Anything But Catastrophic – Picture Books about Cats

Cat lovers! You won’t find disaster here. In fact, far from it. These following cat books are brilliant enough to stretch your imaginations, tickle your sweet spots and scratch at your curiosity. And they all so precisely capture the little nuances that make cats, cats.

In this sequel to The Cat Wants Custard by dynamic duo, P. Crumble and Lucinda Gifford, The Cat Wants Cuddles delights us with humorous cat antics and extreme mood swings. Whether being notoriously independent, totally ambivalent or attention-deprived, Kevin is a typical tomcat.

Surly facial expressions and skittish body language emphasise the stubborn and scornful retaliation Kevin assigns to his owner’s requests for a cuddle. Managing to escape the torturous grip of patting hands, and with absolutely no regard for his flatmate, Dog, Kevin finally finds some peace and quiet. That is until a wave of jealousy rushes over him and he commands dominance over Dog for his former lap-position… but that doesn’t last long!

This book is decidedly potent with its bold, primary-based colours and energetic qualities that exude passion and wit, especially those lime-green, telling eyes. The Cat Wants Cuddles is a book that preschoolers will be snatching, cradling and squeezing with both paws.

Scholastic Australia, May 2017.

The Catawampus Cat is full of personality and individuality, and utter charm. Jason Carter Eaton writes a thoughtful and witty tale that inspires his readers to consider the world from a different perspective. Gus Gordon’s mixed media illustrations are characteristically charismatic and ooze with a sway of retro style and a hint of contemporary flair. The characters are flawlessly represented to match their quirky names and traits that Eaton so brilliantly describes.

When the catawampus, aka diagonally-angled, cat enters the town on a Tuesday morning, one by one each of the villagers see things from another point of view. Because of the askew-walking feline, lost possessions are found, relationships rekindled, creativity is sparked and new challenges are triumphed – all with thanks to the power of the tilt. Soon the whole town is lopsided, and they even mark the first Tuesday of the new year as “Catawampus Cat Day” in his honour. But all the cat wants is to be unique, so he sets off… ‘straight’ out of town!

Eccentric, memorable and thought-provoking with the most loveable and endearing character. The Catawampus Cat will be the new favourite for preschool and early years children…it’s ours!

Penguin Random House, April 2017.

Doodle Cat is back, but this time Doodle Cat is Bored. At first this drives him out of his mind, but then he finds a crayon. Experimenting with it as a soup spoon, a spade, a dance partner finally leads the cat to discover it is in fact for doodling… But he already knew that, right? Demonstrating his creative, imaginative, and sometimes crude mind through the use of the crayon is a tiring feat for the red, graphic squiggle that is Doodle Cat. And with one final engagement, he asks the audience, “What will you draw?”

Kat Patrick writes this story with bounce, energy and vitality. The sentences are simple to create an interactive yet highly amusing report from the view of the cat. Lauren Marriott’s illustrations reflect this beautifully. Her choice of fire engine red perfectly assigns Doodle Cat his prominence on the mostly plain white backgrounds. She has also introduced the front cover’s lemon yellow, which features sporadically within the pages, too.

Young children will certainly be ‘drawn’ to both the simplicity of the book but also the scope of curiosity and artistic opportunities it reinforces. Doodle Cat is Bored is bursting with ideas to quell those boredom blues.

Scribble, May 2017.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Love Thy Pets – Picture Book Reviews

Why do animals feature so heavily in picture books? 1. They are so relatable. 2. They provide a sense of comfort and nurturing. 3. They reinforce positive emotions and behaviours such as empathy. Whether these animals are represented as their true natures or anthropomorphically, children (and adults) feel connected to these cute characters and regard them with affection. The notion of being responsible for one, and all the playfulness that they have to offer is one that appeals to many. Here are a few heartwarming and imaginative picture books about pets that capture the love between the most unlikely of friends.

imageBig Pet Day, Lisa Shanahan (author), Gus Gordon (illus.), Lothian Children’s Books, 2014.
Shortlisted in 2015 Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Awards (5 – 8 years).

What an exciting day at school! ‘Big Pet Day’ is a tale of mammoth exuberance as Lily’s class celebrate the individual qualities and talents of their pets. Much to her dismay, Mrs Dalton’s classroom quickly becomes a disorganised chaotic mess. The principal, Mr Fisher, will be judging the best pet later that day, so keeping everyone under control is of the utmost importance. There is a runaway ferrett, a pooping pony, and a cordial-drinking puppy. Lily’s pet dragon is very well-behaved though, but she is the only one who knows how special he is. In a hilarious finale, involving a squealing, hermit crab-fearing Mr Fisher, it is Lily’s dragon who is now ‘seen’ as the most deserving gold trophy winner.

