to be published by Frances Lincoln in 2016. This is the picture book that Holly is currently working on.

    illustration by Holly Sterling. ‘Hiccups!’, written and illustrated by Holly Sterling, to be published by Frances Lincoln in 2016. This is the picture book that Holly is currently working on.

    Pippa Curnick: When I was little I wanted to be an RAF pilot, but unfortunately I am incredibly short, and my eyesight is pretty terrible! Throughout my school years I aspired to a whole range of careers, from wanting to be a farmer, to an astrophysicist. I always struggled to choose one particular subject as I really did love them all – I enjoyed and, in fact still do enjoy, learning about anything and everything. It wasn’t until I was 17, and desperately rushing to get through my maths and physics homework just so I could have time to draw before I got in bed, that I realised what I loved more than anything else, was drawing. I went on to study for my Foundation at Camberwell College of Art, which not only opened my mind to trying different techniques, but also gave me confidence that I could make a career out of being creative.

    I studied Illustration at the University of Derby and graduated with a first in 2012. I chose illustration because I have always enjoyed creating stories and characters. I read continuously as a child and I absolutely loved picture books. The Quangle Wangle’s Hat by Edward Lear (Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury) was read over and over again in our house and I always pestered my parents to show me all the pictures again and again.

    A key point in my career was getting a job as a Designer for Alison Green Books, an imprint of Scholastic Children’s Books. I have spent the last two years working with some of the best illustrators and authors of books for children. I have learned so much about the publishing industry and how to make a good portfolio, as well as technical skills like how to lay files out in InDesign- which has been really useful in my own illustration career.

    I am now a freelance illustrator and designer. My main inspiration is the natural world – I love drawing animals and scenery and the characters I create are often based on the creatures I see in the garden. I am also inspired by artists such as Meg Hunt, Chuck Groenink and Helen Stephens.

    An illustration by Pippa Curnick

    An illustration by Pippa Curnick

    Zoe: How do you prefer to work? What sort of media and techniques are important in the way you make art?

    Sian Jenkins: The first time I felt confident in my way of working was when I entered a competition for Penguin Books. It was the first time that I had experimented with digital collage, and although my work wasn’t selected I was very happy with the direction my work had gone. I felt that I had finally found a way of approaching illustration in my own way. I have used this method of working ever since, and continue to develop it further.

    My current method of working is to draw out my idea traditionally, and to work digitally from the scanned image. I build up my illustrations using various textures and patterns from both those that I have found, and those I have created myself. I tend to focus on animals as the main subject of my work, and I try to keep my illustrations fairly simplistic, although I would love to experiment with creating busier illustrations in the near future.

    An illustration by Sian Jenkins

    An illustration by Sian Jenkins

    Holly Sterling: I love creating texture! I do this with a variety of different mark making processes including painting, mono-print, rubber stamps, rubbings and strong drawn lines. Creating marks like this is so experimental that it encourages me to stay loose, and in turn, create energetic illustrations.

    Once I have all of the elements that I need, I scan them in them digitally. Although I do use Photoshop, it is important to me that I maintain the energetic quality and texture in my work that I create whilst making my marks. I use a soft pencil to create the strong drawn lines that are prominent in my work.

    Illustration by Holly Sterling. 'The Book of Bedtime Stories', published by Walker Books 2013

    Illustration by Holly Sterling. ‘The Book of Bedtime Stories’, published by Walker Books 2013

    Pippa Curnick: I create my artwork digitally, but like to combine traditional techniques to give it more depth and texture. I always begin any project with drawings in my sketchbook. I have to be able to get my ideas on to paper quickly, and sometimes I have flashes of inspiration when I’m out and about, so using a computer isn’t always possible. I carry my sketchbook wherever I go and scribble ideas in it on a daily basis. Some of these ideas never make it off the page, but if I’m taken with an idea or a character I will scan my sketch in and start working on it digitally. I use a lot of hand painted textures and find that using digital techniques allows me to have a greater level of control over the image.

    For me, though, the most important part of my process is the initial drawing. There is definitely something about holding pencil over a clean sheet of paper- that mild terror that what you’re going to draw won’t turn to to be as good as it is in your head. I think this process, and overcoming this fear is a vital part in the way I work, as it always challenges the way I think about a character or idea.

    An illustration by Pippa Curnick

    An illustration by Pippa Curnick

    Illustration from Over the Hills and Far Away by Sian Jenkins. Click to see larger image.

    Illustration from Over the Hills and Far Away by Sian Jenkins. Click to see larger image.

