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The Nosy Crow Reading Group verdict on Goth Girl and The Ghost of a Mouse

Posted by Kate on Mar 17, 2014

On Thursday last week, the Nosy Crow Reading Group discussed Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse.

I am a huge Chris Riddell fan, myself, and was proud to acquire the Ottoline books when I was at Macmillan and to publish the Muddle Earth books, which Chris wrote with Paul Stewart. And so we are really delighted that he’s working on illustrations for Nosy Crow’s own Witchworld series.

All seventeen of us at this month’s Nosy Crow Reading Group loved the “amazing”, “beautiful”, “fantastic” illustrations in Goth Girl, and all but one of us loved the “astonishing” production values of the hardback book – the silver foiling, the shiny spot UV, the sparkling foiled edges, the quality of the paper and the printing, the tiny book at the end. The one dissenter felt it was maybe over-bling-y, but hers was a lone voice.

Many of us had a strong sense of the author’s immersion in the world he’d created, and his passion for it.

Whenever we look at books, a key question for the reading group is always, “who is it for”, and we struggled to come to a consensus on the answer for this book. Clearly, lots of the literary and other allusions and references, from Homer to Fight Club and Abercrombie and Fitch, and the presence of parodies of historical figures like Mary Shelley and Samuel Johnson, aren’t going to be picked up by child readers.

There was a divide in the group between those who felt that this wasn’t an issue – that the characters and the story were fun and compelling enough for children to simply skate over the stuff they didn’t “get” (but might remember and “get” later), and those who felt that the balance between the jokes with adult appeal on the one hand and the plot and characters with child-appeal on the other hand was weighted too much towards adults. Those who weren’t so keen felt that Ada was a little flat as a character, and the absence of an emotional journey for her meant that it was hard to engage with her. Some of us thought that the book was “self-indulgent”. Many of us thought that the ending was a little hurried, and that there were plot holes and loose ends. Several people commented on what appeared to be editorial glitches, mismatches between the text and the art (the text description of the image on page 137 refers to a man chasing a swan, but the picture shows a woman: Leda, I assume), for example.

This book won the Costa children’s book prize. The judges described it as “wonderful, charming, delightful and inventive.” And Josh Lacey, reviewing the book for The Guardian, says, “The actual plot is skimpy, but that doesn’t matter; the point of this lovely book is its oddball characters, witty details and literary references […] But it is Riddell’s artwork that really makes this book such a pleasure to hold and read. The text is peppered with all kinds of lovely illustrations, from sketches of the characters to a magnificent double-page spread of an elegant vampire duelling sabre-rattling pirates. There are loving nods to 18th-century pamphlets and magazines, the wallpaper and statuary that you’ll find tucked away in odd corners of stately homes, and, of course, Peake and Heath Robinson (Dr Cabbage looks very much like Professor Branestorm, even down to his habit of wearing several pairs of glasses). Goth Girl may be marketed at tween girls, but will undoubtedly find a very happy readership among adults.”

As a group, it’s fair to say that we loved the art, and the physical book itself, but felt that we’d enjoyed other examples of Chris Riddell’s writing more.

Key trends in kids apps: a guest post by Stuart Dredge

Posted by Stuart Dredge on Jan 08, 2014

Today we’re very pleased to have a guest post by Stuart Dredge, the UK’s best apps journalist, creator of the Apps Playground website, and author of the new iBook, 100 Best iPad Apps for Kids. Here are some of Stuart’s observations of the key creative trends that emerged in kids’ apps last year.

In September 2010, I registered the domain name appsplayground.com and bodged together a sparse WordPress blog about children’s apps mainly on a whim. I was a technology writer with an iPad, a three year-old son and a curiosity about what kind of apps were being made for children.

More than three years later, Apps Playground has become a labour of love for my wife and I, who as freelancers run it from our home while juggling paid work and our now-six year-old, who’s been joined by a brother two years his junior. Unpaid app review assistants, as we know them.

In 2013, just under 288,000 people visited the site to read about the iOS and Android apps that we’d found through a mixture of app store ferreting and contacts with a widening range of developers. And as the year ended, we were finishing off our first iPad e-book, Apps Playground’s 100 Best Apps for Kids: 2013 Edition, which came out this week on Apple’s iBooks store.

It was a chance to take stock of our favourite apps of the year, and also think about some of the trends in children’s apps that we’re most excited about going into 2014. Nosy Crow have kindly allowed me onto their blog to ramble (a bit) about them.

Children as creators, not just consumers

There are some beautiful storybook apps available for iPad with wonderful wordplay and lovely illustrations. But it’s also good to see apps catering for children’s desire to tell their own stories, or at least influence those they’re reading. Nosy Crow’s Little Red Riding Hood is one of our favourite examples of the latter, with its branching narrative where children can choose what items the heroine uses to defeat the Big Bad Wolf.

But there’s also a growing number of apps that function almost as digital versions of toy theatres – they provide characters and backgrounds, but children create the actual story, often recording their voice telling it, to save and share with family members. Then there’s the clutch of apps going further still, teaching children programming skills – Hopscotch, Hakitzu Elite and Light-bot for example – often through the use of characters and game mechanics.

Digital meets physical

Often when I write about children’s apps for The Guardian, where commenters can be somewhat… grumpy, there is feedback along the lines of ‘children should play with wooden toys / ride bikes / play football rather than staring at screens’, as if digital play has to cannibalise physical play. That’s an entire blog post in itself – if anything, I wonder if apps cannibalise TV viewing – but another response might be to suggest that digital and physical play can complement one another.

There were some good examples last year. Drawnimal gets children to draw animal ears, tails and limbs on paper, then turns the iPhone or iPad screen into the creature’s face. SquiggleFish gets them to draw fish (or, indeed, any sealife) then scan them in to swim in a virtual aquarium.

Leo’s EyePaint involves colouring in on-screen pictures by grabbing tones and textures from the real world via the camera; FriendStrip Kids Pro makes comic strips with your children posing as the characters; Little Zebra Shopper turns the iPad into a pretend cash register to scan cardboard products; Mr Shingu’s Paper Zoo’s origami animals can’t help but make you start folding in the real world, and so on.

Shared experiences

Not so much a specific feature in apps, as something relating to how children use them. The point being that often, they use them with parents. Yes, tablets can fulfil a role as “digital babysitters” (thanks again, grumpy commenters) but a lot of the fun comes from using them together – parent and child, or child and child – when they’re sharing nicely, obviously.

My sons want to show me the characters they’ve made in Toca Mini; get me to do Charlie’s voice in Charlie and Lola Me Books; ask me why there aren’t any goat-turkey hybrids in the real world – Axel Scheffler’s Flip Flap Farm has a lot to answer for there – get my help with maths sums; and craft together in Toca Builders. These are precious shared experiences.

Some apps are tapping in to this more explicitly, like Night Zookeeper Teleporting Torch’s feature where parents set children drawing missions. I think we’ll see more of these in 2014 too: it’s less about monitoring your child’s progress as if apps are developmental tests – that’s happening too – and more about joining in the fun.

Lots of things to be excited about, then, and a lot of this is underpinned by some familiar attributes: storytelling, craft and characters, even for apps that aren’t specifically ‘stories’. 2013 was a good year for children’s apps, but 2014 promises to be even better.

Thank you, Stuart! If you’re interested in reading more about the best new kids apps, take a look at Apps Playground – and you can buy the iBook here.

The Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group verdict on A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton

Posted by Kate on Aug 09, 2013

Yesterday evening the Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group met for the third time, and the book for discussion was Dave Shelton’s A Boy and a Bear in a Boat. Winner of the Brandford Boase Award, shortlisted for The Carnegie Medal and described by Philip Ardagh, reviewing for The Guardian, as “very special”, the book isn’t short of accolades.

