Wednesday 4 April 2012

Bee-rocracies & Hierarchies - Alison Boyle

What is it like to be a bee? 

Readers of picturebooks and readers of this blog, I'm going to let you in to some of my thoughts about story themes, some of which involve bees.

A big theme with several branches can provoke responses from readers, who bring an array of experiences to the interpretation of a story. Theodor Seuss Geisel (alias Dr Seuss) dealt with gigantic themes in his books, including nuclear war, capitalism and the environment.

As any storyteller will tell you - including adults who are required to make up bedtime epics starring the children sitting next to them – it is vital to think yourself into the main character or characters.

When creating How Bees Be I asked myself:
Q: What does it feel like under the furry skin of a young bee that could also say something about the human condition? 
The big theme of How Bees Be (published by Milet, Chicago):
What happens when a character rebels against the structures of its world?
Looked at another way:
Q: What is it about the way a young bee looks at the world that's relevant to the way a child sees their life?
What's different?
And if children aren't reading themselves, what is there for older readers now, and for children if they think about this story in the future?

Illustrations carry meanings where the word limit doesn't allow for detailed descriptions (Laura Hambleton did the lovely bee pics). More fundamentally, creators – whether illustrators or writers or aural storytellers – will usually have a theme or two in mind at the story's inception.

Initially though, I wanted to write a book with a bee as its main character. One teacher considered How Bees Be

    "Perfect for a lesson I was doing with 4/5 year old children.
    It explores the different things that bees do in very
    imaginative and creative ways! I am glad I brought it,
    it is a story I will share again and again." Ms AJ Herrod (Suffolk).

This is one response that probably reflects the time I spent researching bees. But when I came to writing the story I ditched the facts that couldn't be used as a vehicle to express something about people.

Going back to that big theme, obviously discipline and structure are at the heart of bee communities and I wanted to draw parallels between the hive and the social, political and domestic rules that govern us.

In How Bees Be there is a Churchillian war cabinet scene that alludes to the careful planning needed – here by the bee-rocracy - to assure the efficient collection and processing of honey to keep society going. In a factory scene, mechanisation enables the noble workers to process the honey, and a picture indent emphasises the idea of everyone pulling together, including Royalty.

At one level the book is about a child's curiosity manifested in the character of Little Bee. Though small, the protagonist has an enormous appetite for pushing herself on. She already thinks of herself as grown-up, and has tantrums that are more akin to the teenage variety than toddler. But I wanted to go beyond Little Bee leaving the familiar zone of her bee bedroom to the world outside the hive.

On the first page Little Bee exercises her right to 'being a grown-up bee' by staying in bed. After rebelling against her older Biker Sis and a squadron of honeybees she explores the labyrinthine corridors of the hive, where she meets the Queen Bee.

The Queen leads a tour to demonstrate how grown-up bees in the honey factory keep the community fed. Little Bee displays that child-like quality of asking searching questions: 'Time for you to start work?' she asks at one point. To which the Queen replies: 'I don't see why I should. I'm a grown-up bee now.' 

Royalist sympathies or not?

On the final pages the main character achieves her desire, and there is intentional irony in her taking a step away from the freedom of childhood and accepting the mantle of responsibility. 

Of course it's a mixed bag: children do have less freedom in some ways, and adults often lose the freedom to stay in bed. On the other hand, being a grown-up in the bee world involves dancing, so it isn't necessarily a bad lot.

The big theme of
Wishing Bird (published by Puffin):
How can friends
provide reassurance

if self-esteem dips?
The big theme of The Dance of the Eagle and the Fish (published by Milet):
Is love powerful enough to transcend boundaries?

(including being inside the bodies of a bird and a fish)

Picturebooks, like all stories, reflect the places where readers and listeners join them. They can also plant the seeds of new ideas that are responded to, sometimes unconsciously, many years in the future when the book itself might have been lost, handed on, or is too tatty to read.

If you have a few spare minutes on your hands, pick up a picturebook, any picturebook. Look inside and think about its themes. You are allowed to read things into the story – that's part of what it is to be a reader (and maybe a bee, but I don't think we will ever know).


Moira Butterfield said...

A fascinating blog, Alison, and one that points up very clearly how multi-layered and how endlessly rewarding picture books can be.

Lynne Garner said...

Great blog - I must admit I normally start with one small theme and as the book grows on the page I discover additional ones creep in. Also I've had reviews written about some of my books and themes I didn't even realise I'd included were hidden away.

