Playing by the book

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

An Interview with Alex Milway

Posted on | December 5, 2014 | 2 Comments

One of the most enjoyable author/illustrator talks I heard this year was that given by Alex Milway, at the FCBG Conference in February. His talk was so full of energy and joy thatthe whole audience got swept up with his positive, enthusiastic and amusing presentation.

Alex Milway and his youngest daughter

Alex Milway and his youngest daughter

Alex is a writer and artist with a passion for small furry things. His first books were about mice. He then moved on to yetis. Now he’s got a new series featuring an anxious hamster and perhaps the world’s most adventurous, optimistic (non-furry) pig.

Pigsticks and Harold are Tuptown’s accidental comedy duo. Pigsticks is the last in a long and noble line of pigs and he his determined to uphold his family’s name for adventure, bravery and erudition. Harold (the hamster) has a passion for cake that drives pretty much everything he does. They’re the perfect foil for each other, and whilst they undertake their quests with utmost seriousness, we as readers get to giggle and delight in the absurd and awkward situations in which they keep finding themselves.

Last month I caught up with Alex and got to quiz him a little about his books, his approach to life, and his own personal love of cakes.

Zoe: Pigsticks or Harold? Who do you identify more with and why?

Alex: I identify with both of them, they’re the Yin and Yang of Milway! Some days I wake up feeling that anything is possible (these are Pigsticks days!), and others I wake up feeling that the world is a little too full-on and I’d rather stay inside, bake a cake, mow the lawn or even read a book (these are Harold days, of course!).

I suppose, the thing about both characters is that they’re achievers different ways. Harold is excellent at the details and the small things in life that are taken for granted, and Pigsticks is excellent at the big gestures, the things that make the news headlines. Life needs both types of people, and both should be celebrated equally.

A Battenburg cake made by Alex  - Battenburgs feature quite heavily in Picksticks and Harold!

A Battenburg cake made by Alex – Battenburgs feature quite heavily in Picksticks and Harold!

Zoe: You trained as a fine artist – can you tell me a bit more about this, about what medium/media you specialised in, and whether fine art still has any time in your life?

Alex: I went to art school and specialised in fine art painting. This was just a front for me to get in a band, I think, but I did love painting. I used to paint in oils – large, 8 foot long canvases of landscapes – and though I dabble in acrylics, I’ve never really had the studio or ventilation system to work with oils at home. I still have the desire to paint in much the same way as I have the desire to draw. It’s just that drawing is far easier to achieve with two young children. I have so many hobbies, all of which battle for space and time, but I do hope that one day I’ll get back to the canvases. You can see remnants of my art history education littered throughout the Pigsticks’ books in the shape of pig painting. It’s still very important to me. I actually think I’m most happy and create my best work when there’s a brush in my hand. (The moment I drew P&H with a brush pen was the moment they really came alive.)

Alex's cat tries to steal the limelight whilst Alex tries to show us one of his paintings

Alex’s cat tries to steal the limelight whilst Alex tries to show us one of his paintings

Zoe: You strike me as full of life, enthusiasm and energy; when I saw you talk back in February I think everyone left that session feeling joyous. You’ve also written about how you like big ideas and exciting adventures, just giving things a go and getting stuff out there. Where does this positive and generous attitude to life come from? How do you nurture this?

Alex: Yikes! There’s a question. I do have a boundless energy for life, that’s for sure. I also believe that life is something to be shared with others, so if I can help people I will. It’s much better to have others to go along on the ride with, isn’t it? And maybe some infectious enthusiasm helps in reaching that goal.

I think, ultimately, I find wonder in everything, and I fear for the day that I don’t. I like to be inquisitive and ask questions of things and people: how does that work? How did they do that? What would it take to get something like that off the ground? And ultimately, I then look into how I can do it or make it for myself. Time is usually the one thing that defeats me in my grand schemes.

This attitude can be tiring (for me and my family) and costly, but it usually results in something to eat or something to use or look at (my family loved me once I’d learned to make Viennese Whirls – and I’m forced on pain of death to make cheesecake ice cream regularly.)

