The Great Golden Pleasury Of Cursery Rhymes

I am about to embark upon the ticklish process of taking the newest incarnation of my children’s novel, Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream, and throwing it upon the mercy of potential agents. I thought, at the same time, I might set free to the wider world a few of the spells or ‘Cursery Rhymes’ that the central character scatters throughout the book. Please take care of them.

This is where the witch, Isabella Mawtle, first shows her spell book to her niece and nephew, Pip and Molly, and explains something of its powers:

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“When I was small, I was left on my own,
So, I played with this book like a dog with a bone.
I’d no toys and no friends, and no father or mother,
So read it alone, and from cover to cover,
And took from this book all my happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!

It taught me to write, and it taught me to talk.
I had learnt it by heart by the time I could walk.
So, beware of its words, and take care of them well,
For I learned how to speak when I learned how to spell.
And I shook from this book all my happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!

It holds verses of curses, and chapters of charms,
With indexes of hexes and hoodoos and harms,
There are tables of fables, and rituals and runes,
Filled with abras, cadabras and hocus-poked tunes,
It’s the sorcery source of my happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!

It’s a book that can look to the sound of your voice,
It will write you a juju or jinx of your choice,
All its pages will turn to a birthday girl’s sigh,
To her verse, or her curse, or her sweet lullyby!
And she’ll write in this book of her happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!”

 

Excerpt from ‘Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream’,
Copyright © Jason Hook 2018

 

Magnificent Mibo

Very pleased to see the MIBO board books out today, loved writing these and enjoyed working with Madeleine Rogers. Always exciting to work with a great illustrator who has lots of creative ideas. And the result is a series of beautifully illustrated poems for young children that convey fun facts about different creatures, while reminding the reader of how precious those creatures and their environment are. Available from Button Books!

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Spike

Last week, I helped out with creating a ‘mid-Atlantic’ version of the poems I wrote for Madeleine Rogers’ beautiful MIBO series of illustrated activity books, published by Button Books. Always interesting to look again at your work. Although they were written for toddlers, I like the verses best when they have enough mad logic to remind me (at least a little) of Spike Milligan! I visited Spike’s grave in Winchelsea last summer, and the epitaph really does say ‘I told you I was ill!’ albeit in Gaelic. He was my comedy hero. I had a great friend as a child, Tony Lowe, who used to send me glorious letters featuring quotes from The Goons and his own inspired lunacy.

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Anyway, my favourite Milliganesque verses from the MIBO series. They sound best if you read them in Spike’s inimitable voice. But I guess you can’t if it’s inimitable…

‘The great white shark is grey on top
And only white beneath,
But in her great white smile you’ll find
Three hundred great white teeth!’
(The Marine Team)

‘Don’t try to sneak up on the owl,
Her ears hear every sound.
Her eyes can hear you in the dark,
Her head can turn right round.’
(The Sky Guys)

And something, to aspire to, from Spike:spike

‘Said a tiny Ant
To the Elephant,
“Mind how you tread in this clearing!”
But alas! Cruel fate!
She was crushed by the weight,
Of an Elephant hard of hearing.’
(Ant and Elephant, Spike Milligan)

Bridges Not Walls

On this foreboding day in history, I was heartened by the #bridgesnotwalls campaign that was making itself seen and heard along London’s bridges and across the Twitterscape. Inspired to share in the collective expressions of freedom and inclusion, I immediately wondered what bridges had been built by book illustrators. That is, after all, what this occasional blog is supposed to be about.peter-jacksonThe first bridge that I stumbled across (as it were), which got my juices running, was not from a children’s book but from a remarkable series of London artworks by the wonderful Peter Jackson. Ironically, I found it on the Internet, when all along it was staring me in the face: I have it hanging on my wall. Peter’s extraordinary reconstruction shows London Bridge c.1600, with the ferociously flowing Thames whipping boats towards its pontoons, and the many grandiose Elizabethan buildings piled precariously upon its back. Take your pick from any number of metaphors for our modern world right there. With Peter, you know that what you are seeing is historically correct. He was not only a wonderful illustrator but one of the great historians and collectors of London ephemera. He scoured the city’s markets and second-hand shops to gather up over 25,000 prints. Between 1949 and 1980, Peter drew historical cartoon strips of London for the London Evening News, and he built up an unrivalled knowledge of the city’s history, beautifully conveyed through his work in a number of authoritative and evocative books.

