The Best Moments

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours” – The History Boys.

The International Museum of Children’s Art

On a recent visit to Oslo, I made my very best attempt to leave the world of children’s books behind. I brought adult books with me for the plane and gave myself a little shake every time I found myself pondering the latest Jeffers picture book. My resolve only lasted for so long, of course, and I soon found myself stumbling into bookshops to suss out Norwegian titles and gawk at ‘I Want My Hat Back’ in Bokmål

On top of such discoveries, I also allowed myself a visit to the International Museum of Children’s Art. This art gallery, based just outside the city centre, is a three-storey building full of colour, imagination and extraordinary talent. The museum is based around the idea of displaying art by children from all around the world, aged from 3-18, choosing them purely on the basis of their artistic merit. There is no sentimentality to this place, no pandering to over-eager parents with their apparent prodigal child. This is true art that just happens to have been created by young hands.

Even from the outside, this building glows with colour and presence. A golden dome sits on one corner of the roof and the garden is filled with a myriad of statues, toys and small buildings. There are signs of childness everywhere, welcoming you in to this world of art and colour and childhood.

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The museum itself consists of three floors, which we were advised to view from top to bottom. On the level closest to the sky, there was a room entirely filled with children’s toys from around the world. Some were decades old, and some were brand new, but all were available for children’s to feel and touch, with only the most fragile were kept in cases. At the time we visited, a Kindergarten class of about twenty children was running around wildly, flailing arms and legs and occasionally stopping in their tracks to examine a particularly impressive toy. Their supervisors let them run, let them play, and their small appreciation of their surroundings and the artefacts in front of them was completely accepted. I stood in blissful fascination, staring at these wonderful toys, and was only brought back to my senses by a tiny Norwegian child yabbering at me. I responded with ‘ja!’ and smiled, and this appeared to be the right response.

Following the stairs down to the lower levels, we discovered two more floors of pure art. Not a single space was left on the walls, and the art filled every corner of the room. There was work from Peru, Uganda, Sweden, England – everywhere you could think of, with the artists varying anywhere from 3 to 17. The only common factor was their talent. Each piece was individual and magnificent.

Some of the most detailed and interesting pieces formed a joint exhibition from Peru, where children all around the age of 12 had completed a brief workshop with a visiting artist. He asked them to create images of their land, of its beauty, but also of the outside forces of natural disaster, industrialisation and pollution. I studied these pictures alone for about half an hour. They were stunning and brimming with insight and skill.

Further exhibitions and individual paintings followed us through each room and down each staircase, and there was just so much to see. Unlike in adult museums and galleries, however, the art never became overwhelming or boring. Your brain did not switch off. Its vibrancy and its colour kept you interested and constantly wishing for more. I let out an audible sigh of disappointment when we reached the gift shop on the ground floor.

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The founder of this museum, film director Rafael Goldin, was also a remarkable fellow and I have stumbled across some of his insights on children and their art. On children’s culture, he commented that ‘it is said that children are people. But people do not exist without a culture. Children are people who belong t the future. And they have the right to their own culture, their own art and history’. Of children’s artwork, he believed that its ‘strongest aspect … is the fact that the boundaries between life and imagination are often obliterated. Only a few adults are capable of preserving this ability, but then they may also become great’. What a guy.

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Jonathan Fineberg, a professor of Art History in Illinois, commented on the museum’s method of gathering artwork, applauding the fact that ‘rather than imposing an aesthetic, psychological, or pedagogical point of view on its methods of collecting, it attempts, as far as one can, to let children determine what they make and to incorporate the full range of that material under its auspices. The method has involved setting a general theme – “Father”, “Familiy”, “Disaster” – to stimulate children to begin making art and then to accept whatever they do in response. The result is a remarkable variety and quantity of material from over 150 different cultures that may serve the interest of a broad spectrum of “researchers” from psychologists and educators, to artists, to children themselves, who are the most frequent and enthusiastic patrons of these galleries.’

