Monday, 17 February 2020

Top Picture Book Picks for New Parents

Top Picture Book Picks for New Parents.

As some of you know, in September last year, we welcomed our baby boy, Benjamin, into the world (so if I've been quieter than usual on social media, that's the reason!)  What a whirlwind it's been! But I have absolutely loved getting to know our son and discovering the steep learning curve that is becoming a parent.

I've also loved starting to share books with Benji. We read every day, whether it's short 'touch and feel' books, longer picture books, board books, musical books or lift the flap books. I've relied on books to fill the time, to calm Benji down if he's a bit grizzly and also for playing and talking.

Now that our babies are 3 months old, I thought it might be interesting to ask the parents in my NCT group if they are also reading with their little ones and to find out what their top picture book/board book picks are.

Benjamin chooses:
'Touch and Feel'-The Gruffalo and the ever-popular 'That's not my....' series. (We were given the 'That's not my Snowman/Reindeer/Santa' set for Christmas but also have Kitten and Llama).  It's fun to explore the different textures and the bold illustrations are perfect for this age.
I choose:
'Mr Brown can Moo. Can you?' by Dr Seuss- I love the rhythm of the text and enjoy making the noises and making Benji smile.  Another firm favourite is 'Books Always Everywhere' by Jane Blatt and Sarah Massini-the illustrations are gorgeous and I truly believe books should always be everywhere!

Mum of Freddie chooses:  'Tyrone the Horrible' by Hans Willhelm. She says 'Apparently it was my favourite as a child, but it's got a great story line about a smaller dinosaur-Roland who is being bullied by a bigger one-Tyrone. It's got a lovely message. Although it's not very much about turning the other cheek in the end and Roland gets his own back!  The pages are really bright and colourful and there is a surprise that seems to grab Freddie's attention!

Mum of Ralph chooses: Any of the Dick Bruna books.  She says 'Partly I like them because I love Dick Bruna's simple illustrations and stories with Miffy and Boris bear I remember from my own childhood.  Ralph likes them because I think the pictures are clear, simple and bold and he is able to focus on them.  They are short enough that he can tolerate reading until the end of the book and the books themselves are a bit smaller so he can grab them when they are closed.  Other books we enjoy are by Carol Thompson- we have 'Wind', 'Rain', 'Sun' and 'Snow'. It's nice to read about the weather and make the weather sounds while reading them.  The illustrations are full of movement and fun too so he likes those!

Mum of Maisie chooses: The Birthday Invitation by Lucy Rowland and Laura Hughes. *Disclaimer* I have to say here that I gifted all of the babies in our NCT group one of my own picture books after they were born but it's very nice to hear that Maisie is enjoying hers!

Mum of Sienna says: 'Like some of the others, Sienna enjoys the 'That's not my...' series.  We also have some books that have sounds and music too, such as Musical 'We're going on a bear Hunt' by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury- these are fun for a bit of variety.  Sienna's dad's favourites are 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' by Eric Carle and 'Ten Little Dinosaurs' by Mike Brownlow and Simon Rickerty.

Mum of Holly says: 'We haven't really done much reading with Holly other than looking at the black and white pattern books'.  Holly's mum is bilingual and describes the patterns to Holly in both English and in Chinese, which is wonderful! Lucky Holly being exposed to two languages from such an early age!  Babies enjoy strong contrasting colours and patterns as these are the first things that they can see clearly.

Mum of Joseph says: 'We're bit behind on the books and reading front. Joseph rarely wants to sit still and look at a book at the moment.  He is enjoying soft material books and loves grabbing them, turning the pages and trying to eat them!'

It's been lovely hearing about which books our little ones are enjoying- whether it's books to support their visual skills, their musical skills, their language skills or their coordination skills, or whether it's those books that are...well... just good enough to eat!!

I'd love to hear what are/were some of your babies' favourites?

Monday, 10 February 2020

Three picture books that make you fizz with ideas - Jane Clarke

This time of year, I’m a frequent visitor to schools. I love to help enthuse and inspire the 4-11 year olds, and help them to come up with their own ideas for stories and poems. I often show them a picture book as a springboard.

Here are my top three picture books for making a class of kids (and me) fizz with ideas. If you don’t know them, take a look, I’m sure they will inspire you, too:

Tell me a Dragon by Jackie Morris (Frances Lincoln Children's Books)

A gorgeous, poetic book. What would your dragon be, and how would you look after it?

