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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Interview with Helen Bate, author of Peter in Peril

My last review here was Peter in Peril, a story about a Jewish boy living in Budapest during World War Two.  I was sent a copy of the book by the publishers and asked if I wanted to interview the author, well I enjoyed the book so of course I said yes.

You can read the review of the book here but as a brief reminder, it's told from the point of view of Peter and is suitable for ages 8 up.  Here go the questions:

Q1.  I understand that Peter in Peril is your first book and that you used to be an architect.  How did you get into comics and did being an architect have any influence on how you approached constructing the comic pages?

I gave up my architectural career after 10 years to do a degree in illustration and I initially illustrated some children’s books for Frances Lincoln and Harper Collins. The Peter story was done as a student project initially but in a very different form. I was thrilled when I got the opportunity to work with Janetta Otter-Barry to produce it in a way that would suit 8-10 year old children and the graphic story form seemed to be the one that best suited the complexity of the subject and the age range. I used more text than other graphic stories, as I wanted to allow the book to be read to a child. I also felt it was important with the subject matter to adequately explain to children what was happening in more detail.

I think my architectural background has quite an influence on my drawing style - drawing with a black line is a very big part of architectural drawing and I always tend to gravitate to that way of drawing… even though I’d quite like to have a looser style … but drawing is pretty much like your handwriting - it’s very personal to the individual. 

Q2. Describing artistic styles in comics is one of my weak points, so for the benefit of readers can you describe your art style and how you came to illustrate the way you do?
I don’t think my artistic style fits into any particular category. The drawings are very much graphic and line based because that’s the way I work - and I use layering and watercolour to add depth and mood… Because I also do picture books for younger children, my style is influenced by that too.

Q3. I read that Peter is a member of your family. Creating this book must have been quite emotional. Can you tell us about the process of developing it and how you ensured the story stayed true to life?
Peter is my brother-in-law and his story has always been one that I have felt was an important one to pass on to future generations, especially within our own family. Because he and his parents and his cousin Eva all survived, it has a more positive outcome than the story of Anne Frank and others like it; Because of this it’s more suitable for younger and more sensitive children. And in this age of world problems, when intolerance and persecution are becoming more prevalent again, I feel it’s a really topical theme and much needed.

My sister and my brother-in-law wrote down his story in as much detail as he could remember some years ago, so we have a family book that I was able to use to get the details. I then showed Peter at every stage of the development to ensure he was happy with the simplification and the depiction of his childhood experiences. He and his cousin Eva have been amazed by the reaction of people to their story.. they genuinely didn’t think anyone would be interested.

Q4. Have you read many other comics dealing with World War Two? Can you recommend any
There are a couple of comic style books or graphic stories that I have read about WW2 (both holocaust stories involving children) and that I’ve found really interesting because of the different ways they are portrayed - but they are aimed at older children or adults … 


Q5. Was it Otter-Barry that asked you to do a children's book or did the idea come from you?
It was my idea for the book and Janetta Otter-Barry really liked the idea.

Q6. Presumably you think comics are good for children, do you feel they improve literacy or that they offer more (or different things?) than prose books do? How so? What do you think is important about them?
I think the graphic novel style of picture book or comic style - whichever you want to call it, makes reading more accessible for those children who may be less happy reading straight forward prose with some illustrations. So if reluctant readers can be encouraged to read by providing them with comic style stories on more serious themes done well, then that’s a great contribution to literacy.

Although I love reading fiction, I am also a very visual person, so I love mixing the two. I know my 11 year old grand daughter and my 8 year old grandson are big comic or graphic novel fans, and although they read prose fiction too, I see comics as offering them something very different that helps them to see storytelling and fiction in a different, and more visual way. Providing them with a good cross section of styles helps with their visual literacy and develops their aesthetic judgement.

I think comic style stories can also be a great stepping stone to understanding film making and theatre, and I think that is a big plus.

Doing Peter in a comic strip form helped to make a difficult subject more accessible - and although I did use a lot of prose in it, that was to ensure that the complexities of the subject were explained more fully. My next comic style story, although also a difficult subject, is set today so needs less explanation and will be more visual.
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There we go. Many thanks to Helen for answering my questions and for being patient regarding my delays. You can read more about Peter in Peril on the Otter-Barry website. Please please check it out.

I originally put this interview on my other blog, Pai, at www.paiwings.blogspot.com.  Just in case you come across it twice and think I've stolen it.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Peter in Peril: Courage and Hope in World War Two


Writer and artist: Helen Bate
Publisher: Otter-Barry Books

What's it about?
Peter is a boy living in Budapest in the 1930s. His family is Jewish and they fall victim to the anti-Semitic laws of those decades. It's told from Peter's point of view and he documents their lives through the war and in the years following. Peter and his family are real and the events shown in the story are true.


