MA Degree Show 2017

There is a very nervous group of people making their way to London tonight. I may add that it’s a very talented group who have just finished their Master’s Degree in Children’s Book Illustration from Cambridge School of Art. 

Their degree show is at Candid Arts House off Angel tube station from Feb 7th to Saturday 11th, but tonight is the private view, where most of British children’s commissioning editors and publishers get to explore the exhibition, and meet their potential collaborators. I may be biased as a graduate of Cambridge School of Art (CSA), but there is a buzz surrounding the output of this centre of excellence, as alumni and students excel in international and UK illustration awards and have a great catalogue of published books worldwide.

This exhibition shows the work of master of illustration students with a surplus of ambitions and talents. From superb craftsmanship, character development, eloquent drawing there is work here by great storytellers and by some great writers, and sometimes those are in the same book.  Of course not everybody writes all their books, so there was a great offering of retold classics such as The Jungle Book by Sally Walker.

Sally Walker

 With CSA’s access to a print room, it is no surprise that this course attracts illustrators who are interested in exploring print media, such as Beatriz Lostale, who's understanding of the medium of screen printing is evident in her Greek hero’s collection; or Chie Hosaka, and her maze like animal adventure screen prints.

Beatriz Lostalé

In a change from previous editions, this year’s exhibition is in two floors, allowing plenty of room for each student to display. I only had a few hours and had planned to do an overall scan before reading anything, but my plans were thwarted early on as I became captured by dummies here and there. For the uninitiated a dummy is the trade name for a book prototype. The opportunity to read work at dummy stage of development is one that I always take. As a practitioner, it excites me to see processes and innovation in books. I indulge in reading this version of a book. Before it is taken by a publisher, it has a very distinct vision, undiluted by the considerations of marketing departments, so books here exist in a form that will not exist in the bookshops. Mostly.  

The spectrum of work on display ranges from sketchbooks, portfolios,  conceptual dummies to quite accomplished “almost finished” offerings such as a biography of Ada Lovelace, with a very defined and coherent aesthetic by Anna Doherty.
Puck Koper, who’s work is on the cover of the exhibition catalogue,  is one of the first displays of the exhibition. Her work just beckons. She has a simple and efficient use of line, a minimalist approach to colour, and an instinct for fun. Her story follows a mother looking for one of her daughters, who she has lost in the department store. A relatable plot and delight in observational detail. The “lost” theme is one recurring in other student’s work. But this is hardly surprising as it is such a common occurrence in childhood and something so relatable. 
Patricia Uresti

Besides common threads in the stories, there were lively probes into book forms: there were several concertinas and comics.  Tommy Fry’s Wormhole followed a parallel story from and alien and earth children, the stories are connected by having two covers; Patricia Uresti’s Are you sure it is this way? was a delightful board book that plays with the binding and direction of the reveal; and completely unbound “book” such as Letters which made me yearn for the time to unravel it slowly.  Alina Kasparyants book Who and Why explores alternative narrative combinations by rotating segments. 

Rachel Stubbs

There were also innovations on the ABC type books such as Rachel Stubbs A big day out, which has delightfully fresh and detailed drawings; Ali Roberts who’s understanding on pattern and experience with children has produced the beautiful ABC Come dance with me; and a brilliantly detailed and composed offering by Shih-Yu Lin in The Shops Alphabet

Jessica Meserve

Form apart, I found myself laughing out loud with Ronghao Li’s Story of little Squirrels teeth and Niveditha Subramanian Don’t let the monkey drink your milk.  There was delightful observation and space in Jessica Meserve’s book  Time for Tea where toys wait for the children to come and play with them. In  Animals can animals do  Jessica uses counterpoint very effectively: Professor Know-it-all (I wonder who inspired this name?) stops looking at what is in plain sight, the story develops around him as he guides the children around a zoo, making pronouncements about what animals can or can’t do. I bet children are going to be delighted in pointing out how wrong he is! Jessica’s output is generous, eloquent and hilarious. I spent a happy while looking at her work. 

