It’s #picbookday and I’m still listening for The Whales’ Song

Last week I watched a real-life scene on TV, in which a granddad who had just developed literacy skills read a picture book with his granddaughter. The woeful American text about princesses – with a mirror built in at the end of the story – was the glittery pink kind I ruthlessly denied my own daughter, but the joy of that shared experience moved me. Now I find that today is #picbookday and adults are filling Twitter with covers that represent their own memories. This might, until recently, have made me regret that my catalogue as an author, which includes everything from stories for Y2 up – through teenage and adult fiction – lacks a large, colourful picture book for pre-school. But this autumn that will change, thanks to a talented textiles artist, a charity project and a publisher prepared like me to forego all profit. I can’t wait! In the meantime, here are some thoughts about the picture books I’ve loved as a mum and teacher.

I have to start with Shirley Hughes because when my Philip and Sarah were small we loved Alfie and Annie Rose in all their appearances – and delighted in horrible Bernard too, especially when he made a highly entertaining nightmare of his birthday party. The drawings are endearing but at the same time the children, obviously the product of close observation, are utterly real. There’s no romanticising with this artist; she loves children just as they are, with their grumps and tantrums, jealousies and wildness, so she shows us in her soft but physical pictures all the faces and poses we recognise. I wrote to her to tell her how much happiness she created in the house and bless her, she wrote back, by hand – so I framed her letter for the wall of the smallest room.

Christian Birmingham’s work is more idealised, his children beautiful beyond any parent’s biased perceptions. As a teacher I loved using Windhover, illustrated by him and ably written by Alan Brown, with my Y3 classes. It’s an example of a deeper kind of picture book with plenty of emotionally compelling text. Another favourite for this age was The Tunnel by the inventive and sometimes surreal Anthony Browne. This is a book I remember, many years after abandoning teaching to be a professional author, for a different reason. Its richness lies in the paucity of words and the volumes spoken by pictures layered with meaning. I used to ask classes to interpret them using the visual clues and perhaps to provide the missing text themselves. His Gorilla is a sublime example of a streamlined story where pictures don’t simply illustrate the story but develop it, while incorporating whimsical details as references only adults will identify. Both these stories are powerful in their pared-down simplicity and understatement, and have a spirit of fun which offsets the sadness; they’re full of feeling without using its vocabulary.

My favourite picture book of all, however, is The Whales’ Song, which made such a lasting impression on me some twenty years ago that as soon as I saw that hashtag, its cover came to mind. Thanks to Gary Blythe, every page is visually gorgeous, with a luminous Pre-Raphaelite angel of a heroine and a colour palette that ranges from muted dusk to burning sunset. The text by Dyan Sheldon is lightly, dreamily poetic until the hard-edged, grumpy pragmatism of Uncle Frederick’s outburst – “Whales were important for their meat, and for their bones, and for their blubber. If you have to tell Lilly something, tell her something useful” – give the story a tension to break the spell. It also gave my daughter a speech she could deliver with dramatic relish long before she could read every word in it. This is the kind of story that makes adults weep even though no one dies, and is thick with the real-world kind of magic we find in the natural world if we recognise its mystery.

I acknowledged at the start that if there’s love between the two participants, any picture book can cement it, even one that might make the adult spit! I’ll finish with two that stir me with much more positive feelings, while celebrating that relationship between grandmother and child. In My Grandmother’s Clock by the excellent and versatile Geraldine McCaughrean, the pictures by Stephen Lambert don’t thrill me half as much as the sensual, multi-textured prose. In When Grandma Came, the estimable Jill Paton Walsh delivers a minimal but exciting, round-the-world narrative which is illustrated by Sophy Williams with a style that generally serves the mood well. At the heart of both is Grandma’s passionate love and vivid personality, and for me they both succeed in skirting sentimentality – although I suspect Uncle Frederick would disagree!

Happy Picture Book Day if you have a young person to share it with, and if you don’t, savour the memories. Even if you no longer possess the book, you’ll find the pictures enduring minus the mildew in your head.

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