What's good about it?
It's aimed at kids (aged 8-12 years) and it's an honest but not scary account of life in second world war era Budapest. It can be given to kids in order to start up a wider conversation about fascism and war, or it can be read purely for interest. There is enough in there to prompt further learning if necessary. As an adult, when you know the background it is really chilling, but for kids who don't know the wider context, it shouldn't be upsetting. I found it very emotional.

There is historical background at the end of the book along with a moving photograph of a sculpture to commemorate those Jews killed by the Nazis.

Overall, this is a strong book and a decent addition to World War Two literature.

What's bad about it?
I don't have anything to complain about.

What's the art like?
There is a nice variety in the types of panels and story telling mechanisms here. Some pages are a mix of art and text panels which keeps the reading experience varied. Others are all art panels with no out of text narration. These ones are a lovely example of a comic narrative.

Some art panels replicate the shape of the action they are depicting, e.g. a bomb crashing in through a window also breaks the side of the panel. This draws you into the story giving a more immediate connection.

In two pages the frame of the house we are peeking into forms the shape of the panel we containing the house. It makes the read fresh and keeps your attention.
People are drawn very simply but with power. We can see their emotions and their concerns clearly in each panel. All in all, it's a really enjoyable visual read.

More information
Pricing and ISBN information can be found on the Otter-Barry website, here. 
Read an interview with the creator here.

Disclaimer - this copy was sent to me free of charge by the publisher for reviewing. All views are my own and honest.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Footpath Flowers


Text: Jon Arno Lawson
Illustrations: Sydney Smith
Publisher: Walker Books Ltd

This is a gorgeous little comic that you will find in the picture book section of your library or bookshop. It’s about 30 pages, all art no words, and about a little girl out for a walk with her Dad.  She picks wildflowers that are growing in the pavement and gives them to people she thinks needs them. That’s the whole story, there’s no twist. It’s simple and it’s lovely. The little girl clearly has a very generous spirit and an innocence about her and she’s kind. I got this out of my library and I will be purchasing a copy for my son for when he’s a little bit older.



Thursday, 13 October 2016

Stuck Rubber Baby


Writer and Artist: Howard Cruse
Publisher: Vertigo Comics

Stuck Rubber Baby is a fiction that reads like an autobiography. Toland is a young closeted man growing up in the 1960s American South. He makes friends with a group of liberal folk and finds himself socialising in the black and LGBT clubs of his town. He is drawn into the local civil rights movement and is forced to confront the truth of his sexuality, whilst racist and homophobic attacks are regular occurrences.

It’s quite an intense read, partly for the subject matter but also for the story style. The art is detailed with a lot happening on each page and the method of shading to provide depth to the page (I’m not sure if it’s inking here or just pencils) is the same for both for the people depicted and the backgrounds (furniture, gardens, vehicles etc).

The art feels very direct, very full on. Cruse puts a lot of information into each page and so it takes a long time to read the story through the art.  Despite the sadness and anger forming the backdrop of Toland’s youth (and Toland’s own mindset), it seems that most of the pages in this book show smiling people. The characters enjoy life, they experience the highs and the lows but they generally get on with the everyday stuff and they have plenty of things they are happy about. So it’s not a miserable book, although it is serious.

His style of cartooning is heavy on the inks, focusing on people’s faces and caricaturing each one. To my layman’s eye he seems to have depicted the fashions of the times pretty well too.

I found this a very enlightening read, it feels important and the snapshot it provides of the 1960s South should be more widely understood. However, it is not something I would turn to for entertainment purposes. It’s necessary, and serious, but not jolly (although there are jolly, humorous aspects to it).

Warning: includes violent (but not gory) attacks on black and queer people and a subplot about an unwed mother giving a child up for adoption.

ISBN: 1401227139
Price: £22.99 (hardback)

Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Arrival


Artist and writer: Shaun Tan
Publisher: Lothian Books

A comic without words, The Arrival's art is further towards the fine art end of the spectrum than the cartooning end and it makes a beguiling story.

A man packs his suitcase, says goodbye to his family, and sails away to a new country. The alphabet is strange, the wildlife is creepy, and the everyday systems are near incomprehensible. Our man has to find lodgings, a job and friends.

The strength of this book lies in how Tan brings us into the immigrant's world, and we become as baffled as he is. As our man forges a new life we become more comfortable with the country and less scared of it. In the aftermath of the UK's Brexit decision I think more people should read this book.