Jane Clarke said...

Thank you for demonstrating that there are big themes and tons of research behind many picture books

Paeony Lewis said...

Thought-provoking blog, Alison. There can be so much beneath the surface of a picture book. Sometime we, the writers, don't see it all ourselves. I've a book used widely in churches in the US, and I'd never considered their interpretation of the story until I read some church reviews. Now it's obvious, but I hadn't thought about it when I wrote the story.

Alison Boyle said...

You're right, Moira. Whenever we've moved house we've made a judgement about the books on our shelves: Are there some that have lost favour that don't deserve to be carried to the next place? I find those with the most layers the most rewarding over time.

Alison Boyle said...

I've found the same: that one idea starts to branch out when you write. Sometimes the complexities have led me to writing for older audiences - when the picturebook format feels like it's straining at the seams - and particularly since wordcounts have reduced over the years.

Alison Boyle said...

Thanks Paeony. As you and Lynne say (above), it is fascinating to see the way your ideas and words are interpreted by different readers (and a good illustrator, as Abie and others have pointed out in their blogs).

Alison Boyle said...

I don't know whether you've also found this Jane: that the research you reject for one thing always finds a place in future work or just everyday life?

malachy doyle said...

Yes, I find it amusing when people tell me what my books 'mean' or 'are saying'. Usually they're things that I'd never even considered. I've one that my wife insists is an allegory about the divided communities of Northern Ireland. Is it? I've no idea.

Alison Boyle said...

But if you ever did intend it, Malachy, colourful picturebooks are the perfect way to put across a contentious point or two.

Moira Butterfield said...

The power of art is that, though 'contentious issues' are often squashed - by marketing departments in publishing and, in a wider context, by governments - what people think about art can't be corralled by anyone. Readers and viewers will add their own spin, and nobody can stop them. It's great, isn't it?

Alison Boyle said...

I wonder whether self-publishing has given rise to more contentious books being published. A research project, anyone?

Anjum Malik said...

Amazing Alison, thinking of the adult and involving them, and all the layers and research, I love picture books and get so much out of reading them to children. Your blog is very thought provoking, thank you, the interpretation of the reader is so often different and surprising, especially when they see what you as a writer never thought you were writing about. I love the way you use the whole Bee world and at the same time their world can relate to any other world, even human!

Alison Boyle said...

Thanks for that response, Anjum, giving us your insights into experiences of reading picturebooks to different groups of children.

You've made such an important point about shared reading and the role of the adult reader (or an able young reader e.g. with siblings).

I see the experience as a mixture of the writer/illustrator's intentions that come through, the audience's myriad reactions (depending on mood), and what the reader is bringing to the experience through their tone of voice etc.

Lorna Lewis said...

What a wonderful book - can't wait to read it to Key Stage 1 children! Your explanation of the themes behind it provides a really useful background for teachers. As well as being fun to read, I also see it as a resource for teachers who are working to develop their children's ability to cope with challenge and change. In fact it ties in well with what is going on in many schools around BLP (Guy Claxton's Building Learning Power).

Alison Boyle said...

It's really good to hear you think it will support children in that way Lorna, and interesting that you mention Guy Claxton at Winchester.

Winchester Uni published my MSc dissertation about feedback on young adult fiction using social networks, in 'Write4Children' - the International Journal for the Practice and Theories of Writing for Children and Children's Literature.

I was in good company for the inaugural edition (Michael Rosen and Tony Bradman)

I notice that Meg Rosoff has contributed recently. It's definitely worth keeping an eye on the debate there.

Stephanie J Hale said...

This sounds great Alison. My girls love bees - their grandfather has 4 hives. They're going to love this at bedtime! In fact, I think my dad (the beekeeper) might just enjoy this too!!!

Alison Boyle said...

Thanks for that picture you painted, Stephanie. What a great opportunity to learn about bees through a grandfather. I hear that bee-keeping is becoming popular with ordinary folk who are concerned about our ecology. The bee-keeping course my friend in Oxford tried to join was full up. A good sign, I say, and I don't think it's ALL about the honey.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Cool, Malachy. Which is the one about the divided communities (according to your wife)? Interested to find out...

Juliet Clare Bell said...

It depends how subtle you are! There was a case a few years ago when huge numbers of a very famous author's book were pulped at the insistence of the Chinese because of a sneaky Tibetan flag somewhere in the picture. Someone else might know the story better than I do...

malachy doyle said...

It's Big People, Little People (A&C Black in their White Wolves series).