Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Creative Calligraphy To Help Children Develop A Love of Words

Last Sunday, I taught calligraphy in a session for the Ipswich District Teacher Librarian Network. Huge thanks, Jenny Stubbs, for your organisation! Hopefully I enabled attendees to appreciate that lettering can be fun and useful. Not all calligraphy has to be super neat writing on straight lines. A decorative capital with blended colour and mixed media additions can be used like an illuminated medieval letter to start a chapter or page. Many children find this inspires them to think extra hard about the words they write after it.

Another way that calligraphy can be used to stimulate creativity, and help children develop a love of words, literature and writing, is to develop a background and then hunt for an appropriate poem or text to write over the top - which necessitates reading a number of alternatives before a choice is made. Or they can write a poem or suitable prose themselves.

This artwork was produced by first writing and overlapping the word ‘Cloud’ many times, using a strip of balsa wood with a straight-cut end as a pen. To make the lighter tones, it was dipped in water before soaking up the ink. The writing was then smudged with a moistened sponge and some Burnt Sienna watercolour painted at the bottom of the wetted paper to suggest the red-brown soil of the Australian outback. Table salt was sprinkled over all the damp area and the paper left to dry - then the salt was removed. Salting creates light spots with unpredictable but interesting ragged edges. To reduce the dominance of the background, I then used a garden hose to wash off some of the ink and paint. Before the paper dried, ‘Rain’ was written on the left and right sides with a fountain-pen dipped in water to make the ink greyer. Letting the ink run and go 'hairy' seemed appropriate. More words were added when paper was completely dry, and their colour depth controlled by instantly blotting some with a paper tissue.

A few more ‘Rain’s then filled a blank space or two. The original is 30cm (1ft) wide.

I’m not sure that the colour or spacing of the letters in the added verse from the poem ‘This Land’, by Ian Mudie, is as effective as it should be. Do you think it’s too dominant? Should the colour have been more transparent, the letter strokes thinner and with more variety in colour and density. Should the letters have been more mixed in size or a different style, or all capitals as in the rest of the piece, or with closer and more consistent spacing or on less straight lines? I’m looking forward to trying again and I'll be pleased to incorporate any suggestions you’d like to offer.

For schools, the nature of the activity is more important that the quality of the script. Students could use pencils for the background and felt pens or ball-points for the words that need to stand out, and write them in their everyday handwriting.

Rather than finding a text to write over a background, facilitating a personal creative interpretation of a poem or text that a child discovers and likes can also encourage them to read and search for more, if they enjoy the activity. There are plenty of other ways of presenting words to refelct their meaning, sound and rhythms.

If you are a teacher, I'll be delighted to work with children in your school to create similar artworks, if you'd like to invite me to visit - please check out my website. If you try something similar yourself, please let me know how it goes and show me the result.

The verse from Ian Mudie's poem was chosen after first visualising the background – but it was coincidental that our location for the workshop was ‘Woodlands’ at Marburg, a beautiful old Queensland mansion with a tin roof - and as you can see, it was a glorious sunny and warm autumn day, and I didn't wish had been raining.

Peter Taylor

Sunday, March 11, 2012

My Studio & the Travelling Sieve Maker

My last blog post was about ‘Do Not Forget Australia’ – the superb and inspiring new book by Sally Murphy and Sonia Kretschmar. It’s set in WW1, but with a theme of friendship between individuals and between nations. Sally and Sonia continue to tour blogs this week and I’m looking forward to following them. Congratulations, Coralie – you win the copy Walker Books sent me to give away!

This book has stirred me to delve further into my own family history. Research has become easier over the last few years, and having my Grandmother’s brother’s service medal with his K.R.Rif. (King’s Royal Rifle Corps) Service Number engraved on the edge has made collecting some facts easier. Through stories told to me, I knew he died in France in WW1, so this weekend I typed his name into http://www.findagrave.com/ and found his burial place at Ancre British Cemetry, Beaumont-Hamel, on the Somme, and the day of his death – Sept 3rd 1916. He fought with the 17th Middlesex Battalion – so I now want to know which battle he would have died in. I’m sure I’ll soon find the answer. Until this weekend I didn’t know anything about the 17th Middlesex. Apparently it was also known as the ‘1st Football’ – joined by many professional and amateur soccer players and their supporters after a considerable number of people in the country felt that soccer should not be played professionally at home whilst others were fighting abroad. So, I’ll be interested to read the full story of he Batallion through Andrew Riddoch and John Kemp’s book ‘When The Whistle Blows’ www.amazon.co.uk/When-Whistle-Blows-Footballers-Battalion/dp/1844256561 From all the reviews, it should be an interesting and informative read.

While I was searching http://www.ancestry.com/ for my relative’s details, I thought I’d check the census records for information on the family of the main character of my YA in progress. When you’re writing something based on fact, it’s best if you get the facts right! As expected, the 1851 census shows James Lucas in his house named ‘Elm Wood’ – not Elmwood, as it sometimes appears, and his farm manager and family. It will be good to now refer to members of the farm family by name. Then, in the next line down, there’s a family living ‘Near Village in tent’ – a ‘Travelling Sieve Maker’ and his family; the man, his wife and their five sons aged 1, 3, 5, 8 and 11. Do you think they should be included in my story, too? What a hard life they must have had.