As with previous books we’ve discussed, the book was set up for discussion on a special Nosy Crow Guardian page on The Guardian website, and Michelle from The Guardian used the comments section to run a commentary on one of the two discussions (we divide into two groups to try to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak). Though there was some overlap in discussion between the two groups, it’s worth reading Michelle’s live commentary. And if you’ve anything to add to the discussion – and we really hope you have – it would be great if it could join the comments on that page. There was discussion about the book in the run-up to, and during, the reading group meeting, on Twitter, using, as we have for previous books, the hashtag #NCGKids.

Here, I’ve tried to pull together the thoughts of the other group, but I’ll also try to include other comments from the end of the discussion, when both groups got together again.

We began the discussion by going round the table, asking each person for his or her overall feeling about the book, and at once it was clear that this was a book that was going to divide the group more than the previous titles we’d discussed, Wonder and A Monster Calls. One of us described it as “a masterpiece” that would still be being read in 50 years, one of us said, “It has a richness that feeds you, and, rightly approached with a child, would enrich them too”, some of us couldn’t make up our minds how we felt about it, some of us felt pretty indifferent to it, and a couple of us found it “frustrating” and “annoying” and a bit boring. Many of us, even at this stage in the discussion, wondered how appealing it would be to a wide audience of children.

To prompt a discussion – in the unlikely event that we run out of stuff to say, which hasn’t happened yet – we propose a few questions in a blog post before the event, which to some extent influences the shape of the discussion.

Oh, I’d say that this blog post contained plot spoilers, but the concept of a plot spoiler doesn’t apply awfully well to this particular book. But the bottom line is that if you want your reading untainted by our thinking, read the book before the blog post.

ALLEGORY?

On the basis of our responses to it, the book is open to a wide range of (adult) interpretations. Some of us thought that it was about life, about being a living human being: you are beset with ennui and problems and you’re pretty directionless, but despite all that you just keep bashing on. Some of us thought that it was about growing up from childhood to adulthood. Some of us thought that it was about being a child and being a parent, with the boy as the growing child and the bear the father, who assumes authority (“This is a captain’s hat. I am the captain of this vessel and a captain, let me tell you, does not get lost.”) though even from the start, he has a sort of innocent ignorance (the bear is astonished that it might be possible to navigate by the stars, and by the idea that the constellations might have names, and finds the simplest game of I Spy compelling), but later the boy becomes the captain, initially temporarily donning the captain’s hat while the bear turns “his dead eyes away… staring into space”, and ultimately the boy is rowing the bear, in a metaphor for parent/child role-reversal that many of us recognise as our parents age. Some thought, in the context of this interpretation, that Harriet, the boat, represented an absent, possibly dead, mother. Some of us thought that it was, somehow, about an afterlife, and even that it bore a religious interpretation, as it championed faith in adversity. We thought it unlikely that children would be drawn to this kind of “what’s it really about?” sort of speculation, however: to them, it’s about a boy and a bear in a boat.

DIDACTIC?

Many of us (arguably in the absence of much of a plot in the first third of the book – see below) looked for “lessons” in the book. Some of us suggested, variously, that the book taught the appreciation of small things, the importance of patience, the value of living in the moment, the benefits of slowing down, or a sort of E M Forster-esque Only Connect message. Some of us doubted that the lessons that had been extracted by us as adults would be as clear to a child: if it is a didactic book, then it isn’t terribly explicit in its didacticism.

WHAT OTHER FICTION DID IT MAKE US THINK OF?

This is a book that made people think of other books (and films and TV). I – and I wonder how far it was just that I was trying to get a purchase on the book by bringing other cultural references to it – found myself thinking about Waiting for Godot, The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Life of Pi, the last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner, and Herge’s Adventures of Tintin. I even found myself thinking of the last sentence of The Great Gatsby as I was reading the last sentence of the book. Others mentioned The Prisoner, The Hermit and The Bear, The Old Man and the Sea, and Alice in Wonderland,

FUNNY?

Many people who tweeted using the #NCGKids hashtag found the book hilarious, in a lol-y kind of way, and some said their children had too. Though we found parts of the book amusing, it didn’t exactly make us laugh.

STRUCTURE

The structure of the book is interesting. For the first third of the book, a boy and a bear row for days and nights across a featureless stretch of water. I will admit that, at page 97, I caved, and skimmed forward to the end, as I couldn’t quite believe that the author would try to sustain a book that is almost 300 pages long with no incident. In fact, in an interview (but I can’t track it down – please help!), Dave Shelton seems to suggest that he struggled with the middle of the book (which I’d suggest is page 106 to page 288, but that’s my opinion). In an interview with School Zone, Shelton talks about “succumbing to the inevitable” and adding more incident as the book went on: “I started out by trying to make the two of them being bored and there was much more of that in my initial draft. Eventually, though, I succumbed to the inevitable of having to bring more in to the story; just having two characters together getting bored wasn’t enough. I even fell asleep when I was trying to edit it!”. Some of us thought that this left the book a rather odd shape – one third (and the very end) very slow and quiet, and the rest of it full of either classic or cliched (depending on your point of view) sea adventures: a minor storm, ravenous hunger and imminent starvation, an encounter with a sea monster, an encounter with a ghost ship, a stranding on an island, and a shipwreck in a bigger storm. One of us, though, suggested that this fitted with an interpretation of the book as a sort of new-window)seven ages of man allegory of life, with childhood seeming incident-free (in which context, the comic could be seen as the experience of reading for a pre-literate child) followed by adulthood, packed with incident and problems, before a calmer old age.

THE ENDING

In several interviews (including the one I can’t find), Dave Shelton’s said he knew what the ending would be before he worked out other parts of the book. In an interview with The Reading Zone, he talks about having written the ending early on: “From quite early on I knew where their relationship was going,” says Shelton. “I had the ending written out very early and I am very proud of it, and it certainly helped having a literary destination for the characters.”

Some of us found the ending “bleak”, “depressing” and “flat”, feeling that the boy and the bear had more and more materially stripped from them as the book progressed (though arguably what they lost in material possessions, they gained, in a compensating sort of a way, in the depth of their relationship and the richness of their experiences). Others felt that the book ended the only way that it possibly could, and one of us pointed out that if you had to lose one of the three “b“s of the title, it was better that it be the boat than than the bear or the boy,

Few of us could help speculating what might happen next, and, again, there was a divide between those who thought that, as they had each other, and were moving on, that the boy and the bear would be OK. Others of us felt that they had little hope of reaching any destination, and that, given their materially diminished state, the next adversity would be the last.

THE ILLUSTRATIONS

We all agreed that the illustrations hugely enhanced the book, some of us doubting that we’d have got through without them.

THE WRITING

Unlike the illustration, we were split on the question of the quality of the writing. This is Dave Shelton’s first conventional novel – he’s written in comic/graphic novel form before. Some of us felt that the writing was very “visible”, to the point of being mannered and overwrought: the author was “elaborately trying to be good at writing”. Some felt that it would have been better as a comic book. But others felt that, whatever we felt about the content, this was really good writing.

WHO’S IT FOR?

Like the other two books we’ve read, we recognised that the book had an adult appeal. I think that it’s fair to say that fewer of us, this time around, were as confident that the book had child appeal. A previous reading group attendee said via Twitter that she thought that it would be “too slow” to read to her class. A retired children’s librarian in the group acknowledged it as, and applauded it for being, an “old-fashioned book”, saying that it didn’t necessarily conform to “how young people like to read now”. She said it was “caviar to the general”, that might appeal – but might appeal strongly – to a particular kind of child reader. And, in fact, on Twitter, speaking about the group’s responses to the book as they were relayed by Michelle, Dave Shelton himself said, “I always hoped it would be very special to a few of its readers rather than quite good for a wide readership”. Several people felt that it was a book that would work better shared as a read aloud book, read by an adult to a child, than given to a child who’d be left to get on with it.

I asked directly, “Who’s it for?”, and here are a few of the responses from people in the group:

“It’s written for adults.”

“It’s written for children.”

“It’s written for children, but adults can find a deeper meaning.”

“It’s written for adults who like to read children’s books.”

“Its for Kafka readers of any age.”

“It’s for the adult in the child and the child in the adult.”

