Issue 205
September/October 2018

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Nov 16, 2018

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Nick and Jack went up the hill…

Nick Jones wonders if it's something in the 'airs and vapours' of north Northumberland and the Borders that is inspiring so many writers and illustrators of children's books thereabout

Carefully tended lineside planting on the platform at Dumfries station

BERWICK and the Borders – something in the air for writers and illustrators of children's books?

Jack and I are up on Meg's Mound, so he can watch trains crossing Berwick's Royal Border Bridge and I can count swans. We're licking ice-creams. Mum says that's to keep us sweet while she shops in the Saturday market.

I'm feeling a bit dreamy today ....suddenly there's this swishing noise, a shadow blocks out the sun, and this strange creature flies low over us. I'm pretty sure it's a female Snallygaster. I follow its flight over the town, and, yes, it's landed on top of the Town Hall spire.

Down below, my friend Iris is talking to her lion, I call him Hatty 'cos that's why he came to town.....he's roaring, in a happy way I think, probably asking Snally how things are back at the lair.

Jill and Jack tell me that their favourite stories take them and their imagination by the hand to run wild, be it with Helen Stephens's delightful lion looking for a hat in the streets of Berwick-upon-Tweed, or JK Rowling's Snallygaster, one of Newt Scamander's "Fantastic Beasts" so beautifully illustrated by Olivia Lomenech Gill.

Something about the airs and vapours of north Northumberland and the Borders inspiring creative vision for these two artists?

It seems so, for both live and work in these parts. As did Michael Morpurgo, evacuated here in World War Two. Olivia has illustrated "Where My Wellies Take Me", by Clare and Michael Morpurgo, and they are currently working together on another title.

Helen and Olivia are in good company, along with Brita Granstrom and Mick Manning, whose books for children entertain, delight and gently inform about all sorts including Shakespeare, climate change, the Beatles, and the human body; Cara Lockhart Smith, from Coldstream, who has just published "The Midnight Hare"; Helen Stephens's partner Gerry Turley, whose most recent illustrations are for "Love Matters Most". To name but a few.

Not an easy genre to work in, for a successful children's book must also appeal to adults and their "inner child". After all it is often parents, grandparents, teachers, and family friends who will choose, look at, and read them.

Nor is it without responsibility. Those first books reveal different ways to see and change the world, depicting, describing and imagining impossible, unthinkable, scary, fantastic, ridiculous, mind-boggling stuff. They allow children to wonder, laugh, cry, love, dream, rebel, create, fear, learn, discover, understand and poke fun at silly grown-ups and authority.

Roald Dahl's sense of mischief drew on his own childhood and all that his conventional education ignored, denied, or tried to squash entirely.

He recognised the value of being childish... at any age. As Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), wrote to John Burningham: "What fun we've had, and with any luck, there is more of the same ahead. How strange to find youth only in old age."

I've been talking to Jennifer Doherty, who hails from Glasgow, and established Serafina Press in Eyemouth. She publishes titles, including The Unicorn of Holy Island, The Treasure at North Berwick, The Sailing Bear of East Neuk, and The Eyemouth Mermaid.

Reading these, I realise what a difference it makes if a story is set in a familiar place, which is why Jack and Jill were so excited as they sat licking ice-creams. Jennifer works with local authors and illustrators including Gillian Stewart and Cara Lockhart Smith, who wrote and illustrated The Berwick Bear and his Fiddle.

Printed by Martins of Berwick, many are sold through local outlets, as they are popular with families, and perfect to take home after a holiday. Or to help refugee families adjust to moving to Glasgow, which is why a forthcoming title is being published in English, Arabic and Gaelic, in association with Refuweegee, a community led charity welcoming refugees in true Glaswegian style.

Tucked up, cosy, half-asleep, on the edge of dreaming, books provide a safe place from which to see, imagine and make sense of what can be a scary world. My favourite is John Burningham's Come Away from the Water, Shirley, for the delightful contrast between left page parental reality and right page child's imagination.

There's great pleasure too in repetition, anticipation, memorising and mastering the story ("'ve missed out that bit!"). So perhaps not surprising that now, eighty years after the birth of Dennis the Menace in The Beano, Nick Drnaso's Sabrina is long-listed for the Booker Prize. It seems that, despite screens and I-phones, illustrated books, cartoons and graphic books are in the ascendant again.

It's physically satisfying to read a story aloud, holding a book, all eyes and ears, hearing the emotion in the words, feeling the paper, turning the pages. A short step to having a go at painting and drawing...making up stories, acting, playing without needing to be "entertained" all the time.

I'd say the future of children's books is looking good, certainly in and around Berwick and the Borders.


The Berwick Literary Festival (October 18-20) includes a panel event on October 20 at 10am with writers and illustrators of children's books. Helen Stephens's work will be at 25 Bridge Street during the Festival. Books available from Geo C Grieve Ltd, stationers, I Church Street, Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Pigtails Productions, Polka Theatre and Oxford Playhouse present a dramatised production of How to Hide a Lion, on tour in England and Wales until November 18.

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