Roxana de Rond

Roxana de Rond’s Monty and Mortimer follows a dog (Mortimer) that feels out of place amongst the boisterous family he has been adopted into, then finds a kindred spirit in the quiet and reserved boy cousin. I saw it as a very tender way to explaining  how children with ASD may not join in in the same way as other children,  and how this does not mean not being participant or not caring. There is such lightness in her approach that it could be good for anyone who feels like an outsider. It ticked all my boxes. 

Old age featured in several books. Elina Ellis offers a very refreshing look at this group who ware routinely portrayed as vulnerable and past all fun. It had the same subversive charm on this subject as Dimange. The father and child relationship and how it changes as time goes by was beautifully treated by Kate Young in Fish Dada and Ellen Vesters in a very minimalist book reminiscent of Mon Tout Petit by Germano Zullo and Albertine.
 Some of the student’s voices are  already sharp and non equivocal, some are still close to their illustration heroes, but I’m sure that time and work will drive the outcomes into more distinct areas. I look forward to seeing their  voices evolve in the following years. There was a great homage to Eric Carle in Jacqueline Rayner’s The most hungry maggot.
Jo Loring Fisher
Kate Milner

The political always finds its way into the exhibition and I was blow away last year by Kate Miner’s  My name is not Refugee which went on to win the VA Illustration award 2016.  It is no surprise that content mirrors the world as it is, and I’m delighted with the engagement of students, and the freedom and space their tutors give them to explore and develop such subjects.  Just like you by Jo Loring-Fisher reads as a reinforcement of empathy, page after page and it’s only at the end that the conditions surrounding the child in who we have come to see ourselves is revealed. A picture book where text and images really complement each other. 

Ana Gordillo’s Refugiada follows a girl from her comfortable home, in a journey of danger and fear. Her angle on this story is concerned with the loss of a whole community which is the extended sphere of the child,  not an unnamed crowd, but named characters of her daily life, escaping with their families (the man that gave her free oranges in the market, the boy that picked his nose). It is heartbreaking.

Rose Robbins

Rose Robbins combines great storytelling with an important message about our relationship with objects in Elena’s Shells: The purpose collecting is sharing. This work echoed with another environmental concern in Phoebe Swan’s King story of a character who could afford to replace any possession but for his teddy, a book that invites us to not throw away, but to mend. And skipping the material altogether, Lucy Morris  tackles the visual representation of a non visual experience, in this case sweet music that flows from a window in a street, touching several characters that come to be surrounded and changed by it.  
Yeseul Cho

Yeseul Cho

The artist that captured me most was Yeseul Cho. The sheer ambition of her concertina: A Chronology of the Universe, again portraying visually the non visual had such force! Consistently through her work she is a master of shapes and composition. 

Her bold use of the page is just fantastic. Her Sisters of the Revolution is a book I want to buy NOW, and if I did not have time to go slowly over many other great at Candid Arts its because I was glued to her sketchbooks. 

All students have accomplished great things and time spent looking around their exhibition was well worth while. Ahead of them come big challenges: continuing to work and to believe in their stories unassisted and unprompted by the academic environment;  pursuing their voices and methods and their commitment detached from the groups where they have evolved ;  and finding their places in and out of the the publishing world. 

I wish them all best of luck! 

Bologna Children's Book Fair 2016

 Not all fairs are the same.
The first one of course is an unforgettable experience, a terrifying yet delightful epiphany. The ones that follow allow us to reconnect with the wonderful people we meet; to gradually find our place, to see where and with whom our work belongs, because the one certain thing about books is that there is room for all kinds of work within them, as all kinds of people make them. 

I would have thought that 2014, the year I was first published and had my book on the shelves at Donzelli would be unsurpassable, but it's going to take something quite grand to top 2016. This year had something very new and very special. It had an actual purpose, a social dimension, that perhaps has been there all along but it took a set of coincidences, forgetfulness and connections to see it.

