Tag Archives: illustrators of children’s books

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Palace of Laughter’

This week, I’m excited to share my thoughts on a little hidden gem of a book which I picked up, on a whim, ages ago. It’s languished on my shelves for at least a year, maybe longer, probably thinking I’d never get around to reading it, but I proved it wrong in recent weeks. I’m now sorry that I didn’t read it sooner, because it might have lifted my spirits – this year, you see, I have read a lot of books which sounded great, but which ended up being a disappointment.

This one was sort of the opposite. I wasn’t convinced it would be up to much, and it surprised me in a good way.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

I was, I have to admit, captivated by the back cover blurb of this book. ‘Laughter,’ it tells us, ‘can be dangerous.’ Then, it goes on to talk about an orphan named Miles Wednesday, and the fact that a strange circus has come to his town, and I was hook, line and sinkered. I can’t resist books about circuses, and I have a soft spot for literary orphans, too. Jon Berkeley (incidentally, an Irishman) writes beautifully, with a great turn of phrase, wonderful dialogue, funny set-pieces, smatterings of Irish-language words (none of which impede understanding for non-Irish speakers, so don’t worry), and has created some fantastic characters in his sparky, courageous Miles and his noble, gentle Little.

We meet Miles early in the book, learning that he lives in a tub under a tree just outside the town of Larde. He was abandoned on the doorstep of the Pinchbucket Orphanage as a baby, and has run away because of the severe ill-treatment meted out on the children. Now, at the age of eleven, he lives alone and makes his own decisions – as he puts it himself. In the first chapter he is visited by a talking tiger who tells him he has ‘the circus in him,’ which baffles and mystifies him. As a result of this strange encounter, he resolves to get inside the unnerving Circus Oscuro, newly arrived in town, in order to find this tiger again and find out more about himself. What he discovers there, however, is far from the answers he sought. He meets a mysterious little girl – aptly named Little – who is able to fly, and a terrifying beast simply called The Null because nobody knows what it is.

Little tells him she is being held captive, and that her friend Silverpoint has also been kidnapped by the owners of the Circus. However, he has been taken far away, and Little doesn’t know how to get him back. So, their quest begins – and, even though it all takes place in one country, and probably not over a huge geographical spread, it takes in the whole world, and more.

One thing I will say about this book is that it’s long. In my opinion, it doesn’t need to be. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the writing, and the lushness of the word-pictures, and the humour of the characters, and the sparkling dialogue, but at over 400 pages it could have done with a fuller edit, I think. There are whole chapters which could have, if I’m being brutal, been removed without really affecting the story (I’m thinking particularly of a chapter wherein Miles meets an elderly man named Baltinglass of Araby, and almost gets roped into helping him clear his orchard), or which could have been shortened, at the very least. There’s also a particular sentence structure which is used to open every single chapter – and, sometimes, to start paragraphs within chapters – which is cute and appealing the first ten times you read it, but after that it begins to grate a little.

But that’s just me being nit-picky, really.

This book has it all. There’s an elderly lady who loves children, the widow of an eccentric inventor who died in a freak pudding explosion; there’s the aforementioned Baltinglass of Araby, another slightly odd elderly character who is great fun to read. There’s gang ‘warfare’ (in the form of an excitingly described game of ‘Pigball’, which again is a bit too long but is very interesting), and there’s a character who can talk to animals. There’s a journey. There are trains. There’s a wonderful meditation on the value of love and laughter and happiness, and there is mention of the interconnectedness of all life, the importance of everything having a true name and the power of a person’s true name. There’s a brave young boy and an even braver young girl; there is the power of love between a young boy and his treasured teddy, the only thing he has managed to keep by his side all his life, and through which he has channelled all the love he should have been able to give his absent parents. There is awesome power, and nefarious criminals, and a cleverly evil plot. There are bumbling policemen.

There are wonderful illustrations.

This isn't one used in the book, but it gives an idea of the quality. The illustrator is Brandon Dorman. Image: fusenumber8.blogspot.com

This isn’t one used in the book, but it gives an idea of the quality. The illustrator is Brandon Dorman.
Image: fusenumber8.blogspot.com

There’s a talking tiger. I mean, what more could you possibly want? There’s a lot going on, and a complex plot, but it’s never too much for a reader (even a silly adult) to understand. There are no coincidences, and everything is logical, and the world never breaks its own rules. That, to me, is really important.

Most importantly of all, there is a wonderful ending which wraps up this story almost completely – yet, I’ve discovered since I read it, this book is part one of a trilogy. I have no idea how Jon Berkeley’s work passed me by – this book was first published in 2007, in my paperback edition – but I will be seeking out the sequels to Miles Wednesday’s story, and I will read them with great joy.

One of the best books I’ve read this year, I think. Heartily recommended.

Rebelling and Rulebreaking (Part 2)

So. Back to my recollections of the Rebels and Rulebreakers Conference, held this past weekend in Dublin.

