Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Write Away Reviewer’s Event at Walker Books

This Write Away event took place on Friday 19th February and I was lucky enough to be one of the reviewers who were able to go as places were limited. We arrived at the Walker Book offices where we were greeted with a selection of croissants and were able to mingle and meet each other. It was good to meet some of the other reviewers for Write Away and put faces to names I had seen on the website, as well as re-meet some of the people I had met at other Write Away events and conferences. Nikki Gamble opened the event by welcoming us all and introducing the speakers.

I made notes for myself during their talks as memory joggers. I have transcribed my notes here in hope that you will find them useful when reviewing picture books for Write Away (or anyone else for that matter). They are not as detailed as usual as I was not expecting to have to write them up but, since Nikki asked…

Making Picture Books - Deirdre McDermott
Deirdre is the designer in a small team at Walker Books. She explained how the intention of a good picture book is to make space. The designer is in charge of the invisible sound. The sound of the language: the rhythm, rhyme and fun. Text and image both tell stories at the same time. These may be separate stories but, the art and text are inseparately entwined. As a book maker her aim is to get an emotional response. Picture books mean something; they are works of art with action in the images. There is a journey into the images and even without being able to read the text it is still possible to recognise where the crisis happens and where the resolution happens.

An Illustrator’s Perspective: Anthony Browne
Anthony Browne showed us a small selection of his books to demonstrate how his illustrations work with the text. He explained how in many of his illustrations he starts by applying a game he played as a child, which he calls The Shape Game. This is where you draw an abstract shape and the next person transforms it. He uses shapes in the background of Hansel and Gretel to help tell the story. He likes to take something that exists and transform it, like he transformed the kettle to the cat in Changes.

In The Tunnel, Anthony uses photos of children to contrast the fantasy in the story. He emphasised how it is important to concentrate on the images as well as the text when reviewing picture books and how they work together. The readers should be able to put their own interpretations into the pictures.

An Illustrator’s Perspective: Bruce Ingman
Bruce Ingman opened his talk by showing us an animation of the things that he keeps in his wallet as an introduction to who he is, he explained how he uses a mixture of reality and fiction in his illustrations. Many of his ideas come from his own background and previous experiences. The illustrator defines themselves within the story. A picture book has to engage the reader. He demonstrated this with his books Everybody was a Baby Once and The Pencil. The process between illustrator and author is teamwork and democratic.

Review Panel
There was a short comfort break and then we came back together to hear the opinion of a reviewer’s panel. On the panel were: Nicolette Jones who reviews children books for the Sunday Times who was joined by Anne Rooney, Layn Marlow and Kim Toohey, who have all reviewed picture books for Write Away.

Nikki introduced the panel and briefly mentioned some of her pet hates in reviews. She particularly dislikes the use of words, like ‘wonderful’ and ‘amazing’, which do not tell you anything. She also does not like the phrase, ‘the illustrations compliment the text’ and will edit these out before she makes a review live. Nikki will try to match a book to the reviewer.

Nicolette Jones
Nicolette was the first person on the panel to speak. She explained her biggest challenge is space and word limits that she is allowed for each book she reviews. Write Away reviewers do not have this problem. They can make their reviews as long as necessary. Picture books are works of art and readers will find details in the pictures and understand meaning visually. When reviewing picture books it is important to describe the pictures as the readers of the review cannot see the illustrations whilst reading the review. One way of doing this is to make connections with other artists and commenting on texture, colour palette, medium, movement, theme, emotion and draftmanship.

Anne Rooney
Anne Rooney explained that when reviewing books it is important to keep in mind who you are reviewing for. Think of the audience of the reviews. For Write Away we are mainly writing reviews for teachers and librarians. Anne tries to use objective criteria to judge a book. As well as the illustrations, she considers:

  • Does it achieve what it set out to achieve?
  • Is the aim of the book worthwhile?
  • Strength of plot and characterisation
  • Use of space and page turns
  • Font style
It is important to back up your opinions with examples from the book. Anne reinforced this with references to two of her reviews on the Write Away website for the books, Young Inferno by John Agard and Sshhh by Tony Ross.

Layn Marlow
Layn used the picture book, Grandpa’s Boat by Michael Catchpool to demonstrate how Sophy Williams’ illustrations add information to a story that was not present in the text. She pointed out how the direction characters’ eyes are looking and their expressions provide even the youngest reader with information. She explained how light and colour, were used to conjure emotions. In her review of The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear/Angela McAllister, Layn demonstrated how the illustrator, Kevin Waldron, used images to extend the old text and give new impact. Both these reviews are excellent examples of how to review a picture book.

Kim Toohey
Kim used her reviews of the books Whatever by William Bee and Crazy Hair by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean to show how she goes about reviewing picture books. She tries to be open-ended and non-judgemental when reviewing books. As well as commenting on the illustrations she likes to look at the use of vocabulary. She likes to give a taster without revealing the ending. However, bearing in mind the audience of the books is very different from the audience of the reviews, it is often necessary to comment on whether a book contains images and themes that may upset a young child or give them nightmares.

After the panel we split into pairs to examine a selection of Walker Books picture books and discussed what things would we mention if reviewing these books. These books were: Yucky Worms by Vivian French and Jessica Ahlberg, My Great Lost Dog Adventure! by Marcia Williams and Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham and illustrated by Juan Wijngaard.

Then we broke up for a buffet lunch where discussions continued. After lunch, we had a guided tour of the pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain. Rachel Barnes was our guide. We started with one of the most famous pre-Raphaelite paintings, of Hamlet’s Orphelia, painted by John Everett Millais in 1851-2 and we finished with Edward Coley Burne-Jones’ painting of The Golden Stairs, 1880.

It was a very enjoyable event and I recommend that other reviewers should try and go to similar events run by Write Away in the future. I learnt a lot. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved. Thank you.


Stroppy Author said...

Great write-up, Anita - thank you for making this available to the wider community. I'll post a condensed version of my advice on negative reviewing in a few days and give you a link to it :-)

Anne Rooney (aka stroppy author)

Anita Marion Loughrey said...

Thanks Anne. I Look forward to reading that.