Category: Children’s books

Mar 19

Bath in Fashion

 

I’ve just finished playing with props again, this time for Topping Books, a very special independent bookshop here in Bath. The lovely people at Topping’s ask me to decorate their windows periodically. Last time was in January for the launch of food and travel quarterly, Cereal magazine.

Topping Books window display

The things hanging down from the ceiling were little strands of paper notebooks, joined together on my sewing machine. It’s hard to see, but there is also an old stepladder: a family heirloom which my husband’s grandmother climbed to access those hard-to-reach shelves in her Dorset off-licence, circa 1930. And I added a lovely old robin’s-egg blue typewriter (this particular model is a pioneering 1949 slimline design, still favoured by the likes of Will Self and Leonard Cohen) and several pine cones. Very orderly and restrained, isn’t it? I didn’t want to overwhelm the pared-down Scandi styling of the magazine. Volume 2 of Cereal is just out, by the way.

This time, the bookshop needed something punchier for Bath in Fashion week, an annual event which is fast gaining a reputation amongst people who know about such things. This year it runs from 13th-21st April. Topping’s will be hosting two events to coincide: one with Sir Roy Strong on Tuesday 16th April, another with Kaffe Fassett on Thursday 18th April. My brief was to create an eye-catching display to flag up these events; the bookshop is on the A4 route through Bath and probably gets more attention from people in their cars than on foot. So, you have to work hard to grab attention.

First, I set to with my paintbrush and some old sewing boxes like this rather sad one; it’s a fabulous mid-twentieth century shape, but the varnish had been wrecked by water damage before I got it, so it was ripe for a makeover.

Mid-century sewing box

Here it is with a lick of paint.

Painted props

I also painted a tiny chest of drawers bought new about ten years ago, the perfect thing for buttons, bits and bobs. And I played with some buckram (the white stiff stuff you make tie-backs with, or don’t make tie-backs with, in my case).  I have a little thing about Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and thought that a giant classic Dean tape-measure would be A Good Idea. Never mind that I only painted up to the 12″ mark; most of the measure is coiled, so nobody will ever know. Instead of ‘Dean’ I painted ‘Bath’, and where ‘Made in England’ would have been, I put ‘Bath in Fashion’. Pretty subtle. Yeah, I guess nobody will clock that from their cars.

I borrowed an old French mannequin, which I felt compelled to Christen ‘Claudette’, and draped the giant tape-measure around her shoulders.

Several hours, some giant prop buttons, and many metres of orange fabric later, here’s the window.

Props in situ in Topping Books

Judging by my display, the event might well be called ‘Bath in Haberdashery’, but not to worry. Close enough for rock ‘n’ roll. Does it say ‘fashion’, however tangentially, to you? You can be scrupulously honest. My job is to catch the eye, and I hope that the bright colours and sewing props do that. Anyway, if you’re passing the Paragon at the end of George Street in Bath, or sitting in traffic at the lights, look out for it and let me know what you think. Better still, come to one of the bookshop events! Events are invariably delightful, warm and welcoming occasions at Topping’s, particularly with such colourful guests.

Here’s the entire shop front.

IMG_3205

 

PS This was actually attempt #2. I had a go at the windows on Sunday and made an incredible vintage-fabric mish-mash of them both. If you walked past late Sunday or early Monday and wondered what on earth was going on in the mind of the window-dresser, I was just having an off day. And trying to be über-thrifty by using only what I had. Big mistake. But this is how we learn.

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Dec 29

For the love of gingerbread

 

“Maybe my passion is nothing special, but at least it’s mine.”

― Tove JanssonTravelling Light

 

I’m guessing I’m not alone in adoring gingerbread. Spicy, warming and irresistible, it also comes with a raft of great stories, often intertwining themes of love and death. Fine medieval ladies offered their jousting knights gingerbread favours, sometimes pressed into heart shapes. In German fairytale, Hansel & Gretel were lured by the cannibalistic witch’s gingerbread house. And America gave us the Gingerbread Boy who ran away from the old couple who’d made him, but who would also eat him. Why the link between gingerbread and cannibalism? If there’s a psychoanalyst in the house, please make yourself known.