Although no photographs were permitted inside the museum, their website is certainly worth a look for more insight into how the building and their projects work. View it here at http://childrensart.com/en/. Hopefully we can achieve a similar museum in Ireland some day, or at least get a few pieces by Irish children into this museum. I have recently become aware of the Children’s Art Gallery in the Riverbank Arts Centre in Newbridge, so perhaps we’re on the right track already.

Also view the video below for a visual tour!

Moonrise Kingdom Book Shorts

A strange but enjoyable video on the books that Suzy Bishop carries in her suitcase throughout Wes Anderson’s newest movie, Moonrise Kingdom. I found myself becoming really curious about what they were when I first saw it in Dublin’s IFI last summer, and now I know!

Alice in Wonderland and Salvador Dalí

One of my oldest friends has always had a penchant for Salvador Dalí and, as a result, I gained an appreciation for him many years ago. His style is strange and unnerving in many ways, but also fascinating and beautiful. When we think of  Dalí, the images that most commonly spring to mind are those of his melting clocks, his Metamorphosis and his moustache. His work is surreal and, so I thought, very adult-themed, with more symbolism than you can shake a stick at. To my mind, he was an artist for the grown ups and also an individual, non-collaborative worker.

I could not have been more wrong. This morning I stumbled on the fact that he once illustrated Lewis Carroll’s bizarre masterpiece, Alice in Wonderland. It was published by Maecenas Press-Random House in 1969 and distributed as their book of the month, and soon became one of their most popular publications. The illustrations are 12 heliogravures, one for each chapter of the book, and one original etching for the frontispiece. The book is almost impossible to find, though you can find a Youtube video of it here www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=n9_jSL0NL9E

The illustrations were digitized by the William Bennett Gallery and there’s some more information on their website.

Frontispiece

Frontispiece

Down the Rabbit Hole

Down the Rabbit Hole

The Pool of Tearss

The Pool of Tears

A Caucus Race and a Long Tale

A Caucus Race and a Long Tale

The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill

The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill

Advice from a Caterpillar

Advice from a Caterpillar

Pig and Pepper

Pig and Pepper

A Mad Tea Party

A Mad Tea Party

The Queen's Croquet Ground

The Queen’s Croquet Ground

The Lobster's Quadrille

The Lobster’s Quadrille

Who Stole the Tarts?

Who Stole the Tarts?

Alice's Evidence

Alice’s Evidence

The UNESCO Citywide Reading Initiative and the Nightmare Club!

O’Connell Street was a mad and terrifying place to be yesterday morning at the launch of the second UNESCO Citywide Reading Initiative. The authors of the Nightmare Club series took to the Ghost Bus in black lace and mad scientist lab coats and glared at passers-by. They hovered over the shoulder of young children trying to read the six books of the Nightmare Club series and made ghoulish noises in their ears. This is literature come alive.

The Nightmare Club

The Nightmare Club are a series of six books of scary stories written by ‘Annie Graves’ (the pseudonym of a number of authors including Oisín McGann, David Maybury and Deirdre Sullivan), a young girl from Dublin who lives near a cemetery and organises a scary storytelling night in her house. Only the scariest of tales are allowed…

The reading initiative – a bit like One City, One Book for young readers – is based on the idea that children all over Dublin will read these books some time between January and March. Different events will be taking place over these three months, such as school and library visits by the authors and the Dublin City Reader in Residence as well as storytelling on the Dublin Ghost Bus.

Reading Nightmare

The finale will be a big event as part of the St Patrick’s Day festival on March 18th at Smock Alley Theatre, with workshops, readings and book signings. The authors and publishers will be there in costume and full flourish, and it’s sure to be a hugely fun day for children and parents alike.

There are loads of things to follow and activities for young readers on the accompanying website http://www.thenightmareclub.com/. Children can download activity sheets, send an e-card, write a scary story or send in some of their own artwork.

