Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

An interpretation of Norvin, the main character in 'The Great White Man-Eating Shark' by Margaret Mahy

One thing an author and/or illustrator will encounter when they have the good fortune to be published, is other people's opinions about their work, publicly expressed and very much in the public domain. Mainly in the form of reviews, but not always. When all your concentration has been on trying to get published, it's easy to forget the the additional stuff that goes with it.
These public expressions can be loosely put into three categories,-
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
(Aaah-eee-aaah-eee-aah. . .Wah wah wah. . . as Ennio Morricone put it so well)

The Good -

If you are very lucky, you might get reviewed in a national publication, a Sunday Paper for instance. If that happens, it tends to be a good review, for the reason that reviewers are usually engaged in the recommendation of a few books they feel readers might want to consider this Christmas, that sort of thing. I have been lucky enough to have that happen two or three times over the (many) years and it's a good feeling to see your work in the Sunday papers ;-) Something for your parents to show the neighbours ;-)

I have also been in my local paper once or twice, but I find that just a bit embarrassing so I try to lay low and not tell the local press about stuff being published etc. . . Come on, you all have local papers, you know where I'm coming from ;-)
Another really nice thing that can happen is being sent fan mail. Sometimes from parents, sometimes from children. Children's fan mail is usually sent via their school, as sometimes schools ask a class of children to pick an author each and write to them. Sometimes it's the whole class that writes. Especially after a school visit you might have done, as a kind of thank you. The best part for me is seeing their illustrations of my characters. I love children's artwork anyway, but seeing their interpretations of your creations is really magical. These are from a very long time ago, but they were the only ones I could lay hands on without much tedious rummaging, as they were already scanned and jpegged up. . .

Another cool thing that happened with 'Mucky Moose' was that a Japanese puppet group made a puppet show of the story and sent me some photos. That was great.

The Bad -

Occasionally, a negative review crops up in a newspaper. I illustrated a few books by the late, great Margaret Mahy, and one of them was in a list of picture books being reviewed by a very well known children's author and illustrator, namely, Raymond Briggs. He was quite snotty about my illustrations. The nerve! ;-) Fah! Oh well, at least it allowed me to unashamedly name-drop years later on Picture Book Den. . .
The growth of sites like Amazon, where people can leave reviews of your books, without having to have journalistic or any other credentials, though a mixed blessing, has meant the democratisation of the reviewing process. Anyone can leave a review. This is a good thing I think, but people can 'miss the point' of a book, and leave an unfair review just as easily as someone can leave a thoughtful and well considered one. The good usually outnumbers the bad, but it's still odd reading a bad review from someone who doesn't seem to 'get it', or is just being rude. Of course they may be pointing out flaws in your work that need pointing out, in which case it's constructive criticism and to be welcomed, but they might not. it makes you understand why many writers and performers feel it's better not to read any reviews, good or bad. After all, if a book is selling well, who cares about a bad review?
And of course, some reviews are just plain odd. A review on Amazon of my version of 'Chicken Licken' just said,
"Chicken Licken? Isn't that illegal? This book is poo."

The Ugly -

This is something decidedly unpleasant that happened to one of my books a year or two ago.
I received an email from somebody I didn't know, containing a link and the advice that I 'May want to look at this', and that the publisher should be concerned. After due pause, I clicked on the link and could immediately see what they were on about.
Somebody had taken the cover of a pop-up book I did years ago called "Don't wake the Baby!" and changed it to read "Don't Rape the Baby!" (!!) . The site it was on seemed to be some kind of american anti gay hate site, that wanted to imply that gays were paedophiles. I was shocked, as you can imagine, and left a strong message for the perpetrators, telling them to remove it immediately. I also contacted the book's publishers, who were also appalled and promptly contacted the ISP to get the site taken down. The site owners meanwhile replied to my message, denying that their site was a hate site and claiming it was put up to 'promote hetrosexual love'. Yeah, right.
Anyway, after nearly sending several very angry replies, I responded to the feeling I got from them that they were enjoying the attention, and decided not to feed the beast, but to ignore it, as the publisher was very much on the case. The site was taken down shortly afterwards.