The text by Lisa Shanahan is absolutely comical, with many personalities evident – the cheekiest would have to be Mrs Dalton! There is a lot to discover, with the various children and the shenanigans of their pets, and illustrator Gus Gordon covers all these aspects expertly with charm and humour. I love the page with the kids looking exactly like their pet counterparts! Gorgeous! His use of scanned images, adorable hand-drawn characters and fine details (like Mrs Dalton’s book titled ‘Pet Management’) allow for hours of perusal and plenty of giggles.

‘Big Pet Day’ is perfect for primary school aged children (and their teachers), with scope for open discussions on pets (real and imagined), classroom management, friendship and loyalty. This book is both entertaining and heartwarming. It’s a winner!

imageMe and Moo, P. Crumble (author), Nathaniel Eckstrom (illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2015.

Here’s another delightful story that explores the imaginative relationship between a child and his best friend, in this case, it’s ‘Me and Moo’. This pair are inseparable and it is clear from the outset that they have formed an instant bond by the corresponding t-shirts they wear (‘I’m with Moo’ and ‘I’m with Me’). Just like introducing any new member to the family, there are adjustments to be made. Once raising Moo to be a walking, flower-eating, disguise-wearing little calf, it is soon Moo who is doing the raising when he no longer fits underneath the bed. Mum and Dad set the rules, and the boy narrator dutifully takes his responsibilities seriously. He even discovers that his friends own talented, fun-loving pets, too. The animal antics don’t stop there with one final surprise that is sure to have readers hanging out for the next instalment.

Whimsical and hysterical, the text and pictures are dynamic and completely compatible, just like Me and Moo. The illustrations by Eckstrom are animated and strong, yet maintain a soft and soothing feel that exudes warmth, humour and frivolity all at the same time.

‘Me and Moo’ is a gentle and charming tale of unlikely friendships and responsible pet ownership that will have preschoolers demanding for more.

imageWhat Pet Should I Get?, Dr. Suess (author, illus.), Random House Children’s Books US, 2015.

Only just being released, I haven’t got my paws on this one as yet. From what I can gather, this book seems quite the controversial one. Having been written in the 1950s, (discovered shortly after he died in 1991) it is likely to include outdated cultural ideologies, but then again, haven’t those Suess classics stood the test of time?

It is a story about a pair of children facing the dilemma of choosing just one pet to keep. Whilst it is said to maintain some of the legend’s imaginative spirit with its whimsical poetry and a wacky, gangly-looking creature to spark our curiosity, amongst the realness of dogs, cats and goldfish there are also important, modern day questions raised in line of animal rights and seeking a life-long pet companion, and imposing such rules and decision making processes on children of this age.

When you get a chance to sneak a peek at ‘What Pet Should I Get?’ I’d love to hear your thoughts on this ‘hidden treasure’.

A Snapshot of Australian YA and Fiction in the USA

The Book ThiefI’ve just returned from visiting some major cities in the USA. It was illuminating to see which Australian literature is stocked in their (mostly) indie bookstores. This is anecdotal but shows which Australian books browsers are seeing, raising the profile of our literature.

Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief was the most prominent Australian book. I didn’t go to one shop where it wasn’t stocked.

The ABIA (Australian Book Industry) 2014 overall award winner, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion was also popular. And a close third was Shaun Tan’s inimical Rules of Summer, which has recently won a prestigious Boston Globe-Horn Book picture book honour award. Some stores had copies in stacks.

http://www.hbook.com/2014/05/news/boston-globe-horn-book-awards/picture-book-reviews-2014-boston-globe-horn-book-award-winner-honor-books/#_

I noticed a few other Tans shelved in ‘graphic novels’, including his seminal work, The Arrival – which is newly available in paperback.

All the birds singing

One large store had an Oceania section, where Eleanor Catton’s Man-Booker winner, The Luminaries rubbed shoulders with an up-to-date selection of Australian novels. These included hot-off-the-press Miles Franklin winner All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, plus expected big-names – Tim Winton with Eyrie, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and works by Thomas Keneally and David Malouf. Less expected but very welcome was Patrick Holland.I chaired a session with Patrick at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival a few years ago and particularly like his short stories Riding the Trains in Japan.

Australian literary fiction I found in other stores included Kirsten Tranter’s A Common Loss, Patrick White’s The Hanging Garden and some Peter Carey.