Even the hatching-egg end papers are inspirational

I hadn’t realised before I looked it up today that Pie Corbett has created some great teachers notes on using this book, so instead of blathering on about what I do, I will refer you to an expert:

Things that are the most in the world by Judi Barrett, illustrated by John Nickle (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)

This is crazy, silly, surreal - and lots of fun!

Get the youngest kids to try it with colours and the older ones with emotions/feelings (happiest, saddest, most grumpy/loving/jealous/angry etc). Try it yourself with different sorts of weather, atmosphere, settings, food, textures, movements. 

My non-fiction choice is

Uneversaurus by Professor Potts (David Fickling Books)


Discover a new dinosaur and bring it to life. Keep it ‘real’ or go silly by mixing dinosaurs with other creatures (like an Octo-saur or a Dog-o-don) emotions, (Happysaurus, Grumpysaurus etc) what they eat (e.g. Sausagesaurus, Book-o-saur). 

If you’re hoping to inspire the small person in your life - a special mention for the You Choose books by Picture Book Den’s very own Pippa Goodhart, illustrated by Nick Sharratt. They are packed with inspirational ideas for kids.  The only reason that the first You Choose is not in my top 3 is that it’s harder to share with a class, whereas all the others have  illustrations that are big, bold and easy-to-see-from-a-distance.


I’d love to hear about other books that make you fizz with ideas!

Jane’s thrilled to be able to let you know that she's just agreed a deal with Walker Books for her next picture book - and is delighted to have these 3 new editions of picture books out in Feb 2020: a paperback edition of Leap frog, illustrated by Btitta Teckentrup and board book editions of Neon Leon, also illustrated by Britta Teckentrup, and Old Macdonald's Things That Go, illustrated by Migy Blanco.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Doctor Doodle-little - How to converse with animals through drawing (with a little help from a rescue dog) - Garry Parsons

It's not often we give ourselves space to examine what we do day to day in any great detail. I've recently been working on three picture books where the characters are all animals and because of a busy timetable I've been jumping between these books at different stages of their development.  This has resulted in a lot of intensive drawing. 

Drawing out the characters and working on the first roughs is always a favourite part of the process for me. The combined sketching and researching is always enjoyable and inevitably turns up some unexpected surprises. And, since “How do you come up with the characters?" is a question I’m often asked, I’ve been making mental notes about how the process reveals itself, which is not something I usually pay that much attention to. In considering this question, one of the challenges of coming up with an animal character is finding how to imbue it with human characteristics but maintaining its animal form and nature.

The first of the three animal books I mentioned I’ve been working on is about a llama who lives in a rather quiet and regimented community but who has a passion for dancing which he secretly expresses at night. 

My starting point for a new picture book is to gather suitable images, in this case llamas, and create a board on Pinterest that I can fill with resource material.  This becomes like a mood board for the whole book that I can add images and return to for reference as I go. But drawing animals as surrogates for complex human lives can be tricky for an illustrator. Physically they might have to hold things - books, cups or maps - and if they have hooves or feathers this can be a challenge.  They might have to wipe a tear from a cheek, lie on a sun lounger, climb up a ship’s rigging, ride a bike or remove a splinter from a dog's paw, and, if your character is a horse with clumsy hooves or a tyrannosaurus rex with a giant head, thumping great body with tiny arms and only two digits on each ‘hand,’ the physical logistics can be thorny.  

In the llama’s case he had perform to dance moves. He was required to twist, stamp his feet and keep in time to the techno beat! Not that easy with four legs and a neck that’s as long as your body, and my job as illustrator is to make this look as convincing and as normal as possible, to give life to the text as naturally as possible. 

Personally, I love this challenge. Sometimes the character just appears before me as I’m drawing, but most other times it involves a lot of rubbing out. Drawing and re-drawing, rubbing out completely and then more drawing. Often a relatively simple line might take a few goes to get it ‘right'. 

It still fascinates me what ‘right’ actually is or how I even determine I've reached it but all I know is that I have to keep going until I get there, until it looks ‘right’ and, more importantly, feels right. One way of knowing I’ve achieved this is if it makes me laugh. I distincly remember being in the cinema as a child watching The Muppet Movie. Having only ever seen the TV show of the Muppets where their felt bodies are mostly obscured from the waist down to hide the puppeteers, in the movie you see Kermit riding a bicycle, legs and all, singing along with no visible signs of strings or puppeteers. This had me in tears of laughter for most of the movie and, I admit, periodically since then!

