I’m a big fan of Oliver Jeffers who is a Northern Irish designer, artist, writer and illustrator who is best known for his picture books. My favourite is an early book called Lost and Found about a boy and a lost penguin who become friends. His new book is called A Child of Books and it’s out in September. Written and illustrated by both Sam Winston and Oliver, it’s an ode to childhood books.

A Child Made of Books
A Child of Books


Here’s the trailer, do check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3_qoMY7mf8

 Inspired by this book, I thought I’d list some of the books that made ME:

1/ Richard Scarry’s Busy Busy Worldbusy busy world

I loved this book and used to pour over the details in the pictures. It’s full of funny stories set all over the world, from Italy to Ireland, and I loved it so much I used to sleep with it under my pillow.

2/ Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Image from the Ballet Shoes Television Movie Starring Emma Watson
Image from the Ballet Shoes Television Movie Starring Emma Watson

I took ballet classes for years and always dreamed of one day being a ballerina. It was not to be, but reading about ballet and watching ballet is the next best thing. I even wrote about ballet in Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze.

3/ Heidi by Johanna Spyriheidi

How I wanted to live in the Swiss Alps with a kind grandfather after this story was read to me. It’s such a wonderful tale, of friendship, overcoming hardship and being yourself.

4/ Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery

Anne from Anne of Green Gables
Anne from Anne of Green Gables

I’ve always admired Anne ‘with an e’ – she’s one of my favourite characters of all time. I like to think we’d be kindred spirits if we ever met. She has such a fun, feisty and true nature. This book left a lasting impression on me as a young reader.

5/ Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret

I re-read this every year to remind myself what it feels like to be thirteen. It’s over 40 years old now but is still as fresh and funny as the day it was published. I first read it as a teenager, adored her honesty and humour, and Judy has been one of my favourite writers ever since.

6/ The O’Sullivan Twins by Enid Blyton

And pretty much all Enid Blyton’s books! I read my through them and adored their ‘Englishness’.

7/ New Patches for Old by Christobel Mattingley

New Patches for Old
New Patches for Old

This book was a real eye opener and I’ve never forgotten it. Patricia or ‘Patches’ is an English girl who has moved to Australia with her family. She has to deal with making new friends, adapting to a new life and growing up. Her new life isn’t always easy, but she deals with everything that is thrown at her with good humour and honesty. I was about twelve when I read this book and it was the first time I’d come across a girl getting her period for the first time in any book – and I was so grateful that someone had written about this (I was anxious about the whole thing, as many teens were in those days as it wasn’t talked about much – things are a lot more open now, thank goodness), a subject that is also dealt with in Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Both these books inspired me to write Ask Amy Green: Summer Secrets. Amy gets her period during her summer holidays and rings her aunt, Clover (who is 17 and also her great friend) to ask for advice.

Often people say there were no teenage books in the 1970s but there were – including this one. I’m so glad I read it, it really did make a difference to my life.

These are some of the books that made me. What books made YOU? I’d love to know!

Yours in books,

Sarah XXX

This blog first appeared on Girls Hearts Books website.

I was doing some intense thinking about picture books last night. My writing class asked me why I’m not keen on rhyming picture books and I didn’t have a coherent answer for them. But I do now!

Some of My Picture Book Collection

Some of My Picture Book Collection

When I got home I read dozens of rhyming and non rhyming pictures books. Every month I am sent review copies of all the new titles (and proofs or early reading copies) by the various Irish and UK publishers, and I read ALL the picture books and as many of the novels as I can. So I get a great overview of what’s going on in the world of children’s books. (Aside – when I was the children’s book buyer at Waterstone’s and then Eason’s I saw the covers and titles of up to 8k children’s books a year. Booksellers are a font of knowledge when it comes to children’s books, trends, titles, covers etc. I’m proud to say I still work with booksellers, as a consultant with Dubray Books.)

So what conclusion did I come to after my late night read? A large number of rhyming picture books are all about concept (love, ABC, 123, colour) and it’s hard to get emotion and conflict into even the best of them.Yes, yes I know Julia Donaldson manages to pack her books with emotion (and others do too – Madeline, Millions of Cats, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes etc) but she is one in a million. Non-rhyming picture books are all about story, character and emotion.

Spread from Owl Babies

Spread from Owl Babies

I like books that squeeze my heart, books full of emotion and power. Owl Babies, Where the Wild Things Are, Lost and Found, The Heart and the Bottle, Monster Mama (see below for details).monster mamma

I hate insipid, badly rhyming picture books about loving your mummy (who is also a teddy dressed in human clothing). Managing to make the last words on each line rhyme does not magically turn a writer into a poet. The whole line has to sing.

And for the record here are my all time top 10 favourite picture books (not the best books, or the ones that have won the most awards, the ones I love the most). Books I could not live without:

1/ Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak

Is there a better picture book?

2/ Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson

Love it – and it has my name in it!

3/ Lost and Found – Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers

Oliver is exceptional. One of the greatest picture book talents Ireland has ever produced.

4/ Busy Busy World – Richard Scarry

My childhood is embedded in this book.

5/ The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs

Loved it as a child, love it now.