Here’s hoping this initiative and all the events will be a great success. I’m sure they will be, if David Maybury and the other authors don’t scare all the readers away…

The Nightmare Club

Listen out soon for a Little Pages special on the launch and the UNESCO events coming up!

Photographs courtesy of Jason Clarke Photography.

Christmas Time and Reading – Top Christmas Books for Children

It’s that time of year again, folks. It’s Christmas Eve and everyone’s baking and wrapping presents and drinking mulled wine with friends. In my case, I am welcoming home the friends that have been long absent, those I haven’t seen for months who left for jobs or love or the pull of adventure. Christmas is a fantastic time for socializing and eating and being generally merry.

But for me and for many others, it’s also a time closely connected with books and reading. As a child, I would always receive a positive hoard of new books for Christmas, whether it was from Santa or my parents or my numerous relatives from ‘down the country’. Being the bookish kid had its advantages – those who didn’t know what else to get you would buy whatever was hot on the shelves that year and plenty of it. I welcomed them with open arms and a greedy mind.

Christmas then became a time of receiving new books, but also having the time to sit and read them. This is a feeling I appreciate more and more as I get older, and especially during the busy college years. Even now, as a semi-adult who just has stuff to do all day, there isn’t much time for pleasure reading. Christmas is that time, and I am hoping to tuck into a few adult titles over the next few weeks.

Until then, however, there are certain children’s books that ring with me this Christmas. Some I have read many times before, and some are newer discoveries this year. I have listed them below for any who might be interested, those who are surfing the internet for a distraction from overly-zealous visiting relatives, or perhaps for any last-minute shoppers in search of a title for little ones (or big ones who appreciate them).

1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Illustrated by P.J. Lynch

We all know the story of the forever-grumpy Ebenezer Scrooge who learns to love the season through the visits of three spirits – the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future – but I’ve found that relatively few of us have actually read the book. It is available in so many other forms at this stage that it’s tempting to receive its message through the Muppets or Disney or some other second hand source. Dickens’ tale is dark and unnerving, written more as a ghost story to get under our skins than as a festive jaunt to put us in the mood for Christmas. Indeed, its subtitle is ‘A Ghost Story of Christmas’, though Dickens wrote that ‘I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.’ A pleasant haunting is difficult to imagine, but we accept his words with a festive nod and continue on our way. Admittedly, the humour found throughout the text lifts it from its morbid theme, with lines such as ‘there’s more of gravy than the grave about you’ bringing a smile every time I read it. Oh Ebenezer, you old wit.

A Christmas Carol also interests me for the simple fact of when it was published. Only two years before its appearance, the Christmas tree had just been introduced. In the year of its publication, the very first Christmas cards were posted, and a revival of Christmas carols was taking place too, with a public push to not let the old greats be forgotten. It is said that Dickens in fact wrote this book to get people back into the Christmas cheer and the spirit of giving gifts and extra money to the poor. Through… scaring them, of course.

The book also did exactly what it said on the tin, because after being published and read by thousands, many did in fact become more generous. A queen in Norway read the book and sent presents to the poor and crippled children in London signed ‘with Tiny Tim’s love’. Factories were closed on Christmas Day, free turkeys given to workers, money raised for the poor from readings and a whole host of other impressive changes. This book is an example of the power of storytelling, how a tale can effect real life and the behaviour and thought processes of real people.

Dickens, you are the man.

Carol

Apart from the tale itself, however, I would choose this edition in particular for its exceptional illustrations. P.J. Lynch is known far and wide, and no introduction is needed. Indeed, the work speaks for itself, and not a single page passes in this book without some kind of adornment. The colours are deep and dark, reflecting the cold winter and chill of Scrooge. Many of the scenes with the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future or Scrooge himself are grey, black and white. Colour only appears for indoor scenes, Christmas parties and loving moment, with warm reds and yellows and greens.