When I feel I get a character drawing ‘right’, it somehow resonates with that image of Kermit on a bike within me and I know I’ve got something right. Psychiatrist!

When I visit schools my assembly presentation consists of me asking the pupils what things they might need in order to be an illustrator - the first being a pencil. Sounds basic, I know, but then I tell them that my pencil has a secret sidekick and not only that but my pencil is in LOVE! ...Groan! Yuk! 

We usually have to go through a myriad of different possiblilties  as to who or what this sidekick love interest is until someone yells, a rubber!  What is difficult to get across is the idea that it takes time and a lot of re-drawing to get it down. All they see is a fully formed character sketch that has taken  a lot of skill but been executed in an instant. It never comes out perfect, I tell them when it’s their turn to draw, it’s all about feeling when it’s right for you. After a day of character drawing, which has included plenty of drawing and erasing, I might only be left with two or three drawings that are ‘right’, and all the effort of achieving this is only apparent in the diminished size of the rubber and the debris surrounding it.

One of the other books I’m working on is about a flamingo. He is concerned with his looks. 
These sketches are still at the earliest stages, but once I felt I was happy with his general appearance as a flamingo I then needed to make him express his inner desire for marvelousness. Combining him, with his awkward long legs (as you know, birds legs often bend at the knee in the opposite direction to ours, as is the case for flamingos which is another challenge to anthropomorphise) and his long neck and wings into fashion poses I’d gathered onto my Pinterest board had me laughing out loud. 

This is usually the time a friend who works in the city calls me on the phone distraught from a heavy board meeting exclaiming the pressures of work life and asks me how I’m getting on? 
Oh fine I say, I’m drawing a Kookaburra on a sun lounger drinking a margarita

Facial expression is everything and this can also take an amount of drawing and re-drawing too. I can spend twenty minutes positioning and repositioning a dot in an eye to get the feel I’m after, but then, if I'm lucky, it sometimes works first time. The third book I mentioned I'm working on follows a whole bunch of birds on a poolside holiday. Birds lying on inflatables, wearing rubber rings, drinking cocktails and wearing sunglasses. Plenty of scope for unnatural fowl positions, funny expressions and awkward limbs.

Dogs are great for studying expressions and maybe a lifetime of living with them has had an influence on how I draw emotion in animals' characters. Having recently lost a dog with expressive features (Olive was a grand 17 years old) and now being the owner of a new rescue dog, Lily, I can already see everything I might need for characterisation in her face. She’s does a particularly good sorrowful look, great for visualising the problem moment in a picture book story.

Which brings me to Doctor Dolittle, originally a story by Hugh Lofting about a respected physician and bachelor who learns the secret to speaking to animals from his parrot, Polynesia and which is currently having another turn at the cinema. After seeing the film with my kids I felt a little bit like the doctor myself, conversing with the animals but via a pencil and rubber instead of a parrot, with the help of a dog from the rescue centre.


Garry Parsons has illustrated many picture books from wonderful authors. The Llama Glamarama by Simon James Green publishes this June from Scholastic. The image of the horse removing a splinter from the dog's paw is from "Dr Hoof" by Diana Kimpton, also published by Scholastic.
Follow Garry on twitter @icandrawdinos

Monday, 27 January 2020

Imposter Syndrome - Gareth P Jones

This is my first blog for Picture Book Den. I was asked to get involved by the illustrator of my two picture books, Garry Parsons. Having accepted, I instantly felt a pang of anxiety. Even though I have had 40 children’s books published so far, only two of them are picture books.

I am very proud of both of these books and I’m grateful to have books to read, talk about and sell when I visit schools. I love Garry’s illustrations and I have discovered lots of fun things to do around them in classes. Visiting Reception and Year One is always fun and having a good excuse to talk about pirates and dinosaurs is perfect. Although, I have discovered that it is hard to distinguish a dinosaur ROOOOAR from a pirate AARRRR!

But I don’t feel like a natural born picture book writer. I have written more than just two. Lots in fact. If you were to scan through the Picture Book Ideas folder on my computer you would find a lot of unfinished, barely started, and “written but rejected” ideas.

Of course, I am not alone in suffering from Imposter Syndrome. A cursory Internet search on the subject suggests that many of us do, will or have suffered from Imposter Syndrome at some point. I found lots of advice about how to get over it, which made me realise that in my case, I don’t really mind feeling like an imposter. Before we get to the reason why I’m OK with it, I should clarify why I do feel this way.

