The Royal Ulster Academy art exhibition takes place in Belfast every year. It’s quite a prestigious event and for an artist to make the shortlist, never mind the exhibition itself, is a fairly big deal, at least locally.
Last year I was lucky enough to make it through the process and get a piece into the exhibition. It wasn’t my first time as an RUA exhibitor, and hopefully it won’t be my last, but it was a memorable one … for all the right reasons and one very wrong one.
It was one of my landscape pieces that made the grade, a moody piece depicting a band of rain falling on the Mourne Mountains here in Northern Ireland. It was a bit of a sleeper hit, a painting I had initially dismissed and only submitted on the encouragement of my wife. I remember painting it – I had felt a very strong need to try and capture the scene but afterwards could only see the flaws in it. But there was something in it’s mood that resonated with people and I think that is why it made the exhibition.
So there we are on opening night, me and my wife, wandering around the rooms and trying to absorb at least some of the amazing work on display. I remember we were scratching our heads in front of one of the more radical pieces when an official from the RUA gently tapped me on the shoulder.
‘Ah Kieron’ she says, ‘I wonder, we have a lady here really likes your piece and is thinking of buying it. Maybe you could have a little chat to her about it?’
‘Uh … what … why … I’m uh … really …?’ I say, concise and to the point as ever. My wife digs me in the ribs. ‘Of course I can’ I finish.
So suddenly me and this very nice lady are standing in front of my painting, each of us clutching a glass of rapidly warming white wine. What a perfect opportunity to further my artistic career I think. So, in order to maximise my chances I immediately morph into a red-faced stuttering imbecile who can barely string two coherent sentences together. It does not go well.
You see, we artists, for a lot of us, we’re the absolute worst choice to represent ourselves. Something to do with left brain, right brain I think, creativity negating salesmanship … or something. Anyway, standing with that lady, all I could see was the flaws in my painting, all I could feel was the heat in the room, all I wanted to do was submerge myself in my chardonnay (which I don’t like anyway) until the encounter was over.
I know – I’m selling myself short, now and then, I know I am. In the end the lady bought the picture. It was a good painting, it still is, and I hope it still brings her lots of happiness … for I did capture the mood I was looking for, it does have a resonance with the right viewer, and it is, I have to stand up and say, art.
But that didn’t help the conversation at the time. I only just managed to stop myself from pointing at the key elements of the painting and saying ‘mountain’, ‘sky’, and ‘rain’ like some foreign student in week two of a ‘nouns’ workshop and there’s a part of me that still thinks the lady bought the work just so I would stop talking.
Now, let’s contrast that with another ‘art’ encounter I had only just last week. I was waiting for my six-year-old daughter, Penny, to get her shoes on after her ballet class (very important I do it myself daddy) and there’s a light tug at the hem of my jacket. I look down to see another six-year-old pink-clad princess, who, when I lean down, whispers ‘I loved your book.’
‘You did?’ I say. Cue a ten minute conversation, earnest and unselfconscious, about what Gerald has for breakfast, how you get to Goblinia from Downpatrick and whether or not the slime in the Slimewoods smells (it does). It was sublime and all I wanted to do after that was get home and do some more work on the next book.
So why was that encounter so different from the RUA ‘sales pitch’? Well, maybe the art was already ‘sold’ for one, in the form of the book, so no pressure there. But otherwise, the situation was very similar – Kieron talk about your work.
And as a piece of work The Goblin’s Blue Blanket also has flaws in it, more than I’d like to admit (don’t tell my publisher!) but in this instance I didn’t care. Together the story and the visuals, if indeed they are separate elements, connected with that little girl and she and I were able to immerse ourselves in that world for the entire duration of the conversation like we had been there, and in a way, we both had.
Now, those flaws. I know I’m not the best artist out there, how could I be? I’m not even in the league that’s next to the league of those I admire most in the field, people like Chris Riddell, E.H. Sheppard, and Satoshi Kitamura. My work verges on sloppy, lazy even, and I can see the bits in it that would have been so much better if only I hadn’t gone for a surf or a snowboard that day and had stayed in the studio instead and just worked …
But, and it’s a big ‘but’ (snort – he said ‘big but’), it’s exactly those surfs and snowboards and hikes in the mountains that inform the work, that make it what it is, and that’s an unalterable, integral part of what I do. No, I’m not the best artist out there, not by a long shot, but I’m the best guy there is to tell my story.