The two factual accounts of the Lucas family that have previously been written say that they moved to Elm Wood in 1838. So why don’t they appear there in the 1845 census? The answer is they were somewhere entirely different! The first records I have of them say they lived close to Regent’s Park in 29 Nottingham Place. When I put Sarah Lucas (James’s mother’s name) in the form for 1845, however, I discovered that they were actually living even closer to Regent’s Park, at 7 Cambridge Terrace, right on its perimeter. No one’s ever mentioned this house before, but searching for information prior to the internet was much harder! I wonder when they bought it? It was a step up from their previous one - Cambridge Terrace was designed by Nash and built in 1825. You wouldn’t get a one bed-roomed flat in the converted mews stables behind the house for much under a million pounds these days; well over a million for a small flat in the house itself – and to think they owned the whole thing! Check it out in a Google Image search!

Here's 29 Nottingham Place:

It's a nice house, so why did they move? Is the house that’s there today the one they lived in in the 1820's/30's? It looks as though it could have been. But perhaps I should check that too. How does one find the date when a London house was erected? Any clues will be much appreciated.

There’s a possibility that the house that was originally on the site was demolished and the family had to move. Alternatively, maybe they chose to move from place to place in attempts to hide James’s mental illness...

Here's half a wall of my studio. All the books inside the central open area and next to the small drawers are books and papers associated with this YA. There's still a lot of research and reading to do!

Peter Taylor

Monday, March 05, 2012

'Do Not Forget Australia' - the backstory

Today I have a special treat for readers of this Writing for Children blog – a visit from multi-awarded author and illustrator Sally Murphy and Sonia Kretschmar as they tour blogs as part of the launch of their new book collaboration ‘Do Not Forget Australia’, which is set in the First World War ...AND some lucky visitor will receive a copy. Please post a comment to go into the draw – follow the blog to get two entries. I'll make the draw on Sunday March 11.

‘Do Not Forget Australia’ has been published this month by Walker Books Australia, ISBN: 9781921529863, as a hardback picture book ...so you know what love and care has gone into its production. It should be available from bookstores as well as online sources – but please keep bookstores in business if you can!

Huge thanks for joining me, Sally and Sonia!

The promotional description of the story says:

‘Henri lives in the French village of Villers-Bretonneux. Billy lives in Melbourne, Australia. These two little boys, who live thousands of miles away from each other, share one story that unites Villers-Bretonneux and Melbourne in history.’

It’s visually stunning, as well as a moving and inspiring story for children, but which will be enjoyed by adults, too. Is there anything else you’d like to add, Sally - I don't want to give too much of the plot away? Do you think it will appeal to international readers, say in America?

Yes, definitely. Of course a story set in Australia and France will be most familiar to people in those countries, I think any story which tells of friendship and generosity has appeal far beyond geographic boundaries.

For librarians and parents who may buy it, what aged children do you imagine will be your main readers?

Chiefly children in primary school, though older children and adults will get a lot out of it, too. It is suitable for classroom use as well as for private reading.

I agree completely - I think it's an important story that should be read by people of all nations and all ages. You've dealt with the war element with great sensitivity, and the friendships described are truly inspirational and heart-warming.

Can you tell us a little of the writing process, please, Sally? My Grandmother’s brother died while fighting in France in WW1. Does this story have origins from your own family or someone you know, or was there something else that was a stimulus to start it?

The real stimulus to research and write this story was a photo of the school in Villiers-Bretonneux, which I saw at a parent information day when my son was heading off on a student tour there. I’d seen similar photos before but on this particular day I was struck by the strangeness of a sign, written in English, exhorting French children to not forget Australia and decided I must learn more.

In any war, there are always so many from both sides who really don’t want to kill others, but feel that they have to protect their homeland, or support their country. My uncle was a prisoner on the Burma railway, but apart from the brutality of many Japanese guards, there was another who risked his own life to bring Donald food, and I believe local villagers did the same. Though much of my story will be fiction, I’m finding it hard to write, and have made several starts over the years. Is this a story you’ve been thinking about or wanting to tell for a long time? How long did it take you?

From the day I saw the photo until publication was almost 4 and a half years. Some of this time was researching, some trying to find the right angle, some perfecting the story. Then, when the story was accepted, the editing process began and Sonia needed to time to do the illustrations. The illustrator’s role is so important and of course she can’t begin until the story is ready.

Please tell us about the research involved, too. Was there something surprising that you discovered?

I was able to find quite a lot of written information about the battle in Villers-Bretonneux, especially because I was researching in the months leading up to the 90th anniversary. I loved learning about how the people of Villers-Bretonneux have maintained links to Australia through street signs, through maintaining the war graves and through marking Anzac Day.

