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Books About Dads

Depictions of fathers in children’s books have leapt forward in recent years, says illustrator Paul Howard. He talks us through his favourite visions of modern dads, from the ultimate macho man to fathers at their most vulnerable.

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  • 1

    Pete's A Pizza
    by William Steig

  • 2

    Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity
    by Mo Willems

  • 3

    My Dad Used To Be So Cool
    by Keith Negley

  • 4

    Demolition Dad
    by Phil Earle

  • 5

    My Dad's A Birdman
    by David Almond

Paul Howard

Paul Howard is an extraordinarily talented illustrator who has illustrated many award-winning books from authors such as Allan Ahlberg, Jeanne Willis and Michael Rosen, and has delighted children and reviewers across the world. Paul is probably best-known as the illustrator of Jill Tomlinson's animal stories which include the classic, The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark.

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Paul Howard

Paul Howard is an extraordinarily talented illustrator who has illustrated many award-winning books from authors such as Allan Ahlberg, Jeanne Willis and Michael Rosen, and has delighted children and reviewers across the world. Paul is probably best-known as the illustrator of Jill Tomlinson's animal stories which include the classic, The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark.

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We’re looking at great dads in children’s books. Like the hero of Dressing-Up Dad – a book you illustrated. This is a vibrantly funny book that should be a tonic for all those larger-than-life dads out there.

I knew as soon as I read the manuscript that I wanted to illustrate this book. I love the relationship between the dad and his son. It touches on how terrifically embarrassing parents can be – and it is about the importance of being yourself. The story is told in a subtle way. It celebrates that we are all different and it is about acceptance. It is also a celebration of the joys of dressing-up.

I’m a dad of three teenagers. They want to be independent. It’s a major transition for our family life – I think this shift is quite difficult for a lot of parents to adjust to. I’ve found it hard. Once the kids start secondary school the move towards independence and away from their parents intensifies. To the point that we hardly see our eldest!

As bookseller, you are at the coalface, so to speak. Would you say things  are improving on the ‘dad front’ in children’s literature?

I think they are. There is a long way to go. I think things are improving for all parents in children’s literature. Albeit slowly. There is the opportunity to show a wide range of family experiences (same-sex, single parent, bereavement, more grandparent involvement, class, culture) and certainly dads get to do much more in stories than they have been permitted in the past. For example, they are allowed to be more vulnerable, emotional and more directly involved in family life.

I feel, as an illustrator, that there has been a sea change in the way dads are portrayed, and it’s happened relatively recently. The majority of my choices show dads in quite emotive story lines. Even under the veil of humour, there is still great depth to them emotionally. A couple deal with fathers experiencing mental health issues. In chapter books and longer fiction, there is more opportunity to explore these areas.

“I feel, as an illustrator, that there has been a sea change in the way ‘dads’ are portrayed, and it’s happened relatively recently”

It is great to see that the portrayal of fathers in more active roles — changing nappies etc. These roles are shared these days because usually, in modern life, both parents work. This is a great thing. It’s great to share the responsibility and have a more equal relationship in the family. It’s better for everyone, including the dads.

In the past, fathers were distant figures only referred to in terms of their absence or their work.

Modern family life requires a new view: new stories, new characters, new roles and some role reversals.  In my choices I hope I have captured some of the variety and creative possibilities that this offers writers and illustrators and most importantly, of course, the readers.

Let’s start with Pete’s A Pizza by William Steig.

This is a gentle, touching and playful picture book. It’s about the way one particular dad chooses to cheer up and distract his miserable son. It’s the ultimate rainy day solution.

The poor boy, Pete, is inconsolable at the beginning. He wants to go out to play with his mates but it is raining. His dad has to think on his feet here – so he suggests turning Pete into a pizza. Slightly bizarre! He starts by throwing him up in the air. Then he puts him on the table and kneads him – this makes Pete laugh. He uses draughts pieces as pepperoni. Pete’s mother arrives with some torn up bits of paper which they all pretend is cheese and  pretend the sofa is the oven. Just as they are about to take the Pete Pizza out of the oven the sun comes out and Pete is giggling and happy.

It is so simple but manages to say everything about the relationship between the parents and Pete and between Pete and his dad.

The simple phrases get funnier the more you read them. William Stieg was the creator of Shrek – simple phrases written by a comic genius. We read it as a family and now my son loves being turned into a pizza. And it’s a simple thing – I mean, we don’t have to go out and spend any money to do this. It’s easy, simple fun.

It’s really inventive and imaginative – they just use things lying around the house to make up a story.

I found it a good reminder that those simple activities have great value.

Yes – and it is the complete opposite to wonderful books like Not Now, Bernard by McKee where the parents are so remote they don’t notice when their son is eaten by a monster. To the point that, throughout that book, you only see the parents’ lower halves – it is entirely viewed from Bernard’s perspective. Which is hilarious.

There is something rather touching about Pete’s A Pizza – this is two parents giving their time to their child when he is miserable. I like that. He’s a kind dad – which brings me on to my next choice, Knuffle Bunny Too by Mo Willems.