As befits a foodstuff that’s been with us since the middle ages, there’s quite a range of recipes. We have gingerbread: the cake and gingerbread: the biscuit. And before that we had gingerbread: the pressed mix of ground almonds, breadcrumbs, honey and spices (or just some of the above), from which the pre-impalement knightly nibbles would have been constructed. Here’s a nice article about some of the oldest gingerbread, complete with recipes. Different nations and regions have boasted gingerbread superiority. It’s a wonder we don’t need a dedicated Gingerbread Council at the United Nations.

For the past decade or so I’ve been making the biscuit kind of gingerbread for my own family at Christmas time. I may be in denial, but it’s my observation that it engenders a simple pleasure response from my nearest and dearest and very little, if any, conflict. Sometimes I go to town and ice the gingerbread to hang from the Christmas tree. Sometimes I just leave it plain for eating right away, warm from the oven. It’s got to the point where Christmas doesn’t feel quite right without a batch, the scent of the spiced baking suffusing the house. Mince pies I could do without, but I would really miss gingerbread. This is a little curious because it wasn’t something my own mother made.

Gingerbread hearts

Gingerbread cooling

This year’s batch was plain and simple, and my youngest helped stamp out the shapes.

Another thing that I’ve fallen for over the past decade or so is the Moomin books of Tove Jansson. I didn’t encounter them as a child, but my own kids have loved having them read to them. Besides a pleasing blend of cosiness and adventure, and a variety of quirky characters, there is an extraordinary emotional honesty within those books which is rare in children’s literature. If you’d like to know more, there’s a wonderful documentary about Tove Jansson currently viewable on BBC iPlayer. I’ve only recently discovered that she wrote books for adults too; reading them is one of my least onerous new year’s resolutions.

 

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Jul 01

FArTHER

Scissors of my dreams

Scissors detail from FArTHER by Grahame Baker-Smith

I’ve just heard the delightful news that Grahame Baker-Smith has won the CILIP* Kate Greenaway Medal 2011 for his book, FArTHER, which he both wrote and illustrated. The award was established in 1955 and represents the UK’s most distinguished award for children’s book illustration; previous winners include Janet Ahlberg, Edward Ardizzone, Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs, Anthony Browne, John Burningham, Lauren Child, Michael Foreman, Shirley Hughes, Helen Oxenbury, Jan Pienkowski, Chris Riddell and Brian Wildsmith. Having known Grahame for several years, I can tell you that he is a total delight. I had the pleasure of commissioning artwork from him in a not-for-profit context, and he was extremely generous with his time and talents. I would even lay a bet that whoever first coined the expression ‘it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy’ had precisely Grahame in mind.

FArTHER is about a man’s dream of attaining flight, the tenacity of that dream, and how the dream is passed down from father to a son. It’s a wistful book, suffused with loss, disappointment, but also hope. Grahame’s illustrations are immensely detailed (the images shown are just small sections of a much bigger spread) and manage at once to capture both the substantial and the ethereal. Grahame’s writing is lyrical too, with lines that Emily Dickinson would have been proud of:

Day and night, he sewed and stitched, and sawed and hammered, and trimmed the feathers of a thousand hopeful wings.

 

Paper bird

Paper bird detail from FArTHER by Grahame Baker-Smith

FArTHER also functions as an investigation of the creative drive: the faraway look the son sees in his father’s distracted face (‘I would sit on his lap until he remembered me’ ).  The book begs all kinds of questions. How long do you pursue your creative dream? As a parent, do you feel concern when you see that your child is absorbed by the same dream? Do we exercise any meaningful choice over these matters?

FArTHER by Grahame Baker-Smith is published by Templar Publishing. It’s temporarily out of print, but you can read more about it here. Grahame tells me that it will be reissued (with a slightly more elaborate jacket and emblazoned with the Kate Greenaway medal, of course) in September.  If that’s farther than you can wait, please borrow it from your local library.

 

*CILIP: the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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