Saturday, 19 July 2014

Using a picture book to help inspire children's stories by Jane Clarke

Like many picture book writers, I make a lot of visits to nurseries and schools, and I often use a  picture book as the basis of a workshop to inspire children to come up with their own stories. 

I've recently been working in parallel with poet Chrissie Gittins in Sandown Primary school, helping children to create their own stories and poems to exhibit for the Tell me a Story festival that took place this week in Deal, Kent, sponsored by the Astor Theatre. 

I used different picture books  to inspire work from all the year groups in the school, but for this post, I'll stick with Reception. That's Reception in the UK system  - they're a year younger than Reception in the USA. At this end of the school year, some are just beginning to write a word or two, but mostly they record their ideas in drawings – and they all love the idea of being authors and illustrators.

First, I read one of the Gilbert stories and we admired the wonderful illustrations by Charles Fuge, with the children identifying lots of sea creatures and getting ideas for what other things might be under the sea.

Then I introduced the idea of the class having a submarine adventure. I put a simple submarine shape made from paper tablecloth and sugar paper on the carpet and talked them through getting into the submarine. We set off  (making chugging propeller noises) on our exciting journey…

The children each drew a porthole to show their ideas  (real and surreal) about what they might see on their journey.

This time, the portholes were paper circles I'd cut out in advance for the children to draw on, but  if there's more time and more adults around, like this session in Herne Bay library

a sticky session with paper plates and craft materials is fun.

The children put their portholes on the submarine and I told the story (complete with joining-in  sound effects) of the class journey, pacing the exciting bits - a giant sea monster tentacle slaps agains the porthole…aargh!  
with the quieter aaaah moments of seeing, for example  the mermaids walking their dogfish and shoals of rainbow and sparkly starfish, fallen from the skies.

Each child then recorded their own submarine adventure in words and/or pictures in their Captain's Log - a small pre-made book.

We all had lots of fun.

Thanks and congratulations to the young  authors and illustrators for their fabulous imaginations and work, and to their teachers and parents for permission to the pictures .

Please feel free to to use and adapt the idea.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Where I Write - Group Post

As a group we're often asked where we write. We're not sure why people are so interested because it's something we do every day, so we see it as just another ordinary part of our lives. However, as we've been asked, it would be rude not to answer the question! So four of us have joined forces to let you in on the secret of where we write.

Abie Longstaff

I write in my writing hut in the garden.

It's only a few steps from my house, so I have a very short commute!

Inside I have a comfy chair, a desk and some big cushions in a pile on the floor so I can curl up and read.

Pippa Goodhart

For the first twenty years of my writing career I wrote in whatever corner of the house I could. The computer was in our bedroom, and the main table always had to be cleared for mealtimes. But then - da daaa! - my wonderful husband (who happens to be an architect) built us a brand new house. What would you like in it, he asked?  Well, where to begin?!  I now have a library landing with backlit bookshelves that leads onto a balcony with rocking chairs - bliss.  But he and I also share a big studio room; his drawing board and desk at one end, and my writing mess at the other. One long wall is lines with built-in bookshelves.  But, as you can see, even now I have to share my writing space!

Jane Clarke

I've taken over the smallest bedroom, overlooking the apple tree in the back garden. Watching the birds (and the occasional squirrel) is a great displacement activity.

The walls slope so fitting everything in is a bit of a challenge and things tend to get stacked in heaps in the corners.

I use the beams to pin things on.

Occasionally I have a tidy up and clear out, but clutter is the default setting for my writing room.

Jonathan Emmett

For the first 10 years as a writer/paper-engineer, I worked in a little room at the back of our first house that looked out onto the back garden. As well as a desk, I had a huge “double elephant” sized drawing board, a large light-box and a plan chest, all crammed into the same small space.

My first office in my old house was rather like a ship's galley.

I needed somewhere to store all my books and art materials as well, so I built a big storage unit to house it all. There's a diagram of it on the right and you can just see the edge of it on the left of the photo above. There was a very practical reason for the unit’s 'grand piano' shape. It needed to be narrow at one end, to leave me enough space to sit behind my drawing board, and wide at the other, so I could have a decent bookcase beside my desk.

