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The Waterstones Children's Book Prize Blog: Bethan Stevens

Posted on 1st July 2021 by Mark Skinner

Congratulations to Bethan Stevens whose delightful picture book The Grumpy Fairies has triumphed in the Illustrated Books category of this year's Waterstones Children's Book Prize. In this exclusive piece, Bethan discusses the book that fostered a love of books in her and inspired her writing journey.

When I began to think about which books fostered a love of reading and inspired me to become a picture book maker, I was overwhelmed by the choice! I was obsessed with books as a child and I still am – reading was a part of daily life for me, just like eating or sleeping. I even used to have a book beside me when I was watching TV, so that I could pick it up and read it during the adverts. 

And so there are many, many books that inspired me to begin my journey to becoming an author and illustrator. There are some that were read to me as a very young child (The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are, naturally!), some that accompanied me as I grew through childhood (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) and there were some that I escaped into as a sulky teenager (Louise Rennison’s Confessions of Georgia Nicholson series, whose titles alone still make me snort with laughter). But if I go back to the very beginning, when I was as little as I can remember being, there was a book which I thought was the most entrancing and brilliant thing – Peepo! by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. It’s a book that I’m sure many other people also had on their shelves as children and it’s not a particularly original choice, but as a little girl I was captivated and comforted by it in equal measure and it taught me just how great picture books could be.

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Conceptually sophisticated, immensely charming and perfect for banishing bedtime blues, the Ahlbergs’ die-cut marvel relays wartime Britain through the eyes of an inquisitive baby.
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I pored over the pages of Peepo! time and time again and many of the touching details in the narrative stick with me today – the single bare foot of the Mum who has fallen asleep in the armchair half-way through taking off her shoes, the little girls in the pond with their skirts tucked into their knickers, the chortling baby grabbing a handful of his sister’s hair, the rainbow rim of the mirror on the final spread. Some of these images spoke to me because they chimed with something I recognised, like standing barefoot in shallow pools with friends, fishing for mysterious creatures beneath the surface, or leaning desperately away from a baby’s grasping fingers as they made gleeful attempts to grab at my hair. And some of the images posed questions - as a very young child, I remember asking why the Mum had one shoe on and one shoe off, and why the mirror had rainbow colours dancing around its edges. These images encouraged me to be inquisitive and seek out meaning, not only within the book but also from the world around me. Books like Peepo! provided a context for my own experiences as I grew up and even now when I see the dancing rainbow light of a mirror reflected on a wall I think of Peepo! and how those images that struck me so keenly as a child have echoed down through my life in the years since. 

Looking back on Peepo! as an adult, I can clearly see how it shaped and inspired my own approach to picture book making. In a similar way to Each Peach Pear Plum (also a firm favourite), Peepo! is a book full of tiny challenges that speak directly to the reader, pulling them into and through the narrative. These books made me, as a reader, feel integral to the story; I felt welcomed and involved and encouraged to participate. It was within these books that I learnt that the reader isn’t a passive audience, they’re an integral part of the narrative and they deserve to be welcomed in and treated with respect by the author. And Janet’s wonderful images taught me really important lessons about a picture’s powerful ability to tell a story. Allan’s words are key to the magic of Peepo! but Janet’s images tell a rich and evocative story of their own, with layers of meaning and detail that I still find completely absorbing today. 

All of these magical elements taught me how wonderful picture books could be and I think probably planted in me the urge to become an author-illustrator, as well as providing me with so much joy as I grew up. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without the countless hours of entertainment, solace and inspiration that books provided me with, and I owe a lot to all of the authors and illustrators whose work I encountered, for shaping my love of books and setting me on the magical path of becoming a writer and illustrator myself.

 

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