“It’s written for the author.”

SO…

This book was, many of us felt, a bit of a blank slate – in which context the cover of the hardback with the blue chart and the coffee ring was more indicative of its nature than the more traditionally illustrated paperback cover. We ended up interpreting it and responding to it very differently. It was, in this way, a sort of perfect exemplar or proof of the validity of reader-response criticism. Either that, or the experience of reading it for a reading group discussion made us look for depths far beyond the author’s intent! Some of us loved it. Many of us liked it, or quite liked it. A few of us didn’t like it much at all..Some of us felt it was a brave book. Some of us felt it was self-indulgent. We couldn’t agree who its audience was, and many of us expressed doubts that it would appeal to many children. We all acknowledged its originality, though it made many of us think of other works of fiction in different media.

What do you think?

Please tell us here.

PS.Here is a short review of the book by an individual reading group member:

PPS Thanks to Sarah Snaith for the photograph at the top of the blog post.

The Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group verdict on A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Posted by Kate on Jul 15, 2013

Last week we had the second meeting of The Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group. The children’s book we discussed was A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

There are plot spoilers in this blog post, so be warned.

We all had a strong emotional response to the book. It was described as “wonderful”, “beautiful”, “powerful”, and “visceral”. Many of us admitting to having been moved to tears even on second readings (by which time, some of us reasoned, we’d thought we would be partly inured to the impact of the book because we were in part prepared for what happens… at least one of us had thought that Conor’s mother might be saved by medicine made from yew). But, even on a second reading, we were, as one of us put it, “still shell-shocked”, and another described how her husband had asked her to stop reading it as her sobbing was stopping her 15 year old getting to sleep. With a sad inevitability, many of us felt that we were able to bring our own (adult) experience of bereavement to our reading of the book, and many of us spoke about how true and real the evocation of grief and of isolation was.

In our blog post introducing the title as a reading group book, we asked a few key questions:

1) Is this book a work of fantasy?

2) Who goes on the longest emotional journey?

3) What do you think the relationships other than that between Conor and the Monster add to the novel?

4) Does Conor ever lose your sympathy?

5) Are the illustrations necessary?

The first question was the trickiest and most of us were willing, in the context of this novel, to accept a great deal of ambiguity. As the monster says, “your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day”. The essential question was, is the monster an imaginary projection of Conor’s need, or is it something outside him?

For some of us, the monster was the personification of Conor’s fear, or a physical manifestation of his emotional turmoil. Conor, who himelf defines the monster as “only a dream”, calls the monster into being by the power of his imagination… and by the power of his need for someone to connect with and, ultimately, tell his story to. No-one, other than Conor, sees the monster (or the needles, or berries or sapling mentioned below, for that matter), and any damage he appears to do to Conor’s house – breaking the window in the course of his first visit – is not there in the morning. But for some of us, there were strong indications the monster was real (so this was a fantasy novel). The needles (swept up and put in the bin the next morning) and the berries and the sapling were a material indication of this, but so, too, was the fact that the monster tells stories that Conor does not know with endings that shock him profoundly. The monster describes himself as elemental: “I have had as many names as there are years to time itself!… I am Herne the Hunter! I am Cernunnos! I am the eternal Green Man… I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that berathe the wind! I am the wolf that kils the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly! I am the stag, the mouse and the fly that are eaten! I am the snake of the world devouring its tail! I am everthing untamed and untameable!… I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.”

On the second question, most of us agreed that Conor goes on the longest emotional journey… but perhaps it would be best to describe it as a journey towards understanding and maturity – and specifically to the recognition that ambivalence and ambiguity are part of even our most extreme feelings.

However, there were those who felt that the Conor’s grandmother’s emotional journey was the most compelling, with her having made a real connection with Conor by the end of the book… though none of us felt that the author had taken an easy route and provided Conor with a wholly changed and sympathetic grandmother to “compensate” for the loss of his mother. And, as one of us pointed out, the grandmother had wigs to lend to her daughter. Perhaps the author was hinting that the grandmother had had cancer too.

On the third question, most of us felt that the relationship between Conor and the monster was so compelling that there was relatively little room for other relationships. Of course, part of the point of the book is that Conor is completely isolated.

Few of us, in answer to the fourth question, felt that Conor did lose our sympathy… but that wasn’t an absolutely uniform feeling: at least one of us found him pretty unappealing throughout, and was particularly shocked by his destructive impulse and his violence. We asked ourselves if we would have felt the same level of sympathy if Conor had been a girl… and we dismayed ourselves with our own answer: we felt that we might have felt less sympathetic towards a girl who destroyed rooms and beat people up.

The answer to the fifth question was largely determined by what edition the members of the group had read! If they’d read the illustrated edition (which Patrick Ness himself, in a sequence of Tweets, said he viewed as the better of the two), they felt that the illustrations provided a depth and, interestingly, sometimes provided a pause, a sort of breathing space and a relief, in the intensity of the story. Few felt they’d lingered on them, though. Those of us who’d read the unillustrated edition were happier with the pictures in our own heads, and some of us felt that the pictures made explicit and less ambiguous things we were happy to leave less fixed.

We had a conversation about who the book is for. I can’t say that we reached a conclusion on this point. Some of us felt that it would be useful to an older (11+) child or teenager facing or having had the experience of bereavement. Some felt comfortable sharing it with 11+ children who were not dealing with bereavement or the prospect of it (I gave it to my children at 11 and 13, though only the 13 year-old read it), but others felt it was too grim to give to a child as young as 11 and would only want to see it in the hands of teenagers. They felt it would engender fear in children who had no (immediate) need to be fearful. Many felt it was “for everyone”, and certainly for adults. One member of the other group said she’d bought 11 copies of the book for members (adult, I think) of her family when the family had suffered a bereavement. The concerns were about the fact that Conor’s mother’s illness was described in some detail, but I also think that the fact that there was no happy ending and that there was such ambiguity in the book made people uncertain about giving it to a child. As one of us said, “I would give a child a Jacqueline Wilson book about death before this one… because it’s too real”. (I wrote about the responsibilities I feel as a publisher of books for children here in a way that has some relevance to this uncertainty.)

I asked people what the book was about. For me, it’s about the guilt that comes from denial, and the healing that comes from truth. The monster calls Conor by name, but, also, Conor is the monster, who calls the yew tree. As the monster says, “You felt the truth of it when I said that you had called for me, that you were the reason I had come walking. Did you not?”, and Conor feels his own feelings – the feelings manifest in the nightmare that is at the centre of the book – to be monstrous. He lets his mother go, because, though he doesn’t want her to die, he wants this terrible part of his life to be over: “I can’t stand it any more!… I can’t stand knowing that she’ll go! I just want it to be over! I want it to be finished.”

We struggled to discuss flaws in the novel. For some of us, the focus on Conor and the monster was to the exclusion of the full development of other characters, with the intelligent villainy of Harry feeling particularly one-dimensional (and drawing comparisons with Draco Malfoy and his henchmen, Crabbe and Goyle in the Harry Potter novels). The teacher in our group felt uncomfortable with the way that the bullying was dealt with by the school, and some of us felt that the adults’ failure to be properly honest to Conor about his mother’s death – their complicity in his denial – was exaggerated. One of us felt that the book was a little “incoherent”, and had wanted, for example, a greater link between the stories that the monster tells and the unfolding events of the story. (Though, as the monster laughs incredulously, “You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons… you think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness.

Contradiction is at the heart of the novel – it is, for example, by holding tightly to his mother that Conor can finally let her go – and this made the novel more slippery – harder for the groups to get an intellectual grip on – than, say, R J Palaccio’s much simpler Wonder. This was a book about inarticulacy about which at least some of us (I put myself in this category) struggled to be entirely articulate! I asked which novel people had preferred discussing: A Monster Calls, or Wonder. I think, on balance, that though we preferred A Monster Calls, most of us found Wonder more pleasurable and easier to discuss.

But what do you think?

