Friday, 24 August 2012

Goodbye Nina Bawden

Nina Bawden... author of Carrie's War
Nina Bawden, who died this week aged 87, was a remarkable woman.

A gifted writer who could bewitch readers with magical stories for adults and children alike, she will be best remembered for her classic children's novel Carrie's War. Set during the Second World War and the tale of two children evacuated to Wales, the book was twice adapted for British television. I remember watching the BBC's version in the 1970s and being utterly hooked.

Carrie's War and the writing of Nina Bawden, along with that of fellow authors Michael Morpurgo, Robert Westall and Ian Serraillier, is celebrated at an exhibition, Once Upon A Wartime, at the Imperial War Museum North at Salford, until September 2 (I plan to visit, so check back soon to see my verdict).

Her life was not short on drama. Her husband Austen Kark was killed in the 2002 Potters Bar rail crash, which also left her seriously injured. A writer through and through, she wrote a moving memoir in her husband's memory, Dear Austen.

If you've never read Nina Bawden, you must seek out Carrie's War - it's a modern classic. Sad to see her passing.

Excellent obituaries at the Guardian, Independent and Telegraph's websites.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Interview #5: Kara Lebihan

Kara Lebihan's Mrs Vickers' Knickers helping a sailing boat win first place. Thanks to Deborah Allwright for allowing us this early peek at one of her illustrations from the forthcoming book

If there was an award for dedication to a writing dream and never giving up, then Kara Lebihan would walk it.

Success has been a long time coming, but it’s nearly here.

Her first book, Mrs Vickers' Knickers will be published next year by the mighty Egmont. The picture book for young children is fewer than 200 words, but a lifetime of striving and working hard at her craft is woven into every sentence.

The illustrations have been done by the brilliant Deborah Allwright, best known for The Night Pirates.

Kara Lebihan
Kara spoke to me on the phone from her parents’ home in the north east during her first visit to the UK since she, her husband and seven-year-old son Hugh moved to China a year ago.

She is the deputy head teacher of the British School in Beijing. They moved, she says, because they were looking for adventure.

They love living out there.

Writing has always been a part of Kara’s life.

“It’s that cliché – I remember saying as a child ‘I want to be a writer’.

“I’ve got some novels I wrote as a child in storage in Manchester (where they were living before they moved east).

“After that I went to secondary school and the writing went dead, but it was still in my mind. I went to university in Newcastle and then trained to be a teacher and in 1994 I started to take it a bit more seriously.”

She and her husband lived in the Far East for a number of years. She remembers sitting on a bus in Singapore writing some notes for a story on the back of her ticket.

She got the idea for a picture book – Jumper for Zak – about a grandmother knitting themed jumpers for members of the family, such as the librarian mum and gardener dad, but not having an idea of what to knit for Zak, before finding the solution and knitting all through the night.

Kara paid an Australian editor to read a variety of her work.

“She basically tore it apart but liked Zak. She suggested I work up a portfolio of three or four picture book ideas to send out to publishers.

A long, arduous road of creativity and disappointment now lay before Kara for the next few years.

She sent ideas to every agent in the Writers and Artists Handbook and every one came back rejected.

Kara persisted, buying each new W&A Handbook as it was published annually. One year there was a new agent’s name in the list: Eve White.

Kara sent her work to Eve. And waited.

Eventually, among all the rejections came a call from Eve who phoned to say she liked an idea of Kara’s called Mrs Butler's Frog about a family who can hear a frog croaking in their house and hunt high and low for it.

“Eve said if I changed the ending she would have a think about it. I did, but she didn’t think the new ending was funny enough.”

She eventually came up with a conclusion that satisfied Eve.

Many people assume that once an agent takes you on, publication, fame and fortune will naturally follow. Not so, says Kara.

Kara was taken on by Eve in 2006 and her first picture book – Mrs Vickers' Knickers - should be published next year. That's a long time to wait for your dream to come true. But persistence is the hallmark of success.

Inspiration for the book came when she was pushing Hugh in his pram around Hale, near Altrincham, where they were living. She spotted a sock lying on the pavement and wondered why it was that stray pieces of people's clothing were often to be found lying in the street or in a tree or draped over a gate or railing.

