Top Texts for April

​This month’s texts have been chosen by Morag Styles who retired in 2014 as Professor of Children’s Poetry at the Faculty of Education, Cambridge and is an Emeritus Fellow of Homerton College.

Thornhill by Pam Smy

Pam Smy was already much respected as an illustrator of other people’s work before her debut illustrated novel, Thornhill, found her shortlisted for both the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards in 2018. She had illustrated fiction by many esteemed authors, including Siobhan Dowd, Julia Donaldson and Linda Newberry, as well as some classics such as The Hound of the Baskervilles and Penelope Lively’s The Ghost of Thomas Kempe

Thornhill is a dual narrative told by the main protagonists who are separated by thirty plus years but interconnect, through illustrations in the contemporary story, and written diary entries for the eerie past. Although it is a bleak Gothic ghost story with disturbing themes of loss, loneliness, mutism, neglect and bullying, and there is certainly no conventional happy ending, friendship and kindness also feature at its heart. Unusually and welcome, all the significant characters in this book are girls or women. The darkness of the tale is emphasised not just through chilling imagery in Smy’s powerful illustrations – a haunted house, tangled creepers, crows, spiders, creepy puppets, barbed wire – but by the number of completely black spreads which close each chapter, creating spaces in the narrative. They could be seen as eloquent metaphors for silence in harmony with the mute central character.

Using flat layers of emulsion paint with black acrylic ink on top, Smy and her publishers, David Fickling, have produced a beautifully designed doorstep of a book which asks a lot of its readers, not least to contemplate the deep unhappiness of its child characters and the inability of the adults around them to intervene and save them from harm.

I have been fascinated by this story since Pam gave a research seminar in Cambridge some years ago when she had just started the project. Thornhill is quite simply one of the most memorable and thought-provoking publications of the last few years

A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson

As a passionate promoter of contemporary poetry for children, it seems counter-intuitive to select a collection of poetry by a Scotsman, published in 1885, which has never been out of print. But there are good reasons for my choice. First of all, ensuring the best loved poetry of the past is made available for future generations of young readers and those who teach and read with them is very important. Secondly, Stevenson’s only collection for the young is seminal, partly for his ability to get in touch with his child self and for the range and quality of the poetry. Stevenson was the first poet to try, as much as an adult can, to write a book of poetry with a child’s voice, using his considerable skill to make the poems sing.

This volume is a new edition of Michael Foreman’s illustrations of 1985, in my opinion one of the finest interpreters of this collection – and they are not dated. His children, busily engaged in play, would not look out of place in a contemporary book. Moments of intensity are contrasted with low-key everyday life from a child’s perspective. His many dream-like sequences are as relevant as ever, and Foreman’s trademark muted mauve wash in the colour illustrations suggest a dreamy, indeterminate quality between sleep and waking, fantasy and imagination, which matches perfectly with many of the poems in the book.

Foreman creates a sort of ethereal ‘Everychild’, who turns up at key moments in the book, making the reader aware, as Stevenson does too, that we all must grow up and we can’t ever recapture childhood, however much we would like to. This is one of Stevenson’s themes for the adult reader. It is, quite simply, one of the finest collections for children of all time.

Splish, Splash, Ducky by Lucy Cousins

Now that we have a two year old in our family who loves books, all her relations are eagerly buying her the classic picturebooks of the early years. In order to ensure you choose something that is not in her rapidly expanding library, the book needs to be recently published. So I’m heading off for board books these days, just right for very young readers as they can easily turn the pages and so enjoy the stories for themselves as well as reading them with willing adults.

Isabella is already familiar with Lucy Cousins’ popular Maisie books, so I thought I would try something different to see if I could analyse her extraordinary appeal to the young, having published more than 30 million books and been translated into a couple of dozen languages.

The first thing that strikes you about a Cousins’ picturebook is the vibrant colour, engaging characters and the simplicity of design. The illustrations themselves are childlike but there is a huge amount of talent involved in getting the formula right in book after book, as one might expect of a graduate of the Royal College of Art.

Cousins’ books offer a lively and positive view of the world as her characters romp through the pages. In Splish, Splash, Ducky, different flowers appear on every page, as does Ducky who always goes ‘Quack, quack, quack’ in a more childlike font than the rest of the text. These are features very young children can look out for.

The story is simple, repetitive and easy to remember but my one caveat is its use of rhyme can be rather lazy. For example, ‘I’m feeling sad,/ I think I’ll go/ And see my Dad.’ How much more enjoyable it would be if the verse could sing as well as the illustrations draw the reader into the book. However, I am sure it will still be much appreciated by Cousins’ numerous young fans


About this month's reviewer

Morag Styles retired in 2014 as Professor of Children’s Poetry at the Faculty of Education, Cambridge, and is an Emeritus Fellow of Homerton College. She is the author of numerous books and articles including, From the Garden to the Street: 300 Years of Poetry for Children (1998); co-author (with Evelyn Arizpe) of Reading Lessons from the Eighteenth Century: Mothers, Children & Texts (2006) and Children Reading Picturebooks:Interpreting Visual Texts (2016); co-editor of Poetry and Childhood with Louise Joy & David Whitley (2010); co-author (with Martin Salisbury) of Children’s Picturebooks:The Art of Visual Storytelling (2012). She was director of the Caribbean Poetry Project, a collaboration with The University of the West Indies, 2010-15, and was co-editor (with Beverley Bryan) of Teaching Caribbean Poetry (2013). She has curated two exhibitions for the Fitzwilliam Museum on the history of reading, 1995, and children’s picturebooks, 2000, and one for the British Library in 2009 (with Michael Rosen) on the history of children’s poetry. She is currently writing a childhood memoir set in Scotland and India.