Do please let us know your thoughts in the comments section here, on Twitter or, even better from our point of view and the Guardian’s, on the Guardian page for the reading group discussion.

We're partnering with The Guardian for our upcoming reading group

Posted by Tom on May 31, 2013

Earlier this month we announced plans to launch a reading group (for adults) where we’d discuss different children’s books every month – for the first event, on June 13th, we’ll be reading Wonder, by R.J. Palacio.

The response has been really fantastic – and one of the most frequent questions we’ve received has been from parents, teachers and librarians across the country asking if there was any way to involve those people who wanted to come but couldn’t, because they were too far away.

Well, we’re thrilled to say that we’ve found a solution! We’re going to partner with The Guardian, who’ll host a simultaneous online discussion for everyone who’d like to take part. Michelle Pauli, Deputy Editor for The Guardian’s online books site, will be at the event in person to report back on what’s being discussed, and there’ll be space for everyone who’d like to contribute in the comments section of the Guardian page. You can read their introductory piece on the event here.

In our last update on the book group, we set some discussion points for the Wonder event – you can read these here, and find more details at The Guardian’s page for the event here. And if you’ve not read Wonder yet, you can order it from The Guardian’s bookshop here.

We hope that this means that absolutely everyone who wants to take part will be able to, wherever you are. If you have thoughts about the book, our questions, or the event itself, please do leave a comment on The Guardian’s page – we’re still experimenting with the shape of this group, and we’d like to accommodate as many people as possible!

And although all of places for the physical group for the first event are now gone, if you’d like to attend a future group, send me an email at [email protected] and I’ll add you to our mailing list.

Rounds: Parker Penguin is one of USA Today's top 10 apps for kids for 2012

Posted by Tom on Dec 17, 2012

It’s been less than a week since the release of our newest app, Rounds: Parker Penguin, and already it’s receiving plaudits from the press!

USA Today included it in their list of the 10 top iPad apps for kids this year. Jinny Gudmundsen writes:

“Presented with rich artwork full of round shapes and accompanied by music that varies when you touch the penguin, this is an intriguing way for kids to learn science.”

The app was also named one of the 30 best iOS apps of the week by The Guardian. Here’s Stuart Dredge’s review:

“Children with an interest in the world around them (and its wildlife) will love this delightful book-app from Nosy Crow. It follows a penguin called Parker through its life from birth to parenthood, with a mixture of storytelling and interactivity.”

And The Literary Platform included Rounds: Parker Penguin in their Christmas app round-up. Miranda West writes:

“This is the second in Nosy Crow’s Rounds series of apps designed to introduce children to the life-cycles of animals. The first, Franklin Frog, went on to be shortlisted for ‘Best Children’s App’ at this year’s FutureBook awards – and I’m convinced that somewhere out there is a child still trying to reach the end of this circular tale. Personally, I prefer Parker Penguin. There’s a touch of the Happy Feet about it as you guide Parker through the Antarctic landscape swiping and tilting the iPad screen to help him slide around the slopes on his belly or dive into the water then accelerate to chase fish. The graphics are first rate and I defy anyone not to feel a warm, seasonal glow as the chick hatches and stumbles about in the snow. Sniff.”

If you’ve bought the app, we’ve love it if you’d leave a review on iTunes. And if you haven’t tried it yet, you can find it on the App Store here – and the first app in the series, Rounds: Franklin Frog, here. Have fun with Parker!

In which we uncover an internet sock-puppet

Posted by Tom on Sep 07, 2012

UPDATED BELOW

I wrote about sock-puppets only a few days ago, and the subject certainly hasn’t gone away since. Today, though, I’m approaching the subject from a different angle: we have found someone trolling the Amazon book pages of one of our authors, and I would like to explain how we came to this conclusion and what it means.

Lyn Gardner is the author of our highly-acclaimed Olivia books – a fantastic series of novels set around a stage school and its pupils, perfectly suited for performance-mad 9-12 year olds. Lyn is also a theatre critic for The Guardian, so she really knows her stuff – as well as being hugely enjoyable (and I say that as someone who is most definitely not a performance-mad 9-12 year-old) the books have an immensely appealing authenticity about them. Julia Eccleshare called Olivia’s First Term, the first volume in the series, “a gripping story with a sharp eye for the power struggles within the classroom.” For The Telegraph, Dinah Hall wrote that the book has a “timeless feel … It has all the classic ingredients for nine year-olds.” And The Stage called the book “A hugely enjoyable, escapist, quite traditional series of children’s books.” Earlier this year, Olivia’s First Term was also selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club.

Now, I don’t mean by all this that because The Telegraph and The Stage like Lyn’s books other people aren’t allowed to dislike them. But they have been well-reviewed and well-received, and I think that is important context for what is to follow.

There are five Olivia books on Amazon, and four of them have received a single negative review each. These four reviews are written under different names, and none of the profiles associated with the reviews have written anything else. They’re all of roughly equal length (a single paragraph) and, to my mind, are written in a generic style of all-purpose negativity – but we’ll come to that in a moment. The really interesting thing is that two of the reviews were written before the books had even been published. One of them (Olivia’s Winter Wonderland, the fifth book in the series) won’t be available for another month – it hasn’t even been printed yet – and already there’s a sniping review. It is categorically impossible for anyone to have read that book yet (we don’t tend to print uncorrected proofs for reviewers and booksellers beyond the first volume in a series). So the reviews on Amazon aren’t by someone who has seen the book. In theory, Amazon users should not be allowed to review books before they have been published, but because of a glitch in the system from which Amazon pulls its data, Olivia’s Winter Wonderland appears on their site to be available now (in fact, it will publish on October 4th).

Here is a review for Olivia’s First Term:

I don’t find anything about the book to be dull and self-important, but there we are. On its own there’s nothing to find suspicious in this.

Here is a review for Olivia and the Movie Stars, the third book in the series:

Now, granted, this book is not Trainspotting, but “Middle Class” strikes me as a very odd complaint (almost – ha! – as if it has been made by someone who is only trying to be rude). The speculation that the other reviews were “left by friends” also seems strange.

Here is a review for Olivia’s Enchanted Summer, the fourth book in the series:

You will notice that this review was posted on the same day as the first one, for Olivia’s First Term. It was also posted before Olivia’s Enchanted Summer was available (the book was not published for another week). Again, it’s written in a way that seems to me to be gratuitously negative without engaging with the book itself. Of course Lyn is not Roald Dahl. Her books are nothing like his. It’s a criticism which doesn’t reveal anything other than a general negativity.

Finally, here is a review for Olivia’s Winter Wonderland:

This is certainly the oddest review of them all. Whoever wrote this has absolutely not read the book. I’ve not read the book. It doesn’t exist yet. This review is totally without merit, and whoever wrote it has been caught in their lie.

I will concede that the evidence that all of these reviews are by the same person is circumstantial: they’re the only bad review for each book, written to a similar length and style (two of them not only use the word “embarrassing”, which stands out as a choice of adjective because it is so weirdly applied, but also do so in the context of forced analogies comparing the books to dancing), by people who haven’t reviewed anything else, and the names are generic. But there is cast-iron evidence that at least some of them have been posted by someone who hasn’t read the books.

I find this intensely irritating for several reasons. Firstly, because Lyn is a friend, and this is petty, malicious and totally inexcusable behaviour, directed at her. And secondly, as her publisher, this is potentially harmful to the success of her books. If these were genuine reviews, then that would be fine – that’s what happens. Lyn knows that better than anyone: she’s a critic by profession. But these are not genuine reviews, and this person is not practising criticism.

So we return to the question – what to do to fix this? As I said, the review for Winter Wonderland should not have been allowed and only was through an error in the metadata. But all that means is that we were able to spot the falseness of the review with greater ease: if it had appeared once the book had been published, it would be far harder to prove it to be fake.

If you’ve read the Olivia books, we’d love it if you would consider leaving reviews for them on Amazon. And if you haven’t read them yet, you can read the first chapter of each on every book’s page of our website.

UPDATE
Over the weekend, all four of the negative reviews have disappeared from Amazon.