While having a gelato on Wednesday, where Hall 25 meets 26, I ambled  a bit and came across the IBBY Italy stand.  I saw little print out request for book donations. 

Idomeni is a small greek village near to border with Macedonia. Thousands of people are ending up in Idomeni in their journey to northern europe. But there is hardly anything there and more and more people arrive in the hope that the border will  be open.  The situation is desperate. I have often felt impotent and small and irrelevant on the face of such suffering. Refugee camps are better than death in the conflict zones, but they are still horrible places. 

Here was the opportunity to actually do something for the refugees.  I asked the person there what sort of books they where looking for and she said, "Any books." Their stand looked a bit bare. So when I finished my ice cream I walk over and asked Carmine (my italian publisher) if we could donate one of mine, and he agreed and handed me the book. I put it in my bag and then I had a meeting to rush to and, as it often happens in this place of so many possibilities, I forgot about it.

Later, much later, in the early swine bar hours of the next day I was chatting to someone, who I had just met during this fair. He was telling me how sometimes books are just given away or left at the end of the fair. And then that really important thing that had slipped my mind returned. So later that morning, on the taxi I had my book to donate and the knowledge that there would probably be a lot of books being left or given away which would not find their way to IBBY unaided.  But sharing the taxi, was one of my favourite partners in crime, my  dear friend and picture book genius, Steve Antony,  so by the time we got to the fair we had a plan: the two of us would go -with our natural cheek and enthusiasm- and ask publishers for donations and collect as many books as we could and take them to IBBY ourselves.

It was incredibly exciting. Steve and I went on a spree around halls 25  and 26 looking for donations and personally taking them to IBBY, it was a race against time as most stands go an a furious pack on thursdays getting things ready for their stands to be shipped back to their countries, and we also had to go back to Bologna to get our bags to catch our plane back home!

We started collecting a few here and there, stacking them in our arms, and then going back to Ibby.

As I mentioned before,  books are made by all kinds of people, and not surprisingly their generosity and imagination varies a great deal. Soon our wonderful publishes would make it necessary to have a trolley.

All donations, we really appreciated, but above and beyond our expectations Child's Play, Little Tigger Group, Parragon and Hachette (who lent us their red trolley) all donated boxes of books.  We don't know how many books were in the boxes but they sure were heavy!

Flying Eye Books  donated lots of beautiful books that they could have very easily sold there, as did Adrian from Nosy Crow

Klaus Fluge from Anderson Press personally chose the titles which would most help with learning to read, giving us more and more.  

We didn't need to ask Greet from Book Island, she was already donating at Ibby her wonderful Azizi and the little Blue Bird.

We met Marcella Terrusi , who is coordinating this project for IBBY Italia, towards the end of our collecting spree.  She asked us to focus our search on more wordless books (unfortunately not widely published in Britain) and beautiful books.                                                                                                                                                                         

She particularly was after Shaun Tan's The Arrival, which sadly we could not find for her on that day. You can see how his wonderful wordless book by Shaun Tan about finding new life as a migrant and reuniting with family at the end would be incredibly helpful to children experiencing the hardships of that journey. 

We then concentrated a bit more on the italian publishers, who already knew about the collection and were very keen to pick up their best books for their donation. 

Lots of publishers donated books, and I feel so proud to be part of a caring and giving industry.   Thank you all! 

You can follow the journey of the books here. (link coming soon) You can learn more about IBBY's work with children in crisis here.

For the children at Idomeni to experience beautiful books, what ever the future holds for them, to have that time inside those pages to know themselves valued, strong, intelligent, imaginative, to be able to experience the alternatives to reality that exist within all books,  to have played a small part in this project, that is going to be very hard to top.

Bologna Book Fair 2015

Ah... The Big Buzz:  The delight that is the Bologna Children's book fair:  The terrifying scale, the familiar faces, the happy reunions, the chance encounters, the enormous opportunity, and of course the ice cream!

