Castle Barmy

How Doom the Magician put the kingdom into lockdown then went for a picnic himself

CASTLE BARMY tells the story of the foolish King Boris and cunning Doom the Magician, who lock up the kingdom’s children to protect them from a poisonous dragon. But upon discovering that Doom has broken lockdown to count his gold and enjoy a lavish picnic at Castle Barmy, the children escape to create a land where nature thrives, families spend time together and magicians must behave as they tell children to behave.

• A beautifully illustrated reimagining of the Barnard Castle saga
• An uplifting picture book for the lockdown generation
• The perfect family talking point for 2021

This is a bedtime story to share between children who have experienced the highs and lows of lockdown, and parents who have found their way through the crisis while rediscovering the joy of family and the inspiration of the natural world. For the children, there are dragons, knights, castles and princesses. For the adults, there is the satire and the knowledge of what the poisonous dragon represents. Beautifully illustrated by Kate Chesterton, this is a Pied Piper for the modern age.

Castle Barmy is out now on Ebook through Kindle Fire and KindleApp, available for download from Amazon, the debut release by Brighton independent publisher Railway Land Press. Please download and discuss, and let’s hope the happy ending of this fairy tale is one we can all soon share.

(Castle Barmy is © copyright Jason Hook/Kate Chesterton, published by Railway Land Press, 2020)

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’.

 

War and Peace: A Fairy Tale

tolstoy fablesI was struck, last night, by the way in which the BBC’s magnificent production of War and Peace drifted in Episode 4 into what felt suddenly like a fairy tale. The previous week, Natasha Rostova had gone like Cinderella to the ball and fallen in love with her Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (resplendent in tight-fitting uniform and gold braid, in contrast to the tragic observer Pierre Bezukhov whose outfits always appear two sizes too big) in a suitably enchanted dance sequence.

Now, Andrei seeks the permission of his increasingly eccentric father, Prince Nikolai, to propose marriage to the Cinderella-like Natasha (who possesses the secret of happiness) and rescue her family from impending poverty. If that doesn’t all sound like the stuff of fairy tale, lo and behold, old Nikolai agrees to the match only on condition that the prince is banished from the kingdom for a year to test his love. A year and a day might have underlined the point, but the step into Faerie Land conjured thoughts of Celtic mortals lured away by the little people for a year and a day, and of Sir Gawain’s anxious year spent awaiting the avowed return blow after his beheading of the Green Knight.

All filmed against the fairy tale backdrops of Latvia and Lithuania, there is a distinct change in atmosphere at this point. Natasha is whisked away on a sled to the countryside where she seems bewitched by folk music into dancing a dance she doesn’t know. Returning to Moscow, she is seduced at the opera by the deliciously evil Helene Kuragina and her incestuous and lupine brother Anatole. Her happiness vanishes and she seems possessed by the predatory and already married rake, her childlike nature disappearing as if with a curse as she is pursued through a wardrobe of coats.

Perhaps reducing a vast novel to a television series inevitably involves a simplification toward types and motifs, and it is no less affecting for that, but Tolstoy was himself no stranger to folklore. He wrote stories for peasant children to study at the schools he founded on his estate, which can be found in Fables and Fairy Tales, and he made it clear the value he placed on such tales:

‘The artist of the future will understand that to compose a fairy tale; a little song which will touch; a lullaby or a riddle which will entertain; a jest which will amuse or draw a sketch such as will delight dozens of generations or millions of children and adults, is incomparably more important and more fruitful than to compose a novel, or a symphony, or paint a picture of the kind which diverts some members of the wealthy classes for a short time and is then for ever forgotten. The region of this art of the simplest feelings accessible to all is enormous, and it is as yet almost untouched.”

—Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (1897)

 

Through The Looking Glass


IT ALL BEGINS WITH Alice. I’m late, I’m late, but at last I am diving down the rabbit-hole, trying not to look at the pocket-watch, and transforming myself. I am online. I am in the Looking Glass. I hope that here I will not shrink but grow. And next, I will blog about Cheshire Cats and Mad Hatters, and get a little meta about metamorphoses.