When we moved house, the storage unit came with me to my new office which is quite a bit bigger and looks out onto the street. As you can see in panorama below, I have a silver birch tree right outside my window!

A panorama view of my current office. Click on "view sphere" to load it, then click and drag inside the image to move around.

One of the best things about moving house was that I finally had enough space for a sign-writer’s vinyl cutter. These computer-controlled machines are usually used to cut out the coloured vinyl signs you see stuck to the sides of vans and above shops, but I’ve adapted mine so that I can use it to cut out the pieces of card for the prototype pop-up books I design. The home-made stand it's mounted on folds down, a bit like a deck-chair, so that I can store the cutter under my drawing board, when it’s not in use.

We hope you've enjoyed this group blog and if you're an author we would love to know where you write. So please do let us know.


Abie, Pippa, Jane and Jonathan.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Aptly ever after • Jonathan Emmett

Back in April, Natascha Biebow wrote a post for this blog about picture book openings and why it’s important to get them right. I think endings are equally important, so I thought I’d write a post about them.

When I was reading picture books with my own children we were always disappointed by stories that ended inappropriately. Perhaps most disappointing of all were picture books that seemed to have no proper ending at all. We’d turn the page, expecting to discover how the story finished only to find that it was already over and we were at the back of the book. I think there needs to be a satisfying sense of conclusion when one reaches the end of a picture book, whether the story winds down gently or ends with a spectacular flourish or unexpected twist.

Some of the best children’s storytelling in recent years has come from Pixar, the animation studio that created the Toy Story trilogy and several other modern classics. While Pixar’s films are always visually impressive, the company attributes its phenomenal success to its motto – “Story is King”. Here’s one of Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling that’s also a great piece of advice for picture book authors.

Rule 7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

I’m a great believer in writing an outline before writing a story – even a short story like a picture book’s – and that means coming up with an ending before starting the first draft. I know that some authors dismiss outlines as limiting, claiming that they like to ‘discover’ the story as they are writing it. That might be true if the outline were a fixed document but, like most authors that use them, I’m constantly tinkering with the outline as I write the story. If a better ending occurs to me, I see if I can rework the outline to accommodate it. Writing a story with an outline is like going for a walk in the country with a map. You have an idea of what’s coming up, but you can always opt to take a different route and end up somewhere else if it takes your fancy. With a map, a walker is less likely to end their walk stranded in the middle of nowhere; with an outline an author is less likely to end up with an unsatisfactory ending.

I don’t know whether the authors of the following picture books use outlines or not, but here are three stories that all have satisfying endings that feel just right. I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, but if you haven’t read any of the stories mentioned below and want to avoid any hints as to how they end, you might want to skip over that paragraph.

The Great Dog Bottom Swap

Peter Bently

Illustrated by Mei Matsuoka

This is the tale of a Dog’s Summer Ball that starts well, but ends in disaster. It’s a farcically funny story, deftly written with lots of amusing incidents throughout. And – as if that weren’t enough – the text on the final spread reveals a twist that makes the reader see the whole plot in an amusing new light.

Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose

Dr. Seuss

I can’t think of another picture book ending that made me and my children laugh quite so much as this one when we first read it. The story concerns Thidwick, a kindly moose whose generosity is exploited by a collection of creatures who set up home in his antlers. When a group of hunters arrive, the overburdened Thidwick’s chances of survival look slim. The image on the last page gives the story an incredibly funny, totally unexpected and somewhat shocking ending. 

The Gruffalo

Julia Donaldson

Illustrated by Axel Scheffler

I know that The Gruffalo has had plenty of praise heaped on it already, but that’s because it’s such an exemplary piece of picture book writing. After the mouse’s death-defying adventure, Donaldson ends the story calmly and quietly. Having repeatedly escaped being eaten himself, the mouse (and the story) comes to a stop as the mouse sits down to enjoy a meal.

What are your favourite picture book endings? Let us know in the comments box below.