So you never know what proportion of Good, Bad and Ugly you may find coming your way. May it be mainly good, may you take the bad with a pinch of salt, and may nothing ugly crawl out of the woodwork and bite you!

I leave you with my favourite bit of fan mail to cheer you up after that bit of unpleasantness.
(from a good few years ago, it's been on my wall ever since, hence the blu tack and general grime)
And I extend it's wishes to you all, pausing only to wonder how old the writer is now and what she is doing now?

Monday, 27 October 2014

An Ode to Libraries - Wendy Meddour

This month we are delighted to have Wendy Meddour as our guest blogger. Wendy spent many years teaching English Literature at Oxford University but took a little break so she could concentrate on writing children's books. Only (thankfully for us readers) that little break turned into a big break and, though she's back teaching at university, she still loves writing for children and really can't stop.

I wrote 'How the Library (Not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel' before they started shutting them all down! I hadn’t planned to write a book ‘with a message’. I was just writing a love letter to the places I loved:

The library was always a magical place for me. And on occasion, it was also my child-minder. I hated going into the city centre when I was little. All those stuffy shops, shopping bags and legs. So when Mum needed to go and wrestle with the crowds, I would ask her to leave me in the children’s section, cross-legged on the floor reading books. (What can I say? Things were different then). It was one of the highlights of my week. Shelves upon shelves of colour and thought – just waiting for me to jump in and get lost.

The library was my ‘Faraway Tree’: I’d climb its branches and know that it would always take me somewhere new. It was my passport and the place of my dreams. And I was allowed to take some of those journeys home. For free! Those childhood years, in which I sat cross-legged on the floor reading books (instead of being bruised by shopping bags) led me to where I am now ...  

I took my paper pockets of thought home and read them in the top of the airing cupboard. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a sociable soul and my outside-of-the-airing-cupboard childhood was a very happy place. But whilst I was curled up on the top shelf behind the towels, reading book upon book upon book, I learnt empathy, humour, compassion & escape! For a child in a fairly cramped space, my world became extraordinarily large. This undoubtedly helped me on my way. I did pretty well at school. I travelled. I married someone from completely somewhere else. I got a doctorate and taught English at Oxford University. I made a living out of reading and writing books! Libraries led to lots of good stuff. In fact, I hold libraries and their contents largely responsible for the shape and colour of my life! And my life to date has been rather colourful. So thank-you libraries - you were my Mrs Doubtfire. My Faraway Tree. My very own Nanny McFee. 

To conclude a post about libraries, it seems appropriate to end with 'Story Time'. So here's a little snippet from the end of my picture book. Beautifully illustrated by the very brilliant Rebecca Ashdown, it says all I want to say:

Now Rapunzel has changed and it makes her wince,
to think that she used to just wait for a prince!
That she used to just sit.
That she didn’t move –
with nowhere to go and nothing to prove!

For now she reads three books every night
Under the beam of her bedside light:
She can tell you the distance to the moon,
    she can do Scottish dancing & play the bassoon.
She can speak in four languages, skip and play chess,
she can knit tiny egg cups and cross stitch a dress,
She knows the difference between crows and rooks –
And all because of ...


So don’t just wait for a prince to show,
He might turn up, but you never know.
Just pop to your library and borrow a book –
There’s so much to find out if only you look:
But don’t just sit and wait and stare . . .

When there’s more to life than growing your hair!

To keep up to date with The Bookseller’s campaign on Twitter, follow: @fight4libraries

To keep up with me (now I'm out of the airing cupboard), click here

To read a great article about libraries by Neil Gaiman, click here 

And to see a jolly photo of Einstein, don't go anywhere! 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Extra Tips On Writing Picture Books, by Paeony Lewis

At the Picture Book Den there’s a titanosaurus-sized mass of tips on how to write children’s picture books. So is there any advice left? Maybe! I’ve decided to pass on four slightly different, personal tips.

