Levi Pinfold’s Black Dog is the winner of the 2013 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal. I spoke to Levi about how it feels to win this prestigious prize.
‘I’m feeling great!’ Even though we’re only talking on the phone, it’s impossible to miss the fact that Levi Pinfold has a beaming smile on his face. He’s been named the 2013 winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal, which recognises excellence in illustration, for his second picture book Black Dog, joining a list of winning illustrators that include Sir Quentin Blake, John Burningham, Helen Oxenbury, Shirley Hughes and Anthony Browne, to name but a few.
‘It’s a real honour,’ Pinfold tells me. ‘It’s a hugely personal thing for me. I worked for a very long year on Black Dog and it was very hard work – but very rewarding. It’s just amazing for someone to tell me that it’s good. It’s a real honour to be listed alongside all those fantastic illustrators… it’s really quite humbling.’
Pinfold takes a characteristically modest attitude to his book, which the judges identified as a ‘true modern classic’ that ‘will be read and enjoyed by generations to come.’ ‘I usually tend to downplay my work a little bit,’ he confesses. ‘I’ve looked at it for so long, but I hope maybe the judges could see the commitment that I put into it, and how hard I think about things…. You do put a lot of your personal feelings into books – subconsciously, it just trickles in there.’
Black Dog, which Pinfold wrote and illustrated, is story of a little girl called Small Hope who faces fear head-on in the form of a monstrous giant black dog – but she soon realises that it isn’t quite as frightening as everyone else seems to think. Pinfold explains: ‘I wanted to write a ghost story: a spooky story for kids, with a gothic element. I was sitting in the library, reading a book about the spectral hounds of England, and I found this legend of the black dog, which is a recurrent myth in different counties of England, although in different areas it’s called different things. Usually it was this horrible thing that appears on the moors, and if you see it, something terrible will happen to you. Then I discovered one in Somerset that’s just called the “Gurt Dog” and the description was “he is a nice dog”. I thought that was quite a funny idea, and then I thought “what if he’s just been misunderstood in these other places? Maybe he’s just a lonely dog, wandering around.”’ His next book will also put a new spin on traditional legends. ‘I’m working on a book which should be out next year, which is about vegetables! It sounds very simple, but it’s actually about the Green Man myth, putting a little twist on the legend, and using those symbols in a new way.’
It is Pinfold’s distinctive illustrations which really set Black Dog apart – the Greenaway judges described as a ‘visual treat, full of mood and atmosphere’. Talking about his approach to illustration, he explains: ‘I take a long-term view of illustration and painting. I like to look at very old stuff as well as the most contemporary work. I’m hugely influenced by people like Brueghel as well as people like Shaun Tan and Anthony Browne – I have a very wide sphere of influence’. Thinking about why his style differs from that of many other contemporary picture book creators, he ponders: ‘I think perhaps the other thing is that I spend a lot of time locked up painting, so I don’t spend a lot of time going out and meeting other illustrators, so I don’t tend to get influenced by them. I just love painting and I love children’s books.’
Creating the beautiful, richly-detailed spreads in his picture books is something of a labour of love for Pinfold. ‘My process of creating illustrations is quite lengthy,’ he explains. ‘As for a lot of illustrators, it tends to begin in sketch form, then you produce a fairly detailed rough for your publisher. After that, what I do is I paint the illustration by hand. In Black Dog I used tempera – a kind of old-fashioned paint where you mix egg yolk with pigment. You layer up your painting over weeks. I don’t get bored… when I’m painting, when I’m exploring that world that I’m creating, that’s the moment when I think “this is what I’m meant to be doing”. I’m looking through the piece of paper, looking into it, and that’s what I enjoy.’ Thinking about this for a moment, he adds: ‘It’s a nightmare for my publisher, I imagine – I’m busy “exploring the interior space” and they just want a book!’
Pinfold is not a newcomer to winning accolades for his work: Black Dog has already been awarded the Children’s Book Award in the AOI Illustration Awards 2013. His first picture book The Django won a Booktrust Early Years Award for Best Emerging Illustrator in 2010 and in the following year he was selected as one of ten Booktrust Best New Illustrators. ‘It can be tremendously difficult when you’re starting out as an illustrator and trying to make a mark, and it really helped with awareness of my work, and the relationship with my publisher,’ he reflects. ‘Plus I got to meet the other illustrators – it’s great to see them doing stuff now. Winning those two awards was incredible for me. It’s been a wild ride ever since.’
