2018: A Fun-Filled Year of Lions and Bears.

 

Looking back over the year I am touched by the recognition of how many children and creatives I have had the opportunity of meeting, and sharing experiences of our love of story and books.

It is an honour to walk together with children into the world of imagination. A world where there are vast possibilities that potentially transform. Surely that helps to give us hope for our future.

The empathy created in the minds of these young readers is paramount in our society where individual needs appear to dominate.

It has also been an enormous honour to work alongside such brilliant creative minds. My editors Davina Bell and Clair Hume spring to mind immediately, but no less important are all the writing buddies, the community of Kidlit creators, our SCBWI community, WriteLinks, the tirelessly hard-working bookshop owners, teachers and child care workers, who share the passion of nurturing young minds.

My family always wish to stay private from my social media presence, but they have to be acknowledged for putting up with me suddenly shouting, ‘I’ve just thought of a fantastic idea for a new picture book! What do you think about this..!’

So to everyone out there with a heart illuminated by the glow of words on the page and the inner-life of our characters, I wish you all a joyous and peaceful new year.

 

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Dads and ‘The Lion in our Living Room’

It has been a wonderful experience meeting so many fathers and witnessing their response to The Lion in our Living Room; a book that celebrates fathers, their involvement with their children, the games they play, and the quiet moments spent together. The mighty lion is of course, really dad.

Many fathers can relate to the boisterous games depicted in the book; lion rides, piggybacks and hide and seek. At the same time, they respond to the image of the father reading to his children late at night. One father proudly told me, ‘That’s just like me, I’m the one who reads to our kids at night,’ and I am glad to say that I have heard this comment on numerous occasions. In fact, recent research shows that the benefits of fathers reading to their children are even higher than hearing their mother’s voice read, for reasons that we don’t yet understand. Perhaps it is simply the contrast or the deeper tone?

Of course, The Lion in our Living Room pays homage to my father and the interactions I observed with my own children. A particular story comes to mind, where they would set up imaginary scenarios and wait with nervous anticipation at the door for an exciting visitor. The visitor wasn’t a lion, but this game spawned the initial idea for the story. I hope that by sharing The Lion in our Living Room, new generations are inspired to have lots of roaring fun with their daddy lion, cementing this invaluable bond and encouraging these games to continue in generations to come.

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The Importance of Illustration in Picture Books

This was a guest post that I shared with Readilearn, a wonderful online site that provides teaching resources for the first three years of school.

readilearn: The importance of illustrations in Picture Books – A guest post by Emma Middleton

This week I have great pleasure in introducing you to Emma Middleton who is here to discuss illustrations in picture books as tools for analysis, enjoyment and interpretation.

Emma is a picture book author, illustrator, children’s performer and former ballerina who lives near Noosa, Queensland. After a career in performing arts, during which time she danced for the Vienna Ballet, she returned to Australia to direct and teach at The Brighton Dance Academy.

Emma retired from teaching dance to follow her passion for picture books by creating stories that will enhance a child’s sense of wonder, delight and unlimited possibility. Emma is the author of companion picture books The Lion in our Living Room and The Bear in our Backyard.

Welcome to readilearn, Emma. Over to you.

Illustrations in picture books can be an excellent tool for developing children’s analytical and interpretative skills, as well as enhancing their enjoyment of art. Picture book advocate Megan Daley says, ‘Picture books are works of art which should adorn the walls of art galleries and libraries.’

For young children, illustrated books open the door to understanding story. Illustrations provide young readers with an immediate vision of the characters, setting, and mood of the story. Children instantly respond to characters from their visual appeal. We all know and love many picture book characters from their image alone.

The first introduction to decoding words and story comes from interpreting the visual narrative. Picture books are especially helpful in this process, particularly in books where the illustrations play a vital part in the storytelling. Stories that rely on the images to complete the narrative, encourage active interpretation and engagement.

It is hugely enjoyable for children to discover clues in the illustrations that inform them of vital elements in the story. This is particularly apparent in the case of the unreliable narrator. Immediately, children set out to discover the clues within the illustrations.

There are many examples of the unreliable narrator in picture books. In John Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, the reader needs to solve the dissonance between words and pictures. This is a brilliant tool for developing theory of mind.

