Tuesday, 2 August 2016

CURIOSITY – Dianne Hofmeyr

cover illustration from CLOTH LULLABY
Curiosity is mercurial. It rises and falls thoughout our life. Babies are born curious. And I would hazard a guess that all children’s writers were very curious children. So how do we draw out a child’s curiosity?

The Society of Authors CWIG held an event at Waterstones recently entitled: Adventures into the Real World: Factual Books & Reading for Pleasure. The panel chaired by Anne Rooney, who has written more than 150 non-fiction titles, was varied – librarians, publishers, bloggers and writers – all in a quest to find out the benefits of reading factual books for pleasure & engaging readers who might not enjoy fiction – Jenny Broom, a publisher at Quarto, Dawn Finch, President of CILIP and a children’s author, Nicola Morgan, CWIG Chair, author of award-winning novels and factual books and Zoe Toft of the Federation of Children’s Books Groups and an independent children’s book consultant who oversees Non-Fiction November.

Two factors hit me – there are still factual books being written by committees and schools are seldom offered non-fiction authors. Both aspects devalue writers. Books that draw curiosity and passion from a child can only be written by a passionate writer. I was turned into a writer not by reading fiction but by reading non-fiction as a child. Books with minute detail and maps and drawings fired my imagination. What child would not feel the might of the Endurance, hear the ice cracking or be curious about the living quarters on paging through William Grill’s Shackleton’s Journey? (Flying Eye Books)

This was totally confirmed at the event when Zoe Toft read You are Stardust (Waylands) by Elin Kelsey with artwork by Soyeon Kim, with such body language and passion that we were all swept up as she revealed the mystery of the world in a spare text that begins … You are stardust. Every atom of your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born.


My own personal choices will always revolve around the same things that fascinated me as a child –art and creativity, the natural world, the stars and the minute detail shown in biological and botanical drawings and atlases. They are who I am today.

The mesmerizing and hand-printed book, Cloth Lullaby, (Abrams, New York) by Amy Novesky, where Isabelle Arsenault has so perfectly captured a sense of the artist Louise Bourgeois’s life next to the river as a child, the influence of her Maman and their loving relationship, and her later gigantic sculptures. Arsenault's drawings in blue and red and dark charcoal (no green ever for Louise Bourgeois) reflect the artist's own artwork and pattern without being a pastiche and draw together the theme of her work: a thread in a spider’s web. Wonderful for any creative child. 

One Night Far from Here, by Julia Wauters (Flying Eye Books) ­– a magical and beautiful book with transparent acetate interleaved pages that reveal and draw colour from the printed page beneath so that the sea creatures on the acetate page seem to pulsate with iridescence.

And under this same theme of the natural world I love The Story of Life (part of the Welcome to the Museum series) by Katie Scott. The drawings in this book and others in the series are like finding an old copy of Linnaeus and remind me of the hours I spent next to musty shelves poring over the foxed pages of books kept by a very ancient lady who had lived in various parts of Africa. They nearly turned me into a botanist. What an amazing source this book is for a parent or an art teacher to inspire discussion on pattern and colour and wonderful for any child who likes to observe and draw. 

Atlases seem to be making a comeback and I can't resists the Carnival in Rio where I can dance the Samba in Atlas of Adventure by Lucy Letherland and Rachel Williams (Wide-Eyed Editions). I'm not quite so convimced by the canoeing down the Zamzezi river page. I've done my own trip down the Zambezi and the pods of hippos were a tad more more terrifying than ones in life-belts! But a mystical Northern Lights page. 

 Scientific books that are fun like Professor Astro Cat's Frontiers of Space, (Flying Eye Books) illustrated by Ben Newman and written by Dominic Walliman who has a PhD in Quantum device physics who says: He grew up reading science books and remembers vividly the excitement of discovering the mind boggling facts that science tells us about the Universe. If he can pass on this wonder and enjoyment to the next generation, he will consider it a job well done. This is a writer's passion.

Nicola Davies First Book of Nature (Walker) with its intricate and beautiful illustrations by Mark Hearld needs a special mention. Here is a world unfolding that will inspire the youngest of readers to go out and explore with words like:
Each pool is a little world all of its own and you can be the first person to discover it. 

And memories of when I lay on my back in the dark as a child with my father looking at the night sky and the stars, are brought back by Nicola's words which seem written especially for me:
  Sometimes you can feel 
sometimes you can feel 
sometimes you can feel the world turning.

My son recently asked me how does one spark curiosity in a child?