It never seizes to make me feel alive and part of something wide and wonderful, a place of recharging creative batteries, reconnecting with friends and colleagues, reseting of goals.

This year I brought a new project, a silent book, to the fair. I was fortunate to get feedback from some of the best publishers in the world, who's view on any potential book is instant and comes from a deep understanding on the industry and a great love for their lists.  I know this is a digital age, but for me nothing can take the place of a face to face conversation about a project. Information is exchanged verbally and non verbally. The reactions upon page turning, the hesitations when something isn't clear, all those minor deep breaths and pauses feed into my understanding of the strengths and weaknesses in my work. I'm grateful for every opportunity.  After much feedback I believe that I have made a book conceptually well received but which needs a little more" baking". You get as many different opinions as people you show your book to.  But trends emerge nonetheless and I have a better map to get to wherever we're going together, this book and I.

One spread from my new book "umbrella"  turned it into fliers. 

The months of writing and illustrating and the 4 days of the fair couldn't be more different. The introspection and space needed to create something can give that something a very skewed look. But I'm fortunate to come from a very supportive community, where feedback is exchanged and work championed and celebrated in it's uniqueness. Our camaraderie is nurtured and shared from Cambridge School of Art(CSA), throughout the year on line and in real actual meetings. Some of us have made life long friendships in the course, and the fair offers the opportunity of spending quality time with the ones that come (Steve! Suzanne! Catalina!), while missing the ones that this year couldn't (Yes you there, I missed you!)

Even after we have graduated a long time ago, and our dummies are no longer at the stand, seeing the CSA new output of work is a source of great collective pride.   Seeing our tutors at the fair, Pam Smy and Martin Salisbury and Marta Altes, who are brilliant at connecting people together, always gives me great pleasure. As is meeting new people thorough them.  A highlight this year was meeting Dave Barrow a new graduate who will be published next year by Gecko Press and Fernando Perez Hernando who's book Conducir es fácil was shown to us on our first week at university. In the vast isles I also met author Vivian French and Nikky Gamble from Just Imagine. I'm looking forward to catching up soon!

Outside of the fair I had an awesome evening with Steve Antony, Linda Owen-Lloyd and Marcia Williams. And it was great to re connect with Sun from Some Books, whose work always opens my mind into something real and important and very different approach to bookmaking to anything else at the fair.  Meeting Peter H. Reynolds as we sat together on the plane back to London was an amazing end to another year of adventures in picture-book-making at the fair!

Here are some highlights of the exhibition.  As soon as I get hold of a copy of the catalogue I'll credit them:

Adolfo Serra

And my top favourite was this little detail:

I am delighted for Maisy Paradise Shearing form CSA who was selected as the overall winner of the illustration competition. She has done all of us so proud and I sure I'm looking forward to purchasing her book next year!

 I've returned all beans and enthusiasm for the load of work ahead. Let's see how much changes next year and what else stays the same. 

MA Degree Show 2015

It is with a lot of nostalgia that I take the yearly pilgrimage to London to see The Masters of Arts Children's Book Illustration degree show.  The opportunity to read through dozens of dummies invariably makes me ache to run back to the studio to work. Oh! But there is always one more book project to read, always another precious sketchbook or portfolio that makes me linger for a few more minutes, way past closing time.

Go and visit this show at Candid Arts (keep going left out of Angel tube station). Details here.  Even setting a whole afternoon to read through all book projects I couldn't.  So here are some observations of my limited visit.

There are very strong visual identities already developed in this year's exhibition. I loved  Maisie Paradise Shearring's Susan's School Days. It  had me hooked for a good while of my time there wrapped in a very believable world;  Jenny Duke's very distinctive mono print lines At the playground; and Joe Lyward's charming I'm going to school stood out as having a visual language of their own.

Joe Lyward

This batch of illustrators was not shy to tackle sad or difficult subjects. I really enjoyed Li-Wen Chu's You are here where she uses internal external chromatic spaces to amplify meaning on her sweet text on memory; as Lucy Wooler's divorce piece Dancing with Mummy and Daddy; and Maria S. Costa's uplifting story about adoption in her book An Odd Family.