Pinfold is using his Kate Greenaway Medal win as an opportunity to celebrate libraries and librarians across the country. ‘I’m honoured that my work has been recognised by CILIP on behalf of librarians, for whom I have nothing but respect. I am always amazed at the passion for reading, looking and understanding that libraries inspire in everyone. The availability of a whole universe of knowledge and inspiration in one place is something highly underrated, as is the importance of encouraging minds, young and old, on the pathway to discovery. I think we all have a lot to learn from libraries.’
After a very busy few weeks, what could be nicer than a lazy Sunday to put my feet up, eat chocolate biscuits and catch up on some reading? Here are a few of the books I’ve been enjoying recently:
Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff
Rosoff’s latest novel comes out in September, coinciding with the release of the film of her first book How I Live Now, which I’m just a tiny bit excited about. This is the story of twelve-year-old Mila, who notices things that other people don’t, and who finds herself accompanying her father on a strange journey through New York State in search of an old friend who has mysteriously disappeared. I love Mila’s narrative voice and this beautifully understated novel is Rosoff at her best. (It doesn’t hurt that it also features a really brilliant dog.)
The Poison Boy by Fletcher Moss
It’s not hard to see why Fletcher Moss won the Times/Chicken House fiction competition with this unusual children’s adventure story. Dalton Fly is a poison boy, whose job is to taste the food and drink of Highlions’ rich and powerful to identify any traces of poison planted by their enemies. But when a job goes wrong, Dalton is in danger, and soon finds himself joining with some unlikely allies to tangle with the city’s complex, unstable politics and warring factions. There’s plenty of action and suspense on offer but what I liked best was the richly imaginative and distinctive world that Moss has created.(As an aside, I also can’t help but like the fact that as his pen name – at least I assume it’s a pen name – he’s chosen the name of a park in Didsbury, Manchester, where I spent a lot of time running around as a child.)
After Iris by Natasha Farrant
There’s something reminiscent of Hilary McKay’s much-loved Casson family stories about this gentle, tender-hearted tale, told through a combination of diary entries and transcripts of videos shot by narrator Bluebell Gadsby on the camera she has been given for her thirteenth birthday. A moving and funny story about an eccentric family, this is an utterly delightful summer read: when I was twelve or thirteen, I would have adored it. This one comes out next month.
The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
I thought I was sick of YA dystopia until I read this – or rather until I heard Yancey talking to Lucy Mangan about it at an event at Penguin HQ, which I went along to earlier this week. This quote which Yancey cited, from Stephen Hawking, particularly intrigued me, especially as I’d just been reading Ghost Hawk (see below): ‘If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.’ I’m not usually quick to pick up an alien-invasion story, but I was genuinely gripped by this, and especially liked central character Cassie’s brilliantly sarcastic voice.
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
This haunting debut novel, which is published next month, could not be much more different from The 5th Wave if it tried.Set in 1890s Malaysia, it’s the story of seventeen-year-old Li Lan, whose life with her father is dramatically altered when he returns home with an unexpected proposition. The wealthy Lim family want Li Lan to marry their son – the only problem is, he’s dead. Haunted by her would-be suitor, Li Lan is drawn into the Chinese afterlife – a strange world of paper funeral offerings, confusing bureaucracy and dangerous spirits with agendas of their own. A wonderfully atmospheric, magical, mystical young adult romance.
Follow Me Down by Tanya Byrne
I really enjoyed Byrne’s first book, the acclaimed Heart Shaped Bruise, but Follow Me Down is, if possible, even more compelling. A thriller set in an English boarding school (and so getting top marks from me straight away – my early obsessions with Malory Towers, St Clare’s and the Chalet School mean I can never resist a school story), it has a great central character in sophisticated New York emigré Adamma. Byrne is incredibly sharp-eyed about the complex ups and downs of adolescent friendships and relationships: I would have loved this when I was a teenager, and in fact it reminded me slightly of the kind of suspenseful novel I aspired to write in my early twenties (like this sort of thing, for example).