One NY children’s/YA specialist was particularly enthusiastic about Australian writers. Her store had hosted Gus Gordon to promote his picture book, Herman and Rosie, a CBCA honour book, which is set in New York City. They also stocked Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca, John Marsden, David McRobbie’s Wayne series (also a TV series), Catherine Jinks’ Genius Squad (How to Catch a Bogle was available elsewhere) and some of Jaclyn Moriarty’s YA. One of my three top YA books for 2013, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee was available in HB with a stunning cover and Foxlee’s children’s novel Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy was promoted as part of the Summer Holidays Reading Guide.

The children of the king

Elsewhere I spied Margo Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island, published as Sea Hearts here (the Australian edition has the best cover); Lian Tanner’s Keepers trilogy; John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice and Sonya Hartnett’s The Children of the King. These are excellent books that we are proud to claim as Australian.

Doodles and Drafts – An Interview with Lucia Masciullo

At a time of year when there are more new children’s book releases than autumn leaves drifting about, it’s nice to grab a cuppa, sit back and remember that what makes a book brilliant is the genius behind its creation.

Lucia Masciullo Today we meet one of those geniuses, the quietly charismatic illustrator, Lucia Masciullo. Her story is fascinating. Her style is utterly beguiling. And thanks to her clever connection with my addiction to marshmallows, her name is no longer impossible for me to pronounce!

So grab that cuppa and prepare to be absolutely delighted…

Q Who is Lucia Masciullo? Describe the illustrator in you and what sets your work apart from other Aussie illustrators.

First of all I’m Italian and this is why you probably can’t pronounce my surname (by the way it’s quite similar to marshmallow but with no sugar: ma-shu-llo). I am born and bred in Livorno (Leghorn on English maps) on the coast of Tuscany and I moved to Brisbane in 2006 with my partner Vincenzo.

More than an illustrator I like to think I’m a visual explorer: I love to experiment always new styles and new techniques. Maybe because I started to work as illustrator only 7 years ago, but the more I learn about illustration and visual art, the more I want to know.

I’m also a Biologist and maybe that’s the reason why I like to study things I’m passionate about. I keep the same enthusiasm I had at the Uni, but instead of learning about cells, animals and plants, now I want to learn things like what the best color to represent an emotion is or how to balance words and images in a composition.

Family forest LuciaQ What is your favourite colour, why and how does it influence or restrict what you illustrate?

I have several favourite colors. It depends on my mood, I guess. I like Amber in the morning, Cool Grey when I’m wistful, and Apple Green when I’m hungry and so on.

I think your personal perception always influences your art, especially while working with colors. It’s inevitable. So I try to feel the same mood that I want to depict. The colors choice is easier this way and listen to music with the same mood I want to represent helps me a lot. It’s probably like being an actor: an actor can pretend to be sad or happy, but it’s way more believable if he can really feel the emotion he wants to convey.

Q What, whom persuaded you to illustrate?

When I was a child I was pretty good at drawing, but I was also good at swimming, math and amongst other things, sprinkling water from my mouth. So I wasn’t encouraged particularly to pursue art.

Maybe I felt that my dad wouldn’t easily accept me doing art as a job. Furthermore drawing was something so important for me, that I couldn’t accept failure or critiques: I didn’t want to show my drawing to anyone. So whatever the reason I ended up studying Biology.

But few years later I realized that if I wanted to do something useful with my life, if I really wanted to make the difference in this world, I had to do something that I really cared about. So I bet on my passion for art.

I would say that learning how to illustrate professionally has been a wonderful experience, but the truth is that the main reason I’m an illustrator today is because of my partner Vincenzo. He encouraged me and supported from the very beginning, giving me the strength to keep going the times when I wanted to give up.

Q Are you a natural or have you had to study your craft? If so where?

I have always been quite good at figuring out simple forms and basic lines out of complex images. Some people may look at a picture and imagine a story or (piece of) music. Others may look at a tree and figure how to climb it. When I look at utility pole, a building or a face of an old woman, I can easily imagine how to reproduce that image using simple lines and shapes. This is my natural talent and that’s probably why I’m good at drawing.

But of course this is only the beginning of the story. You need to perfect your skills: in other words you need to practice. A lot. I attended a three years course in Illustration in Florence and I started drawing and painting 24/7 since. I was caught by the art bug. And I still am.

Q Was it a work opportunity that prompted your move to Australia?

Yes and no. It was a work opportunity for my partner: he won a European Endeavor Award in 2006 that allowed him to work at the University of Queensland for one year. I came in Australia as his partner, so you could say it’s love that brought me to Australia.

The initial plan was just to stay one year, but (lucky us!) things have gone differently.

The Boy and the Toy illoQ How do you develop your illustrations? Do digital computer programs feature significantly in what you produce?