Titanosaurus (BBC)

Tip 1
Join an evening class on writing poetry. Yes, you did read that correctly! I spent a year attending poetry classes with a friend and after a few months we discovered that the quality of ALL our writing had improved. Writing poetry (not rhyme) for adults made us think harder about word choices. Revision is constant and clichés are shunned. It’s the attention to EVERY word that has left the strongest impression.

So if you join a course on writing poetry and have a tutor that won’t accept lazy writing, I suspect your picture-book writing will stealthily improve. However, I won't guarantee how long the influence will last - I think I need to return to writing poetry!

Tip 2
Looking at published picture books can be daunting to a new writer. Perhaps you wonder if you’ll ever be able to match the awesomeness of your favourites. If this is a problem and you lack confidence, then type out the text of a picture book (one that is understandable from the text alone). This makes the process of writing a picture book feel more manageable and may help with the analysis of the story.

Tip 3
As many of you know, picture book writers often divide their text into twelve spreads (a spread is a double page). Or sometimes writers follow the example of illustrators and ‘storyboard’ using twelve boxes to represent the twelve spreads. However, I’ve found that taking this a step further with a simple, physical mini book can help new writers think harder about the potential illustrations and story structure. Of course, the final illustrations may be completely different and if you don’t illustrate then they’ll be out of your control, but at this stage you’re just planning and moulding the story.

All you need to do is take a pile of 8 sheets of A4 paper and fold them in half. That’s it! You have a cover and book! Now sketch out your story and don’t worry that the drawings look pathetic – nobody else will see your stick figures. The aim is to help you visualise the story and page turns and see what might appear on every page. There’s no need to write the text – just use thick lines to represent the sentences. Perhaps you’ll discover there is too much text and the illustrations are too samey.

Tip 4
With character-led stories your characters must be REAL to you, because if they’re not then how can you expect your reader to believe in them? The characters aren’t just nebulous talking bears, bunnies, pigeons, dinosaurs or small children. They’re individuals with specific character traits and emotions. It can be tricky with picture books as you have so few words, but take a look at picture books with main characters that have birthed several in a series and study what makes them come alive on the page. What makes that character appealing and ‘strong’ enough for people to want to read more?

Happy writing, everyone, and do whatever works for you!
Paeony Lewis

Friday, 17 October 2014

Unhappily Ever After? By Pippa Goodhart

Does horror have a place in picture books?

There’s been a lot of recent discussion as to whether or not there are too many unhappy and hopeless endings in books for teenagers. But what about unhappy endings in picture books?

Jon Klassen’s ‘This Is Not My Hat’ won the Kate Greenaway prize at the same time that Kevin Brooks’ controversial book 'The Bunker Diary' won the Carnegie. Both deal in horror. Both could be said to end unhappily.

‘This Is Not My Hat’ is a very beautiful book. It's a very simple book. It's a very powerful book. It’s truly dramatic and exciting. (Spoiler alert!) We are told the story in a few sentences narrated by a little fish who is boasting that he’s stolen a hat from a big fish, but the big fish is asleep and probably won’t notice. But we can see in the pictures that the big submarine shaped fish isn’t asleep: he’s awake! And he’s angry! And he’s going after the little fish into a mass of green weeds … before coming back out with his hat. And that little fish voice has stopped.

Why is that so powerful? Its power is in what is not said or explained. It is in that space left to be filled with the reader’s own imagination.  What most of us imagine is a horrible massacre of the little fish by the big one. So it is us, rather than Jon Klassen, making the story end with horror. Is finding horror in ourselves more powerful than being given it from the outside?

