How High is the Fence?

blog corn pic
Today as I drove through beautiful Italian countryside towards the town of Pontecorvo I passed a field of corn. It is two weeks since last saw it and thought to myself “It wont be up to the top of the fence by Christmas”. Today I thought “three weeks until Christmas, and yes, it is almost high enough”.

I smile as I make these apparently ridiculous silent observations, all the while calculating how far we are here in Italy, now in June, from the equivalent growing season in New Zealand. The fact that this Pontecorvo cornfield has no fence around it at all is totally irrelevant. In my mind it is growing fast towards that goal, racing to reach the top of the imaginary fence in my relocated “Christmas” marker of time.

Why is it important that the corn (or maize, as I knew it) be up to the fence by Christmas? Well, apparently – at least for the cultivars planted when I was a child – the crops that had reached fence height by Christmas would almost certainly be mature enough to harvest, and store in the cribs with netting to keep out the birds, before the bad weather arrived. If the plants hadn’t reached the fence by Christmas then there was the risk that the corn wouldn’t dry out and keep, or, worse still, the risk that it wouldn’t be harvested if the rains came and the heavy machinery became bogged in the mud.

How is this relevant to a book blog? It struck me this morning that the phrase “up to the top of the fence by Christmas” had become a part of who I am, how I think. As a child I noticed the crops, the fence tops, and the season. Things we learn in a nurturing environment stay with us.

I thought then of the other associations that spin out from this: happy memories of sitting in the crib turning the cobs, ostensibly making sure that they were drying right through, but in fact savouring the colours, the silky feel of the smooth grains of corn, and enjoying being up in the crib which was like a tree house to me. Happy memories also of the books I read, and the colours in the illustrations that reflected my childhood. Phrases from some of those books stay with me too. Who could ever forget the Little Red Hen, or Henny Penny with poor Chicken Licken as the sky began to fall? Childhood memories shape us, if we let them.

I enjoy revisiting memories from my childhood; always happy ones. But, oddly enough, when I look back at these memories now I often see them in pen and wash, as book illustrations, as fictional things. I am blurring fact and fiction; smelling the dust at my feet and the dogs in the kennels nearby, feeling the sun on my skin as I pull myself up into the maize crib, looking back to only the golden weather.

I would love to sketch the children clambering up into the maize crib. The image has come before the story. I am beginning to think that the best books for very young children are those that are firmly grounded in reality, a secure place from which they can reach out and explore. Is there a book in that “rich garnered grain”?

I doubt that I could easily locate an old maize crib with corrugated iron roof and the birds hovering around. There my memory will have to suffice. It is not too difficult to find a crop of corn to draw; like Christmas, the season is approaching. I do wonder, however, “How high is the fence?”

I Can Do That

blog drawing linesWhat is perfection, and should we aspire to it? My illustrations show action, colour, empathy, but never perfection. It is not my aim. It is important to me that my art for children is ‘accessible’.

I like to imagine that with pencil, paper, pen, paint and water, they too could begin to illustrate their own stories. I imagine a classroom teacher saying to the little ones “Can you see the pencil lines? What do you think she did next, after drawing the picture?”

I could remove all the pencil lines when the paint holds the form. In fact, I did remove most of them, but then added some again. If you look closely at the image you might see where some have been lightly erased, where the wrist and the sleeve meet. It is a calculated choice, what to leave, what to erase, what to put back more strongly to be read in the picture. It is this kind of interpretive interaction that brings out the creativity in little ones. And, perhaps, in the big ones too.

Once the brain engages with a process, or with imagining what might be in a space, the imagination is captured and brought into play. I don’t think that happens quite so much when everything is perfect; you are more likely to look, appreciate, and move on without actively engaging with the creative process.

As with all art work, illustrations have at least three aspects; what the artist intends, what the viewer sees, and what happens in the space in between. In shared reading there is yet another dimension, with the reader leading the discussion. I have considered putting in a page of discussion starters at the end of my stories, and more educational facts that I find in my research, but so far (apart from in the true story, Michelle and the Bumblebee) I have resisted this temptation. The readers will find what they are ready for, when the time is right.

But I digress. Back to the illustrations. In this digital age I think it is important that young children look at original art, and at the process of creating art. Art that is not ‘perfect’ with every line defined, every colour and shading transition smooth. I would like children to see my construction lines, and to think “I can do that”.

jamie helping Nonna blogSharing the process with a young reader. Quality time for both of us 🙂

The Book Lovers

Learning about pollination from the safety of the washing basket - as you do!
Learning about pollination from the safety of the washing basket – as you do!