DINOSAUR ZOOM! Out now!

Posted by Camilla on Aug 02, 2012

This happy little chap has just taken delivery of his very own copy of Penny Dale’s glorious new book, DINOSAUR ZOOM!, the much-awaited follow-up to DINOSAUR DIG!, whose sales have now topped 80,000 copies internationally.

DINOSAUR ZOOM! joins our pre-historic friends as they race cross-country in their vehicles (a splendid array, from pick-up trucks to tractors) to a leafy glade in the woods. The gang hurriedly unpack picnic tables, hang bunting and blow up balloons, then hide themselves in a hedge to await the arrival of the littlest dinosaur in his yellow convertible. Of course, a wonderful surprise party ensues and the littlest dinosaur is treated to food, presents and the biggest dinosaur cake you’ve ever seen.

The great thing about all Penny’s books is that they are born out of her careful observation of children, and in particular children at play. When Penny’s daughter was small, she created titles like Rosie’s Babies, Bet You Can’t and Ten in a Bed, which beautifully capture little moments of childhood, and resonate with both parents and children. Twenty or so years on, and Penny is now watching and listening to her small grandson play with his toys – a very different experience indeed, she says. The result has been DINOSAUR DIG! and now, DINOSAUR ZOOM!: two books that absolutely know who their audience is, and give them what they want to read about.

Dinah Hall, writing in last Sunday’s Telegraph recognised this, saying: ‘Little boys love dinosaurs. Little boys love trucks. Put the two together in the worryingly appealing Dinosaur Zoom! and you have the recipe for a night-time battle over bedtime stories. Resign yourself to reading the same book over and over again for the next two years – and make sure it’s a girl next time.’

Nicholas Tucker chose it as one of the Independent’s best new books for under-12s, writing: ‘Penny Dale has a new slant on ever-popular prehistoric animals in her picture book Dinosaur Zoom! Whether driving a blue convertible through the desert or reversing a lorry into the woods, these dinosaurs practically leap from the page.’

Finally, Kate Kellaway selected it as one of her top summer reads in The Guardian, saying, ‘This book is strictly for the dinosaur-besotted… but Penny Dale has taken the ingenious decision to go the whole hog – or brontosaurus – here by combining outrageous dinosaurs with assorted heavy goods vehicles, sports cars, tractors and the like. For the prehistoric speed freak, this is a roaring delight in which dino drivers head full throttle towards a little dinosaur’s birthday party.’

It’s great review coverage – a testimony to Penny’s beady eye, sharp ear and creative imagination. Penny is now working on a third title in the series, DINOSAUR RESCUE! The rough illustrations are finished already, and I am happy to report that it is going to be as fast, furious and fun as its predecessors.

What is a publisher for?

Posted by Kate on Aug 01, 2012

I think some people may have been surprised to see yesterday’s blog post about self-publishing on the Nosy Crow site.

We are, after all, a publisher (and I am going to concentrate on Nosy Crow as a publisher of “straight books”, whether ebooks or print books, in this post, by the way, not as a publisher of multimedia, interactive apps, which, of course, as many readers of this blog know, we also make).

I had several reasons for asking M G Harris to contribute.

The first was that it was a topical response to a Guardian article about social media as a means of marketing books. Given the experience of the author, the focus was on self-publishing, but the points made seemed pretty relevant to any author, whether self-published or traditionally published, or any publisher trying to use social media to connect with potential readers or advocates. The original article had generated a bit of discussion on Twitter, and M G Harris suggested that she had more to say on the topic than the 140 characters allowed.

The second was that I know her and like her. I have, as she said in the blog post, published her. She’s a shrewd, entrepreneurial business woman as well as an author, and I thought she’d have interesting things things to say.

I knew, though, that she’d be talking about her experience of self-publishing. But I think it is pretty pointless for publishers to pretend self-publishing doesn’t exist. M G Harris one of several authors I know who have tried it with modest success, though as she acknowledges in her blog post, she already had a platform and digital assets like the game that were available because the books to which her self-published book was connected were published “traditionally” by Scholastic.

There are people who think publishers are doomed: sad old dinosaurs lumbering around the end-game landscape of a Jurassic industry.

Of course, I believe in our role as a publisher. But, when self-publishing, particularly self-epublishing is cheap and easy and has lost so much of its stigma, I think that publishers need to be able to answer the question: what is a publisher for? To paraphrase Lytton Strachey, I think that every publisher has to be able to answer how we have a right to “interpose” ourselves between the author and the reader.

I believe that Nosy Crow brings several things as a publisher, and that, because of them, we have earned that right to “interpose”:

CREDIBILITY

We select what we publish. Yesterday (I am on holiday – see the picture above of me and Adrian working), I immediately rejected three books sent to me by agents. I’ve no idea how many books were rejected by people back at the office. If yesterday was like any other day, we’ll have received between 10 and 20 unsolicited manuscripts. We are asked to consider for publication perhaps 6,000 books per year. This year, we will publish just over 30: we publish around half a per cent of what we are offered. But selection is only valuable if your selection is credible. At Nosy Crow, we believe in the judgments we make. Of course, we get things wrong: maybe we don’t like books that go on to be successes (though actually I can’t think of any right now); maybe we think things are promising that don’t then quite shape up the way we hope they would or sell the way we hoped they would; maybe we aren’t quite fast enough in our response to unsolicited manuscripts and they go elsewhere… I am not saying we’re perfect, but we set out to create a list of high-quality, child-focussed and parent-friendly books and apps. I think we’ve done that, and are increasingly recognised for doing so. We are building a brand that has meaning and reputation, and each book we publish benefits from that brand.

MAKING BOOKS BETTER

The idea that publishers sit twiddling their thumbs, waiting for a book to appear so that they can slap a cover on it and sell it is, in my experience, not one that reflects reality (though it’s one that I know that some people have). Nosy Crow, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the kind of book and the nature of the material we receive, intervenes in the content of the book. In my own experience, children’s publishers do this more than adult publishers, and perhaps Nosy Crow does it more than many publishers. I’m not talking about correcting punctuation and spelling mistakes here, though we do that too. I am talking about suggesting rewrites and restructures; suggesting changes to, or the elimination or addition of, plot-lines and characters and pieces of artwork; work on scansion and rhyme and the register of the language used; work on making sure that the page-turns in a picture book work with the sense of the story, so that each spread is a reveal. I am talking about making the book as good as it can be. This can be a frustrating and challenging process on both sides: we are pretty demanding, and if we really don’t think something’s working, we will ask the author or illustrator to do it again (and again and sometimes again) until we feel it is right. Sometimes we work on things directly ourselves, rewriting for authors with their agreement and doing detailed Photoshop work on artwork. We respect our authors and illustrators and their creative integrity, but we roll our sleeves up and change, or help them to change, their work in ways that we think make it better and more likely to be commercially successful.

We also want books to look and feel as good as they can, and spend time, money and effort on creating what we think are arresting covers that communicate to their audience of potential buyers. We choose formats for board books and picture books that we think suit the artwork style and age-group, and worry away at paper finishes, board weight, foil, spot-UV and matt lamination to ensure that, within financially viable limits, we have a physical product that is as attractive as we can make it.

It’s maybe worth saying at this point that sometimes we not only make books better… we quite simply make them. In our first year of publishing (2011), we wrote almost half of the illustrated books we published ourselves, working with illustrators and paper engineers to create the books. We often suggest ideas for series, for format and for sequels to authors and illustrators. We work hard to earn our own seat at the creative table.

ACCESS TO CUSTOMERS

The lowest-risk way to self-publish is to self-epublish. Of course ebooks are important, but last year in the UK children’s market they accounted for about 2% of the market by volume and 1% by value. And many of those ebooks are being read by adults (cult titles like The Hunger Games trilogy count as children’s books and are heavily read by adults).

To access the vast bulk of the children’s market, you still need printed books.

Our ebooks are sold by etailers.