Peter was a friend of my father’s, and his London Bridge led me across to another bridge very close to home. What better than a dragon’s tail for making a bridge when you’re on a dragon hunt and can’t see for looking, as illustrated by Richard Hook in our children’s book Where’s the Dragon? It’s funny how when you start looking, you can find bridges right beneath your nose, within your own four walls.

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6a019103c45ca1970c01b7c7de029e970b-500wiThat dragon-tail bridge carried me back in time to my childhood, as I started thinking about my favourite bridge from a children’s story. Surely, it must be the bridge in the Three Billy-Goats Gruff, with a hungry troll lurking beneath its humped back in wait for delicious goat flesh. The story originates in a Norwegian folk-tale, and has a classic narrative structure of three heroes moving from danger to safety by outwitting a threatening presence. In case you’ve forgotten it, the smallest and medium billy-goats succeed in crossing the bridge by each promising the troll a larger prize coming along behind, with the sumptuous finale of the third and biggest goat being of sufficient size and sharpness of horns to give the troll its just desserts. It’s an idea to make any writer or artist salivate, and I’d offer a bridge to any illustrator who would like to join me in a retelling.

I am instantly transported to my childhood when I see the splendidly realistic cover of the Ladybird version of the story, where both bridge and troll lurk unseen. I also discovered a beautiful early illustration from A Selection From The Norse Tales For The Use Of Children (Edinbugh, 1862) in Barbara Hawes’ excellent British Library blog, which gives a fascinating summary of the history of the tale and how it crossed over into our language.

billygoatsOn a day such as this day, when #bridgesnotwalls lifted me up, it seems appropriate to celebrate three satiric heroes crossing safely over a bridge beneath which a troll will always lurk in the darkness.

Do you have any bridges from children’s literature that you’d like to share with me?

A Dragon in the Library

On a Bonfire Day when we remember, remember to protest the plot against our precious libraries – a plot that seeks to put a match to the idea that ideas, imagination and inspiration may be freely available to all, rich or poor – it is a good time to write of books and the sparks and fireworks that can fly from their pages.

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Where’s the Dragon?

There is a magic in books, as all readers know. Every book holds within it the power to breathe life into characters, creatures and entire worlds. These things begin in the imagination of the writer. They start with the spark of an idea, that magical, mutable thing that comes from nothing, from nowhere, from something, somewhere. That spark lights the furnace in which the idea might, if you are lucky, survive the heat long enough to be forged into a story.

Ah, but that story is, when left in the darkness, a lifeless creation. It requires a lightning bolt to animate it. And that lightning bolt is cast not by the writer but by the reader. It is the reader who discovers the story in a book and grants it life. The more readers who read it, the brighter the story burns. The more readers who return to it, the higher its fireworks fly. Most magical of all, the story starts to take on a life, or lives, of its own. It is told and interpreted. It is given as a gift. It is borrowed from a library. It starts to cast sparks of its own.

This is a magical process indeed with a children’s story, which finds its light from a bedside lamp and its life from the regular breaths of a bedtime reader. I once wrote of a fire-breathing dragon, so big that the closer people got to him the harder they found him to see. That was the spark, and it began to breathe fire through the alchemy of my artist father, Richard Hook, in the book Where’s the Dragon? That was back in 2003. To our delight, the dragon was summoned in sufficient bedtime stories for him to grow old. He hides away for a while, and then emerges in the most surprising of places. Today, when I give talks at schools, it is the old dragon that children always seem to know about. It is the story of the dragon so large that he can’t be seen that they still want to hear. He lives on, both as a glowing memory of my father, and as a story that is still being told. He is almost old enough for a grown-up child to hand him down to the next generation, and what finer fate could there be for a dragon, for a story, than that.

If the spark of one idea, one story, one book, survives to cast its own sparks through the readers who breathe life into it, just imagine how many sparks and fireworks fly from a library. A library is a crucible filled with a thousand hot metals, each one of which might turn to gold in a child’s imagination. It is an infinite free firework display, where any firework is possible. It is a fire-breathing dragon, which appears different to every child who discovers it, and which every child should be free to discover for themselves. Otherwise, we might just as well tell our children to stop believing in dragons.

