Tuesday, 24 November 2015

2015 Picture Book Challenge: Terry Perkins and his Upside Down Frown

A bit of a bumper edition for this post, so let's start at the top:

Terry Perkins and his Upside Down Frown by Felix Massie
Published by Frances Lincoln Children's Books. Animator, artist and writer Felix Massie has produced his first picture book, the story of a boy who has trouble with inversion.

It made sense to me when I discovered that Massie is an animator, because the simplified illustration style, fluent use of space and sense of movement are useful attributes for that medium. They are well deployed here, along with careful colour design and pacing. All contribute to a subtle and playful story of inversions - physical, verbal and emotional - that can resonate with many a childhood sense of alienation. Terry Perkins is full of life and quite wonderful.

Happy in Our Skin by Fran Manushkin and Lauren Tobia (Candlewick Press)

When I first picked up this book, I thought it would be more about the social implications of the expression "happy in our skin" from its ethnically-diverse cover, but it is more about skin, the organ, what it is and its features. The social side runs concurrently with a cast of happily interacting families, "cocoa brown, cinnamon and honey gold".

The illustration keeps this in focus while ably illuminating the other aspects the text covers. As well as being consistently inclusive, the tone is celebratory, which is a fine way of handling this subject for its audience. I like the book, it successfully describes its point on each page, but I think more might have been made of it with a more fluent text and a better sense of the physical properties of skin in the illustration - the warmth, the translucency and so on.

What the Ladybird Heard Next by Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks (Macmillan Children's Books)

Julia Donaldson is not only a prolific and well-respected children's author, but she has created several picture book universes in combination with illustrators like Axel Scheffler and Lydia Monks that have captured the public imagination. What the Ladybird Heard, while not as well-known as The Gruffalo, for example, is one such title and has received a sequel this year.

What the Ladybird Heard Next is, in essence, more of the same. Unfortunately, in trying to retain all the elements of the original but offer a nominally different story, it compromises itself. The original is a fine picture book, looking very simple while being carefully structured and sufficiently nuanced to offer multiple pleasures. Elements imported to the sequel, such as the roll-call of animal noises, don't carry the same meaning to this story as they do to the original, and so seem to appear only for the sake that they are expected. Hefty Hugh and Lanky Len are once again the antagonists of the story, and it's very disappointing that not only has their criminal ambition diminished, the nature of their defeat doesn't really pertain to the structure of the whole. The book is still plenty of fun, Donaldson and Monks have more than enough wit and skill to ensure that, and the young audience who have enjoyed What the Ladybird Heard will enjoy this too.

It is well worth mentioning here that the edition I have - the hardback - is daubed with glitter throughout, which serves no narrative purpose that I can divine. Yes, you will find plenty of glittery animal markings, a glittery tractor and glittery poo within. It is, like the book itself, unnecessary but diverting.

Klek by Kenn Clarke

A glorious anomaly on my library service's catalogue, Klek is a mythological fantasy book that Kenn Clarke (not that one [or, heaven help us, that one]) has self-published. He appears to be a graphic designer who has produced this as a means of self-expression. I always admire that position, whatever the result, and I think in contrast to something like What the Ladybird Heard Next, around which there is a large publisher, large audience and all sorts of commercial entanglements, a labour of love from one person like this exists in an entirely different context.

The book is professionally bound and looks attractive; you've got spot varnish on the cover, a bound-in ribbon bookmark. The assemblage of graphic elements on the cover and the design of the text suggest something of the influence of medieval illuminated manuscripts (and this continues within) and looks promising. Open the book up and it begins to reveal some startlingly individual illustration and writing. Quite a lot of writing, in fact, and the choice to highlight all punctuation in red, while calling back to medieval calligraphy, does draw too much attention to itself, especially given the quality of the composition. I'm going to start peppering in examples of artwork here, because I can't do them justice in words.

The illustrations - while usually well composed from the point of view of creating visual interest - range from the banal to the bizarre, teetering on the brink of lunacy from both contrast and excess. I'm not sure how much meaning is intended, although there's no denying they are carefully constructed things, using layers of digital drawing and collage.

The standard of writing is very poor. It is just about comprehensible across the whole, but I'd be hard pressed to find a well-constructed sentence, and not many that I think convey the sense they intend. It's not naive enough to be charming, nor self-aware enough to realise its shortcomings. The authorial voice seems to flag in the second half of the book (as if from exhaustion), with continuity suffering most, and this is reflected in the whole as pictures appear well in advance of the text they illustrate, then catch up in a leap. Suffice it to say, the journey is more rewarding than the destination.

Amazingly, Klek appears to be based on Croatian folklore. It is not to Kenn Clarke's credit that his treatment of the material makes it seem more likely to be a self-induced and self-referential fantasy than a resonant traditional story. What I can credit him for is the courage of his convictions, and his need to express himself. Without that, I would not have seen what is one of the most striking images I've ever come across. Marvel at this (then go and read Terry Perkins):

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