A lot of the reviews on Amazon say that this is a book for adults and older children rather than children of the usual picture book age. When I think of my daughters at, say, two to five years old, they would have made that grisly imaginative leap and been upset by it. But would they actually, at some level, enjoyed the thrill of that horror, or just been upset? I don’t know.

One Amazon reviewer took from that book a message of: find out the perpetrator, kill him and eat him. But it's more complex than that. The supposition that the fish has been eaten (and it’s only happened in the reviewer’s mind, remember, not explicitly on the page in any way!) raises the big and important question of fairness. Did the little fish deserve to die for stealing something that wasn’t his, and then cockily boasting that he’d got away with it? Small children have strong opinions about fairness. Where does fairness lie in this case? And is capital punishment fair? It’s all so interesting! I think it’s the interesting moral dilemma in this story that stays with us more than the horror, whereas it was definitely the horrors in Struwwlpeter that have haunted me and has stayed with me long after ‘nice’ books have faded from memory.

There is the view that childhood is a golden time of innocence, where the nasty side of life doesn’t yet have a place. For some children their early years truly are like that, and I think I’d hesitate to upset things for those children with too early a dose of unhappily ever after. There are plenty of picture book stories that deal in horrors (think of The Owl Babies raising the possibility that Mum has been eaten by a fox!) but in which things are brought to clearly happy endings. The difference here is that we are left still mid-horror, albeit in a way that many would take as black humour more than straight horror.

There are ‘unhappy’ books that are aimed squarely at addressing some real life horrors, of course. Rebecca Cobb’s beautiful ‘Missing Mummy’ shares the misery and misunderstanding and anger of a small girl whose mother has died. I wouldn’t offer that to a child who had no notion yet that a mother could die, but it makes a wonderful discussion point for children who have experienced the death of their mother, or for those who know another child going through that real horror. 

Different books are going to suit different children in different situations and at different times, and we adults have a role in guiding the right books to the right children at the right moment. We have the luxury of a huge choice, even within picture books. I think that’s wonderful. But it trips some people up.

Look at the reviews for Jean Willis and Tony Ross’s ‘Tadpole’s Promise’, and you’ll find much greater outrage than for ‘It’s Not My Hat’. I suppose that is because people have picked up what looks like a nice little love story about a tadpole and a caterpillar who promise to love each other for ever and never to change …. And they haven’t thought through the inevitable problems implicit in that set-up! Clearly people have bought the book, and not read it themselves before reading it aloud to a small child audience who are sometimes horrified when the frog eats the butterfly! An outraged adult reader is going to produce an upset child. Maybe some children will be upset even if the reader has warned that this is a story that isn’t going to end happily. But for some the kind of bright child who delights in following an idea through to a logical conclusion, that book is an absolute delight! Besides, the frog isn’t unhappy because it’s oblivious of quiet who it has just eaten. And the butterfly isn’t unhappy because it’s, well, dead. This is a great book to read out loud to students of writing. They tend to gasp and say, ‘but I didn’t think that children’s books could end like that!’

Should they? What do you think?

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Let’s play! Some fast and fun writing games to try.

Moira Butterfield
I’m in the midst of writing something that’s pretty off-the-wall at the moment. I hope it’s funny. It’s meant to be, and to do it I have to get into a different mindset away from my everyday concerns. 
To get into ‘anything goes’ mode I need to free up my thinking, so I’ve made a list of quick writing games to try at the beginning of writing sessions. I thought you might like a list, too, to have handy whenever you fancy a bit of writing play. I think of it as taking a lovely warm cleansing brain shower! Use the games to kickstart any kind of writing, from picture books upwards. Tailor them to suit.

In general the idea is to chuck away what you’ve written as it’s for pure fun, but if you decide you’ve hit on something, then good luck!

Add your own suggestions and favourites in the comments section and I’ll then create a document of creative writing games that we can all share as a writing resource in the free download section of this blog. When it’s ready we’ll tweet about it on @PictureBookDen.