For each illustration I start by drawing a rough sketch of the scene I have in mind with pencil and paper. Just to get the feeling of it and to evaluate if it’s a good idea or not. Then I draw the final scene, defining the characters and the background. Always with pencil and paper. I draw the same scene few times, until I’m happy with the composition.

At this stage I scan the drawing and refine it digitally using a tablet. It saves me a lot of time. I can change rapidly the scale of the elements, correct mistakes and balance the composition (when I’m not sure if an image is well balanced, I flip it right/left and make adjustments until the original and the flipped image look both nice).

Then, when everyone is happy with the drawing (myself, the publisher and the author sometimes) I make a few digital colored sketches and use those as a guide to paint the final artwork.

Different media may give different effects and moods to the same illustration. For picture books I like to use acrylics or watercolors to which I add details with pencil or ink.

I like the transparency of watercolors and the joyful effects water creates when mixed with pigments. I also love acrylics because they work on every surface and they are great if you want to add a textural element to the illustration.

Q Where has your work appeared?

I’ve illustrated six picture books, three young adults’ novels and I also did little black and white illustrations for the popular series Our Australian Girl.

I’m also the co-founder of Blue Quoll, a digital children’s book publisher company and I’ve illustrated the first two titles.

I have exhibited my works in Brisbane in a number of occasions and I’m very proud that two of my illustrations have been selected for a National exhibition titled ‘Look! The art of Australian picture books today’ that showcases the best of children book illustrations in Australia: my works have been presented among those of some of the most important names in the Illustration industry.

The Exhibition was set at the State Library in Melbourne in 2010, and has been moved subsequently to Brisbane, Canberra and to several Regional Galleries since. Now it’s going to be held for the last time at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery until April 2013.

Q What children’s books have you illustrated? Do you have a favourite?

These are the children’s books I’ve illustrated:

Queen Alice’s Palaces by Juliette McIver ABC 2013

Come down, Cat! by Sonya Hartnett Penguin 2011

Family Forest by Kim Kane HGE 2010

The Boy and the Toy by Sonya Hartnett Penguin 2010

When No-one is Looking – On the Farm by Zana Fraillon HGE 2009

When No-one is Looking – At the Zoo by Zana Fraillon HGE 2009

No, I don’t have a favourite. I always try to do my best when I illustrate picture books, so I really like them all: they are my little creatures.

Q How long, on average does it take you to complete illustrations for a picture book?

From the first sketches to the final artworks it takes four to six months.

Q Do you draw every day? What is the most enjoyable part of your working day?

I draw almost every day, but I also have a part of my day dedicated to the routine: emails, online activity, parcels to send, events and meetings to attend … even though I’m usually quite good at procrastinating all the things that do not concern drawing.

I think the best part of my working day is when I find solutions to my problems. It may be the right color palette for a scene, an original point of view, the right expression for a certain character. Sometimes problems seem complicated, they absorb all my thoughts and sometimes even my dreams. But the bigger the problem, the bigger the satisfaction when I find the right solution.

Oh and of course I like to receive positive feedback from publishers: I can’t stop smiling in front of an enthusiastic email!

The accidental Princess LuciaQ It’s accepted that writers often scribble ideas on the back of takeaway menus, napkins, bus tickets, whatever they can when ideas strike – is this the same for illustrators? When you get a shot of inspiration and desire to draw, what do you do?

Oh yes, it’s absolutely the same for illustrators. I always bring with me an A6 notebook where I can scribble and sketch freely. My favourite subjects at the moment are utility poles, people and cups. Leafs and trees, sometimes. I also take note of all the sensational ideas I have for my future best seller picture books.

Q I can barely master a stick drawing. Do you like to dabble in the written word and if so, have you consider writing your own (children’s) book?

To illustrate my own story is something I really would like to do. As I said I like to collect ideas for future books, but when I go to Libraries and Bookshops and I see all the amount of beautiful books already done, I just wonder why should I write another children’s book? I guess I’m waiting for the right story, the story I really would like to tell.

Besides I’m not very confident in my writing skills. Probably I’d use more pictures and no much text.

Q Which Aussie children’s book illustrator do you admire most and why?

There are many Australian illustrators I like: Gus Gordon, Freya Blackwood, Robert Ingpen, Kerry Argent only to name a few, but the one I admire most is Shaun Tan, even though his books are technically picture books and not children’s books.

When I first arrived in Australia I found everything was different from my Italian life: food, buildings, trees and my English was quite poor and it wasn’t easy to make new friends. I felt a bit lost. So when I read The Arrival, it hit me personally: not only the pictures were astonishing and sensational, like the kind of pictures I’d like to create, but the story was my own story. I had the feeling that he had written this book for me!