You don’t. It has to spark from within. With books, you lay out what is available for them to discover and help them find the perfect book that fuels a passion. The best advice at the Adventures in the Real World event, came from the floor from a librarian (sorry I don't know your name) who every break-time displays her very best selection of non-fiction books (ones that are sometimes too big or too delicate to leave the library) in the hope of luring even one child to discover a life-long interest and passion.

Please add your own special Adventures in the Real World, so we can all get reading.

I'm adding my own addendum as I forgot I wanted to include Saviour Pirotta & Catherine Hyde's Firebird – a celebration of the 100 year old Russian ballet (published by Frances Lincoln) that I consider narrative non-fiction. It was the incredible work done by children involved in the CLPE Power of Reading that I saw a few weeks ago that made me realise how forceful a book can be on a child's imagination.



Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely post, and thank you for all the recommendations. My grandchildren have some beautiful non-fiction books which they return to again and again - all in Brussels, so can't point to individual titles. And my children had great favourites, from a board book with beautiful illustrations of nature to books about diggers, dinosaurs, and big cats. And I used to spend hours reading an ancient set of encyclopaedias.

Joan Lennon said...

EXCELLENT recommendations - here's to sparks!

Andy Seed said...

Wonderful to hear people shouting for non-fiction, the Cinderella of children's publishing (although I can hear poets mumbling at this point), and you make some very good points, Dianne. As a children's non-fic writer myself I am a little uneasy that many of the #CNFbooks (children's non-fiction) I see being promoted today are books that, in the main, primarily appeal to adults.
Of course they are mostly excellent books and almost all have arresting illustrations but increasingly I find myself wondering how much children would go for them. Many of the most striking new non-fic books are selling quite well but discussing this with a bookseller recently I was told that they are being bought by parents and grandparents (many nostalgic for the books of their youth) rather than being chosen by kids.
This was borne out earlier this year when I was visiting a school where a group of children had been asked to review some new non-fic books. I was delighted that the teacher had done this and I asked the children what they thought of each book. I held up a beautifully illustrated nature book but they regarded it as boring. The book had many fantastic qualities and yet it didn't spark curiosity in this case.
I am another person who caught the reading bug through non-fic: As a child I loved books of exciting facts and dramatic pictures (and still do) and I spend much of my time now writing these books and using them in schools to get kids, especially reluctant readers, reading. I've also added another powerful ingredient into the mix in my case - humour.
It still frustrates me that when it comes to non-fic, funny books - and jokes books especially - don't get a mention and yet what's the one book that EVERY child will read?
So, I say yes, let's keep shouting for non-fic, including books with lovely hand-drawn illustrations, but let's also think about the kinds of books that children will choose if given the choice.

Saviour Pirotta said...

Excellent post, Dianne. It's wonderful to see non-fiction taking centre-stage at last, along with its authors and illustrators. I started out writing non-fiction about pirates and, for me at the time, the downside was that people did not consider you a proper writer. I got excellent reviews but my name was hardly ever mentioned - not that I minded but you do need people to know what you are doing to get more work. At the moment most of these books tend to be glossy, beautifully produced works of art. I've bought quite a few myself not to give as presents but to enjoy the sheer joy of handling them. I get the same feeling reading them as I did opening a copy of Look and Learn back in my childhood. I'm hoping that the trend will continue for a long time and perhaps kick-off another trend of longer non-fiction a la Dava Sobel.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thanks Sue and Joan and Andy too for your interesting feedback. (I have to admit I'm not a non-fiction writer... except for one book on art.) It's great that you in schools and hearing from the children themselves. I suppose beautiful books are always 'parent and grandparent' buys. As an ex art teacher I think there's place for them – especially ones with unusual & intrigueing artwork that helps develop a child's aesthetic. (Some of the new illustration in non-fiction has become one-dimensional and without magic). And yes you are so right ... its the humour that grabs a child. You would know, with your huge successes with books like 'The Silly Book of Weird and Wacky Words!' and your Blue Peter awards. Thanks for your insight.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Our comments crossed... Saviour I'm kicking myself for not putting any of your work in here. Especially after seeing the wonderful 'fiery' artwork done by pupils with CLPE Power of Reading of your 'Firebird' story illustrated by Catherine Hyde. Surely books retelling a ballet can be classed as narrative non-fiction. Maybe I have to sneak some of those amazing birds into the blog.

Andy Seed said...

Thanks for the kind words, Dianne. I absolutely agree that there's a place for beautiful non-fic books like those featured in your post - I own several of them myself. My concern is that bookshops are stocking increasing numbers of them often leaving no room for other kinds of CNF books on their (often depressingly small) shelves - the very types of books that have max kid-appeal. It's that business of offering a range and giving a choice which is so important to getting kids reading. Curiosity is piqued many ways!