And telling a story is wonderful. I’ve done readings where I’ve honestly wondered if the front row of children are levitating, for every time I look up from a page they are a little bit closer to me, faces rapt. Sometimes I want to shout out ‘I just made this all up you know – it’s complete nonsense!’ But it’s not – my daughter tells everyone who’ll listen (and even those who won’t) that she is the little dude reading by mushroom light on the trunk of a tree in the Slimewoods. That her daddy’s favourite character in the whole book is the little guy in red dungarees with the oil can. That he would turn down the chance to be in Pearl Jam if he could only join the bug band playing at the skate park. This, and all the rest of the detail that I put into that book and had once fretted would go unnoticed is again and again seized upon, questioned, and relished. That, dear reader, is an amazing feeling.
Which all makes children unquestionably the best people to work for. They couldn't care less whether my skill-set matches that of Sheppard or Riddell, for them there is the story told and it begins and ends there and there is an important lesson in this which I am still learning.
And don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy and will continue to do my landscape painting, just in future I think I might get my daughter to do the sales pitches for me. She’d do a much better job.
Chaos does not come easy for some, or, when it does, it’s an unwanted
entity, something to be banished as soon as possible. An unwelcome
houseguest with no consideration for the feng shui of your
For me, the clue is in the name. Scatter those cushions. The front
garden, the bathroom, the roof. A bowl of porridge is a dull, inert
thing. Grey and insentient. But if I take a mad leap for the milk as
you pour, suddenly it’s a living thing, colonising your kitchen floor,
growing, spreading. Then, if I knock the porridge packet over just as
you are cleaning the rest from the floor, we have a beautiful
symbiosis of goblin and mop and rage and oats.
What is a rose garden without poo in it? Pot pouri is just restrained
chaos. Release it. How can one enjoy the beauty of a sunset without a
cat climbing one’s leg? I merely aspire to greater heights, as you do,
though my route is simpler – up your leg.
The tranquillity of an afternoon read ... boring! What if I spill your
coffee, shred your book, knock over your pot plant? Suddenly we are
dancing, running, singing! If I am outside, I want in. If I am in, I
want out. If the door is open I will sit at the window. If the window
is open I will yowl at the door. I see your stacked dominoes – wheat
before my scythe. Your late morning is my early start, your early
night is my late finish. Show me a goblin at his leisure and I will
show you a canvas without a brush.
I am the brush. I am the chaos. I am the Ginger Destroyer and you love me.
From renowned artist and debut author Kieron Black comes The Goblin's Blue Blanket – a beautifully illustrated new story for Early Years readers. Ogie the goblin and his annoying cat, Gerald, travel through Goblinia in search of Ogie's missing blue blanket but miss out on opportunities to have adventures along the way. With vibrant, magical illustrations alongside a poignant story with a moral, the book is sure to be a hit for all children with an active imagination and a sense of adventure.
Here Kieron gives us an insight into a day in the life of Gerald ...
The small hours can be quite dull sometimes so I sneaked into Ogie’s bedroom and slept on his head for a while. He hates it when I do this as it always makes him dream of hairypedes and he hates hairypedes. It’s hilarious.
Ogie’s snoring got very irritating so I left. I’m supposed to be the annoying one. Went into Zamzam’s room but she has ‘zero tolerance for small hours shenanigans’ and keeps a cup of water by her bed just in case I try anything.
Took some hoddlebird seed from the kitchen and spread it on Zamzam’s windowsill. Found Ogie’s blue blanket. Slept on it for a bit.
Listened to Ogie and Zamzam arguing about who let all the hoddlebirds in.
Tripped up Ogie’s dad three times, once on the way into the bathroom and twice on the way out. Getting very good at it. He called me a ‘little ginger destroyer’. I liked that.
Ogie’s mum left out breakfast for Ogie and Zamzam then went to their rooms to hurry them up. I ate half of both breakfasts while she was gone. When they came back Zamzam threw her cup of water at me but I ducked and it hit Ogie in the face. Result.
Have been locked outside, in the snow, since 7.33 a.m. Thinking of filing a complaint with the union. If there was a union. I know the Rock Trolls have one. Ogie’s mum said I was an ‘impediment to the breakfast process’. I think that’s a very ‘catist’ statement.
Turns out the Rock Trolls do have a union and they accept cats! Bad news is apparently I’m too annoying.
Did a poo in the rose garden outside the Troll Union Offices. Wonder what’s for lunch …
In today’s blog post we dive into the literary world of adventure to give you eight exciting book recommendations. From staple classics to up-and-coming contemporary titles, you’re guaranteed to find something to inspire your inner explorer …
Here at Shrine Bell, our motto is to inspire adventure. Our titles aim to ignite that wondrous spark and encourage people to discover all that the great outdoors has to offer. From climbing boulders to summiting mountains, walking routes to fell running, or even simply taking in the visual beauty of nature on a quiet, bright day, the outdoors has something for everyone.