Firstly, I don’t really consider myself a visual writer. I am not an illustrator and I don’t especially see images when I write. Some writers see images, which they describe with words. Others build words out of sentences. With me, I think it’s that I mostly hear voices, which I write down.

As I always say in schools, the most important aspect of a picture book is the pictures. (The clue is in the name.)

Whenever I write a picture book, I try my hardest to imagine how I might be able to use the pictures to move the story forward but, in truth, I am very much in the hands of the editor, designer and illustrator. In fact, there are aspects of both of my published picture books, that I only fully understood once the pictures had been added. In The Dinosaurs are Having a Party, I had no idea why the T-Rex started chasing the main character until I saw Garry’s rough artwork and there is a whole subplot with half a missing treasure map in Are You the Pirate Captain? that I had alluded to but not fully realised in my text.

I also feel as clueless about whether anyone else will like each text enough to publish them. I never have any idea if my latest effort will actually get picked up. When I do manage to finish a book, I usually email it to my agent and her assistant who then let me know if they think it’s worth sending to publishers.

Sometimes they have comments. On other occasions they send them straight on as they are. I welcome comments but I do find that my picture books are especially delicate things. One light tap of an alteration and the rest of the text cracks and crumbles and I end up writing an entirely different story.

My next reason for feeling like an imposter is both true and hard to admit.  But here goes… (deep breath)

A lot of the time I don’t enjoy writing pictures books. OK, so sometimes I do. And I really love picture books themselves. I also love having picture books and I am over the moon whenever I get a new contract but usually (especially if it’s rhyming) I find the process of writing the things absolutely soul-crushing. I remember Tracey Corderoy (who has written a lot of successful and excellent picture books) telling me she likes rhyming texts because it’s like solving a puzzle. I think my problem is that I was never really one for puzzles. I don’t care much for crosswords or sudokus or… even worse, Rubik’s cubes. I’m happy writing songs and raps because you can be flexible and you can rely on your own delivery but with the picture books the text has to stand on its own.

 Another reason for disliking the process is that with a longer book, a bad day’s writing might result in a few badly written pages – maybe a rubbish chapter – but at least I know I’ll be able improve this. After a bad day writing a picture book, quite often my word count has gone down! Or I’ve ended up with half a sentence that, let’s face it, could be better.

Now, before you start thinking “this blog is a bit down beat” it is worth mentioning that Garry asked me because I’d told him that I have two picture books coming out next year (and a sequel to one of them the following year) all with Egmont.

Next year’s books came about as a result of much easier and more pleasant writing experiences. Perhaps this is because they both came about as the conversations of with my daughter. It may have helped that they are not rhyming texts. The first, The Lion on the Bus came about when a rendition of The Wheels on the Bus got silly. I sent it to my agent’s assistant (my agent was on maternity leave at the time). She had various concerns (too much going on visually, too much peril, not enough countries know the song… and so on). All very sensible things to bring up but, I responded saying I didn’t have anything else so please would she submit it anyway.

Thankfully she did. My new publisher’s enthusiasm for these books has been wonderful and I am very excited about the next stages in the process, (which I will probably blog about later this year).

And yet, I still feel like an imposter and, as I said at the beginning, I don’t actually mind feeling like that. I’m not looking for reassurance - at least not in this aspect of my career. I like the fact that I go into each picture book with the same wide-eyed innocence of the intended audience.

Lots of us do feel like imposters a lot of the time – especially when you are making your way in the world as a writer. And certainly, if you can find ways to tell yourself that you are the real thing, then that’s great. Do that. But maybe it’s also OK sometimes to admit that you are out of your comfort zone. Feeling like an imposter, for me, keeps me on my toes and ensures I work all the harder to write picture book texts that work.

Gareth P Jones is the author of 40 books for children of all ages. Both his picture books are published by Andersen and illustrated by Garry Parsons. His next picture books will be published by Egmont in 2021. His next non picture book to be published is both his 41st and his 1st, as Dragon Detective: Catnapped is a republished version of his first ever book The Dragon Detective: The Case of the Missing Cats. The first in the series of four books is published by Stripes, February 2020. You can find out more on Gareth's website, listen to the Dragon Detective theme tune here or follow him on Twitter @jonesgarethp.