Find out more about Jonathan Emmett and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blog. You can also follow Jonathan on twitter @scribblestreet.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Getting it Right : the Challenges of Non-Fiction Picture Books, by John Shelley (Guest Blog)

This month our guest blogger, John Shelley, gives us a great 'behind the scenes' glimpse into illustrating fact-based fictional picture books. We discover how he balances fact alongside his imagination, and the joys and pitfalls of research and accuracy.

Currently many of the picture books I'm illustrating are either non-fiction built entirely on factual events, or fact-based fictional stories, that is to say, imagined stories used as a backdrop to explain real facts.

Stone Giant: Michelangelo's David
and How He Came to Be

(Charlesbridge 2014)
My last book, Stone Giant, is an example of the former, a historical narrative about the creation of Michelangelo's statue of David, written by Jane Sutcliffe and published by Charlesbridge (USA).

As I write, I've quite literally just finished the preparation sketches on another story by Jane, Will's Words, which will be an even more demanding historical project, this time about the original Globe Theatre in London, and how the language of Shakespeare has become part of our everyday speech. At the moment I'm entirely immersed in London at the turn of the 17th Century. At the same time I'm also working on a book about stargazing for Fukuinkan Shoten in Japan, Yozora o Miyage-yo, conveyed using the narrative of a child's discovery of the night sky with a typical Japanese family in Tokyo.

Dummy Sketch for Will's Words,
work in progress for Charlesbridge, USA

Nothing could be more different than these two books, and yet in a sense they are very similar. In both these projects I have to balance the requirement for scientific or historical accuracy with my imagination, which can be anything but scientific! I'm a fantasy artist at heart, in my illustrations I like to expand and twist the reality of life and draw windows into more imaginative worlds. It's hard to do this if everything is based in mundane reality. My tendency is to think with broad strokes, then get down to details – I have an idea for a strong visual composition, which I'll try to fit the narrative within. The image is the most important thing for me, the drama of the setting, so where my imagination clashes with historical facts it can be a challenge.

Dummy Sketch for Yozora o Miyage-yo (Let's Look at the Night Sky),
work in progress for Fukuinkan Shoten, Japan

There are ways we can get around this. One way is to look for the detail and viewpoints that bring drama to the scene. A small amount of distortion can help the narrative flow, provided it's still within the boundaries of the facts. The illustrator can play with secondary elements in the landscape, perhaps little details unmentioned in the text. The physical landscape of a painting can offer opportunities for witticisms and visual asides, provided the overall theme of the image remains within the facts.

From Stone Giant,
showing how I used Renaissance decoration
 to enhance a page of factual text.
Another way is to use decorative elements to frame the facts within a more whimsical world of imagination. In Stone Giant I used a lot of decorative elements from the Renaissance to enhance, or expand on, the historical narrative. Abstract concepts in the text might conjure fanciful visuals that can be superimposed on to an otherwise "straight" drawing.

So there are ways to step outside the "box" of reality, even with non-fiction, how much you can get away with though depends on the requirements of the publisher! In my first sketches for the Japanese stargazing book Yozora o Miyage-yo, for the large part I completely ignored the scientific requirements of the night sky – as the sky is a background to the lives of the characters I designed the book on the narrative, knowing the hard science and star locations would be dropped in later. What mattered to me in the early stages was to show a rollicking good family yarn. This eventually led to several problems when we began to examine the astronomy – I had to redraw a lot, cut back many of my more fanciful ideas (so no exaggeration of features), specify the exact season and point of compass in each image so the correct stars would be seen in exactly the right place in the sky, and, as much of the book is based around viewing the sky from the same apartment balcony, I had to re-plot the entire landscape viewed from the apartment, building by building, so each view would match in consecutive images, no matter what angle.

1st Dummy Sketch for Yozora o Miyage-yo, an abandoned image that had to be
completely redrawn to show more accurate renderings of the sky, hills and stars.

So all in all, finding that balance between leaps of fantasy and the core of reality is a challenging task. Yozora is still awaiting final art after a very long gestation period of two years, with multiple author rewrites and image re-designs.