Before holding a copy of the book, I saw some of the completed and wonderful illustrations on your website, Sonia – and congratulations on your recent ‘Illustrator Australia Award’, and the success of your portrait in the Archibald, and more. I can’t keep up - you’ll soon have caught up with Sally. But getting back to the illustrations for this book - they’re so atmospheric, poignant and I keep finding more and more in them to look at and contemplate. How did you tackle the research? Have you visited the area in France?

Thank you! I have been quite busy - these past 12 months especially. The research that I did for this book is a combination of general sketching, imagination and trawling through many obscure websites. I found French sites dedicated to selling and/or documenting historical postcards to be particularly helpful, as is the Australian War Museum site. I also had a friend put me in contact with a local war historian. I have spent time in Paris, but , no – I have never been to Northern France, unfortunately. I spent a lot of time perusing the village via Google street view to get a sense of the place!

When I go into someone’s house for the first time, I always look at their book shelves. When I visit an illustrator, I like to see what’s on their work table. What’s on yours, Sonia? Do you have favourite colours that you blend most frequently? Favourite brushes?

Unfortunately my work table is never neat for long – it seems to collect miscellaneous bits and pieces. At the moment I'm transforming a doll for an art exhibition , so I've got synthetic hair and spare eyes and beads all over the place.

It's a lot tidier than mine! Thank you for sharing this picture - I feel I know you much better now :)

I do like experimenting and trying new things whenever I can. As for colours, I do like warm colours of reds, yellows and flesh tones (which weren't that suitable for my imaginings of devastated France – though I did try and use that palette for my warm Australian scenes). Otherwise, blue-greens are beautiful as well.

I’ve read of illustrators who have refused to work on a book because the author gave illustration suggestions, and also that illustrator George Cruickshank suggested ways that Charles Dickens might change his stories – though these ideas were largely unappreciated. In recent years it’s been normal for the author to send a manuscript to a publisher, and if everyone there likes it enough, the author gets a contract and the publisher finds and chooses an illustrator whose style they think will be most appropriate. Someone they think will be able to imagine and bring to the project what no one else could provide. The author and illustrator never talk to each other or meet ...until ...maybe an award ceremony - or, at least, sometime after the book’s finished or published. You’re talent and imagination are well recognised, but was this book created via this route or were you ever in contact? Did you get any hints or tips from each other?

In this case it was the Publisher, Walker Books, who contacted me after they took on Sally's manuscript – we weren't in direct contact with each other at all during the process, really – but we have since become Facebook friends! It was actually quite a trans-continental affair – Walker Books are in Sydney, Sally is in Perth, and I'm in Melbourne. (Sydney to Melbourne is about 600 miles, Melbourne to Perth about 2,000 miles) In my research, which was fairly extensive, I found out little historical details along the way that did cause the text to change slightly. I think most of the issues for the other pages were ironed out between myself and Wayne Harris, the designer, before Sally got to see anything...yes, from my perspective I think it was the team at Walker Books who gave the most “suggestions” - I'm happy to take most things on board; the only awkward ones are those made when the deadline is looming!

The input from the editor, book designer and art director have always helped make my books far better than I would have produced on my own. Everyone in the process thinks that each book they work on is ‘my book’ – including the people in production and printing, and even the sales people and publicist who will probably have had a say in its acceptance.

'Do Not Forget Australia' will be highly successful because readers will find it moving and it will be appreciated and loved by them – but I do hope it gains industry recognition for its excellence too. It must do! The last time we actually met, Sally, rather than virtually (we live about 2800 miles apart), was at the Children’s Book Council awards in Brisbane for one of your earlier books – I can’t remember which one, I believe this is your thirty third. I hope I’ll see you both at the next ceremony, and thank you so much for coming here and answering my questions. You may find there some extra ones that readers ask in the ‘comments’ over the next few days.

And please check out Sally’s and Sonia websites:

Sally Murphy: http://sallymurphy.net/  Sonia Kretschmar: http://www.soniak.com/ ...and their other books.

Thanks again and best wishes to you both,

Peter Taylor

PS Leave a comment or a question to enter into the draw for a copy - and tell your friends and networks about it, too. Buy a few for gifts -  it's a book that will be forever cherished.

PPS Here are Sally and Sonia's other stopovers:

1st March   -  Let's Have Words  http://letshavewords.blogspot.com.au/

2nd March  -  Kids Book Capers   http://content.boomerangbooks.com.au/kids-book-capers-blog/
3rd March  -  Running With Pens   http://kerrilane.wordpress.com/
4th March  -  Read and Write with Dale   http://orangedale.livejournal.com/  
5th March  -  Karen Tyrrell   http://karentyrrell.com/
7th March  -  Spinning Pearls   http://spinningpearls.blogspot.com.au/
8th March  -  Katwhiskers    http://katswhiskers.wordpress.com/
12th March  -  Pass It On    http://www.pass-it-on-blog.blogspot.com.au/
12th March  - Kids Book Review   http://www.kids-bookreview.com/
13th March  -  Under the Apple Tree   http://angelasunde.blogspot.com.au/
14th March  -  Lorraine Marwood. Words into Writing   http://lorrainemarwoodwordsintowriting.blogspot.com.au/