A few that aren’t in the picture (because I’ve already forced them onto other people and demanded that they read them immediately):
Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell.
I adored this book: a delightful flit across the rooftops of Paris, in search of an elusive cello melody. Wistfully old-fashioned, with just the right amount of whimsy, Katherine Rundell’s second novel is a real charmer: I wish I had written it.
Railsea by China Mieville
One of the best books I’ve read this year, Railsea proves just how masterful China Mieville’s writing can be. At once a Marxist fable, an entertaining parody of Moby Dick, and a classic children’s adventure story, Mieville cites writers as diverse as Joan Aiken, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Louis Stevenson and Spike Milligan as his inspirations for this brilliantly inventive fantasy. It’s difficult to do justice to it in a review so I will simply say: read it.
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
A kind of companion volume to Wein’s acclaimed Code Name Verity, this powerful Second World War novel tells the story of Rose, a young American Air Transport Auxiliary pilot and amateur poet. Captured by the Nazis and sent to the Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp, she finds hope in horrific circumstances through her friendships with her fellow prisoners, and through her poetry. I’m a fairly hard-hearted reader: unless it’s Beth dying in Good Wives or Captain Jim crossing the bar in Anne’s House of Dreams, it’s rare for a book to make me cry, but this story of hope and triumph over adversity was one of the exceptions.
Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper
Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence were some of my most beloved children’s books, perhaps especially the first three: Over Sea Under Stone, The Dark is Rising and Greenwitch. Cooper’s latest novel is a complete departure from this tradition, but equally wonderful: a haunting, beautifully-written story of a young Native American, Little Hawk, and his relationship with John, the son of one of the early white settlers in America. This book strikes a marked contrast with the constant stream of action-packed, fast-paced children’s adventure stories that so often land on my desk, and is all the more powerful for it: I found it fascinating and enormously moving.
Next on my reading list? Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Molly Ringwald’s short stories, and Joan Aiken’s Felix trilogy which I’ve never read before but have recently come back into print thanks to Red Fox.
What have you read recently? Let me know any recommendations in the comments…
Huge congratulations to the fantastic Malorie Blackman who has just been appointed as the eighth Waterstones Children’s Laureate. As you might know, I’m lucky enough to project manage the Children’s Laureate, so the last few weeks have been very busy ones for me, and I’m especially relieved I don’t have to keep the new Laureate’s identity a secret any longer!
Here’s a few of my favourite Laureate-related things from the last few days:
It was a delight to work with the brilliant Curved House on this fun animated film which we showed at the announcement event. Hopefully it captures how excited we all were about Malorie’s appointment!
It was also fascinating getting an insight into the making of the Laureate medal from jeweller Charmian Harris, who has been making them ever since the appointment of the first Children’s Laureate, Quentin Blake. (I had no idea that the original design was inspired by a label founder Ted Hughes designed for his bottles of Poet Laureate sherry!) Take a look behind the scenes in Charmian’s studio
I talked to the multi-talented Julie Mayhew – actress, writer of plays and short stories, and now novelist – about her debut book for young adults, Red Ink
‘Novels are like jigsaw puzzles. You have all these bits and pieces, and they suddenly start joining together, and you can’t work out where it all came from.’
I’ve come to meet Julie Mayhew at the Kings Arms in Berkhamsted, where in just a short time she’ll be celebrating the launch of her first novel, Red Ink, with a crowd of friends, fellow authors and publishing folk – not to mention a bit of Greek music and dancing and a melon-flavoured cocktail or two.
This is, of course, perfectly in keeping with Mayhew’s book – the story of 15-year-old Melon Fouraki, who has been raised on her mother’s magical stories of her halcyon childhood in Crete. When her mother is suddenly run down by a London bus, Melon is left suddenly alone in the world. Struggling to cope with her loss, Melon begins to confront her own childhood memories, and her quest to discover the truth takes her back to Crete, where she soon realises that the cherished family myths may not be all that she has been led to believe.