Some of Alex's Viennese Whirls

Some of Alex’s Viennese Whirls

I fully believe that skill is something learned – sure, it takes time and patience to get good at things, but if you try then there’s every chance you’ll succeed. Just try it. I see myself as a jack-of-all-trades, and maybe one day I’ll get really good at something.

I do all I can to instil this attitude in children when I visit schools – that’s more important to me than selling books really – and I guess maybe that came through in the talk I gave earlier in the year. It’s a proper Wayne’s World – “If you book them they will come!” – sort of approach to life. If ever I start to doubt something is possible I just have to remind myself that someone else has done it before, so why can’t I? A lot of things are achieved by simply starting them. If I’d never tried writing a book ten years ago, for example, (and that’s a total Pigsticks attitude) I’d never be where I am now. Good grief it took time and effort, but it paid off.

One of Alex's bookshelves

One of Alex’s bookshelves

Zoe: When I heard you at the FCBG conference you had just come back from pitching Pigsticks and Harold to a TV company – what’s the latest on this? It seems to me that animation has to feature in your life sometime soon as it has been a thread in your creative life for a long time – from being inspired by Miyasaki’s Laputa, to dreaming of animation at art school, to your interest in making models and dioramas.

Alex: We’re still on the road to funding. I’m ever hopeful it will happen, one day. But to be honest, how many people get the chance to stand on a stage and see their characters come to life on a huge cinema screen behind them? That glowing, wonderful three-minute trailer we showed at the Cartoon Forum can never be taken away from me, can it? [Zoe adds: You can watch the Pigsticks and Harold trailer here]

And as for animation, I love it so much. I love the science of it, the production of it, the modelmaking… I can’t shout about it enough.

One of Alex's models

One of Alex’s models

And what I love is that it can be a very contained, one/two-person pursuit, in much the same way writing and illustrating a book is. One day I will build sets and make a film. (Funnily enough, I’ve started drawing set designs and writing a script for a Pigsticks play. You’ve got to try these things, eh? I’ve got songs, and characters, how does PIGSTICKS: THE MUSICAL sound?)

Another bookshelf in Alex's home

Another bookshelf in Alex’s home

Zoe: I for one say YES PLEASE to a Pigsticks and Harold musical!

Now, I know you’re a keen maker of bits and bobs to go with your books – what do you enjoy about this, how does it help your writing/illustrating work? Are there plans for official Pigsticks and Harold merchandise (perhaps to go with the west end musical)? Is there a tension between creating official merchandise and DIY book paraphernalia? 

Alex: I’m the king of bits and bobs. I don’t know much about the merchandising side of things, to be honest, but with many of the crafty ‘fan’ things available on places like Etsy, as long as you aren’t selling them for profit, I think you’re safe. I mean, if someone makes a knitted Harold, that’s a wonderful thing isn’t it?

A Pigsticks puppet idea

A Pigsticks puppet idea

As for the models, I actually really like seeing things fully realised. I like seeing the full potential of a creation – where can I take this idea? You certainly see a character in a different light when you look at them strolling through a model landscape.

It’s actually a definite concern when designing characters that they can be made in three dimensions – and also issues like “does it have a mouth?” It’s funny, but since working on character studies for the animation company, Pigsticks is far more often drawn with a mouth. You can see this change occur gradually throughout the two books.

The realities of children’s book publishing mean that though the book is the key product, selling rights for films and branding/merchandising opportunities have to be considered. This is no easy game, so you have to make the most of what you have to sell, don’t you?

Zoe: Maybe next Christmas, lots of kids will be getting mini hamsters and pigs in their stockings…

You’ve said elsewhere that you think “all books should have pictures” – I agree! What are some of your favourite illustrated books which aren’t picture books?

Alex: I always get excited by pictures – and I think it’s definitely the case that today’s culture is far more visual than it ever was. I also think children more immediately respond to pictures over words. They’re a great initial selling point for a book.

A sneak peek from the 3rd volume in the adventures of Pigsticks and Harold:  Pigsticks and Harold and the Pirate Treasure © 2016 Alex Milway, Walker Books Ltd.

