Meet the book builders

6th July 2001 at 01:00
Tom Pow, winner of the Scottish Arts Council children's book award and writer-in-residence at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August, describes how he and his publishing partner approach working with children NO PHYSICAL FILEThe American poet Rita Dove describes the power of reading in her poem "The First Book". She writes:Dig in: you'll never reach bottom.

It's not like it's the end of the world - just the world as you think you know it.

Another American, Amos Paul Kennedy Jr, in an essay entitled "Social Book Building", writes: "If we can take this time in a child's life, normally between the ages of seven and eight, and couple it with book building, it will teach children that they can take this complicated object called a book and make one. It is empowering."

Certainly, I have found that talking with pupils about the process of how a book comes into being - from the first rough notes to the finished, published article - is of great interest to them. More pertinently, children are natural book artists.

In a recent session with a Primary 4 class, the question "Who has made a book?" drew a forest of hands. And to "What is the satisfaction of making a (story) book rather than just writing something in a jotter?" came:

"You can put pictures with it."

"You can keep it."

"You can show it to other people."

"It makes it special."

All these answers would satisfy any book artist.

Of course, the trick - not always successful - is to encourage children to find something they want to say enough to put it in a book.

With the printmaker Hugh Bryden, my partner at Cacafuego Press, I have been making books which unite word and image in, we trust, imaginative ways for the past two years. In our working relationship we compromise intuitively between the form of the book and its visual and literary content. Could we do something similar working with children?, we wondered.

Hugh works as an art tutor, mostly in primary schools. His imperatives are to instigate projects and ensure they are brought to a successful conclusion. Hence, in working with children, his introductory presentation of books we have made together, of other artists' books and book making possibilities is energetic and inspiring: the pupils are desperate to get started.

We both agreed that our first session together, some months ago, had not been entirely satisfactory. We had presented the pupils with too many options: an origami of book choices, an avalanche of content.

So, for our visit to Wigtown Primary school, near Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway, to work with P5 and P6 pupils as part of Wigtown Book Artists' Week in May, we limited the form to a stapled insert with a card cover and the title to My Book of I We wanted the content to reflect something close to the pupil's heart; to be a missive from his or her world.

One pupil, for example, produced My Book of Jewellery, with drawings of five pieces of jewellery with an explanationstory of why each was important to her. Other pupils' books were concerned with horses, pets, tractors, friends, musical friends, CDs, beasties, jokes, cars and football shirts.

They worked hard to make their books as interesting as they could in terms of visual and verbal content. But I still felt that my contribution as a writer was not being effectively delivered; that the pupils still weren't giving sufficient thought to content.

For our visit to neighbouring All Souls' RC Primary in Wigtown, we decided on a different approach. This time I would work with the 12 pupils on content first, then Hugh would show them how to frame that in a book. Our project was a series of Wigtown is I or Whithorn is Ibooks. Each was to have five illustrated statements of what the pupils' home town meant to them, followed by a summing up sentence or two and a last page about the author.

I began with a reading of my book Callum's Big Day, illustrated by Mairi Hedderwick, which tells the story of a boy desperate to be as Scottish as possible. I followed this by leading a discussion on what Scotland means to us and then narrowed the focus, homing in on the Wigtown area.

For Martin, aged 11, Whithorn is:"Boats leaving the harbour sunset over the sea windy nights cows moaning for food waves crashing on the rocks."

Maeve, aged seven, wrote:

"When I think of Wigtown, I think of the County Buildings.

I think of playing on my bike with my friends playing in the field where the belted Galloway are.

I like the Christmas decorations.

I like looking at the bookshops."

The aim was not to write a poem, but to arrive at five true statements of what the place means to them. The content decided, the pupils could concentrate on making the book (a star-fold binding within card covers) and the illustrations.

Hugh and I were pleased with the results of this process: the finished books seemed visually rich and personal in content. And yet the tension between form and content continued to be felt, albeit creatively.

In an open-air book-making session in Wigtown's centre, Andi McGary of Sun, Moon and Stars Press showed us how to make a concertina book, then one in which pages were inserted into a concertina binding "like slices of toast".

At another session, Alec Finlay of Morning Star and Pocketbooks said: "What makes artists' books is that they are more self-conscious about being books. You don't just read them for the story or for information, but because they make you aware of the form of books."

It is perhaps because Hugh and I embody in our partnership the tension between form and content that our work with pupils encourages dialogue between ourselves and between us and them. We share the responsibility - and the excitement - for the success or failure of our book building projects with children. In that sense, they borrow the philosophy of the documentary photographer Wendy Ewald, in that they too are collaborative works with children.

Tom Pow and Hugh Bryden's visits were funded by the SAC's Year of the Artist, details of Cacafuego Juniors children's books e-mail Cacafuego Press through details about Tom's sessions for adults at the Edinburgh International Book Festival tel 0131 624 5050

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