Agent Eve told her it was good to be rude, so Kara changed the sock into a pair of knickers - Mrs Vickers' to be precise.

Once she'd had that spark of an idea, Kara tried to imagine the journey the knickers had been on. She pictured all kinds of crazy scenarios before the knickers wound up coming back to their owner.

"Apparently rude is in these days," laughed Kara, though she should hardly be surprised given that Roald Dahl, the master of bad taste, was the biggest influence on her as a child.

In an exclusive for Bookengine, the picture at the top of this blogpost is Deborah Allwright's gorgeous interpretation of Mrs Vickers' knickers winning a boat race.

"The knickers are taking the boat into first place in place of a sail," said Kara.

Kara Lebihan now deserves to sail into the forefront of picture book authors.

* My thanks to Kara for speaking to Bookengine. Thanks also to Deborah Allwright and Egmont for allowing me to reproduce the illustration from Mrs Vickers' Knickers.

You can visit Kara's author's page at Eve White's website here
Visit Deborah Allwright's website here. And Egmont's website is here.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Through the Magic Mirror

Welcome to the magical world of Anthony Browne

I've just spent ten days with my family on holiday in the Cardiff area.

For the most part the weather was shocking - torrential rain and howling winds.

Willy the Wimp welcomes us
It did, however, make us explore the indoor attractions in the area. One of the best was an exhibition at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff city centre - and it was absolutely free.

Through the Magic Mirror: The World of Anthony Browne is a restrospective of this most idiosyncratic of children's writer-illustrators and is a stunning way to spend a couple of hours.

As you climb the marble steps to the gallery, Browne's irresistible chimp Willy the Wimp greets you and shows you where to walk.

You are then greeted by a lifesize cut out of Anthony Browne gazing around a wall into a 'magic' mirror. And this is where you enter the magic world of Anthony Browne, the Children's Laureate 2009-11.

Anthony Browne peeps into the 'Magic Mirror'
Original artwork from his books are mingled with Browne-related artifacts, such as a cartoon he did as a child which won him first prize in a BBC television competition.

There is also the actual dressing gown worn by the father in My Dad. This book has long been a favourite at bedtime with both my son and daughter for the past decade.

Anthony Browne's dad's dressing gown... look familiar?
It turns out the distinctive brown, checked robe, with twirly piping belonged to Browne's own father, who died when Anthony was only 17. The author came across the gown years later going through a trunk of his dad's possessions and was transported back to his childhood on a wave of memory.

The exhibition is divided into sections reflecting themes and obsessions running through Anthony Browne's work, such as gorillas and apes, dark forests, family and surrealism.

Mmm... seem to be a lot of apes!
While I'm on the subject of surrealism, I've often thought there was a touch of Rene Magritte about Browne's work, so it was interesting to see this confirmed in Browne's commentary, which is woven through the entire exhibition.

Our two loved the show and were amazed at the artistry and craftsmanship of Browne's beautifully detailed illustrations, the intricate brushwork, something that gets lost in the final print version. Lovely, too, to see the splodges of 'white-out' Browne has applied in certain places to mask his mistakes, proving that this is an artist who does things the 'old-fashioned way'.

We were all fascinated by the little pencil story boards and 'dummy versions' of the books that Browne uses to test his story for the first time, making decisions on where illustrations will sit in relation to the well-chosen words.

These are the little touches that reveal the blood, sweat and tears that have been sacrificed to produce those sublime story books.

In his recent autobiography, Playing The Shape Game, Anthony Browne sounds a note of concern about the future of picture books, with computer games, television and e-books all posing a threat to their survival.

Let's hope enough young people who see this exhibition are inspired to create glorious, warm, funny and challenging picture books the 'Anthony Browne way' in the future.

* I can't recommend Through The Magic Mirror enough. It's been organised in association with the children's literature museum, Seven Stories. It's on until September 23. Entry, as I say, is free. The museum is open every day, except Monday, 10am-5pm. Check out more details on their website, here.