A sneak peek from the 3rd volume in the adventures of Pigsticks and Harold: Pigsticks and Harold and the Pirate Treasure © 2016 Alex Milway, Walker Books Ltd.

I really like illustrations when they interact and play in and around the text, which may be in part due to my background in magazines. It’s probably easier for author/illustrators to make books like this because of the ramifications of working it all out, but maybe that’s why they interest me so much. These books can feel like a middle ground between comics and novels, and though they’re not so easy to read aloud in front of a class, children cope really well with stories told like this. They just take it on board that sometimes the pictures tell the story, sometimes the words do, and sometimes you need a bit of both with a speech bubble. These sort of books certainly help the medium of children’s books hold its own against the visual fizz of cartoons and computer games.

It’s pretty safe to say that picture books have done it for years, but novels are catching up. The granddaddy of this is clearly the fabulous Captain Underpants, though there are many contemporary author/illustrators doing it. I like to think that there’s a bit of a movement happening amongst children’s books, that’s driving better and more visually exciting work.

Another sneak peek from the 3rd volume in the adventures of Pigsticks and Harold: Pigsticks and Harold and the Pirate Treasure © 2016 Alex Milway, Walker Books Ltd.

Another sneak peek from the 3rd volume in the adventures of Pigsticks and Harold: Pigsticks and Harold and the Pirate Treasure © 2016 Alex Milway, Walker Books Ltd.

It takes a designer that’s up for the challenge, but having words and pictures exploding around the page can really take books into the stratosphere. Just look at the design and success of the Tom Gates books.

And what I also like about books like this is that they’re often exciting, playful and fun stories – ideal material for getting kids into books in the first place. They’re great stepping stones into reading.

Some friends of mine are doing brilliant work that’s incredibly inspiring to me. I’m really lucky with my peer group. For example, Sarah McIntyre is making lovely work with Philip Reeve. There you find pictures enveloping words and jostling for command of the page in a really exciting way. David O’Connell’s Monster and Chips books were excellent, full of humour and packed with art and comic lettering. I’m also very excited to see what Gary Northfield is doing with his new Julius Zebra books about animal gladiators. I’ve seen the nearly finished manuscript and it’s amazing.

It’s a great time to be making books like this. They might get pushed aside for more worthy – maybe even wordy – books when it comes to awards, but they’ll do more for sparking a love affair with reading amongst children than any of them.

Alex's desk

Alex’s desk

Zoe: What are you reading for sheer enjoyment at the moment and what book would you most like to receive for Christmas?

Alex: I dip into lots of books all at the same time, which makes a question like this very hard. I read a lot of biography and history books, often for research, but I did recently read Gideon Defoe’s Pirates in an Adventure with the Romantics. ‘The Pirates in an adventure with…’ books make me laugh and giggle like an idiot, and that’s very intoxicating …

I have asked for The Art of Smallfilms for Christmas, and I better had get it… There are no people more inspirational to me than Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate. I think Oliver Postgate is the archetypal Pigsticks character. Maybe even Peter Firmin is his Harold?

Zoe: Oh yes, I can definitely see the Pigsticsk – Oliver Postgate connection. I do hope the film turns up under your Christmas tree! Many thanks Alex, for such a lovely interview, and for instilling in me a fresh dose of enthusiasm and can-do feeling towards life!

pH

Alex Milway’s website: http://www.alexmilway.com/
Alex Milway on Twitter: @Alexmilway

Do return tomorrow when I’ve got a Pigsticks and Harold giveaway!

Findus, Food and Fun; a calendar based natural craft book for families

Posted on | December 2, 2014 | 3 Comments

Although there’s something of a holiday / celebration at the end of this month to enjoy first (!), I’m already thinking about next year, planning projects, drawing dreams and envisaging adventures, not least of all here on Playing by the book (do let me know if there’s something you’d particularly love to see here in 2015).

9781907359347-430x600This forward and full-of-hope looking at the future, with plans for play and learning, is also found in the latest offering (in English) for fans of two of my very favourite book characters: Findus, Food and Fun – Seasonal crafts and nature activities is a calendar of craftiness from my long term Swedish sweethearts, Findus and Pettson, or rather from their creator, Sven Nordqvist, assisted by Eva-Lena Larsson, Kennert Daniels and translator Nathan Large.

Findus is a cheeky, cheerful cat on the ramshackle farm owned by grumpy but loveable Pettson. Stories of their life together are full of mishaps, mysterious little creatures called muckles, kindness and compassion. The illustrations are scrumptious, drawn with delicious humour and attention to detail. I don’t think there is another series of books which I’ve dedicated so much time to on Playing by the book. Perhaps that alone tells you how wonderful I think these books are and how much I want to press them into the palms of everyone and anyone who stumbles upon my blog.

This latest book isn’t a story book, but rather a compilation of crafts and activities very much in the spirit of Findus and Pettson, with lots of outdoor exploration, tinkering, making, pottering, discovering and being resourceful. The crafts are themed by calendar month and richly illustrated with Findus, Pettson, chickens and muckles getting involved and trying out the projects at hand. The choice of crafts is wide ranging and includes the unusual; from propagating succulents, to using ants to dye bluebells, to making your own weather station to weaving a rug, there’s a mixture play and exploration driven by interacting with the natural world and/or being inspired by the farmstead on which Findus and Pettson live.

An interior detail from Findus, Food and Fun.

An interior detail from Findus, Food and Fun.

I suspect many readers will come to this wonderful book because they are already solid fans of Nordqvist’s lovely world where problems are solved with kindness. cooperation and respect. However, if you’ve not met Findus and Pettson before there’s still an enormous amount to enjoy in this book; the crafts are quirky, sometimes a little bit crazy, and ideal for anyone who wants to encourage natural play and exploration.

The first project my girls chose to try was making necklaces out of dried beans; first you have to soak them overnight and then you can thread them onto thread (as the book advises, dental floss is good because it is extra smooth and slidey). One packet of mixed dried beans meant for soup were sorted into bowls and left to soak:

beansbefore

Next morning the girls were intrigued to see how the beans had changed, and were soon up and running with threading them into necklaces.

Compare this with the photo above!

Compare this with the photo above!

With lots of opportunities for learning about science, plant life and even maths (via patterns on the necklaces), this project – like so many in the book – could be used for more structured learning, as well being simply an enjoyable experience. These lovely chains of beads could be used as alternative Christmas decorations too – perhaps alongside popcorn strings.

beannecklace

Whilst making our necklaces we listened to:

  • Black Bean Soup by David Soul
  • Beans In My Ears by Serendipity Singers
  • Oats and Beans and Barley – there are loads of versions, but I like this one for its melodeon


  • Findus, Food and Fun: Seasonal crafts and nature activities is so packed with activities I won’t suggest any more here, other than to also point you to another craft book from the same publisher, Making Woodland Crafts by Patrick Harrison, a trainer of Forest School leaders. Many of the activities in this book are ones I can imagine Findus, Pettson and kids and families who love the outdoors relishing.

    What nature crafts have you enjoyed recently? When did you last take a book outdoors to read under (or up) a tree?

    Don’t forget to leave me a comment if you’ve any ideas / suggestions about how you’d like Playing by the book to develop in 2015 :-)

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Findus, Food and Fun: Seasonal crafts and nature activities from the publisher.

    Do we care about children’s non-fiction?

    Posted on | November 27, 2014 | 25 Comments

    One of my goals for 2014 was to review more non-fiction books for children. So far this year I’ve written 85 pieces on the blog, and 12 have been about non-fiction. Given that non-fiction makes up about 15% of high street children’s book sales in the UK, it seems appropriate that almost the same percentage of my reviews have been about non-fiction titles.

    nf1

    As I’ve increased the number of non-fiction books I’ve reviewed, I’ve had to think about slightly different issues from those which concern me when reviewing fiction/picture books:

  • Given how few children’s non-fiction books are reviewed, what responsibilities do I have to authors/illustrators and publishers of non-fiction?
  • How much does accuracy matter? To you? To me?
  • What do readers (you!) actually want from a non-fiction review and how does this differ from a review of a piece of fiction?