Will's Words is much more complicated for setting and historical detail, though hopefully a little smoother in regards technical details. The great challenge here is not to get carried away by research, which I really love, and which has already absorbed much of my energy this summer – the more you research the history, the more you want to include it in the book! It's important for me to immerse myself in the era, to place myself within the setting, to mentally inhabit the world, and in order to do that I gather as much on the era as I can. Naturally there will always be a degree of conjecture, so I try to narrow this down as much as possible. A lot of the research may not even make it into the book, I realised at one point I'd spent the best part of an hour reading up on the Society of Stationers and printer guilds, just because of one small barely noticeable wall plaque that's not even mentioned in the text! It's easy to go off at tangents and spend hours researching small details, especially with the Web!

But so it goes. Research, especially historical research, is one of the most pleasurable things about working on non-fiction. The reader may never notice, but I know, and there will always be some expert out there pointing and picking over the accuracy. And of course... Shakespeare himself would know!


John Shelley
Twitter: @Godfox

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Football - a Universal Theme?

By Natascha Biebow


Sorry, I couldn’t resist blogging about football during the World Cup. It is after all the month-long season of the beautiful game. Plus I grew up in Brazil, the place where, every time the home team plays, it’s a national holiday, the streets are painted. .  .

and people stop work and school to cheer on their side.

According to UNICEF, “football reaches more youth than any other recreational activity in the world … It plays a major part in shaping culture in countries around the world. Harnessing the power of football - a universal language that children understand - can translate into real change for children’s lives.”

Participation in sport and the play is a universal human right, recognized in a number of international conventions. Apart from physical fitness, it can help children to develop self-esteem, self-confidence, trust and social skills. 

Football is a game of international appeal.

Kids play football with anything they have to hand, stuff like:


 See how  . . .

. . . and with what. Boy, are kids inventive!

They play football on the streets, on concrete, on the beach, on waste grounds, in shantytowns, on fields – anywhere

Picture book editors are always looking for books with universal appeal that will sell around the world. What could be more universal than football?! I set out to see if there were any new picture books on this theme. I wondered: did any publishers jump on the World Cup bandwagon? 

Here are two new titles:


The Story of the World Cup, a colourful non-fiction history of the World Cup by Richard Brassey, with fun facts about things like football fidos and penalty shoot-outs (Orion)

And Football Star by Mina Javaherbin and Renato Alarao

a tale set in Brazil, in which a boy and his sister* dream of being a football stars so their mother won't have to work long hours and he won't have to work on a fishing boat. The realistic illustrations show the challenging daily life of poor Brazilians, tempered by the joy of playing football (Walker Books).

Several licensed characters have got their football boots on . . .
And there are some picture books that were published in previous years (though some are out of print, unfortunately):


You may know some other footie favourites to add to this list?

(* My son asked me - why is the World Cup only for boys? Hmmm, well . . . Did you know that there is a Women's World Cup Football Tournament as well? The next one is in Canada in 2015, though you wouldn't guess it from the low-key fanfare and coverage.)

When kids are keen on something, this can be a great way to dive into reading. It's so much fun to read an inspiring football story and then to go out and play - anywhere and with anything.

A universal theme, a game for all ages, for both boys and girls, that helps to foster cultural awareness, resourcefulness, inventiveness, teamwork, fitness and positive self-esteem -- all those things that we aim to encourage in the development of pre-school children. Plus it's FUN! 

Picture book writers and illustrators, Russia 2018 will be here before you know it. So why not get your boots on and kick a cracking story straight into the goal!

Editors, what do you reckon?

Now, back to cheering for our team.  

Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission.  Check out my NEW small group coaching courses!

Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Should We Play With Crocodiles? By Pippa Goodhart

Does our risk-averse, Health And Safety aware, psychological damage sensitive culture allow, or even encourage, the inclusion of child murderers in books for very young children?   
Yes!  But should it?

I was happily writing a new picture book story called ‘Don’t Wake The Crocodile’ when my husband said,

“You can’t write a story about a crocodile who might eat children.  Real crocodiles DO eat real children, and it’s a terrible thing.”