Our print books are stocked and sold by etailers, supermarkets, bookstore chains, independent bookshops, toy stores, and gift and museum shops, book clubs, book fairs, display marketing companies and catalogue companies. We have, or have access to, an infrastructure that supports selling to them, supplying them, invoicing them and collecting money from them. We have a critical mass of titles and a reputation that means it’s worthwhile to them to deal with us.

We also have an international presence. We have relationships with Candlewick (on illustrated books) in the US and Canada and with Allen and Unwin in Australia. We have sold rights to our books in 18 languages so far, and we have close relationships with several continental European publishers who publish many of our books in translation.

We sell rights to books in other media and formats too: yesterday I was negotiating a deal with an educational publisher for educational rights in one of our titles, and with a theatre company for stage rights in another.

We’ve had great coverage in the trade press in the UK and the US, and in France and Germany too, and have had industry recognition in the form of our Independent Publishers Guild awards for Children’s Publisher of the Year, Newcomer of the Year and Innovation of the Year.

We think up, design and, where necessary, print marketing material including catalogues, rights brochures, point-of-sale material; posters, badges, and packs to enable bookshops to run children’s events themed round our books.

We secure (and pay for – see below) promotions with relevant retailers.

ACCESS TO CONSUMERS

Before you can access consumers, you have to understand them. When we take on a book at Nosy Crow, we have an idea of the child – age, gender, interests – that we believe is the core reader of that book. If we don’t know who a book is for, we don’t take it on. We then try to make sure that everything about that book – the cover, the title, the type-size, the word-count – “speaks to” that core reader. We know that there are children who are not our vision of the core reader who might enjoy that book, but I think we have to get it right for that core reader. Of course, because we’re a children’s book publisher, and because the number of books that children buy for themselves is, in the context of the overall market, negligible, we are also trying to appeal to gatekeepers – parents and other relatives, mums buying a birthday present for the child whose party their own child has been invited to, teachers and librarians.

We use social media to raise awareness of our books among adult buyers. We have over 11,000 followers on Twitter and 1,800 or so likes on Facebook. Of course some of these people are people in the industry but many are parents, grandparents, librarians and teachers and, of course, authors and illustrators, any of whom might want to buy our books. We also have a lively website (as you may know, if you’re reading this blog). In the last 12 months, we’ve had over 100,000 unique visitors viewing over half a million pages. We are connected to a network of bloggers, who raise awareness of our books for their often highly specialised audiences.

We also have access to traditional media – and we certainly still think that traditional media is important, and see the impact on sales of really favourable reviews. Our books and apps have been reviewed and featured in national broadsheets (like, recently, The New York Times and The Guardian) in mass-market papers, in parenting magazines, and on radio.

We arrange for authors to attend literary festivals and other events to meet their readers and potential readers (you can find out what the next ones are at the bottom of our home page in the “Come and Meet Us” section).

EXPERTISE

All of this takes skill and expertise. We think we are good at judging, good at shaping, good at marketing and publicising and good at selling. Many of us at Nosy Crow have been doing this for years. When we assess a book for publication; change the positioning of the eyes on a rabbit by less than a millimetre; review the match between typography and artwork on a cover; or negotiate a rights deal we are drawing on years of knowledge and experience (over quarter of a century in my case alone).

TIME

Did I say I was on holiday? Spelling doesn’t get corrected; books don’t get printed and reprinted; ebook files don’t get made; bibliographic data doesn’t get communicated; Frankfurt book fair brochures don’t get written and designed; review copies don’t get sent out; rights sales don’t happen and get recorded; authors don’t get booked for literary feestivals; tweets and blog posts don’t get posted without the expenditure of a lot of administrative and other time. Some of this work is pretty dull, actually. We don’t mind. It’s our job. And we love what we do. But it takes time, and time is something that many authors don’t have, even if they have the inclination to take on these tasks. What time they do have, they want to spend writing or illustrating: it’s probably what they do best.

MONEY

As publishers, we take the financial risk. We pay our authors and illustrators advances up-front. We pay for covers to be designed. We pay printers for proofs and stock. We pay for the promotional slots that retailers offer us. We pay our own staff to make books the best they can be and to market and publicise our books. We pay for print and online marketing. We pay for stands, accommodation and travel to international book fairs.

And we pay for all of this before a single copy has been sold.

Then we pay to have our books in a warehouse. We pay to have our books sent out from the warehouse, to be invoiced, and for the debt to be collected. We pay to send authors to literary festivals. We pay to post copies to reviewers.

The financial risk, as I say, is ours. And we often take it on authors and illustrators with no track-record whatsovever – authors like Helen Peters and Paula Harrison, both published within the last few months; both of whom were “slush-pile” finds; and both of whom have been promoted by major UK retailers and sold internationally.

If we sell no copies, or fewer copies than we thought we would, we still bear many of those costs.

I know that epublishing eliminates some of these costs (the print and distribution element) but (a) that is a small part of the whole set of costs (around 9% of the cover price in the example of a typical children’s paperback fiction example I’ve just been working on) and (b) as I have said, just 2% of the children’s books sold last year in the UK were ebooks.

As an independent company, incidentally, we have an even more acute sense than perhaps is the case in the corporate world that the money we spend on acquiring and publishing books is money the shareholders could otherwise spend on cheese or cake or shoes for our kids.

As a publisher, we believe we use our brand, skills, knowledge, time and money to enable an author or illustrator to sell the best possible product in more places to more people than the author or illustrator would be able to do if they were working alone. We do this, we think, to the greater financial benefit of the author or illustrator than they would achieve should they choose to self-publish, while allowing the author and illustrator to focus on the thing they set out to do: to create a book.

Summer Reading round-ups

Posted by Tom on Jul 24, 2012

Last week, Kate blogged about the extraordinary triple-review of The Secret Hen House Theatre in The Guardian, and the cheering effect it had on an otherwise miserable weekend.

Well, the weather may have changed (for the better – the picture above is of the colour of the sky from my window), but the good news continues! Yesterday we learnt that The Secret Hen House Theatre has been selected by Booktrust as one of their Great Summer Reads.

In their review, Booktrust say of the book:

“Helen Peters has drawn on her own childhood on a farm, and her memories of writing and acting out her own plays, to create this lively story with a very convincing rural setting. Peters depicts a cast of strong and believable characters, from Hannah’s overworked and under pressure father, to her stroppy 10-year-old sister Martha, who soon proves herself to be a true ‘drama queen’. With a hint of Pamela Brown’s ‘The Swish of the Curtain’, there is much for aspiring young actors to enjoy here, but this hugely enjoyable story of family, friendship and country life will also have a broad appeal for children at upper primary level.”

And there was more good news to be had elsewhere. The Telegraph and The Independent ran lists of summer reading over the weekend, including both Dinosaur Zoom! by Penny Dale (out next month) and Goldilocks and Just the One Bear by Leigh Hodgkinson.

For The Telegraph, Dinah Hall wrote of Dinosaur Zoom:

“Little boys love dinosaurs. Little boys love trucks. Put the two together in the worryingly appealing Dinosaur Zoom! and you have the recipe for a night-time battle over bedtime stories. Resign yourself to reading the same book over and over again for the next two years – and make sure it’s a girl next time.”

On Goldilocks and Just the One Bear, Hall writes:

“With Hodgkinson’s fetchingly retro midcentury modern illustrations matched by her brilliantly animated text, this is a triumph.”

And in The Independent, Nicholas Tucker writes:

“Penny Dale has a new slant on ever-popular prehistoric animals in her picture book Dinosaur Zoom! Whether driving a blue convertible through the desert or reversing a lorry into the woods, these dinosaurs practically leap from the page.”

What are you summer reading plans?

The Guardian newspaper hat-trick for Helen Peters' The Secret Hen House Theatre

Posted by Kate on Jul 14, 2012

On a rather soggy Saturday morning in Herefordshire, after arriving late last night at a cottage with a power cut and the powerful smell of rot emanating from a many-weeks defrosted and prodigiously leaking freezer, I was not feeling as pro-countryside as I sometimes do.