Oftentimes, our adventurous spirit begins as a young child – when our imaginations are ripe and our inquisitional minds want to see, do and learn. Our books are dedicated to preserving and encouraging this.
However, current literary trends tend towards issue-based children’s books, which has seen a decline in the number of adventure books published for children in the last few years.
A recent report by The Guardian looking into themes of children’s literature found that ‘there is a general societal trend – more inwards, more restrictive of the child’s movements, more focused on the self’. This shift inwards has been attributed to an increasing focus on mental health and individual wellbeing: ‘Many deal with things going wrong in families: family breakdown, accidents, deaths, mental health problems from depression and addiction to borderline personality disorders, all of which it will be impossible for a child to resolve as the issues are insurmountable’.
While this new focus on mental health is undoubtedly positive, the chain reaction seems to have caused a decline in outdoor adventure titles, meaning the positive mental benefits of such adventures are being cast aside. In an ideal world, the advantages of both approaches would be made known so that children would be free to explore these issues in a narrative style of their choice.
It is not only this shift towards exploring the issues of the self that has seen attitudes change towards adventure narratives and outdoor play, but the societal shift towards a more technologically focused world. Our daily lives are continuously becoming more and more materialistic – children now have myriad access to mobile phones, TV, tablets and gaming consoles – possessions are starting to take precedence over the possibilities of the outdoors and the joy of adventure. It has even recently been reported that children today are more likely to own a mobile phone than a book!
With that said, let’s take a look at the unique benefits of outdoor adventure time for children:
It’s healthy (in more ways than one!):
We all know the physical benefits of getting our children outdoors (fresh air, working up a healthy appetite, and a stronger immune system, to name a few), but the mental health benefits are just as important:
- Having adventures outdoors is commonly an activity shared with others – family bonding, great discussions and new friendships are often made while out exploring and this is a welcome contrast to the more isolating activity of playing on a console or watching a movie indoors. As adventure loving parents, we wish to lead by example, and it is no surprise that the second generation of Shrine Bell are into all kinds of outdoor activities: one enjoys doing hikes, gardening, and Parkruns with his mum every week, one is a budding BMX champion, and one is no stranger to remote back packing and mountain climbing adventures.
- A can-do, quick-thinking attitude – while outdoors children can learn lifesaving skills, such as key orientation and problem-solving skills, which gives them a foundation to be calmer in unexpected or stressful situations later in life.
- Being adventurous allows us to take more risks and often enjoy those risks! In today’s world it seems we are becoming more and more cautious as parents – however, children will often relish a challenge! Our author, Matt Dickinson, who often visits schools to talk about his experiences on Everest and his Everest Files trilogy, always asks the children whether they’d go up Everest and most say yes! In fact, the youngest person to reach the summit was just thirteen! The will to explore is there, we just have to encourage it. Outdoor adventure teaches children to be ambitious and gives them the confidence to achieve.
- Seeing things more clearly – time outdoors, away from life’s little stresses and technological distractions, can allow everyone to see what is really important and appreciate the bigger things. Our upcoming children’s book, The Goblin’s Blue Blanket, explores this in a charming story about why it’s important not to stress about the little things and to grab every opportunity for adventure with both hands.
Teaching respect and appreciation for the outdoors:
Less self. More world. While, of course, caring about yourself is important, the environment needs our consideration too. Children are the future and the environment needs protecting now and forever. The act of reading outdoor adventure stories as a young child can ignite this essential protective mindset and ensure that our love for the outdoors is never abandoned.
Following on from the recent publication of Robert MacFarlane’s The Lost Words, a beautiful book which stands against the disappearance of words used to describe nature from a child’s vocabulary, there’s been a lot of talk about educating children by taking them out into nature. It is a worrying trend that some children cannot identify certain plants, trees, wildlife or birds. If they cannot recognise them, how can we expect children to grow up and protect them? It is more important now than ever to reignite this admiration and understanding of nature.
What’s more, we can lose this key caring trait as we grow older and become encumbered by life’s abundance of distractions.
Reading adventure stories inspires outdoor play:
Children’s adventure books contribute excellently to the fun factor of the outdoors – the characters and adventures in these stories live fondly in a child’s imagination long after the final page. As well as building on their daily experiences, be that stories or other mediums, in the canvas of the outdoors, children can become creators of their own unique stories. I remember countless visits to my local woods as a child with my friends, re-enacting the Winnie the Pooh expeditions I had enjoyed reading at bedtime.