It has been a huge pleasure for me to see children enjoying my stories and to hear them say “Can you read it again please?” (or “Again, again” from a younger one).

I was pleasantly surprised to see how interested my two year old grandchildren are in Michelle and the Bumblebee. This story seems to have appeal across the ages, and appeals to flower and bee lovers as well as anyone who likes to read a true story. When I wrote the text from Michelle’s real life story notes I imagined children from about 4 to 8 or 9 enjoying it. In reality the age range that it appeals to has been much wider. Thank you Michelle.

p 11 print

“I hope you will be OK, Mr Bumble Bee”, said Michelle.
“It still gets a bit chilly at night”.

Michelle covered his hiding place with some more grass to help protect him from the cold.

To eBook or Not?

I have been asked by potential buyers if my books are available for Kindle, and others have suggested that this would be a good idea. Yes, when children are travelling, perhaps this would be useful. Yes, for getting more books sold, it is probably a good idea. Would I? Should I?

For now, at least, the answer is a firm (yet gentle) no. Why do I choose to miss out on those sales and that revenue when I am a fledgling business? The answer is easy; I love books.

When I was a child, the “success” of a Christmas or birthday was always the number of books I was given. But it’s more than that. I love the idea of children snuggled into a parent, an aunt or uncle, a babysitter, an older sibling, pointing to the page, running their fingers over the words, sharing. Sharing, sharing. I also love paper, paper of any kind.

I am totally for eBooks, but I am not writing for this format yet. To me a good eBook is an interactive adventure, a little like a 21st century “pick-a-path” book. I am not ready to learn all I would need to know to present a book to its best in an interactive way.

I strongly believe that picture eBooks should be designed for the pages to be read consecutively. Mine are still designed to a “facing page” format. My illustrations, particularly as I work on the next series, need that page turn, that suspense, the adult deciding just when to reveal the surprise over the page. I like that.

Jon Skuse puts it particularly well. Jon Skuse worked in the computer games industry then did a Master of Arts in children’s book illustration to develop his skills. He is now a freelancer helping publishers move into world of eBooks. He says:

“There are two aspects to this – the business side and the creative side. The eBook is cheap to make once the technology is in place and it is cheap to buy. And you are not limited to a certain number of pages in the way a print-based book is. It doesn’t have to be linear in its construction either. The creator can make different ‘branches’ or routes; for example, the reader can tap on a door to take one route or tap on another to follow a different narrative.” (Cited in Children’s Picturebooks The art of visual storytelling, Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles, 2012 ,Laurence King Publishing Ltd London, pg 184).

He continues on to say

“The eBook isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about an ‘exploration’, an experience, rather like a pop-up book. What many publishers are doing wrong at the moment is just copying printed picture books on to this format, which does both media a disservice. It’s just like looking at a PDF. Children will simply flick through. A printed picturebook is a particular kind of physical experience that can be savoured and revisited. The eBook needs to exploit its own particular characteristics and strengths to evolve as similarly special but distinct experience.”

This month one of the keynote presentations at the world-wide Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy, is the development of eBooks in the digital age. Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” has at least two re-makes into interactive apps, and these will be explored in-depth. I think the presentation description of a book “re-engineered” is very apt:

Case Study: Two apps; one caterpillar — How StoryToys successfully re-engineered a beloved children’s publishing icon, with interactivity in mind.

Emmet O’Neil of StoryToys. Winner of the 2015 BolognaRagazzi Digital Award. Emmet will provide a case study into the details of making the award winning My Very Hungry Caterpillar. (Excerpt taken from the programme update emailed to me).

This is a glimpse of the future for children’s picture eBooks. I am impressed, I think it is exciting, but I am not in a hurry to write for this model. For now I will leave that to the younger writers and the computer enthusiasts.

I write for junior teachers who read to classes. I write for grandparents who grew up with books and want to share their love of the printed page with their digital age grandchildren. I write for children who want to touch the page, to revisit images, to add their own imagined world into the white spaces I leave, and I write to keep shared reading alive.

It’s even more simple than that too. I don’t love screens. I love books.

Three titles released today!

Today is a “Red Letter” day for Little Goat Books. An independent publisher using the Print-on-Demand services of,

Little Goat Books proudly announces that the first three titles produced for 2015 are now available (online only).

Front cover, The Lost Happy
The Lost Happy

Available now:

front cover final
Michelle and the Bumblebee

Available now:

blog Bath book
When Mum Fell Asleep in the Bath

 Available now: