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NEWS: Maurice Sendak dies aged 83

Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, has died aged 83 following a recent stroke.

The New York Times says with not unjustified fervour that he “wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche.”  The same article also (accurately) describes his books as “roundly praised, intermittently censored and occasionally eaten.”

BBC News

Obituary in The Guardian

New York Times

The World of Maurice Sendak on Pinterest

Where the Wild Things Are is a truly iconic picture book  whose original readers are now probably sharing it with their grandchildren.   Beautifully illustrated and simply but sincerely written, it is a homage to the power of imagination.

Do you love Where the Wild Things Are? Why do you think it has become such a staple book for young children?  Add your thoughts in the comments below, or visit us on facebook to give us your opinion.

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Good Little Wolf

Rolf is a wolf.  A GOOD little wolf.  His best friend is the elderly Mrs Boggins, he likes baking cakes, eats all his vegetables and is always kind to his friends.  He hopes that he will never meet a real live big BAD wolf….

Sometimes, pictures speak louder than words.

This book is a visual triumph and another example of how words and pictures interact to create the whole text.  It begins with a disembodied voice asking if everyone is sitting quietly.  The group consists of Little Red Riding Hood, a woodcutter, three little pigs, and Rolf.  For adults who know the texts, a faint whiff of suspicion is evoked at this point, and never really goes away.  The big bad wolf, as seen above, is big, dark, and deliciously scary.  He inspects Rolf to ascertain if he really is a wolf (including a comic sniff of his bottom) and then gives him the task of proving himself.  Rolf is not especially good at howling, or blowing down his best friend’s house, but the big bad wolf has one final suggestion…  and it involves a knife and fork.

The brilliance of this book lies in what is left unsaid.  The knife and fork is the only clue to the wolf’s intentions and the reader’s need to decode the story continues until the very last page and an ending that is not only genuinely surprising but, in this day and age, very, very brave.   And funny.  Wickedly so.

Good Little Wolf was shortlisted for the 2012 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and is Nadia Shireen’s first book; a highly accomplished debut.  It would be best avoided for the under-3s: the humour is subtle, there is a lot of deduction required from the pictures, and the ending may not suit the sensitive, but with older preschoolers and schoolchildren it will no doubt prove very popular.

Visually arresting, morally intriguing and with a sting in the tail, this is well worth a read.

And if you so wish, you too can learn how to draw wolves

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Waterstones Children’s Book Prize Winner

[Guardian Children’s Books article about the win]

In slightly belated news The Pirates Next Door  by Aardman animator Jonny Duddle has been named not only as the section winner but as the overall winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2012.  It is the first picture book to win the prize and it is great to see a book for younger children scooping such an accolade.

Have you read it? If so, chime in on the comments and let us know what you think. It’s on its way to us and a review will follow shortly.

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Allan Ahlberg and visual literacy

Whilst searching for information about Allan Ahlberg, I came across this article in The Guardian from April last year.

It is an interesting insight into one of the most iconic figures in children’s writing, particularly given the curious twists of fate that led him there.  The books produced by the Ahlbergs have been amongst the classics for many years now and it is their originality and detail which make them such.  The holes in Peepo!, the partially concealed characters in Each Peach Pear Plum, and of course the letters in The Jolly Postman make the experience of reading each one unique and lodged them forever in the memories of those now old enough to have read them to their own children.

Ahlberg makes a good point about the interplay between text and pictures: “‘When I’m writing a picture book, I automatically think ‘I don’t need to say that’ because the pictures will say it. Or, better still, ‘I’ll say this and the pictures will say that, which contradicts it.'”  Really good picture books use their illustrations not just to reflect the words but to supplement them, develop them, evaluate them and challenge them.  Margaret Meek makes this point repeatedly in her short book on literacy “How Texts Teach What Readers Learn”, a text familiar to most English and primary school teachers.  She argues that even readers with only half a toe on the ladder to literacy can benefit and learn reading skills from picture books.  Children can learn about narrative structure simply from ‘reading’ pictures.  Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, for example, has no words, yet the story is perfectly clear.  Pictures also offer narrative freedom, particularly in the Ahlbergs’ books, where the level of detail means the reader can chose which elements of the pictures to talk about, and what is important or otherwise to the story.  Subplots can be seen in pictures that never appear in the text.  And where the illustrations contradict the story, or include additional information, young readers begin the process of understanding subtext, ambiguity and irony.

Allan Ahlberg and his late wife clearly understood this.  Giving books to children goes beyond merely exposing them to words, bringing them enjoyment or expanding their vocabulary; it gives them access to the stuff of which narrative is made and right from the beginning of their engagement with books it helps them to develop their skills as readers.  As Meek says at the end of ‘How Texts Teach’: “the reading of stories makes skilful, powerful readers who come to understand not only the meaning but also the force of texts. It is a strong defence against being victimized by the reductive power of so-called ‘functional literacy’.  It also makes writers.”

We will return to the issue of literacy and literature another time.  For now, if you are reading picture books, think about how the words and pictures interact, and how you can interact with them.