‘Have you heard about the Toad?’

Helen Mortimer, commissioning editor at Oxford Children’s Books takes us behind the scenes of a brand new edition of the classic The Wind in the Willows, retold by Tom Moorhouse, author of The River Singers and illustrated by the brilliant David Roberts.

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‘Have you heard about the Toad?’

toad 1With these words, Kenneth Grahame first introduced his enduring character in a letter written to his son, Alastair, on May 10th, 1907. During that summer Grahame, who was staying away from his son, continued to send Alastair instalments of the story by letter. The following year Grahame polished the material into a manuscript and the book was published in October 1908 as The Wind in the Willows.

At 55,000 words The Wind in the Willows is normally read to children over many bedtimes. But, for parents and children alike, it is well worth investing the time as it’s a wonderful story with friendship and adventure at its heart. The language is vivid and evocative and is remembered far beyond childhood. Here at Oxford Children’s Books we were delighted when we approached David Roberts to illustrate a glorious new gift edition of the original story and discovered that he shared our enthusiasm for the book.

 

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We published a sumptuous gift edition in 2012, packed with over 150 stunning illustrations from David.

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David’s illustrations are so bright, appealing, and accessible that we wanted them to reach children even younger than those who would enjoy sharing The Wind in the Willows. We wanted to condense Kenneth Grahame’s original story into a 32-page picture book and focus on the character who started it all back in 1907: Toad himself.

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There can be few characters in the world of children’s books more entertaining than Toad and even fewer illustrators who have captured his every mood and moment with the verve and panache of David Roberts. So we commissioned acclaimed author Tom Moorhouse to retell the story for a picture book audience. Essentially, Tom has taken Toad’s best bits from The Wind in the Willows to create The Adventures of Mr Toad, in Toad’s own words and songs.

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It’s a really engaging picture book that will introduce the youngest children to four of the most lovable characters of children’s literature: Mole, Ratty, Badger, and, of course, Mr Toad!

 The Adventures of Mr Toad is out now.

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You can also read the original Oxford Children’s Classic of Wind in the Willows, which now has a gorgeous new cover look and includes the unabridged text, as well as extra material to help you get the most from the story and lots of recommendations for other things you might enjoy.

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Have a very happy Halloween with Winnie the Witch!

Everybody’s fiendishly favourite time of year is almost upon us once again. And if you’re looking for inspiration both for party ideas and reading recommendations for younger children, then look no further.

Of course, every child’s favourite is WINNIE THE WITCH by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul, and she has everything you need for your Halloween celebration to go off with a whizz, a bang and a pop!

Firstly, you can download your very own Winnie the Witch Party pack which contains drawing and colouring, party game ideas and an interactive storytime. PLUS there are step-by-step instructions to make your own Winnie the Witch hat and wig so you look the part!

Then, of course, no Halloween would be complete without a spooky tale or two – and there are three new Winnie the Witch stories that will fit the bill perfectly:

Winnie’s Big Bad Robot
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Winnie has made a robot! Out of cardboard! But when she decides to magic it into a real robot, both she and Wilbur soon discover that this robot is bad…

Winnie’s Amazing Antics

Winnies Amazing Antics

Three favourite Winnie stories in one: Winnie’s Amazing Pumpkin, Winnie in Space and Winnie Under the Sea.

Winnie Adds Magic

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Four stories for older readers which take Winnie and Wilbur on a crazy journey, full of unexpected twists.

Spooktacular Halloween Wishes!

 

Being Boris

Tim Warnes on the joy of illustrating the Boris books and his inspiration behind some of the characters.

© Tim Warnes 2013

© Tim Warnes 2013

I love working on the Boris books! They’re such great, warm-hearted stories, that working on Boris Gets Spots was like going back to an old pair of cosy slippers – comfy and relaxing! And I have to say I think Boris is rather an inspirational character. He’s gentle, kind and helpful. He gets his chance to really shine in Boris Saves the Show, when he’s the one who is fast enough and strong enough to rescue the preschool class, who have got stuck in the mud on their way to the summer performance.

_MG_0785One of the things that’s refreshing about the Boris books for me as an illustrator is having to create an authentic classroom setting, where much of the stories take place. At first this was quite daunting since I struggle with seeing, let alone drawing, perspective. (Is there such a condition where your brain can’t discern whether a line in a room is going up or down? If there is, I think I have it.) As a result much of the scenes are quite flat, almost like stage sets, with the characters coming on from the wings. Anyway, I took masses of photos of my sons’ primary school for the first book, and I’ve used these consistently for reference ever since to create a genuinely chaotic classroom feel, with lots of details. My best find had to be the drawings stuck onto the tadpole tank at school of a shark and puffer fish – you can spot them on the goldfish tank in Miss Cluck’s classroom in Boris Gets Spots.