Then I met Shaun in 2010 at the Bologna children’s book Fair and I really liked him as a person: he is a very nice guy, friendly and generous (he helped me in obtaining my Australian permanent visa). A truly inspirational illustrator.

Lucia Aurealia AwardQ Name one ‘I’ll never forget that’ moment in your illustrating career so far.

Well, of course I’ll never forget the moment I received the first ‘yes’ by two Australian Publishers. The first one was by Hilary Rogers at Hardie Grant Egmont; the second one was by Jane Godwin at Penguin.

In both cases they sent me a manuscript, asking me some preparatory sketches: characters design and a couple of background scenes. I did my best and I sent them back my sketches. Amazingly for me, they liked them and they asked me if I was interested in working with them, illustrating the entire picture book.

After years of frustration and hardworking, trying to refine my artistic skills, finally someone was giving me a chance. This was the only thing that I was waiting for, the possibility to show what I could do. I remember I began jumping all over the house because I couldn’t contain the enthusiasm. And I’m happy now Hilary and Jane couldn’t see my lack of professionalism.

Queen Alice's PalacesQ What is on the storyboard for Lucia?

In December (2012) I finished to illustrate a lovely picture book that will be published in April, titled Queen Alice’s Palaces, based on a hilarious rhymed story by Juliette McIver.

These days I’m working on a breathtaking manuscript by Sonya Hartnett, a challenging one. I love her stories, but I hate them at the same time, because they are so intense I can’t stop thinking about them until I’ve illustrated them.

I for one can’t wait to see them.

Five Very Bookish Questions with author/illustrator Gus Gordon

Which genre of children’s books do you like most and why?

Picture books are my favourite genre because there is so much going on. There are so many layers of story – in the visuals and the narrative and I enjoy the challenge of making it work in order to marry the two as seamlessly as possible. I like that there can be something for everybody – old or young. I also love picture books for their ability to tell a good story with rich, affective illustrations, sometimes with no words at all. Shaun Tan’s book The Arrival is a good example of the power of clever storytelling through strong visuals.

I am particularly attracted to well written picture books that are just plain funny – the nonsensical the better. Mr. Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs is off-the-wall in terms of silliness and the illustrations amplify the wonderful oddness of the whole thing. It’s deceptively clever and Leigh is a master of this type of book. Intelligent, funny picture books never get the credit they deserve.

Which books did you love to read as a young child?

1. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
2. Harry The Dirty Dog by Gene Zion
3. Everything by Roald Dahl
4. Busy, Busy World by Richard Scarry
5. The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R.Tolkien

Which three attributes make for a great children’s book?

1. For me the story has to start well; with a bang or a promise that the book is going to be a great book. The opening line (especially in a picture book) or paragraph has got to say to the reader ‘you’re going to love this book!’ Otherwise, what’s the point.

Oliver Jeffers’ opening line from his picture book Lost and Found is a good example. It begins ‘Once there was a boy and one day he found a penguin at his door.’ It asks so many questions – we have to find out what happens. Another is Tomi Ungerers’ book Adelaide. It begins: ‘Adelaide’s parents were surprised when they saw that their daughter Adelaide had wings.’ Brilliant – I’m in!

2. Well-rounded, strong character/s. The character needs to be believable, memorable and interesting if the reader is going to give them their time and invest in the story. Olivia by Ian Falconer is a great character that kids can relate to. They love her inquisitiveness and her naughty side. Plus she is interesting to look at which always helps.

3. Respect for the reader. I have trouble with books that hand feed everything to the reader, not allowing them to piece the story together themselves – spelling every detail out. It’s insulting. The reader feels much more involved in the story when they are able to form their own visuals and own summations of what they are reading. There is a greater sense of gratification for the reader when they have worked for their meal. They empathise better with the books’ characters and their journeys. They then feel more committed to turning the page.

What is your number one tip for encouraging children to read?

Aside from reading to them, I would say ‘be seen reading.’ Children grow up mimicking their parents and if both parents read there is a greater chance that their children will want to read too. Makes sense to me anyway.

5. Name three books you wish you’d written.

1. Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

2. The Iron Man by Ted Hughes

3. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham

About Gus

Gus Gordon is an author and illustrator based in Sydney Australia. He has written and illustrated over 70 books for children. His picture book, Wendy, about a motorcycle riding stunt chicken, was selected as a Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Notable Book in the 2010 Book of the Year Awards. His new picture book, recently sold to the US and due out in Australia in September, is called Herman and Rosie.

www.gusgordon.com

www.facebook.com/GusGordonbooks