But my faith in all things pastoral is being gradually restored, and I am powerfully reminded, too, of my own response to the countryside elements of Helen Peter’s rurally-set debut novel, The Secret Hen House Theatre by The Guardian’s three lovely mentions today.

First, Linda Buckley-Archer reviewed it as The Guardian’s children’s book of the week. She says, “There’s something timeless about Helen Peters’s accomplished and hugely engaging debut… Drawn with humour and affection, Hannah’s world is utterly convincing… There is a lovely moment when Hannah takes a newborn lamb from its cardboard box at the bottom of the Aga, feeling its “quick, shallow heart-beat under nubbly wool”. Its body is warm and comforting “like a hot water bottle”. “You’re mine,” she says… It is said that your capital as a writer is your childhood. In celebrating friendship and family, a country upbringing and the joy of discovering something you truly love to do, Peters has drawn on hers to create a memorable story with broad appeal”.


Helen Peters singing copies of The Secret Hen House Theatre in the signing tent at the Hay Festival

The Guardian also asked writers and children to nominate books, new and old, that might be good additions to the Summer Reading Challenge to read six books over the summer. Of the six children’s writers asked to nominate their books, two, Julia Donaldson and Michael Morpurgo named The Secret Hen House Theatre.

Julia Donaldson says, “As a child, I loved The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown, and The Secret Hen House Theatre by Helen Peters is another engaging book about amateur dramatics”.

Michael Morpurgo says, “Helen Peters is a new writer and The Secret Hen House Theatre feels very autobiographical. Hannah Roberts is the eldest of four children; her father, a single parent is an overworked farmer struggling to keep his farm going against a greedy landlord and vandals who try to destroy his dream. Hannah takes her responsibilities as eldest daughter very seriously, but what she really wants to do is become an actor like her dead mother. The book follows the dramatic twists and turns as she tries to write, direct and act in her own play. Life on the rundown farm is wonderfully described – you can almost smell the pigs and hear the lambs bleating. Full of action, with a happy ending, this is a book I didn’t want to finish.”

The book is, in fact, one of four Nosy Crow titles included in the 2012 Reading Challenge official lists, and we wrote about how pleased we were about our inclusions in the selection here. And here are links to both the older and younger lists.

We’re so proud to have published The Secret Hen House Theatre. It’s great to have its qualities recognised and articulated by others.

Print Books vs. E-Books: facts and fictions

Posted by Tom on Jun 08, 2012

The excellent Joan Ganz Cooney Center has published an interesting paper titled Print Books vs. E-books: Comparing parent-child co-reading on print, basic, and enhanced e-book platforms. It’s well worth reading – it’s thoughtful, focused and balanced – and the only thing I even remotely object to in the entire paper is the first half of the title, “Print Books vs. E-Books” (on which more in a moment).

As is the way with such things, though, the coverage that it has received has been – to me, at least – disappointing. Fans of Ben Goldacre will know to be wary of mainstream press coverage given to academic papers: it has a tendency to over-simplify and over-state the case being made. Let us turn, then, to The Guardian’s piece on the paper in question, headlined “Enhanced ebooks are bad for children finds American study”. The first sentence of the story is as follows: “All-singing, all-dancing ebook versions of children’s stories might encourage kids to pick up a book, but they don’t help with literacy, according to a new study.”

There are several problems with this headline and opening paragraph. I won’t talk for long about the main problem with the headline – which is that such a claim (specifically, that ebooks are “bad” for children) is not to be found anywhere in the paper itself – because it was probably written by a subeditor, rather than the author of the story, though this not an auspicious start.

I have larger objections to that first sentence, which contains so many false impressions I don’t really know where to begin. Let’s do it one clause at a time.

“All-singing, all-dancing ebook versions” is certainly an eye-catching way to begin a story, but what it doesn’t say – and what The Guardian neglect to mention elsewhere in their coverage – is that the study only looked at two e-book titles, which, in the words of its own authors, Cynthia Chiong, Jinny Ree, Lori Takeuchi, and Ingrid Erickson, “limits the generalizability of its findings”.

Moving on to the second half of that clause, we find “might encourage kids to pick up a book”. Again, what this doesn’t say (though this caveat is eventually partially acknowledged) is that the study only involved the children of 32 sets of parents, recruited from the same location (the New York Hall of Science) and broadly belonging to the same demographic (“a majority of participants were white and of middle or high socio-economic status”), and so could hardly be said to be representative of children in general (a fact which is also pointed to by the paper’s authors, in the “Limitations” section).

And finally, we have “they don’t help with literacy, according to a new study”. Again, this assertion is not to be found anywhere in the paper itself.

Chiong, Ree, Takeuchi and Erickson lay out three very straightforward research questions at the start of their paper:

1) What is the nature of parent-child and child-book interactions when reading each of the three formats?

2) How does child engagement with the story vary across the three formats?

3) How does child comprehension of the story vary across the three formats?

The three formats are print, basic e-book, and enhanced e-book, and you will notice that none of these questions are, “Do all-singing, all-dancing ebooks help with literacy?” or “Are enhanced e-books bad for America?” The study does note that “children who read enhanced e-books recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story”, but one cannot reasonably conclude from this that enhanced e-books have no value at all, or – even more absurdly – that they are actively bad for children.

In its summary of key findings, the study makes two recommendations, and I agree with both whole-heartedly.

Firstly, it advises that designers of enhanced e-books ought to “exercise caution when adding features to enhanced e-books, especially when those features do not directly relate to the story.” We at Nosy Crow don’t make enhanced e-books, but we follow the same principle devoutly in the creation of our apps. We don’t believe in interactive features which have been tacked-on thoughtlessly or for no purpose other because they can be: we think that interactivity should always be advancing the story or drawing a child further into the narrative. Our Cinderella app is a story about hard work, so you can help Cinderella do the chores. It’s about appearance, so we invited children in by using the front-facing camera as a mirror. And it’s about magic, so we enabled the child to make the transformations happen.

Secondly, the study makes the suggestion to parents that “enhanced ebooks may be valued for their ability to prompt less motivated young readers toward engagement when they might otherwise avoid text altogether”. This is a really important point, and one that chimes with our thinking in several ways. We enthusiastically believe in finding ways of encouraging reading for pleasure, however that might take place – whether it’s on an iPad screen or with a print book. And we don’t believe that enhanced ebooks – or apps, for that matter – are in any way a “substitute” for the experience of reading by traditional means. This is where my own thinking diverges very slightly from that of the authors of this paper: I don’t agree with the notion that print books and enhanced ebooks are in competition with one another. When a child picks up an iPad to read Cinderella or The Three Little Pigs, our app isn’t competing with a print book for that child’s attention, it’s competing with every other source of media available on the iPad: browsing the web, watching a movie, listening to music, playing games. Reading a physical picture book and using an app are fundamentally different experiences.

Of course, I can’t defend every enhanced e-book (or book app) that’s available as having the same literacy value, because some aren’t as good as others – but that’s really no different to some books being less well-written or illustrated than others.

The full paper (which is only five pages) makes excellent reading over a cup of tea. What are your thoughts?

Easter reviews (and why children's book reviews help)

Posted by Kate on Apr 09, 2012

We’d a nice presence in the broadsheets over the Easter weekend.

On Saturday, Julia Eccleshare’s round-up of Easter reading for The Guardian featured The Baby That Roared written by Simon Puttock and illustrated by Nadia Shireen. Kate Burns wrote about its publication in a recent blog post. The Guardian placed it nicely as a witty story for new siblings:

“Love them or loathe them, babies are sweet. At least, that’s what Mr and Mrs Deer think. They long for a baby of their own, so when one is left on their doorstep they do not hesitate to bring it in. But this little baby does nothing but ROAR. And when relatives start disappearing, Mr and Mrs Deer have to ask some serious questions about their new baby. With no happy-ever-after ending, this is a deliciously entertaining story that takes a fresh look at the arrival of a new baby and the problems it can bring.”