 

Sky Guys

“The albatross can glide across,
The ocean waves for weeks.
And when, at last, he meets his mate,
They dance and rub their beaks.”

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The Sky Guys title was launched at the foot of Brighton’s suitably skyscraping i360 last week, just before the plastic pod launches its own maiden flights up the pole. Our host was the creator and illustrator of the series, Madeleine Rogers, and the venue the Cadeau emporium of delights in the shiny new arches.SkyGuysCaseWrap.indd

It was a joyful evening of bubbles and laughter accompanied by the raucous screeches of the gulls wheeling overhead. Well, I guess they just wanted to read all about the extraordinary flight that the albatross makes just so that he can dance and rub beaks with his mate.

The sixth title in the Mibo series of entertaining and educational nature titles, featuring verses packed with fascinating facts, gorgeous illustrations and SkyGuys_Pages.inddpress-out paper creatures, The Sky Guys is published by Button Books and is suitable for little readers of 5 and up.

Walter Crane: A Spark Of Inspiration

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When Walter met Wendy, Elle Decoration, December 2015.

Every story requires a spark of inspiration before it can burst into life. In the case of Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat – the children’s picture book I published with V&A Publishing in 2015 – that spark flew from the work of Arts and Crafts polymath Walter Crane. I had seen his wonderful wallpaper designs in the V&A collection, and – knowing Crane to be one of the most popular and influential 19th-century illustrators of fairy tale and fable – was taken with the idea of telling a modern children’s tale in which Crane’s characters and designs step out of their wallpapers into the real world. It was not by accident that I gave Wendy’s grandfather the name Walter.

At Christmas, this connection was highlighted in a splendid article about Walter Crane in the December edition of Elle Decoration. Alongside the wallpaper designs that appear in Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat, the article celebrates the work of an artist who was a contemporary of William Morris and shared his belief that exceptional art should be found in the homes of rich and poor alike.

“A gloriously whimsical tale that promises to introduce a new generation to Crane’s sumptuous designs.”

Crane was born in Liverpool in 1845. The son of a portrait painter, he was apprenticed as a wood engraver. This afforded him the opportunity to study closely the work of many artists, including Sir John Tenniel who famously illustrated Alice in Wonderland (first published in 1865).

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The Alphabet Of Old Friends (1874), a Walter Crane toy book.

Throughout his twenties, Crane worked with the printer Edmund Evans developing and improving the standard of ‘toy books’. These were mass market children’s books featuring alphabets, nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Crane’s revolutionary work laid the foundations for many aspects of modern picture books that we take for granted. He believed that good illustration and design could help children to read from an early age, and that every feature of the book should engage the reader’s interest: from the cover and endpapers through to the integration between illustration and typography. Crane’s illustrations featured ‘bright, frank colours’, and he understood that children would respond to decorative, symbolic art. He also employed comic visual devices: in The Baby’s Opera (1877), for example, three mice lead the reader through the book with their mischievous antics.

There is a delightful step from Crane’s picture books into the nurseries in which they were read. The square format for his youngest readers, which is still used for alphabet books today, was based on tiles used to decorate nurseries. The nursery rhyme characters of his toy books found their way into his nursery wallpapers, including the ‘Nursery Rhymes’ design from which the feline fiddle player steps in Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat. Crane’s wallpapers were popular at home and abroad, and it is amusing to imagine Mark Twain being inspired by the ‘Miss Mouse At Home’ design he used to decorate his own children’s nursery.

As noted in the back of Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat, an article of 1884 said of Crane’s nursery wallpapers: ‘With the aid of a little intelligent and sympathetic talk, nursery walls, covered with these designs, might be made to live within the lives of children.’

Walter Crane became an examiner at the South Kensington Museum, which in turn became known as the Victoria & Albert Museum. Seeing the printed books of Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat decorating – wallpaper fashion – the shelves of the V&A shop alongside gifts based on Crane’s own designs, it feels like the book now has a life of its own. It would be lovely to think that it might return a favour: by breathing new life into the wallpaper designs of the artist who fired that first spark, as they step into the picture book framework he helped to construct, so that they might once again ‘live within the lives of children’.