The art deserves to be read slowly. Take your time over it. I tend to speed read things, but in doing that I miss the pacing of this story - I miss the breaths in between the moments, and I miss the sense of a life lived. Some pages cover just a few seconds or minutes of our man's life, others cover whole seasons. Each is important to feel part of the story and the book becomes richer if you read it properly.

Each character's appearance is drawn as a portrait would be; by that I mean that Tan has taken care to show each character's personality and history in their face. It is lovely to see this level of care.

From the praise on the sleeve:
"The Arrival is beautiful. I loved how it slowly dawned on me that this bizarre world was how any immigrant might see the new place they go... everything is different and scary and magical. The drawings are just so lovely, endlessly detailed and wonderfully strange. And the design of the book, with its wrinkled pages and stains and broken leather is marvellous, Bravo." Brian Selznick.

"The reader's experience, as he or she tries to make sense of the unfamiliar scenes and strange images, parallels that of the emigrant, striving to understand without the aid of language. This extraordinarily accomplished piece of storytelling can be read and understood on many different levels." The Guardian.


ISBN: 978-0-7344-1586-8
Price: £10.99

Monday, 11 July 2016

Not a misery memoir

Today I shall be talking about two books that were the subject of a talk I went to about a month ago. These books are Nicola Streeten's Billy, Me and You; and Una's Becoming/UnBecoming. Both have left a profound impression on me and I want more people to know about them.


Streeten's Billy, Me and You is about her grief that came after her son died at the age of two. I was
initially afraid that the book would be about her son's death but, other than a brief contextual description at the start, it is resolutely not about Billy. It is about her grief, and that's something I have previously found difficult to separate. The book covers the immediate emotions; her relationships and attitudes to other people; her career; her relationship to her next baby; changes to the placement of Billy's things in the house; support groups - most other stuff in her life really (because grief of that intensity affects everything you do).

She wrote it about 13 years after Billy's death, which (I think) has given her the emotional space to write a more complete book. Grief in the first few years is very different to grief eight or ten years down the line, and probably makes for a better narrative as you are not in the immediate grip of sadness and terror.

The drawings are scratchy and wobbly, definitely unpolished. I think Streeten referred to them as rough and ready (although maybe I'm misremembering). For me, they work expertly well at depicting her grief, because that feeling is rough and ready. The art is raw and it leaves you feeling all over the place. Some days you are fine, other days it's like everything is falling apart and the messiness of the art conveys that.



Streeten uses a lot of visual metaphor, which connects the reader to the story far more readily than prose. For readers, it is cathartic. It certainly helped me process my feelings.


Una's book is a very different thing. It is precise and measured. It is careful and thoughtful. It takes a more intellectual approach to the topic of trauma. Becoming/Unbecoming is also autobiographical. It is about growing up female in Yorkshire in the 1970s when the Yorkshire Ripper was active. Una was raped several times in this period (not by the Ripper); and had to endure the slut shaming and institutional misogyny that was pervasive in British culture at the time (and still is, although the internet has given women a platform and a way to be heard en masse, which is covered by the book).
Becoming/Unbecoming discusses her peers' attitudes to women and girls, the silence surrounding sexual assault, the mistakes made in the Ripper case, and the mess that is society's approach to sexual violence and women.

It is not a book about her attacks, and no sexual attacks are drawn. It is likely to be upsetting though, so please be careful when reading.

Una has a fine art background. Her drawings range from simple yet precise depictions of people, to the most elegant drawings of trees and emotions. Una's artwork made me want to start drawing. I'm amazed at how she conveys so much information about a person with just a few pencil lines and some colour. Like Streeten's book, Becoming/Unbecoming is rich with metaphor. It's there in the visual narrative waiting for you to think about and decipher it. Some pages use the standard comics presentation of panels, and other others use one or more (separate) pictures accompanied by prose. This method forces the reader to think more - you cannot just glide along, reading the surface of the story, you need to become engaged in it.

There is an interview with Una here, on the the F Word website. Una's own website is here.

The title of this post is 'Not a misery memoir' because these books are not. If you describe the subject matter - grief and sexual violence - you would expect to be reading about the gritty details, but neither book gives that. They provide a dignified voice to these subjects, and examine, from a certain distance, how these events impact on both the main subjects' lives, but also on those around them and on wider society.

Billy, Me and You:
ISBN: 978-0-956559-94-4
Price: £12.99

Becoming/UnBecoming:
ISBN: 1908434694
Price: £14.99
Publisher: Myriad Editions

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Mouseguard: Fall 1152


Writer and artist: David Peterson
Publisher: Villard Books

What's it about?
Mouseguard is a series about a mouse civilisation. They have towns, artists, blacksmiths, and guardsmice who patrol outlying areas, act as guides, and protect citizen mice from predators,thieves and insurrectionists.