On Sunday, Nicolette Jones included two Nosy Crow books in her Sunday Times round-up of Easter reading.

The first was Goldilocks and Just the One Bear by Leigh Hodgkinson. The book, says the Sunday Times, “gives a novel twist to a familiar fairy tale as a lost bear causes mayhem in a city apartment, before the (human) family comes home. After the “somebody’s been…” routine, the mother turns out to be Goldilocks, now grown up, and the bear is the former Baby Bear. This happy reunion is remarkable for its witty, chatty update reminiscent of Lauren Child, with comical, detail-rich illustrations in vivid retro greens, oranges and pinks.”

The second was The Secret Hen House Theatre, by debut novelist Helen Peters whose publication Kirsty wrote about in this recent blog post.

The Sunday Times piece said:

“A variation on the always popular let’s-put-on-a-play-in-the-barn story, The Secret Hen House Theatre… adds depth with its theme of dealing with grief and a plot about saving a farm. An engaging tale about family and friendship for 10+.”

Well over 100,000 books are published in the UK each year, and I think around 10% of them are children’s books (I have a figure of 8,000 in my head, but I may be making it up or it may be out-of-date, and Google has been unhelpful in verifying it). Let’s assume it’s right, and then let’s assume (wrongly) that roughly the same number of children’s books is published in each month, and that Easter round-ups draw on the previous two months of publishing. That would mean that these books were competing with over 1,300 other books to be featured in reviews. While this arithmetic isn’t exact, it does give a sense of how tough it is to get a review of a book in a major UK paper.

Last year’s Books and Consumers survey suggested that reviews and recommendations drove only 5% of children’s fiction book purchases. However, browsing remains the biggest purchase prompt and covers remain significant, driving 39% of sales between them. One of the things that reviews sometimes provide is a few key words to put on the cover of the next reprint of the reviewed book that, we hope, draw the eye of the potential reader (or parent or teacher of the reader), and support the browsing and cover-based selection process.

Reviews also help us position future books by the author/illustrator with retailers: we include review extracts in the information sheets about our books that we supply to retailers and in our catalogues. In fact, we’re working on a catalogue for the London Book Fair, and I was emailing through the key words from the reviews of the three titles mentioned above for the designer to incorporate into the final tweaks to the catalogue as I was reading the reviews. A good review won’t salvage a book that a retailer doesn’t think that they will succeed with in the first place, but it might reinforce a selection that they are part-way to making… which means that the book will be available for the browsing and cover visibility that accounts for the 39% of book purchases.

The picture at the top of this blog is an illustration from Goldilocks and Just the One Bear in The Sunday Times round-up… with an Axel Scheffler illustration from his first picture book, You’re a Hero, Daley B, that is being reissued and that I mentioned in this recent blog post.

(Twelve Minutes to Midnight author Christopher Edge’s event with Philip Pullman and JD Sharpe at the Oxford Literary Festival about the influence of Charles Dickens on children’s writers was also mentioned in The Sunday Times: “Asked what his first encounter with Dickens was, Edge rather shamefacedly confessed, ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’.”)

A round-up of Cinderella responses

Posted by Tom on Sep 14, 2011

It’s been a day since the launch of our second app, Cinderella, and already we’ve been blown away by the response – not just by bloggers and the press, but by everyone who has bought the app, and the parents and grandparents who’ve got in touch on our Facebook and Twitter pages to tell us what they’ve made of it.

We were particularly pleased by this great profile of Nosy Crow in the Guardian, as well as the coverage of Cinderella on Lauren Laverne’s BBC 6Music show (though I fear I may have hurt Kate’s feelings by tweeting that our workplace had become “exponentially cooler” by virtue of having been mentioned by Laverne. Sorry, Kate.) On the 6Music blog, Stuart Dredge describes Cinderella as an app that “blends animation, interactivity and plenty of humour into something that’s genuinely beautiful”. Elsewhere, Digital Storytime have written that “Like their previous app, Nosy Crow has not forgotten a single detail in this delightful title … My child has been completely enthralled with this book from the moment I downloaded it.” On the US site iLounge, Jeremy Horowitz writes that “Three Little Pigs was great; Cinderella is even better”. You can read more of the reviews for Cinderella here.

It’s also been fascinating to track, on platforms like Twitter, the word-of-mouth buzz and instant responses to Cinderella in real time – evidently some fans were up at the crack of dawn to buy the app on iTunes!

Thanks to this amazing cumulative response, Cinderella is now the number one-selling book app for iPad in the UK and number seven in the US, which we’re simply overwhelmed by.

So a heartfelt thanks to those who’ve shown such enthusiasm for Cinderella already – we hope you continue to enjoy it!

You can buy Cinderella for iPad here.
And for iPhone and iPod touch here.

Sebastian Walker died 20 years ago today

Posted by Kate on Jun 16, 2011

Sebastian Walker founded Walker Books in 1979, aged 37. He died 12 years later, having achieved something remarkable. Walker Books was, and is, an excellent children’s book-only publishing company. He started the business in a back bedroom with a handful of colleagues and a bank loan. 12 years later, Walker Books was turning over £17 million (perhaps the equivalent of £27 million in today’s money), and publishing over 300 titles per year. In the years in which he ran the business, Walker published Where’s Wally by Martin Handford, Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? by Martin Waddell and Barbara Frith, Five Minute’s Peace by Jill Murphy, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, and Ten in the Bed by Penny Dale, among other great children’s illustrated books.

I never met him. I was at school when he set up Walker Books, and not many years into my publishing career when he died. I admired him from afar, though, and continue to admire his achievements and legacy. A few months ago, I read his sister, Mirabel Cecil’s, honest, detailed and touching biography, A Kind of Prospero (the title is taken from a phrase Maurice Sendak used to describe Sebastian Walker). Sebastian Walker seems to have been a mass of contradictions: gregarious but isolated; indiscreet but secretive; a gay man who struggled to sustain relationships but someone obsessed with the idea of family (who perhaps built his own “family” when he build his company); someone who, on the one hand, was devoted to his business but, on the other, someone who would nip out of the office for hours to hone his skills as a pianist; a charmer and a terrible snob; someone who demanded and provided enormous loyalty, but who sacked people in a way that was harsh and acrimonious; a publisher who spoke about the importance of literacy but someone who professed little interest in reading himself.

Julie Myerson gives her perspective in this article in The Guardian, My Hero Sebastian Walker. Altogether, he sounds fascinating and amazing… if capricious and difficult!

The Mirabel Cecil biography is also – and this was one of the reasons I wanted to read it – the only book I have found that is in large part about doing what I am spending my time doing: building a children’s book publishing company, beginning at a time of recession, with a clear sense of its own purpose and identity. Mirabel Cecil gives information about turnover, staff numbers, office moves and title count over the years in a way that is useful – and inspiring – to the founder of a business that has been publishing for exactly five months!

The other reason that I read the book is that Nosy Crow has its own connection with Walker Books: Candlewick Press, who will begin publishing books under a Nosy Crow imprint in two months, is the US division of Walker Books. Sebastian Walker made the decision to start up in America, and the company was set up in the year he died. Candlewick Press is a substantial – and the fastest-growing independent – US children’s pulbishing company. It publishes some great books originated by Walker UK (like Lucy Cousin’s Maisy Mouse Books, and Guess How Much I Love You) and is the original publisher of books by best-selling and award-winning authors like Kate DiCamillo (Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Desperaux),Megan McDonald (the Judy Moody and Stink books) and M T Anderson (the Octavian Nothing books).

In his twelve years at the helm of Walker Books, Sebastian Walker built a business and a brand; impacted on the standards of picture book production and design internationally; made the UK children’s publishing business more international as publishers sought to emulate his success with co-edition publishing (I wrote about this in my post about this year’s Bologna Book Fair); and challenged bookselling conventions (he struck a deal with Sainsbury’s to publish children’s books under the Sainsbury’s brand, for example). He changed children’s publishing in the UK. Who knows what else he’d have achieved and what new directions he’d have taken had he lived another 20 years?