Andy Seed said...

Oh, and forgot to say, I am a big fan of Saviour's books too, esp the Greek myths!

Saviour Pirotta said...

Thanks for including Firebird in your post, Dianne, and for saying you like my work, Andy. I do, indeed, consider retelling myths and ballet stories as non-fiction. To be honest, I tend to blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction in most of my work. Next year I have a new series starting at Bloomsbury set in Ancient Greece. The books are mystery stories but include tons of information about life in ancient Greece. It was hard work getting them off the ground because a lot of editors were nervous about there being too many facts. In the end they found the perfect home, I think. The first book focuses on slavery, weddings and pottery. The second is about oracles, war and theatre. A lot of non-fiction bits had to be edited out in the end but there is still more than enough to arouse kids's curiosity, and hopefully it will motivate to seek further knowledge in other books too.

Sue Purkiss said...

Interesting point about beautiful books that perhaps appeal to adults rather than children, When my son was small he loved the Richard Scarry books, with lots of detailed cartoony pictures of objects and little jokey captions, whereas my favourites were the ones with gorgeous pictures.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Yes my sons too. We still have rather worse for wear copies that my grandson LOVES! And there was one called Nicky goes to the Doctor... Nicky being a young rabbit. They spent hours over that one too with all the stethoscopes and injections and bandages. Thanks for reminding me Sue.

Niki Daly said...

lovely post! Thanks Di. Curiouser and curiouser! Yes, I was a curious child and often made things more curious by getting them wrong, such as telling my mother I saw a bunch of prehistorics preaching on the corner. How much more curious than getting it correct and reporting on the apostolics who preached Friday nights on the corner of the Match Factory.

Savita Kalhan said...

Excellent post, Dianne, and great to see you at the event! My son lived in a diet of non-fiction and fiction when he was under ten - any books about animals were a huge favourite, be they alive or extinct! Now that he's older, I've lost touch with all the beautiful non-fiction books that are out there for younger readers.

WendyLady@GoodBooks said...

Thank you for this excellent defense of non- fiction. :) My children were equally drawn to non-fiction and fiction, though I'm not sure which one was more responsible for fueling interest in the other! My oldest son loved to peruse the space and ocean life classifications in our children's library as well as fun picture books like "Space Case" and the "Tintin" comics, and he enjoyed anything by Roald Dahl; my daughter could be found exploring biographies, costumes, Egypt (Aliki!) and historical fiction - she loved the Virginia Lee Burton stories, Marcia Brown's luminous "Cinderella", and H. Winterfield's "Detectives in Togas"; while my younger son headed over to the section with sports or trains/railroads (his favorite fiction choices were Rev. Avery's original "Thomas the Tank Engine", Richard Scarry books, and J. Spinelli's "Maniac McGee"). I'm excited to explore all your beautifully illustrated non-fiction recommendations!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

It's being curious and having your kind of imagination that counts Niki! On the apostolic church near us as a child, I always too the sign above the door to read: Jesus Saves Red. It took a smartypants sister to explain that 'Red' is the translation of Saves in Afrikaans.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Sorry and meant to say thanks for all those recommendations WendyLady@GoodBooks. Its great to have someone from the States come into the discussion. I think children absorbed so much history by osmosis reading Tintin. I still have masses of them from 35 years ago. And like your daughter, I pored over any Egyptian books with their fabulous crowns and exotic jewellery and that long swan-necked Nerfertiti.

Playing by the book said...

Another book I considered reading at the event, and would very highly recommend is a picture book biography of Carl Sagan - Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos by Stephanie Roth Sisson http://us.macmillan.com/starstuff/stephanierothsisson Unfortunately not published over here (though easy enough to order online). Beautiful text and images and a perfect example of wonderful biography for younger people.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thanks for that Zoé. Looks amazing. Am ordering for grandson. The ancient Khoisan people believed every star had a song and every time a star fell, the heart of someone they loved was dying.

Nicola Morgan said...

Andy, I completely agree about your point about books that *look* beautiful to adults but are not necessarily engaging to pupils. One of the points I made on the panel was that publishers far too often attach far too little value to finding the best *writer* to create the best words, because without words that flow deliciously into the brain, it is not properly engaged by the material and information. Pictures may tell a thousand words but just a few well chosen words can tell a thousand again.

Andy Seed said...

Spot on, Nicola. I recently read a children's non-fic book that didn't look that promising when I first picked it up but captured me right away when I started to read it. The author's tone was so right for the subject matter and intended audience.