In yesterday’s blog, I told you about Hervé Tullet’s masterful performance of his book ‘I Am Blop’ last Saturday, the first day of the conference. M. Tullet also gave us a peep at his forthcoming book – the most charming picture book I think I’ve ever seen – and reminded us of the importance of having a ‘hole’, or a gap, in a book which the reader needs to fill. One of the things I learned from his presentation was how important it is to bring the reader into the book, and give them the space to interact with it and bring it to life – not just the story, but sometimes also the book itself. He showed us a book that could be taken apart to make a sculpture, and a book which could be used (with the aid of a torch) to make shadow-patterns on the wall. Watching this made me wish I was a child again. Or, better, it made me feel like a child again. It takes a particular kind of magic to do that.

In short, I was charmed. It was a marvellous, vivid and engaging presentation, and even though picture books for very young readers aren’t my particular area of interest, for the duration of M. Tullet’s talk, they were the most important thing in the world. I’m looking forward to the next time I need to buy a gift for one of the many children in my life – I know exactly what to purchase!

Image: leblog.editions-bayard.com

Image: leblog.editions-bayard.com

The next session of the day came after we returned from lunch, when we had the great privilege to witness John Boyne (he of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’) be interviewed by Robert Dunbar, a luminary in the world of children’s books in Ireland. The speakers were wonderful, the questions apt and interesting, and Mr. Boyne was an engaged and warm interviewee. A discussion ensued regarding the differences, if any, between writing for adults and writing for children, and the question of ‘is writing for children the same as writing for adults, except the central character is a child?’ was raised. Certainly, books for children have just as wide an emotional sweep and just as much significance as books for adults, and the consensus seemed to be that there wasn’t a lot of difference between the two. Mr. Dunbar noted that a lot of Mr. Boyne’s child protagonists are boys of between 8 and 9 years old – of course, this was significant, as that was an important age for the author, the age at which he first began to write and think about stories himself. Mr. Boyne spoke frankly about his ambitions as a young writer, his time as a student on the legendary Creative Writing course run by the University of East Anglia, how he copes with critics, and his need to finish one piece of work before moving on to the next. As well as taking us through his writing life – including his many novels written for adults – we were treated to a reading from Chapter One of his forthcoming novel ‘Stay Where You Are, and Then Leave’, set for publication in September or October of this year.

I was delighted to be able to purchase a copy of ‘The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket’, Mr. Boyne’s most recent children’s novel, after this talk – and even more delighted that he agreed to sign it for me.

Image: oliverjeffers.com

Image: oliverjeffers.com

The next session was a three-person panel focusing on comic books and graphic novels, an area in which I have very little knowledge. My expertise in graphic novels is pretty much limited to Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ series, so I was looking forward very much to getting An Education in this particular field. The panel – Sarah McIntyre, Alan Nolan and Rory McConville – didn’t fail to deliver. I busily scribbled down recommendations for books, graphic artists, writers, and in particular graphic novels aimed at children, all the while enjoying the panellists’ colourful personalities and the displays of their work. Several of the speakers during the course of Saturday, including these three contributors, spoke of how they began their careers as artists and/or writers by copying the work of those they admired; just as these artists copied their favourite comics, panel by panel, so writers take characters from books they love and create new stories for them. I did this as a child (funnily enough, a child of 8 or 9!), and it seems I’m in good company.

The final panel of the day was given by Alex T. Smith, an illustrator and writer whose wonderful series of ‘Claude’ books have become hugely popular and dearly loved.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

Mr. Smith took us through his creative life, sharing a moving story about his late grandfather who encouraged the young Alex to draw and write from a very early age, and who showed him the power of stories through his own example. He shared with us how his grandfather would write him stories, which would be waiting for him when he came home from school each day, and how inspirational this small act of love was on his whole life and career. With regard to ‘Claude’, we learned that one evening, Mr. Smith sat down with no particular inspiration in mind and drew a picture of a small dog with a beret and a jumper, sitting at a café table ‘as though he was just waiting for me’; that little dog, and his faithful friend, the enigmatic and debonair Sir Bobblysock, have now become the stars of six books. Mr. Smith emphasised the importance of adding humour to everything you write for children, particularly children between 5 and 8 years of age, reminding us that jokes not only help the child to enjoy the book but they also make it easier for parents, who often have to read the same story over and over. A few jokes – perhaps jokes that only a parent will understand – make the experience more fun for everyone.

Mr. Smith also reminded us that if you’re interested in producing creative work, it’s vitally important to infuse it with your own personality and influences. He said ‘If it’s weird, it’ll probably work, and chances are it’ll be new.’ Be yourself, he pointed out, and your work won’t re-tread old ground. I think that was probably the single most useful and interesting thing I heard during that brilliant day on which I learned so much, and it was the best point at which to finish my journey through the CBI Conference 2013. Stay true to yourself, stay the course, go with your gut, give it everything you’ve got and believe in your work – I took all these nuggets of wisdom away from the day, and I’m very grateful to all at CBI and all the speakers and presenters for such a fantastic conference.

As well as that, it was beyond words to spend the day with people – so many people! – all of whom share my passions and dreams, are interested in the same things I am, and who love children’s books as much as I do. Next year, though, not only will I attend both days of the conference instead of just the first, I’ll also be brave enough to say ‘hello’ to more people; hopefully, I’ll feel like less of a pretender, and more of a professional! Despite my own shyness, however, I couldn’t have wished for a more inspiring experience, and I can’t wait for the 2014 CBI Conference.

Image: dublin.cervantes.es

Image: dublin.cervantes.es