This is an exceptional book for any one from twelve up. It was not written as a children’s book, of course, but is often presented as such, and it holds many elements that are interesting to a child reader and worthy of their attention.

2. The Jolly Christmas Postman

This book tells the tale of the Jolly Postman delivering greetings and presents to various fairy-tale characters, with a card for Baby Bear, a game for Red Riding Hood from Mr Wolf and a get-well present for Humpty Dumpty. But it is of course the amazing production of the Jolly Postman books that attracts its readers, its neverending stream of letters inside the book, with puzzles and notes and tiny magazines to find, read and explore.

Some of my favourite parts include the board game Little Red Riding Hood receives from the Big Bad Wolf, who is now reformed, and the reader can play their way along a road through all the pitfalls of the fairy tale and nursery rhyme world – poison apples, London Bridge falling down, billy goat’s bridge. There is also a Humpty Dumpty jigsaw puzzle, allowing the reader to attempt to put him back together again. We can read the Wolf Spotter’s Guide, which includes advice for those at risk: girls and boys, grandmas, woodcutters, small pigs, gingerbread boys, turkey sandwiches and pineapple yoghurts (they’ll eat anything!).

This book is jammed with entertaining stuff that will keep any reader entertained for hours. An amazing book for anyone 5+.

Jolly

3. One Snowy Night by Nick Butterworth

One Snowy Night tells the tale of Percy the park keeper who always feeds the animals in the park where he lives. On one very cold winter night, his animal friends come knocking on his door, and one by one they appear, asking for somewhere warm to snuggle up. Soon there is no room in the bed for Percy, and what will he do?

This book was a personal favourite as a child, so I am biased, but the illustrations are just beautiful. Just look at them – soft pastel shades and gentle creatures. The juxtaposition of the cold, white outside and the warm, snuggly interior world is something you can feel as a reader, and is what lends this book its magic. Feeling cosy while you read is surely something we want at Christmas.

If you can, find the audio book to go with it and listen to the soothing tones of Richard Briers. In fact, here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vChCLsf6DEs. It’s just so darn lovely.

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4. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski and Illustrated by P.J. Lynch

I know, I know, it’s another P.J. Lynch, but I couldn’t help myself. The tale is that of a reclusive woodcarver who seems to hate Christmas. He sits sadly in his home every night and hides from the outside world, until he is transformed by making a Christmas crèche for a seven year old boy and his mother. The boy awakens his Christmas spirit, really, and Jonathan Gloomy cops himself on.

The illustrations are once again incredible. They are more like paintings in their own right, and their use of perspective and colour is just marvellous. This is as much a gift for an adult as for a child, and anyone would be happy with this at Christmas.

Toomey

5. Snow Tales by Michael Morpurgo

This book is new this year and not technically a Christmas tale, but it is a winter one nonetheless. There are two short tales – The Rainbow Bear and Little Albatross, which tell the stories of a polar bear who wishes to be more colourful and the fight for life of a baby albatross. They are simply told but rather beautiful, and the illustrations by Michael Foreman are gentle, sketchy and perfect. I soaked this book up, reading it in a short sitting and found myself grinning broadly afterwards.

This one is great for young readers, about 7+, especially those with an interest in animals and the wild.

SnowTales

In an earlier post I mentioned the Christmas carousel from Walker Books that folded out into a circular piece and also a lovely edition of the Twelve Days of Christmas, illustrated by Jane Ray, which are also worth another quick mention here. Check out their links in my little rant about the Tales on Moon Lane Bookshop: https://grainneclear.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/tales-on-moon-lane-bookshop/

And that’s all from me until after Christmas, because I’ve got a happy stack of books sitting by the comfiest chair in the house and a large Winnie the Pooh mug awaiting some tea. Or mulled wine. Oh hell, it’s Christmas, hand me the wine.

Merry Christmas, one and all!