This book is about dads and their daughters. I felt that, in years to come, this dad would be getting up in the middle of the night to drive (possibly more than 100 miles) to get his delightful daughter out of trouble… I liked him.

I love that the dad in this story seems to be the main carer. He takes her to school and he picks her up. He is completely involved in the drama and emotion of the story and he is instrumental in sorting out the problem – I don’t want to give the ending away! The mum is there but it’s the dad that is the active parent. I think this is great. The role of the dad is portrayed as strong and positive.

There are so many dads on the school run in the mornings. It shows how interchangeable parenting roles are today. Or should be.

This book really celebrates modern fathers — they are more active and they are more visible. It throws out of the window all those clichés about home life. In this book, the father is the one to solve a highly emotional dilemma. I should point out that it is a very funny book – a case of mistaken identity that requires a midnight exchange of bunnies! If that doesn’t make any sense, all I can say is buy a copy, it is brilliant. It’s an affirming read for modern fathers and daughters.

My next choice is My Dad Used To Be So Cool by Keith Negley. What first drew me to this book were the vivid illustrations. Also, that throughout the book you never get a good look at this dad’s face. But you do see his arms and they are covered with tattoos.

This book is very much a celebration of the rock ‘n’ roll dad. Or rather the dad who used to be rock ‘n’ roll, but can’t anymore because he has responsibilities. I felt this was a book for both father and child to appreciate.

This is a depiction of a modern dad. We see him folding laundry and taking his son to the park. The book also, very cleverly, depicts his previous life — in a band, riding a bike. There are clues to this dad’s previous life all through the illustrations. It’s very satisfying once you work it out. This is excellent visual storytelling and beautifully shows how having a child is transformative. All achieved with the illustrations. The text, which is narrated by the son, is the boy’s voice and thoughts.

I loved this too. The words and pictures working together brilliantly to tell two parallel stories. It is immensely satisfying to read.

It’s a great depiction of a modern father and his relationship with his son. It challenges some stereotypes – this is a guy with a past, who hasn’t always been the perfect model of responsibility. He’s a bit of a rebel. And this is true of a lot of parents. It’s a great book for parents too because the humour is pretty sophisticated.

The story takes a look at the people parents were before they came to be parents. I think kids find this fascinating – my kids ask about my past a great deal. They want to know things like how I met their mother or what were we like when we were students – all these things are intriguing for children.

Next I’d like to talk about Demolition Dad by Phil Earle and illustrated by Sarah Oglivy.

This is part of a series that features the same characters. This story is about Jake Biggs and his dad, George. George is a demolition man. He is huge and he knocks down buildings for a living. It’s a story about a working family. This isn’t a man who goes out in a suit.

“ This is about a father expressing his grief – I don’t think you would have had a story like this 15 years ago”

At the weekend he is part of a local wrestling syndicate. And George is a big deal in this – one of the leading lights in spandex. Jake is so proud of his dad. This is a strong and loving relationship between father and son. Jake idolises his dad and persuades him to enter a pro-wrestling competition in America. George goes along with it to please Jake.

It’s a really funny book up until this point. I found it really moving. The poor man is out of his depth in America. It’s pretty humiliating for him and he becomes utterly deflated by the experience. George is devastated and his humiliation is very public. This is when the relationship between father and son comes into its own and Jake, in effect, comes to his father’s rescue.

And we do face failure and mental health issues as parents – as human beings. It is real life. And Jakes role in his father’s recovery would be empowering for any child to read.

I think there is such emotional depth in the book and it is handled so sensitively by the author. I was not expecting the emotional blow because it had been so funny up to that point.

And, also, because he is such a big, strong individual – he is the ultimate macho man.

Yes, and this is a powerful contrast — between George physically and how his mental health eventually shrinks him. This is where children’s literature – especially chapter books – can offer the opportunity to explore, understand and empathise with these big issues. There are echoes of Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl here, there are also similarities with my final choice, My Dad’s a Birdman by David Almond.

This is a superb book about grief and over-coming grief. It’s illustrated by Polly Dunbar who is able to somehow capture the sense of profound sorrow and the delight of flight perfectly.

Although it is never explicitly stated, the mother has passed away and the father is experiencing profound grief. His behaviour is erratic. He struggles to get out of bed. All the while there is a metaphor of flight. Flight is literally his way out of depression. Flight is hope in this book.

It is also a kind of permission. Grief can hit us and it can be debilitating. So, we must seek to overcome it (and accept it) by any means necessary. This father chooses dressing up as a bird as part of his way up every morning. It is an odd book. But I think it succeeds.

It is gritty and there are magical elements. The father needs to win the human bird competition because it gives him a motive to move on. Another character, Aunty Doreen, is a very welcome comic character who brings a bit of light relief…In general the book is touching and very funny.

And positive – this is also a book about families coming together in extreme times.

Lord knows how any of us would respond to extreme grief. This is about a father expressing his grief – I don’t think you would have had a story like this 15 years ago. This book is a clever exploration of this experience in life. David Almond sets this book in the North of England and this grounds the book in the lives of ordinary people. It is gritty and real — and this makes the story all the more powerful.

Interview by Zoe Greaves

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