I’ve found some of the game suggestions online. A couple I’ve experienced in workshops and a couple I’ve made up for myself. I haven’t tried them all yet, so I’ll be working through them and perhaps tweaking them a bit. I’ve not put them in any particular order, but I’ve given them my own names.

As a rule of thumb I reckon that none of these should take longer than it takes to sit and drink a cup of coffee. 
Story photobomb
Grab a magazine or a catalogue that you’ve got lying around. Open it and select a photo (do this really quickly - no going through the pages and making involved decisions). Now write one paragraph of story about it (for any age you like, depending on how you feel). Stop after 5 minutes (you could put your phone alarm on to stop yourself). 

Snake eats bus
Write down the numbers 1 to 12. Now quickly write the name of a character by 1. Then write a plot sentence by each number, taking this character onwards. It doesn’t have to be good because nobody is going to see it. It can be as mad as anything. That’ll be all the more fun for your brain. Here’s one I’ve just started quickly for the blog, as an example.  
1.snake 2. eats bus 3. bus keeps driving 4. snake has to go where bus goes.      

You get the idea. 
 Brain takeover
Open a book or a magazine. Choose a simple everyday word (point at one randomly with your finger). For just a couple of minutes at most write down lots of other ways of describing that word, and gradually just let yourself go off in any direction. Go as off-the-wall as you want. I’ve just done one quickly, and I began by pointing to ‘no one’. 
No one, nobody, no person, nix persona, lots of twos, all alone, no humans, hold on, there’s an alien, does that count? so if someone said ‘there was nobody there’ but there was an alien were they lying or not? 
I went an unusual way and ended up with a fun idea for a sci-fi short story (which I will probably never write but who knows).  
 Head yoga
This exercise comes from a psychologist, to encourage ‘thinking fluency and flexibility’ apparently. Maybe we need to keep exercising our brains this way to keep them flexible, hence my title. 
Begin by choosing a four-letter word. (The example I saw was IDEA). Now write three or four sentences using the four letters as word initials. Eg: 
I Don’t Enjoy Apricots
If Dogfish Eat Apples
Interview Didn’t End Angrily
India Elephants Dawn Attack  

Then swap for another four letter word. It doesn’t matter one bit if your sentences are nonsense. It’s the word association that’s the brain-stretching part. 
 Eureka writing
Varying the words in a given phrase can bring about exciting problem-solving  breakthroughs and once led to a man inventing an entirely new type of food (a microwaveable egg cube). Or so I read in Thinkertoys. A handbook of creative-thinking technique, by Michael Michalko. His book is about solving problems using creative thinking, but I’ve adapted the idea to make it purely for fun. 

Write a simple sentence or find one from a picture book. Spend a little time substituting new words for the key words in the sentence. Do it fast. Here’s one I just tried: 
a teddy loses a hat
a dog finds a hat
a hat finds a dog
a girl finds a dog
a girl finds a hat
with a teddy in it 
I think I’d be happy to do this all day! It’s oddly soothing and it could go anywhere. The sentences could get longer or you could start a new sentence. It's your game!
Quickly choose a noun, any noun. Spend five moments writing one word to describe it, thus:
Door - big door, blue door, rotten door, ancient door, metal door, cold metal door 
Don’t give up if it gets hard, Just allow yourself to go a bit crazy:
jelly door, talking door, lizard door 
(No idea where that lizard door came from!). 
I’m little and I like…
Make quick lists of three things you loved as a child: 
Pieces of clothing
Mmm, I’m thinking of the smell of clean sheets that billowed all day on the line…

Write the letters of the alphabet down. Then write a word by each letter that’s as silly and as personal as you like (it’s for you, nobody else). I’ve got one on my wall that says g for gaullimaufry!  It was created by Peter Chasseaud at his Tom Paine Printing Press in Lewes, Sussex, and I've got it on my wall, handprinted on lovely handmade paper. Here it is for some inspiration.