    Zoe: Can you tell us a little bit about entering the Frances Lincoln/Seven Stories Nursery Rhyme Illustration competition? Why did you choose to illustrate the rhyme(s) you did? How did you set about illustrating the rhyme?

    Sian Jenkins:I was in my second year of University when I entered the Seven Stories competition, and was still experimenting with my method of working. I was presented with three choices of rhyme to illustrate, but the one that stood out for me was ‘This Little Pig Went To Market’, as it is a rhyme that I recognise from growing up. I instantly chose this rhyme as the one I wanted to illustrate, as I already had a connection to it. The first thought that I had of this rhyme was as a counting toe rhyme, as this is how it was taught to me. I then played around with the idea of the pigs in the rhyme being the toes themselves, and giving each ‘toe’ a character of its own to match the rhyme.

    Getting the phone call to say that my entry had won for that rhyme was such a wonderful feeling. I was aware of Seven Stories being a charity that encourages children to read and enjoy books, and so I felt that I had been chosen to be part of something very special. I have learnt so much during the process of ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ being published, and it has been a fantastic start to what I hope to be a successful career in picture book illustration.

    An illustration by Sian Jenkins

    An illustration by Sian Jenkins

    Holly Sterling: As soon as a saw the brief for the competition, I knew that this was one that I had to enter.

    Coming from a mix of English and Jamaican blood, representing diversity in picture book is something that I have been passionate about for a long time. This subject matter was the main focus of my theoretical studies during both my undergraduate and Masters courses.

    I think it is important for all children to see themselves represented in the books they read. The ‘Over the Hills’ competition was a perfect chance for me to potentially be apart of a huge celebration of people from all over the world.

    The competition brief asked for students to choose one of three double page spreads to illustrate. Initially I wanted to illustrate the one with the Jamaican rhyme (being half Jamaican), but as soon as I read the African American and Maori lullabies, I knew that this was the one I had to illustrate.

    The two main points that stood out to me were the strong bond between the father and daughter and the overall dreamlike quality. As both verses gave me a similar feeling, I thought it would be nice to visually weave them together. To suggest the tenderness between the two characters, I visually created a strong embrace. To represent the dreamlike quality I decided to illustrate the weeping tears changing into the galloping horses mentioned in the text.

    I think that as an illustrator, you should always try to draw on your own experiences in life to make something really honest and believable. In this instance I was representing my own relationship with my Dad.

    Illustration from Over the Hills and Far Away by Holly Sterling. Click to see larger image.

    Illustration from Over the Hills and Far Away by Holly Sterling. Click to see larger image.

    Living in the North East, I love to be involved in anything and everything ‘Seven Stories’. The work they do with both adults and children is totally inspiring on so many levels.

    It was an absolute honour to have my work chosen for this publication by such talented and influential people in the picture book industry. This has been the perfect start to a career in picture books.

    Following on from the success of this competition, Frances Lincoln asked me to illustrate a new picture book for them called ‘15 Thing Not to Do With a Baby’. I’m looking forward to it being published in January 2015.

    Illustration by Holly Sterling. '15 Things Not to Do With a Baby', written by Margaret McAllister, to be published by Frances Lincoln in Jan 2015.

    Illustration by Holly Sterling. ’15 Things Not to Do With a Baby’, written by Margaret McAllister, to be published by Frances Lincoln in Jan 2015.

    Pippa Curnick: As soon as I read the rhymes for “Abna Babna…” I knew that I wanted to illustrate that spread in particular. I loved the flow of the rhymes and, a little like The Quangle Wangle’s hat, there was a kind of nonsense to the words that meant I could be really creative and draw a whole range of weird and wonderful things. It was such a wonderful opportunity to be creative and I really loved the ethos behind the project, too.

    Illustration from Over the Hills and Far Away by Pippa Curnick. Click to see larger image.

    Illustration from Over the Hills and Far Away by Pippa Curnick. Click to see larger image.

    An illustration by Pippa Curnick

    An illustration by Pippa Curnick


    I’m delighted to have been able to highlight this breathtakingly beautiful and nourishingly diverse book and hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about the three début illustrators. My advice would be to buy two copies of this book straight away (if you want to find out more about it, do read this article by Elizabeth Hammill, which appeared in Books for Keeps). It will avoid any gift-giving dilemmas, and you’ll be doing some good at the same time: All proceeds from the sales of Over the Hills and Far Away will be donated to Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s Books in the United Kingdom, to help them save, celebrate and share the wonderful world of children’s books.

    Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of Over the Hills and Far Away by the publisher.

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