© Tim Warnes 2013

© Tim Warnes 2013

In Boris Gets Spots we are introduced to Farmer Gander (who I modeled on a Chinese goose). He’s visiting Miss Cluck’s class with some of his produce – like a miniature mobile farmer’s market, obligingly pulled by Buttercup the cow! Does it seem odd to you that the cow retains her natural bovine qualities, whilst everyone else gets to wear clothes? Actually, now I think about it, all Miss Cluck usually wears is a pair of spectacles, although in this story she sensibly dons an apron and oven gloves when she bakes some treats for her poorly class, who have come down, one by one, with chicken pox! (I told my editor, Helen, that my youngest son called it ‘chitten pops’ when he caught it. She must have told Carrie because this phrase ended up in the final text!)

It's tricky painting mice this tiny, and children at readings always comment on how SMALL they are. The smallest brush I use is a 2/0 which is really, really thin.

It’s tricky painting mice this tiny, and children at readings always comment on how SMALL they are. The smallest brush I use is a 2/0 which is really, really thin.

 

Tim Warnes photoAward-winning illustrator Tim Warnes shares a studio at his home in the Dorset countryside with his wife, illustrator Jane Chapman. They have two young sons. Tim spends a lot of time helping at the village school and his careful observations can be seen in all the authentic details of an infant classroom and also in the way he has successfully captured the solicitous, motherly demeanour of Miss Cluck and the mannerisms of the little pupils in her care. Tim is best known for illustrating the Little Tiger and Santa books for Little Tiger Press. I Don’t Want to go to Bed! won the Nottinghamshire Children’s Book Award in 1996 and I Don’t want to have a Bath! won in 1997.

Find out more about Tim and his work at www.chapmanandwarnes.com

See more behind-the-scenes Boris stuff in the Boris photo album!

Boris Gets Spots is out now.

Boris Gets Spots

Wilbur’s nine lives

With his lovely new board books about to hit the shops, Winnie the Witch’s lovable cat Wilbur joins us to reflect on his best moments so far in his adventures with Winnie…

Wilbur

They say that cats have nine lives. Well it’s certainly true in my case! I can think of nine nail-biting (or should that be claw-biting?) moments in my life but here I am to tell the tail (sorry, tale)! It must have something to do with being a witch’s cat.

1. I remember the time when I was dozing on Winnie’s Flying Carpet, and the wretched thing whisked me out of the house and took me on a white-knuckle ride, ending up at a fun fair. Though it wasn’t much fun for me! Luckily Winnie came to the rescue. Now I’m always careful about where I cat nap!

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Artwork © Korky Paul

2. Then there was the rather embarrassing moment when I was impaled by a broomstick after a day with Winnie at the Seaside turned into a whale of a time (literally!). Ouch!

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Artwork © Korky Paul

3. And I’ll never forget the incident with Winnie’s New Computer. The shiny new mouse was so tempting but when I pounced on it – ooof! – I disappeared into thin air! If you want my advice, be very careful when it comes to new technology.

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Artwork © Korky Paul

4. Cheers of ‘Winnie Flies Again’ greeted us when Winnie took to the skies sporting a new pair of glasses. Now she could steer her broomstick without bumping into things. Before she got her eyes tested, things were rather different, and rather painful for me.

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Artwork © Korky Paul

5. Winnie’s Amazing Pumpkin was certainly awesome, especially when it turned into a helicopter. What was less amazing was the enormous caterpillar that scared the wits out of me on a giant beanstalk. I think oversized vegetables are overrated!

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Artwork © Korky Paul

6. I’ve always known that Winnie the Witch loves me, so being turned into a multi-coloured moggy and stranded at the top of a tall tree wasn’t my finest hour. But, you’ll be pleased to know, that particular story had a happy ending!

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Artwork © Korky Paul

7. Oh yes, on one occasion, an unexpected scaly visitor – Winnie’s Midnight Dragon – chased me onto the roof while his mother set my tail alight. Charming!

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Artwork © Korky Paul

8. There’s a day that I’ll always remember as Winnie’s Dinosaur Day. It started normally enough at the museum but before I knew it I was face to face with a prehistoric beast!

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Artwork © Korky Paul

9. And finally, there was the time when I reluctantly joined Winnie in Space – we had broken rockets and naughty space rabbits to contend with . . .