Challenging, uncompromising, and already attracting praise from critics, there’s no doubt Red Ink is a distinctly different young adult novel, so I’m keen to know how the idea came about. Mayhew explains: ‘The first spark for Red Ink came when I was in Crete. There was a truck in front of us with melons piled in a pyramid. There was no tarpaulin, and we were driving behind for ages thinking: “how aren’t those melons falling?”
‘Then, I was doing a writing course, and the teacher made us do this exercise where you wrote in a spiral. He told us to write down the first word that came into our heads, and weirdly, I wrote “melon” – I don’t know whether it was connected. I wrote the scene where Melon is trying on bras in M&S and her mum is having a cigarette in the changing room, and it became the second piece of the jigsaw puzzle.
‘I didn’t do anything with it for ages. The real spur was having my first son, and it made me think again about what it is to be a parent. You always think your own mum and dad are perfect: they do no wrong and almost they aren’t human. Then when you have your own children, you realise parents are utterly flawed and can make horrendous mistakes. That was what I was interested in – looking at that from both sides. Melon thinks her mum is just a nightmare, but actually Maria is doing her best in a bad situation, although it’s sometimes a bit misjudged.’
Central to Red Ink is ‘The Story’ – Melon’s mother’s semi-magical, mythological tales of the Fourakis family in Crete: ‘I’m really fascinated by the stories in families that get told time and time again. Details get changed, or slightly exaggerated. But does it matter if we tell the truth? I’m fascinated by that: is it even possible to tell the truth, or can you only tell your truth, your version?’
Writing the book called for a return to Crete to research the island and its traditions, although Mayhew acknowledges that this process had its pitfalls: ‘I wanted to put in lots of things that I had found out, but I ended up editing it a lot, because I realised I had forgotten to tell the story: the book was becoming a postcard from me about my trip to Greece. But there were some lovely things I found out about, like the root stock tree which is half lemons and half oranges. I even read a book about melon farming, so the descriptions of the bugs that attack the melons are accurate.’
Ultimately though, research was only part of the picture. ‘I embellished lots of things. For a while I got wrapped up in the truth, but then I realised that “The Story” could be a kind of fairy-tale, and that was much more liberating.’
Mayhew readily admits that she had not originally envisaged Red Ink as being aimed at young adults, although it has a 15-year-old narrator. ‘I saw it as an adult book when I was writing it, but I can see that it crosses over… It’s interesting what makes a book “young adult” and what makes it “adult”. When I was a teenager, I actually read a lot of adult books because when you’re a teenager you don’t want to be talked down to. I read Judy Blume and Sweet Valley High too, but it was all very light and fluffy – if you wanted anything with grit or substance, you had to look elsewhere. I read a lot of Stephen King, and found all the dark, psychological stuff fascinating. I read Margaret Atwood as well – she had a really strong sense of what it was to be a woman that wasn’t just about chasing boys.’
Deciding that the book would be for young adults, however, did not limit the story, which deals with some difficult subjects and is shot through with black comedy. ‘I wrote about whatever I felt needed to happen. It does go to dark places, but it’s not written in a very direct way and it’s dealt with lyrically – you could almost pass over it and not know it’s happened at all. I’m not trying to shock.’
She thinks that her next book, Mother Tongue, will be for adults, although she admits that ‘my publisher is trying to persuade me that it might be “new adult”’. Like Red Ink, the book has a young female narrator and sets out to explore the limits of truth and fiction, but it is also primarily about language. ‘The main character can speak three languages by the end of the book, and it’s about how when you can’t express things in your language, they don’t really exist, because if you don’t talk about things, it’s almost as if they don’t exist anymore.’
Whilst Red Ink draws on Greek traditions, Mother Tongue has an 18-year-old Russian girl at its centre:
‘Red Ink had to be set in Greece, because Greece is all about myths and the islands have a fairy-tale quality. History goes back forever there. This book is about not speaking about things, and I was interested in the idea that in Russia you could get in trouble for saying the wrong thing or for speaking when you shouldn’t. There’s a lack of expression, a cold front that I don’t think is really coldness: it’s just a cultural difference – you don’t go round grinning at strangers there. That fitted the story, which is all about keeping things in.’
