I am a child of books

Growing up with the name Gretel has led to two defining factors: a lifelong journey of hearing “oh my god do you have a brother called Hansel?” and, an immediate and never ending love for storytelling.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been surrounded by books, fascinated by the way words create worlds in my head, and how the images I see on the page come to life before my very eyes.

I’ve written before about the books that changed my life, one of which is The Heart and The Bottle by Oliver Jeffers. A beautiful book about the importance of being curious. And one that struck me to my core in the bookshop and almost made me cry.

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So, a few months ago when I heard an announcement that Oliver Jeffers had teamed with Sam Winston to publish a new book – A Child of Books – my heart started racing. What I found, once again, stopped me in my tracks. So much so in fact that I sent this email to La Touché (I’m writing a children’s book with him, remember?) immediately:

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The connection of my name to my life has very much made me feel that I come from a world of a stories myself. And when I met La Touché, someone who’s reading background is very different to my own, the creative journey we started together seemed to be very much influenced by me taking him on a reading adventure. So, straight away, I felt this book was special.

And this week I was fortunate enough to attend a talk at Waterstones Piccadilly where both Jeffers and Winston spoke about the story behind their story.

Now, I’m not gonna lie, silly old me at the time was too busy being a 28 year old 5 year old who was excited about being surrounded by books to think “oh I could write a blog about this.” So, suffice to say, I took no notes and I can’t remember everything, but I do know the talk left me with all the inspiration, joy and curiosity a girl could want.

A Child of Books is more than just a picture book. It’s a look at the way we grow up. The way we often forget how important it is to let ourselves imagine, because we’re stuck on the “serious stuff”. It’s a reminder that everything around us is an adventure. And, because of imagination, it’s a free one.

The book is a beautiful – painstakingly made – piece of art. Winston’s love for typography and use of language is the driving point for creating the landscapes across the page spreads. Each landscape is made up of individual words, sentences and letters cut out from well known stories that match with the situation depicted. For example, in the above spread where we see our characters rowing through the darkness of a cave, the cave itself and water reflection is made up of sentences from books that talk about pirates/treasure.

And this process was by no means easy. Winston had to cut out each word himself, and then place, position and reposition, until the scene came to life. If I had taken a photo of the process he showed, this would be a prime point to put that in…but take my word for it when I say there were about 982168372460601473 individual placing frames on one spread. Fiddly, incredible, mesmerising stuff. This guy surely has the patience of the entire world combined!

What is even more beautifully insane is that the book has been translated into a number of co-editions across the world. And that’s not just the narrative – it’s the landscapes too. Each co-edition uses home language versions, or other relevant stories, to create the page. This blew my mind. Because not only is that so wonderful and special to children (and adults) all over the world, but it means that all of a sudden, this one book has taken on a completely different story within itself.

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During the talk, characterisation was bought up. Jeffers said initially the child of books herself was drawn as a boy – “probably naturally, because you know, we’re boys” – but over time it became more obvious that she had to be turned into a girl.

And this is where I did stop and take a note! Winston went on to explain the reason why:

“We wanted someone confident and calm. Because the boy is such a timid reader, he needed someone strong, but not loud, to go on this adventure with.”

Let me tell you about the shiver that sent down my spine and the lump it sent straight up into my throat.

Because the child of books they just described, is me. It is La Touché. It is our story in 27 words. Without knowing us, Jeffers and Winston created something that so deeply resonates, that tells truth, and grabs ahold of a nostalgic familiarity. Something that says “hey you, you’re not alone in this world, we know you, these words know you”. And that, right there, is the beauty, magic and importance of stories. Because isn’t that really what we’re all looking for when we buy a book? A friend, an escape, a little piece of life that speaks to us whether we’re 8, 28 or 68?

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest” – C.S. Lewis

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Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston have created the epitome of what Lewis was saying. This is a book for life, with a story that will touch every kind of reader. They have tapped into the real magic of storytelling, and make me proud to say I am a child of books. Now, will you come away with me?

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