Pam Smy has been awarded the inaugural Invisible Prize for children’s book illustrators. The prize was set up by the cleverly-named Picture Hooks organisation, which aims to encourage, celebrate and promote children’s picture book illustrators. The Invisible Prize is to be a biannual award to acknowledge ‘the quiet reach and huge influence that the illustrator offers’.
Pam Smy teaches illustration at Cambridge School of Art and has illustrated a wide range of books, including folk tales, picture books, poetry books and novels. Her first solely authored work, a graphic novel, Thornhill was shortlisted for the 2018 Kate Greenaway Medal and the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize.
Thornhill is a compelling page turner which deals with some very dark themes. The dual narrative alternates between chilling excerpts from Mary’s 1982 diary and Ella’s story, set in 2017, told wordlessly through double page spreads of moody black and white drawings. Mary is an orphan, living in Thornhill institution, a badly run and unprofessionally staffed children’s home. She is a timid girl, creative, suffering from selective mutism, who is badly bullied under the noses of wilfully unobservant staff. Her nemesis is herself the victim of an uncaring system. This bully’s deliberate and systematic cruelty is juxtaposed with the negligence and care-less-ness of most (not all) of the adults. Which is worse?
Ella is also a lonely child. We see her moving in to a house overlooking Thornhill, unpacking her books, her paintbrushes, and mementos of her missing mother. Her father is distant, often working late, communicating by notes left on the kitchen table. Gradually, Mary and Ella build a connection across the decades.
It is a gripping story, accessible, powerfully illustrated, and would bear many return visits. For this reason, it has been recommended for ages from 10+ and into a young adult readership. Now our thoughts are turning to Christmas, to gifts, and to good reads for dark, socially-restricted evenings. The hardback Thornhill is beautifully produced: for the right reader, it would make a memorable present. Particularly for the younger end the age spectrum, it is recommended that you know your intended recipient’s resilience, and perhaps read it through to the end yourself before passing it over.
There is another reason why a more experienced reader may get more out of this book. Although the story stands very well on its own, there are numerous inter-textual references to unpick. Overtly, both Mary and Ella are reading Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic, The Secret Garden, with its orphaned heroine, another Mary. Also clear are the references to Jane Eyre: another orphan; diary/autobiography/first person narrative; Thornhill/Thornfield; the attic; the fire… There are other, slighter hints and literary allusions, to other stories of bullies and blighted childhoods. I am fairly certain of Susan Hill’s gothic tale, I’m the King of the Castle, and of Anne Fine’s masterpiece, The Tulip Touch. Teasing these out adds to the enjoyment of the book.
Congratulations to Pam Smy for winning the Invisible Prize for her extensive and varied body of work. I am very much looking forward to reading her new book, Merrylegs, and she has another – The Hideaway – due out next year. Congratulations, too, to Picture Hooks, for launching this interesting award.
Thinking of Christmas books, for our next blog post there is to be a guest reviewer, who will be looking at a couple of favourite picture books which are unreservedly recommended as good present material. Perhaps some of you could respond with some ideas and suggestions for all of us of children’s books that you have enjoyed over the past year, and which might make good Christmas presents for the right reader.