6/ The Red Tree –  Shaun Tan

From The Red Tree

From The Red Tree

The illustrations make me shiver, they’re so good. I also love Rules of Summer. All his work in fact.

7/ Monster Mama by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Stephen Gammell

Incredible book about a mother and her son, bullying and the power of love.

8/ Alfie Gets in First – Shirley Hughes

Best writer for toddlers ever. Her domestic scenes sing with love.

9/ Peter’s Chair – Ezra Jack Keats

Exceptional picture book from 1967 about sibling rivalry. I was read it first when my sister was born and it’s stayed with me all that time.

10/ Fighting it out for the last slot – I can’t choose. There so many amazing picture book makers. Jon Klassen is my pick for today. I Want My Hat Back. But I also adore Dr Suess (who doesn’t?), although may of his books are more illustrated books than picture books (maybe Richard Scarry’s too?). A topic for another day. And for pure illustration, Lizbeth Zwerger all the way. Journey by Aaron Becker is pretty special too (wordless picture book). So many pretty books …

A Spread from Journey

A Spread from Journey

Better get back to the writing! I’ll leave you with this: award winning picture book maker, Marie Louise Fitzpatrick talking a lot of sense about picture books that rhyme:

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

If I say ‘picture books’ what do you think of? Stories about bears who can’t sleep and hares who love each other ‘to the moon and back’? Books about caterpillars turning into butterflies, and families going on bear hunts? Books for young children in other words.

Most people think children ‘grow out’ of picture books, that they are too simple for children who can read. Well, I’m in my 40s and I still adore picture books. I read them with my children yes, (age 11 and 8) but I also read them for myself. Some of the greatest art out there is sandwiched between the covers of picture books, plus they’re beautifully written, with not a word out of place. Haiku for aliens someone once described them as, and they were right.

I’ve always loved art and as a child I was lucky to have a dad who brought me to art galleries. After school I went on to study History of Art (with English) at Trinity College, Dublin, where I spent hours in the library pouring over the pages of the glossy art books. I also studied picture books – I was obsessed with Maurice Sendak (and still am). I’d like to share some of my favourite picture books with you and explain why I love them so much.

1/ Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

A Spread from Where the Wild Things Are
A Spread from Where the Wild Things Are

One of the most famous picture books of all. Originally published in 1963, at the time adults thought it a disturbing book. They thought the monsters would terrify children. But they underestimated youngsters, who recognised (and still recognise) the humour and mischief in the beasts. I bought  a hardback copy of this book for my son, Sam, when he was born. I was a children’s bookseller in Waterstone’s  and I loved reading this one aloud at story time. It’s so beautifully written, the words just flow off the page.  It really has stood the test of time and the artwork still looks fresh and original 50 years on. A true classic.

Monster Mama cover2/ Monster Mama by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Stephen Gammell

An Interior from Monster Mama
An Interior from Monster Mama

I was a single mum for many years and I loved curling up and reading picture books with my son. This one is all about a mum who is a ‘monster’ and fights off the bullies who threaten her son. It’s about maternal love and the illustrations are highly coloured and very unusual.  It’s a book full of powerful emotion and reading it always reminds me how strongly I felt and still feel about my son (who is now 20!).

3/ The Red Tree by Shaun Tanred-tree

An Interior from The Red Tree
An Interior from The Red Tree
The Last Page of The Red Tree
The Last Page of The Red Tree

I’m a huge fan of Shaun Tan’s work. He’s an extraordinary writer and visionary artist and I urge you to seek him out. His books are for all ages, especially The Arrival, which is more graphic novel than picture book. But my favourite is his ode to hope and renewal, The Red Tree. It’s a simple story about a girl with red hair who is having a rough time. On each page there’s a tiny red leaf, and at the end of the book, the leaves have become a bright, shining tree. The text is beautifully written but it’s the illustrations that really blow you away. Everyone has days (or weeks or even months) where they feel tired and down and lonely, and I find this book – and its message of hope and its inspirational artwork – so reassuring. Nothing ever seems as bad after reading it. His latest book, Rules of Summer is also pretty special.

Here’s some of the text of The Red Tree: ‘Sometimes the day beings with nothing to look forward to

And things go from bad to worse/Darkness over comes you/Nobody understands . . .

But suddenly there it is

Right in front of you/bright and vivid

Quietly waiting/just as you imagined it would be.’

More of Shaun Tan's Work
More of Shaun Tan’s Work
Shaun Tan's Latest Book
Shaun Tan’s Latest Book

To find out more about  Shaun’s work see: www.shauntan.net  I also love Owl Babies by Martin Waddell (as it has 3 little owls – and my children used to re-name the owls with their own names and the dark, atmospheric artwork by Patrick Benson is superb); Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School by David Mackintosh (a book celebrating difference with stunning illustrations); and Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers (which has a strong friendship theme and the most wonderful rowing boat illustration – there’s a whale gliding underneath it). And I also adore the work of Lizbeth Zwerger for her quirky imagination and her use of colour + line.owl babiesmarshall armlost and found

The Work of Lizbeth Zwerger
The Work of Lizbeth Zwerger

What’s your favourite picture book and why? I’d love to know.

Yours in books,

Sarah XXX

This blog post first appeared on the Girls Heart Books blog: www.girlsheartbooks.com