Our latest children’s book Popcorn-Eating Squirrels of the World Unite!, celebrates the boundless nature of a child’s imagination. To quote its award-winning author, Matt Dickinson: ‘It’s a pure flight of the imagination with no limits on craziness and bonkers stuff!’
There are endless possibilities and inspiration is a mere page turn away – let their imagination run wild!
Award-winning writer and adventurer Matt Dickinson has been to the top of the highest volcano in the world, he's survived a beaver attack in Alaska and, as anyone who has read his Everest Files books would guess, he's climbed the world's tallest peak but, as a father, what's the best adventure he's been on with his five children? What devices does he use in his writing to try and hold the attention of young readers who are surrounded by so many other distractions? Which children's books has he enjoyed reading? We catch up with him ahead of the release of his new children's book, Popcorn-Eating Squirrels of the World Unite!
Your Mortal Chaos and Everest Files series have been big hits with older children and teenagers around the world, what inspired you to write a book for younger readers?
Well, first I would say that I am now (and always have been) basically a big kid! But seriously. One of the nicest things about being a parent (I have five children) is that moment when they really get into reading. With my own kids they have switched onto it at different ages but I’ve always felt the six to ten years old phase of being a reader is particularly exciting and the Popcorn-Eating Squirrels series is written with that in mind.
Why is this age band an exciting one to write for? Well a combination of factors. Firstly, it’s a time when the imagination is firing up in all sorts of amazing ways. Secondly, kids this age really do have a crazy sense of humour. Thirdly, they are just starting to read independently and to engage with larger-scale stories. So Squirrels has been a chance to write with the ‘brakes off’. Let the slightly nuts side of my imagination go wild and have some real fun with the characters. I’m loving it and am intending to write more Squirrels books very soon.
How is the process different to writing for a young-adult audience?
A young-adult audience is a very sophisticated readership. But it's also one that has a lot of distractions. Social media, gaming, Netflix are all competing for their attention and as a writer you are up against all of that. I have always sought to bring a ‘real world’ feel to my young-adult books which has come from my own experiences (for example on Everest with The Everest Files) and I think that is a key part of the process. It’s quite controlled, and based on real life.
When you write for younger readers the process is really different. With Popcorn-Eating Squirrels I most certainly haven’t based it on a ‘real world’ experience, it’s a pure flight of the imagination with no limits on craziness and bonkers stuff. A popcorn machine that magically turns squirrels into zombies? Bring it on! A team of honey badgers who set up a vermin control company? Why not? So the process of writing for younger readers has more opportunities for fun. Plus they have far fewer distractions so once they get into a book they can really focus on it.
What was it like working with the book's illustrator, Calloway?
Working with Calloway Berkeley O’Reilly has been a great pleasure. It’s my first time to work with an illustrator and I think that our partnership will go from strength to strength. He’s a very young guy and this is his first book so it’s also a thrill to think that this is where his illustrator career starts! The most interesting thing has been to see how HIS imagination has given the pictures a special quality. I love it!
Can you give us five top things to love about squirrels?
1. They are real survivors
2. They're sociable creatures that can adapt
3. They can solve problems to get food
4. They have feet which can swivel through 180 degrees
5. They plan ahead – e.g. storing food for winter ... that is really smart
For anyone who hasn't read one of your books before, how would you describe your style of writing?
I think of myself as a storyteller first and foremost. I like to write in a style that is direct, in which the characters themselves dictate the action through their decisions.
I am definitely in the ‘less is more’ mindset. I cut my own work down rigorously before I send it to anyone. Some of my chapters have fewer than fifty words! My stories do move along fast, for that reason!
As a father of five, what’s the best adventure you’ve been on with your children?
Gosh there have been so many! But I think the all time epic was flying on a float plane into the wilds of Alaska and being dumped at a cabin. On that journey we saw Grizzly bears fishing for salmon and otters playing just a few metres away. Raw nature. Awesome!
Can you recommend other children’s books that you like to read?
I love the books of Philip Reeve and Sarah Macintyre, they are absolutely brilliant. And The 13-Storey Treehouse series is also superbly funny. As a one off book Wed Wabbit is also really worth a read.
What’s next on your adventure and writing agenda?
So far as writing is concerned it's full-on with the Popcorn-Eating Squirrels now. I want to build it into a series that kids will really enjoy. When it come to my own personal adventures I think I might be going back to Everest next year … watch this space!!