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Posted by Tom, October 16, 2013

The Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group verdict on illustrated fiction

Yesterday evening we hosted our fifth Reading Group event, which this time shone the spotlight on illustrated fiction. For the first time we discussed a group of books rather than a single one, and the titles in question were a fantastic trio of illustrated fun: Claude on the Slopes by Alex T. Smith, Dixie O’Day by Shirley Hughes and Clara Vulliamy, and our very own Hubble Bubble: The Glorious Granny Bake-Off by Tracey Corderoy and Joe Berger.

Normally at this point in a post-Reading Group autopsy we’d warn that spoilers lie ahead, but in the case of these books that doesn’t feel particularly relevant (on which more shortly), so please proceed whether you’ve read them or not!

Once again we split into two groups, and loathe as I was to turn the evening into a competition, in which one book would “win” (this wasn’t the evening’s other premier literary event, after all…), the first question my group discussed was which book was our favourite. I’m pleased to report that each of the three books was picked by someone: some people felt that Dixie O’Day had the strongest “story”, some felt that Claude was the funniest, and some that Hubble Bubble the most suitable or accessible for children.

This last point lead into an interesting discussion – which remained a context for a lot of the rest of the evening – about exactly who these books are “for”.

A number of us felt that although we found Claude particularly funny, we were unsure how much of this humour would translate for young children (particularly the humour in the text – the illustrations we thought were universally funny and charming). Those who thought that the book had an “adultness” identified a sort of arch knowingness in the voice of the text which felt sophisticated and also, in the references to Tea Services and Foot Spas – very English (or – to some – Middle Class). However, one person reported that their six-year-old had read all three books on their own and declared Claude their favourite “because it was the best one”. And several people in both groups thought that Claude was no lesser a book for children, but had “extra” levels of enjoyment for parents – like a good Pixar film (or Simpsons episode) which has something for everyone.

Although several of us thought that Hubble Bubble was “for” slightly older readers than Claude or Dixie O’Day (it certainly has the most text), it was also the book that many of us thought was the most child-friendly: the humour is perhaps the most accessible and visibly written “for” children rather than adults. Some of us noted that it was perhaps the least “gender-neutral” and was skewed toward girl readers, which is perhaps an inevitable outcome, as its two protagonists are female (whereas Claude and Dixie O’Day are, of course, both canine characters).

The packaging for Dixie O’Day – like Claude it is a hardback, and also jacketed – made it feel like quite an “adult” book for some of us: it has a beautiful, vintage style in its illustrations and lettering, and some of the introductory material feels quite grown-up. One person in my group, a primary school teacher, thought that this was the book that she would be able to give to her year-2 class most happily, on the basis that the language was most appropriate and the story easiest to follow – and someone else noted that the story was particularly strong, saying that “Shirley Hughes experience as a storyteller reveals itself – it’s effortless, the way it flows”.

We all felt that all three books would be particularly good for reluctant readers, and for children who are starting to read independently – the illustrations make them not-too intimidating, and the short chapters make them easily digestible and satisfying to get through (with our resident primary school teacher noting that this was particularly important – children want to feel proud of how much they have read). Hubble Bubble was picked out in particular in this regard, and several of us liked that it was split into three stories. Some of us also thought the format of all three books would work well for reading aloud – with one chapter a night for bedtime reading.

Several of us recognised that “story” was not as important in all three books. Some people felt that Claude was “humour-led” rather than “narrative-led” (and, as a consequence, that Claude and Sir Bobblysock were more stand-out as characters than Dixie O’Day and Percy) and enjoyed this aspect – the idiosyncratic use of language and strings of jokes – and it was also pointed out that in some ways, this narrative approach mimics the way children tell stories.

We discussed the fact that there are varying degrees of distance between author and illustrator in all three books – in one case, Claude, they are the same person; in another, Dixie O’Day, they are a mother-daughter team; and in the third book, Hubble Bubble, they are a conventional author-illustrator team working separately. Some of us thought that producing both the text and illustrations meant that Alex T Smith had a freedom to create a second, quite separate, set of jokes and story in the illustrations to the text, where as in Hubble Bubble and Dixie O’Day the illustrations were more straightforward representations of what’s being described. Several people pointed out that this meant Claude wouldn’t “work” as well without the illustrations, whereas Hubble Bubble in particular could stand up on its own as a text.

I think there was still a fairly unanimous sense, though, that the words and pictures did work well together in all three titles: a point we kept returning to was that all three books were beautifully produced and lovely objects to look at and hold. The three art styles feel quite distinctively retro (and one person observed that the use of colour harked back to printing processes from the last century) but not necessarily dated: this sort of heavily illustrated fiction seems to be having something of a “moment”.

And in fact we enjoyed the format of the evening – and discussing books for younger readers – so much that we’ve decided to do something similar next month. We’ll be discussing a trio of full colour picture books next time: I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen, The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, and Weasels by Elys Dolan. The group will meet here at the Crow’s Nest on Thursday November 14 at 6.30pm – if you’d like to attend, send me an email at [email protected].

If you joined in, we hope you enjoyed this month’s titles, and we can’t wait to see you next month!

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