Writing this novel has required a very different kind of research: ‘I’ve got books and books of Russian idioms, and I’ve also been collecting untranslatable words – phrases for things like “being happy about beauty” that we don’t have a word for in English. There are lots of Russian words that are completely untranslatable. My character is also fascinated by proverbs, especially Yiddish proverbs. I’ve been trying to teach myself Russian too, but it’s hard – I’ve just about taught myself the numbers one to ten, but the Cyrillic alphabet is so difficult.’
Mayhew is very definitely a writer of many talents: having originally trained as a journalist, she went on to work as an actor, and to write critically-acclaimed plays, radio dramas and short stories before writing Red Ink. However, it’s clear that these different elements of her work are closely interconnected: ‘I became a journalist realising I wanted to write, but it didn’t feel quite right. Then I was acting and that didn’t feel quite right either. I realised that it’s quite nice being someone else, but when you’re acting, you don’t get to choose who you are. When you’re writing, you can choose to go and be someone else – it’s all consuming. At the moment, in my head I’m an 18-year-old Russian girl. You find yourself acting the part. ’ Her experience of writing plays and short stories also feeds into her novels. ‘I like each chapter to be a “scene” – you can see it happen and there’s a resolution. Each one is a self-contained story.’
Asked about the advice she would give to aspiring writers, Mayhew is very clear: ‘You only get better if you keep doing it. You become a more astute writer as you go. You can procrastinate so much, but in the end you just have to do it. I’m guilty of it myself, but I know if you just do it – even if you write rubbish – it’s good compost for something else to grow from. You go back to it later, and it’s got something in it, even if it’s just a little nugget – the first piece of the jigsaw.’
I talked to author Hayley Long about her Costa-shortlisted book What’s Up with Jody Barton? and her approach to writing for teens (warning – contains plot spoilers!)
‘Some books for teenagers don’t seem to have a point. I don’t want to sound like a teacher – even though I am one – but for me, I need more going on in a book than just “I fancy a boy”.’
Author Hayley Long is chatting to me about her latest novel What’s Up with Jody Barton? over a plate of chips in a South London pub. The book, which is one of four titles on this year’s prestigious Costa Children’s Book shortlist, is the story of teenage Jody and twin sister Jolene growing up above their Dad’s lively North London cafe. The two share everything, until a good-looking boy comes between them.
With a pink doodled cover and a humorous first-person narrative, at first sight it may seem like an archetypal teenage girl story of family, friends and first romance – but (and here comes the spoiler alert) Jody’s story has an unexpected twist. 100 pages in, the reader discovers that Jody isn’t a teenage girl as they will probably have assumed, but in fact a teenage boy, who has a crush on the same boy his sister likes, and is struggling to deal with what this means for his own sexuality and identity.
‘I didn’t want to write a book that was defined by that particular issue,’ says Hayley, whilst acknowledging that there are still very few books for teenagers that explore gay and lesbian relationships. ‘It wasn’t something I particularly felt I had to do. But the first book I wrote for teens was Lottie Biggs is (Not) Mad, and I wrote that in part because I’d been teaching in a high school in Cardiff, and I noticed that one of the few areas where there was a real taboo, where kids could be really cruel to each other, was mental health. There was a lot of name-calling and it wasn’t an uncommon experience to have kids that go off the register for a few weeks for depression. Similarly for younger teens, the lesbian and gay issue seemed to be the one thing they really couldn’t get over. Maybe they would be different individually, but in the group mentality of a classroom, it’s a sensitive issue, and it’s generally still really homophobic. I can remember at the time thinking about it, but thinking that I wouldn’t know how to go about approaching it, so I decided to focus on mental health.
‘After I wrote the Lottie Biggs books, I had to come up with something else. My editor said “think about your audience, think about the people who enjoyed Lottie, and write another girl character” but actually I felt quite drained because I’d put so much of myself, and what I could think of in terms of girl stories into Lottie. I didn’t want it to be a pale imitation of that. Then I thought “OK, right, let’s have twins who fancy the same boy” but I literally got to the end of page one, and I thought “this is boring”. How many other books must there be about girls who fancy the same boy?