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Artwork © Korky Paul

So you see, being a witch’s cat is never dull. But I love being Winnie’s pet and I wouldn’t swap my owner for the world!

Wilbur’s first concept board books are out in June, and are full of humour and wit!

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Artwork © Korky Paul

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Artwork © Korky Paul

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For more fun with Winnie the Witch and Wilbur, visit the Winnie the Witch website.

Picture This: Karen George on becoming a published illustrator

karen_george_2013Karen George shares her journey to becoming a published illustrator, with a little help from Waterstones and Julia Donaldson…

In 2009, I won the Waterstones/Macmillan ‘Picture This’ competition, beating 900 hopeful unpublished illustrators to the top prize of illustrating Freddie and the Fairy for Julia Donaldson.

freddie and fairy 3The timing of the competition was perfect for me, my youngest son was about to start nursery and I was at the point of making decisions about work. After leaving the Royal College of Art, where I studied fine art, I eventually settled as a film set painter and muralist. It was during my time as a standby painter on films, which involved a lot of waiting around (of course ready to pounce like coiled spring when called for!) that I started drawing and jotting down ideas for stories to pass the time. I then entered into a long and continuing period of research into children’s picture books following the birth of my first son, who demanded three stories a night, every night. I spent these years scribbling, writing, cutting out and sticking; creating characters of my own that I hoped would catch a publisher’s eye. Some were extremely interested but not quite ready to take the final plunge, there had been many words of encouragement  but alas no contracts.

Billed as a ‘life changing’ prize, ‘Picture This’ came at a pivotal point, but it was a competition that I nearly didn’t enter…

The early hurdles

The first hurdle was that I first heard of the competition horribly close to the deadline. I wasn’t sure that it could be done in time, but dither over, I set to work.

Illustrating for Julia Donaldson and the other notable judges proved disastrously daunting, the weight of their pedigree made me produce some of the worst work I’ve ever done!

A day of despair followed, at my inability to manoeuvre a pencil, and a lost opportunity to enter the world I had so long wanted to be a part of… but I had invested too much over the years to completely waste such an opportunity, so I decided to use the Julia Donaldson text and an impending deadline to at least update my portfolio. I pushed all thoughts of Julia and the judges aside (sorry!) and set to work again. With VERY little time left I sketched, painted, cut and glued my way through several near sleepless nights. Exhausted, with only hours to spare, I finally delivered my finished artwork to Waterstones Kew Headquarters; excited by the three new character sketches, three animal sketches and  colour spread that would refresh my portfolio.

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The home straight

A week later, I was plunged into the deepest deep end. Amazingly I had been shortlisted down to the final six!

There then followed six weeks of intense drawing; night after night well into the small hours, the twelve required spreads drawn and re-drawn.

It was an extremely steep, but exhilarating, learning curve.

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And the winner is…

Standing alongside the other finalists on ‘judgment day’, the tension was unbearable; as we waited to hear which one of us had been successful.

On arrival we had been told that the jury was still out. A final decision had not been reached and there would be a slight delay before the announcement. We all chatted nervously.

Finally the moment arrived. Giving nothing away, Julia talked about each finalist and what she had liked about their work. It was lovely to hear and know that a great deal of thought had gone into the decision… but it was also excruciating!

At length came the words ‘and the winner is…’

Julia Donaldson’s books have always been a staple at bedtime for my sons. I had empathised with the Old Woman in A Squash and a Squeeze and had, at times, donated my clothes for the needs of my small children, feeling a little like The Smartest Giant in Town, but I had never dreamt that my name would appear alongside Julia Donaldson on the cover of a book. Indeed, it now appears alongside hers on two books!

The desire to scale down the size of my paint brush from a film set painter to become a published children’s illustrator has taken me on a long and sometimes frustrating journey. Winning ‘Picture This’ catapulted me, like a moment of fairytale magic, to illustrating for the Children’s Laureate and on… to become an author too, with my third book, Hugh Shampoo… all about a boy who will NOT wash his hair!

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Find out more about Karen and her work at  www.karengeorge.net

Hugh Shampoo is out on 4th April.

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The story comes first: teaching playfully in picture books

Picture book author Ann Bonwill on the key to tackling preschool social issues in picture books (without need of a soapbox)

annWhen my editor, Helen, expressed interest in a sequel to I Don’t Want to be a Pea!, I was thrilled. I had come to love my characters, Hugo and Bella, and the chance to write about them again was exciting.

hugo and bella

Endpapers for I am not a Copycat!, featuring Hugo the hippo and Bella the bird

But while their first story had come to me rather easily, the second one did not follow that same path. I found it challenging to stay true to the characters, voice, and tone of the first book while simultaneously crafting an original storyline and adding enough new elements to make things interesting.