In, The Lion in our Living Room, by Emma Middleton and Briony Stewart, many questions are raised within the text. The first page begins with Tom and Tilly’s dad saying, ‘Be careful at the door… you never know who might come knocking with his giant paw.’

Immediately, the young reader searches for clues to discover the identity of the mystery guest. We hear that it will be a paw, (and not a hand) that might come knocking, and although a lion is not mentioned specifically, there are many lion clues referenced in the illustrations.

This includes the lion toy, the lion-shaped stained glass window, the lion in dad’s newspaper, and most importantly, the lion mask on the floor. These references continue throughout the book, much to the continued delight of the children.

As we turn the page the refrain asks,

‘Will he come? Won’t he come? Will he come and play?

Will the mighty lion come and play with us today?’

Simultaneously, the children see the giant paw of the lion stepping through the long grass that is speckled with dandelion flowers. The illustrations answer the question…Yes, the lion is coming to play.

As the story continues, anticipation builds over the lion’s arrival.

After dad goes for a nap, visual clues are seen in the form of shadows that reveal the silhouette of a lion, another clever device that is used to help tell the story.

 

Young readers are excited and empowered to discover these clues for themselves. They become active participants in decoding the story. Perhaps to our surprise the illustrations also show the twist in this story, when it is revealed that it was in fact, dad pretending to be the lion. In subsequent re-readings children gain further confidence from their acquired knowledge of the story arc.

 

In the companion book The Bear in our Backyard, similar visual clues provide answers to the mystery around the bear. Children are keen observers of visual detail such as the muddy ‘paw prints,’ and the bear-shaped hedge.

 

The reader observes further links such as the similarity between the bear’s dressing gown and mum’s dressing gown.

As we discover that Tom and Tilly’s mum is about to have a baby, we see that her tummy was hidden throughout the story to save this revelation until the end.

As mum waves goodbye to her children her shadow brilliantly makes the shape of a big mummy bear.

The text continues this theme with images of ‘mummy bear hugs’ and ‘baby bears.’

 

The colour and tone of picture book illustrations also serve to set the emotional mood. In The Fix-It Man written by Dimity Powell and illustrated by Nicky Johnston, colour beautifully expresses the most challenging of moments when the child’s mother passes away.

Within this beautifully written story, we see the sunny yellow sky turn to a wordless page featuring a sombre grey room filled with love, tenderness and loss. Only the light from the moon shines in on the memories of the child’s mother, represented by her rainbow mobile and checkered rug.

In the final spread, their hearts are mending as the full colour spectrum has returned to the precious items that belonged to Mama.

Picture books are a truly unique genre. They rely on the visual narrative as an essential ingredient of storytelling. This makes them a perfect medium for children’s first relationships and enjoyment of story and art.

 

Emma, thank you for sharing with us these wonderful thoughts about illustrations in picture books. There is far more to it than initially meets the eye. As adults, we can become reliant on the text for meaning but, as you’ve shown us, so much of the story is told through the illustrations.

 

 

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Why I Love Children’s Books

What is there not to love about children’s books? I have always been caught in their spell. As a child I would spend the holidays copying the pictures from my favourite books. Picture books offered me a world of creativity, imagination and unlimited possibility. This seed of inspiration has stayed with me for life.
As a young child I was so inspired by May Gibbs’ charming gum blossom babies, that I planted my very own flowering gum two metres from our back door. In my child’s mind I did not think to check the potential height of this tree, and ten years later, when the tree towered above our little house, it had to be cut down.
Perhaps I should have also taken more notice of the wicked Mrs. Snake, as it was through the same back door, that I once brought in a ‘beautiful’ snake I had found in the bushes to show mum. Her scream quickly showed me that she was not impressed.
 Now, as an adult I am extremely fortunate to once again dive into the world of children’s picture books. In 2011, I illustrated ‘Were You Still Dreaming Ruby?’ by Steve McGlaughlin. One of the many delights of this project was the opportunity to conduct book readings and craft activities with local children. We were warmly welcomed by bookstores including, Berkelouw’s Book Barn Eumundi, and The River Read, as well as local kindergartens. It was a joy to see the children’s creativity and imaginations come alive through story; the joy of children’s picture books for all generations.
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