Li-Wen Chu

Although the majority of graduates concentrated on story books it was nice to see more conceptual approaches such as Indira Margot Hamaker's pineapple variations book and patterns. A nice reminder how this course encourages independent thinking and the pursuit of individual goals.

Favourites of this exhibition were:

 Shu-Ti Liao's hilarious Birdie and An adventure at night where she uses the outside of a beam of flashlight to illuminate what the character can't see. Shu-Ti has a superb chromatic sense, pace and point of view. She has developed several books to such high and completed, I have no idea if she ever sleeps.
Shu-Ti Liao

 Morag Hood, who I hope walks off with the golden envelope tonight, had me laughing out loud with When Grandad was a Penguin and Go away, where a snail, pestered by slugs, builds them a home and sends them on their way. She combines natural storytelling with very confident  bold characterisation  and great instinct for design.

Morag Hood

There was a wide spectrum of the level at which books have been developed, from early dummies with great surface experimentation and wit like Abigail Joy Bowen's...
Abigail Joy Bowen published books such as Katie Harnett's Tras mi ventana.

Katie Harnett

Clearly fundraising efforts have been phenomenal to put together this show,  sometimes diverting from storytelling into merchandising. Nevertheless, this did not distract from the accomplished book projects, and as usual, the diversity in approaches, themes and techniques was a delight. There are woks there which will instantly be taken by british publishers and some which will sure benefit from the larger stage and wider tastes of the Bologna Children's book fair. 

My beloved old Cambridge School of Art seems to never run out of amazing talent, and both senior staff and regular visiting lecturers are ensuring that the quality stays high, to keep us alumni proud and on our toes.

Ceramics at White House Arts

I've joined White House Arts to practice some ceramics and to interact with fellow humans one morning a week. The place is nicely hidden by the river in Chesterton, a good 40 min cycle away, but the route is beautiful, and it allows me to "commute".  I arrive to a warm informal atmosphere, where tea is available to drink from all student made mugs (in all wonky shapes and sizes) and biscuits, which we mustn't give to Zeus (a mainly cylindrical sweetheart of a dog). There everyone just gets on with their own ceramic pursuits.

Slab Day: Cilinder to be pot and shapes cut.
The group fills the room but with enough space to work. All students are women of a vast range of ages. I'm getting to know some of them little by little and it makes me happy to discover shared experiences and common hardships. I suppose writing and illustrating on my own leaves me hungry for contact and exchange and I feel lucky to be in a group that is creative, generous and amicable.  Lucy, our tutor is friendly, incredibly knowledgable and with vast amounts of patience. A great advantage of the slow pace of ceramics is that it frees the mind to chat.

Underglaze- bisque fired
In the under-glazing and detailing there is room for freehand, and tonal drawing and squiggly lines, and perhaps these moments do require concentration. When I get to the point of mark making, I find myself in comfortable territory. There is however, a great delight in "shape making", a sensuality in the handmade process and in the final object. And the possibilities are mind-boggling vast.

Unlike my usual instinctive and direct approach, ceramics requires a lot more patience than I'm used to. There is an exact order and climatic conditions, and handling procedures, and a degree of witchcraft at the end. Ultimately,

The potential for catastrophe is ever present, in a long committed process. Clay is a fascinating thing with a spectrum of personalities and behaviours, (not all of which exactly match mine), but for the time being I'm hooked and I've already decided to extend my time there.


I managed to break two within an hour of leaving the place.

I quite like this cracked look.
Detail of outside. I was expecting this oxide to DO something.

This slab crank pot did not turn up at all as I anticipated. I can now see that I rushed the process and I missed a chance at leather hard to tidy the geometry.  I will be practicing when I can with some clay I bought from Bath Potters Supplies.

Will I get any good at ceramics?  We shall see in about 2 decades.