‘Then I had this devilish little thought that really I wanted to write about a boy, and maybe I could to do it under the radar. But also, I wanted to write something that had some meaning.’
lthough it is about a young gay character, Hayley is keen to emphasise that What’s Up with Jody Barton? is also a broader story about growing up and identity. ‘A lot of reviewers haven’t mentioned the “g-word” in what they’ve written about the book, even though that’s essentially what the whole book is about – it’s a coming-of-age book and a coming out book. But I quite like that people are not talking about that, they are talking about Jody. Ultimately it’s just a book about a teenager.’
Making Jody’s gender a surprise that the reader wouldn’t discover until halfway through the book was a deliberate strategy. Hayley explains: ‘I thought about it, and I didn’t want teenagers to come to the book either with their own ideas of “I’m not reading that”, or deliberately picking it up because of the subject matter. I wanted them to read about the character, and hopefully get to like the character, and then have to deal with the twist.’
The idea of creating a story with an unexpected twist was particularly appealing to her. ‘I remember when I was about 14 I read Catcher in the Rye. It makes it clear at the beginning of the book that the main character is in hospital, but being 14 and reading it on my own, I missed that. I can remember reading all the way through thinking “this is boring – why does everyone go on about this book? It’s just all this minute detail of these three days in a boy’s life”. And then at the end it dawned on me that he’d had a breakdown. I had this feeling of “oh, that’s amazing” and the revelation made me want to go back and read the whole thing again with that knowledge. I hope that kids reading this will have something of the same feeling of, “oh, now I want to read it all again and see how that works”’.
Offering young readers something to surprise and challenge them is part of Hayley’s approach to writing. ‘Today there’s a massive amount of fiction for teens and young adults. If you wanted, you could read nothing else’ she says. ‘It’s great there are so many books, but it means that if you choose, you can be quite narrow in your reading tastes. Obviously I want to write to appeal to my audience, but also I want to challenge them a little bit.’
But creating a book which was structured around this revelation did present difficulties for Hayley as a writer. She explains: ‘The first half of the book was a challenge. There was a real sense of relief when it’s out and I could let that go. The first half of the book had to be much more restrained, but for the second half, there was a shift in the atmosphere – it was freer and faster and it felt much more like a “boys’ book”’
Hayley drew on her own adolescent experiences in writing the book, even making her own teen idols – River Phoenix and The Doors – also Jody’s heartthrobs. ‘Obviously I’ve never been a gay teenage boy, but I thought about how I could project the way your heart hurts because you’re so attracted to someone’ she explains.
The doodles and artwork that punctuate the text also help to create an authentic teenage voice and feel. ‘I like to have a visual,’ she says. ‘I did the Lottie Biggs drawings, and they are how I draw. I wanted these to look different, so for Jody it was about really carefully copying photographs. I like seeing something interesting as I turn the pages. I write what appeals to me, and I like visual things.’
The book is set in and around the Willesden High Road, where Hayley lived during her time in London. ‘The area really came to life for me,’ Hayley explains. ‘It’s not like there’s anything much to recommend it, but when you live there, it is the most interestingly eye-popping place.’ Trying to create an authentic setting also presented challenges though. ‘Beginning to write it was scary and awful. I was thinking “I haven’t lived in London for 10 years, I can’t hear these kids’ voices.” But what made it all click was the two girls in the café, modeled on girls I used to hear in London. I read one review which said I was using a kind of “mockney” voice, but it is actually how a lot of teenagers in North West London speak. They aren’t all middle class. In fact, I toned it down, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to understand them.’ Although she doesn’t plan to write any further books about Jody, she says ‘I’d like to maybe use that setting again and maybe have Jody’s family in the background’.
Talking about her influences, Hayley cites Louis Sachar and Frank Cottrell Boyce as contemporary authors she particularly admires. ‘Holes is genius. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it. The structure of it is so perfect. And Frank Cottrell Boyce is so funny. With Framed, there is really clever stuff going on. It’s talking about fine art and at the same time it’s suitable for 8 year olds. I admire books like that.’ Summing up (whilst graciously allowing me to finish the chips) Hayley thoughtfully concludes ‘I suppose I really think that as well as being funny, the whole point of books is to show you a different point of view.’