Well of course it IS a terrible thing, and not something to be made light of.  And yet ….  I’m not the only one.  Is that any excuse? 

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Why are crocodiles such favourites in picture books for young children?  Is it the thrill of flirting with danger in a way that, for British children, at least, is a danger that seems safely at a distance; in the world of fiction rather than reality?  I wouldn’t contemplate writing a jolly story about children flirting with danger when crossing a busy road, for instance.  Might our child characters get run over?  That would be horrific to contemplate.  So am I wrong to play with dangers that are real in other parts of the world?  I genuinely don’t know.

I think that the smiley beady-eyed, teeth-on-display looks of a crocodile rather lend themselves to being turned into humans in an animal skin.  They are often made to look more goofy than scary.  In that form we can think of the crocodile as being a human bully in disguise, and read the story in those emotional terms.  To me, it’s that clear fictionalisation of a crocodile into something other than a real crocodile that excuses the use of one in this sort of story.  And yet my fictional crocodile lives in an African pool and does threaten to eat the children –

They played Who Can Gobble The Picnic, and it was lovely and cool in the Crocodile’s pool, and everyone was splashy-happy… until the bananas and pineapple and avocados and tangerines and ground nuts were all eaten, and Moses’ little sister said... 

 “I’m still hungry!”

“Mm,” said Crocodile.  “I’m still hungry too!  I just might like to gobble-up YOU!” 

I had thought that children would relish the frisson of scariness in that crocodile threat that the children then run safely away from.  The pictures would need to make clear that this is a game, and not real.  But have I got this wrong?  I really do want to know, so please share your own thoughts on this. 

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Freelance Life part 1 - Limbo by Jonathan Allen

The Freelance Life, if I can compress such a diverse practice into a two word phrase, is the only work life I have ever had.

I went to Art School from sixth form, and when I left, I was unemployed for a while, semi-self-employed for a while longer (while trying fairly cluelessly to 'make it' in a band. You know, the usual stuff) and then, finally, self employed, that being the state in which I have remained ever since.

I am actually quite proud that I have 'never had a proper job'. I feel like at some basic level I have achieved a not insignificant victory. I get to think of funny ideas and draw funny animals and get paid for it ;-) I feel that in the general scheme of things that is not supposed to happen.

To those gainfully employed in offices and workplaces, it seems a strange and perplexing way to exist. Where does motivation and discipline come from if you are sitting around at home all day? How do you manage money if you don't know how much you are getting each month? These are good questions but not really ones I can usefully answer as the freelance existence is all I've ever known.
"I get by. . " is about the best I can manage.

This perplexity goes both ways. For my part, I have difficulty understanding how people function in a world of hierarchies, office politics and regular work hours.

Aside from the obvious stuff, one aspect of the freelance existence that isn't mentioned often, as it pertains to the creative side of it anyway, is something I call 'Freelance Limbo'. A kind of suspended animation we go through while waiting for a response from the entity commissioning the creative work, or potentially commissioning such work.
I often refer to the process of undertaking a dialogue with a publisher as being like making a phone call to Mars, the conversation is hugely disjointed as if due to a massive time delay. (But unlike with Mars, it's only a one way time delay. . . )
You can be working intensely and enthusiastically on something, and can't wait to get approval to go on to the next stage. The creative juices are in full flow, you're buzzing etc. Then you send it in for feedback and just have to kind of hang there. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . all excitement suppressed. . . . . . . . while the wheels of the machine turn and somebody finds the time to assess your work and reply.

This is not a complaint aimed at publishers, but rather an attempt to reveal an undocumented part of the freelance existence, and to point up one of the issues that arise when one party ( the publisher ) is busy on several projects and has to deal with umpteen authors and illustrators who all want attention, while the other party is totally focussed on one thing, and wants to keep the flow going. It's an inevitable part of the process of getting a book published, especially these days of tighter margins etc.

It's something you never entirely get used to, but you learn to manage, turn the flow on and off, but it is wearing over time. It's frustrating. Your ability to influence events has been taken away and you have to try to put it out of your mind until the aforementioned ability is restored.

Do all freelancers have this frustration or is it just my issue?