With submissions for the 2017 prize now open, we look back at the 2016 Little Rebels Award winner: I Am Henry Finch, written by Alexis Deacon and illustrated by Viviane Schwarz. Judge Wendy Cooling described the book as “philosophy for beginners…introducing the power of ideas and thought to the youngest of children”.
We spoke to Viviane and Alexis about winning the award and the inspiration behind the book.
Q&A with Viviane Schwarz:
Congratulations on winning the Little Rebels Award in 2016! How did it feel to learn you’d won?
I was absolutely delighted. It’s such a great award – I’m usually not that fussed about who made the “best book” as there’s really no way of telling – I think such rankings are mostly made up. But I couldn’t help being extremely pleased with Henry Finch getting top marks for rebellion, it was like I imagine it feels like when a kid brings home an awesome trophy. I want to say: “Oh, Henry dear, I had no idea you were so good at rebellion! Are you pleased with yourself?” – And he’d say: “Yes, very. And why didn’t you know, anyway? I am maybe the greatest.”
Thinking about it now, I’d leave the talk to Alexis mostly. But I’m glad to be looking at the cover of the book and feeling like Henry is looking rebellious as well as thoughtful now.
The judges described I Am Henry Finch as “an exceptional picture book, deceptively simple yet doing a big thing”.Can you tell us about the book and the inspiration behind it?
Alexis and I are old friends, and we talk a lot about philosophy – mostly philosophy applied to movies, but also otherwise. So I think I had a useful understanding of what he was saying with the story, and could illuminate it with fingerprints and help develop it. Ask him about the philosophy behind it.
I can tell you that we used to keep finches in the studio and loved them very much, their little world inside our big one gave us a lot to think about. I can also tell you that I used fingerprints because they seemed a good metaphor for identity and being an individual in a crowd where you might be easily overlooked, or even overlook yourself.
The simple style is meant to encourage readers to make their own pictures. I believe that art is a way of thinking, working things out, interpreting the world for yourself and communicating that interpretation to others.
I want the images to retain obvious signs of how they were made. If children realise early that humans make pictures, and that drawing is not some kind of super skilled truth-photography they will also learn to question pictures. Questioning is the first step to discussion, and to working things out for yourself.
Stories and drawings can create complicated worlds to escape into, which is great. Or they can be simple, but a means to talk about the real world with all its complications. That’s the big thing a simple story (or picture) can do.
The Little Rebels Award celebrates radical children’s fiction. What does that phrase mean to you?
To be honest, it means “children’s fiction” to me… I feel like I read a lot of books that could be considered radical when I was a child. Rereading them now I notice how political some of them were. “The Cat who Came in Off The Roof” by Annie M.G. Schmidt, for example, was a story I loved as a child, and when I read it again recently I realised I liked it because it featured a cat who turned into a human, but I loved it because it was feminist, and because it had a strong, kind message about mental health tucked away in a small chapter.
I might be calibrated wrong, but I don’t seem to notice many books that don’t mean to make the reader question the world… I think I just stop reading after a few pages else, and I always have. As a child, I used to think of books that didn’t contain any new useful information for understanding the world or getting me closer to being an inventor as “pretend books”. I’ve mellowed over the years – all books are real books
Lastly, do you have any favourite radical reads? (For kids or grownups!)
I cannot tell you how to change your mind because I don’t know what state it is in.
I will recommend this: seek out books that have been translated from other languages, or even in other languages if you can. You don’t have to be fluent in a language to be able to read some books, and many thoughts hide in the very structure of every language. Every time you notice how another language shapes thought, you will notice how your own language shaped your won thought already.
Read across time and space and all dimensions you can find… If anything seems odd, try to find out what the circumstances of the writing were, but don’t assume that you’ll understand it all. You won’t, you can’t. But you can accept the difference, and grow gradually. Acceptance is radical, more radical than celebration and wonderment. Not accepting that everything is true, just that it is. Taking notice, thinking, listening, reading.
Look at the differences in storytelling. Look for what someone from a different place, time or perspective says in a simple way about a complicated world.