Helen and I agreed that there were two aspects we wanted to keep consistent in the books. The first was the technique of telling the story almost entirely through dialogue. This proved to be enjoyable, as I have a lot of fun hearing the voices of Hugo and Bella in my head. The second aspect was less enjoyable – the task of examining a preschool social issue and (I shudder to say it) teaching a lesson about it.

As the mother of a four year old, I am surrounded by preschool social issues. Observing my son playing with a friend generates a laundry list of social skills that he is beginning to negotiate – how to share, how to take turns, how to open a juice carton without squirting the other person. I had no end of options for social issues to examine, but what did I want to say about them? What lesson did I want to teach? Or, more to the point, did I want to teach a lesson at all?

Teaching a lesson is the kiss of death in picture books. If you’ve read aloud to a group of children and tried to hold their attention, you know that making an overt point must be avoided at all costs. Children need story, not lecture. After all, would you rather relax in the bath with a juicy novel or a self-help book? (Please ignore that I’m writing this in January, when we’re all optimistically leafing through the pages of self-help . . . think back instead to the hedonistic days of December when all you wanted to do was avoid yet another family gathering by escaping into the world of a book, preferably with chocolate close at hand.) Children are no different from us. If anything they need less didacticism in their books than we do, as they are force fed it all day long by a culture that attempts to civilize them at every turn.

That said, the reality is that all my favorite picture books teach a lesson, in that they impart some basic truth about life and give us an example of how (or how not) to respond to it. Even a book that appears to be wholly about fun is sending the message that it’s good to let your hair down now and then. I Don’t Want to be a Pea! certainly has something to take away. It is, at its heart, a story about compromise, about putting friendship first, about making yourself happy by making someone else happy. But I didn’t set out to write about compromise, and therein lies the difference.

Hugo and bella falling out

Spread from I Don’t Want to be a Pea!. Hugo and Bella can’t agree on what to wear to a fancy dress party

In my mind, the distinction between a didactic book and one with a message is that, with a message, the story comes first. The ‘lesson,’ if we need to call it that, grows out of the story in a way that isn’t forced and preachy, it just is. If the story doesn’t come first, we run the risk of losing our audience, losing the magic.

So, imagine my surprise when I found myself trying to do just this – trying to craft a story around a moral rather than letting the story speak moralistically for itself. Usually when I write, the story drives me. The characters, tone, voice, and yes, message, evolve as I go. With the sequel, I already had the characters, tone, and voice, and I knew that I needed a similar type of message. Danger zone.

After abandoning a few drafts as hopelessly didactic, I returned to my rule. The story must come first. I stopped thinking about the issue I’d chosen to tackle (copycat behavior) and focused instead on the antics of a hippo and a bird at the swimming pool, doing synchronized swimming of all things. Writing dialogue helped immensely with this, as I was able stay in the moment through their playful language. I was back to my story.

hugo and bella synchronized swimming

Spread from I am not a Copycat!  

In the end, I am not a Copycat! does have a message. Sometimes it’s fun to be the same. Sometimes it’s fun to be different. Sometimes it’s just fun to make a splash. Oh, and don’t forget the chocolate.

ann
Ann Bonwill is the author of eight picture books, including Bug and Bear, Naughty Toes, I Don’t Want to be a Pea!, and I am not a Copycat!. She grew up in Maryland in the United States, surrounded by good books from her mother’s library and good food from her father’s kitchen. Books and food still bring a smile to her face, especially enchiladas with extra guacamole. She shares her life (but not her guacamole) with her husband, son, and crazy corgi dog.

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I am not a Copycat!, Ann Bonwill’s latest book, is out now, illustrated by the wonderful Simon Rickerty.

Hugo the hippo is annoyed about Bella the bird constantly copying what he does. But then, at the swimming pool, Hugo discovers that when his moves are perfectly copied by Bella, their friends are very impressed indeed . . .

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Hugo and Bella first appeared in I Don’t Want to be a Pea!, shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2012, and chosen by Julia Donaldson as one of her favourite picture books of 2011.

Hugo and Bella are getting ready for a fancy dress party. Because they both want their own way, they can’t agree on a costume and they almost don’t go to the party at all. In this laugh-out-loud comedy of manners children will discover that compromise is what makes any friendship tick.

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