  • Sales of children’s non-fiction in the UK are booming; so far this year about 36% more children’s non-fiction titles have been sold on the high street as compared to last year. Several new imprints either dedicated to non-fiction or with non-fiction as a strong strand have launched in the last 18 months. Usborne – which is almost synonymous with children’s non-fiction here in the UK – has seen its profits jump this year, up 26% on last year.

    All this seems like great news for children’s non-fiction.

    But.

    Children’s non fiction rarely gets reviewed. Whether we’re talking about reviews in mainstream media, or by book bloggers, reviews of non-fiction for children and young people are few and far between generally speaking. Approximately 2% of the reviews of books for children and young people on the Guardian website in the last year were about non-fiction. Another broadsheet managed a 6% review rate. Look around the UK Child/YA bookblogging scene and you’ll see similar low levels of reviews.

    Why is this?

    One reviewer for a broadsheet told me that she just “doesn’t have time” to review non-fiction. I don’t know about you, but ‘time’ in my world ultimately often corresponds to ‘level of interest’. Another highly regarded mainstream media children’s book reviewer told me that for non-fiction to even get a look in, it had to be exceptional and innovative. I don’t think many reviewers of fiction only review novels or picture books which are ground-breaking. I’d argue that plenty of ‘good-enough’ (fiction) books for children and young people get review space. Is the bar set differently for children’s non-fiction?

    nf2

    Perhaps another barrier to reviewing non-fiction books is our concerns as reviewers about being able to assess the accuracy of the books in question.

    In reviewing non-fiction titles I sadly come across errors far more often than I ever thought I would. And I have not once seen these errors mentioned in other reviews of the same books. Indeed, some of these books end up on award shortlists (I’ve seen this twice this year, on two different shortlists) and in eminent ‘Pick of the year’ lists. Is there a culture of silence surrounding mentioning errors? Is it that reviewers are not picking up on errors? Is it that reviewers are fearful of souring relations with authors, illustrators and publishers? Are we swayed more by looks than by content? Do we just find it easier to avoid non-fiction reviews altogether because then we don’t have to consider issues of accuracy?

    Accuracy of content really matters to me. When I review a non-fiction title I always fact check at least three randomly chosen facts from the book. Yes, this isn’t much, but it often gives me a rough and ready handle on the book. If with just three fact checks I can find an error…. what does that do to my trust in the rest of the book?

    Perhaps there’s a bigger question to ask here: Does factual accuracy actually matter?

    I firmly believe that children’s non-fiction is especially important in the age of Google; anyone can post anything on the net without it being checked whereas published books go through a system of checking, hopefully ensuring factual accuracy. But if books turn out not to be reliable, what advantages do they have over the internet? Maybe none, and yet I believe the physical book format is so important for encouraging quiet contemplation rather than quick-fix consumption, the sort of contemplation that is necessary for deeper understanding and the embedding of information. (When arguing for books over googling, I’d also highlight the attention authors pay to ‘readability’ of non-fiction books i.e. creating a pleasant reading experience. Books really can and do offer something different and potentially much better than at bunch a best of loosely curated articles online.)

    But, stepping back a moment, maybe factual accuracy just isn’t that important. One parent on twitter admitted to me that whilst accuracy was nice, it wasn’t as important as a book being inspirational and grabbing the child’s attention -that if a non-fiction book got her child excited about the topic in hand, factual errors wouldn’t stop her from buying it.

    I personally can’t accept this, at least when it comes to recommending books myself via my blog. I think we do a disservice to our children, and to everyone involved in creating children’s non-fiction if we throw our hands up and say “never mind” when it comes to errors. What do you think?

    I’ve read some thought provoking pieces this year about what to consider when reviewing non-fiction titles, for example this discussion of invented dialogue in picture book biographies and this one about accuracy in illustration in non-fiction titles, both by the inimitable Betsy Bird.

    nf3

    Apart from general stances re factual accuracy, I’ve also learned that there are huge variations in the fact checking process for non-fiction books (in the UK). All the NF authors I’ve spoken to are proud of their rigorous fact checking. Some authors provide fully referenced texts, even if the references don’t make it into the final book. Some publishers never ask for referenced texts. Some publishers will employ a consultant or even two to fact check, as well as a literacy expert where appropriate. But this isn’t always the case. One prolific non-fiction author told me “accuracy is almost entirely in the hands of the author“; “Children’s non-fiction is in such a parlous state that some books don’t even have an editor.”

    Through talking extensively with NF authors and publishers I’m convinced they they are all dedicated to creating accurate, informative, enjoyable books, so why have I gone on so long about errors? Because I worry that silence about them – in reviews – and the processes by which they end up in print suggest that as a children’s book-buying, book-reading public we seriously undervalue children’s non-fiction.

    We undervalue them in terms of publishing time and resources devoted to them:

    Of course in a time of austerity we’re all subject to constraints, but from what I’ve learned this past year about children’s non-fiction, publishers’ time and budgets are being squeezed ever more tightly. There’s lots of pressure on getting books out there, sometimes without all the due care and attention they deserve. Yes, as a parent (and a reviewer) I want to see exciting, imaginative non-fiction, but style shouldn’t win out over substance.

    We undervalue them in terms of public recognition of non-fiction authors:

    Non-fiction authors are the cinderellas of the book world. Sometimes it can even be hard to find out who the author was of a non-fiction book, with their name not appearing on the cover but hidden inside in small print. Non-fiction reviews are nearly always subject driven rather than author driven and non-fiction author events are proportionally far less common than fiction author events. If you’re not persuaded by my argument that we generally hold non-fiction authors in low regard just test yourself: How many children’s non-fiction authors can you name? And how many fiction authors?

    We undervalue them in terms of how much non-fiction authors are paid for the work they do:

    Typically such an author earns a flat fee of around £1000 per book (though offers of much less are not infrequent), and receives no % of any sales. I understand that this is significantly less that the typical advance paid to picture book authors (typically 1-4k), who also receive 3-5 % royalties from all sales.

    All this tells me that we don’t really value children’s non-fiction.

    nf4

    So here’s my call to arms:

    Yes, let’s celebrate children’s non-fiction, the authors and the publishers who help bring adventures in the real world into the lives of our children and teenagers.

    Yes, let’s create lots more brilliant non-fiction books for children and young people, recognising that for many non-fiction is their preferred reading of choice. I’m definitely all for more creative approaches to non-fiction and a move away from the look-and-learn style fact books of old, but let’s not cut corners just for the sake of good looks. If you want to create great books you need great authors and illustrators who have been given the time, money and wider support necessary.

    Yes, let’s review more non-fiction for children and young people, but let’s not be afraid of reading it closely, reviewing it honestly, and starting debates about it.

    Yes, let’s get more great non-fiction into the hands of children and young people. What non-fiction will you be buying for presents this year?

    My thanks to all who discussed non-fiction reviewing, publishing, and related issues with me including Damyanti Patel, @ExploraBox1, Sue Cowley, Jonathan Emmett, @childledchaos, Polly Faber, Ian Manley, Cath Senker, Ali Baker, Brian Williams, Isabel Thomas, Ami Segna, Moira Butterfield, Charlotte Guillain, Stewart Ross, Brian Williams, Sean Callery and Nicola Davies. Thank you too to all who chose to remain anonymous. Of course, all opinions here are my own and do not necessarily represent those held by the authors, publishers, reviewers, or parents I spoke to.

    Whilst I’ve been somewhat critical in this post, just for the record, let me state how much I do value everyone working in the field of children’s non-fiction. All the industry insiders I have spoken to, from authors to publishers, are full of passion for non-fiction. They are all 100% committed to producing excellent non-fiction. My commitment to the field is hopefully demonstrated by the fact that for all of the month of November I’ve been co-ordinating an initiative which celebrates non-fiction for children and young people, National Non-Fiction November. You can find out more about the various events which have been held, and the articles many different people have contributed here, here, here and here, or by using the hashtag #NNFN on twitter.

    UPDATE: Whilst I did of course endeavour to have accurate facts in this post, one NF author has since contacted me to say that in their experience, rates for writing a non-fiction book are more like £1200 to £2200. The figure I quote above (£1000) was originally supplied by two different NF authors. If more NF authors would like to (anonymously) share their rates with me, then I could provide a more accurate picture.

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