After blithely saying in a comment on Jonathan Allen’s wonderful blog last week that I’d love to write a story for his Small Bear character, I got thinking. It was easy enough to say that I’d like to do a story about Small Bear, but could I actually do it? In my picture books I’ve always created the characters in words first, and then they have been passed to an illustrator to be brought to visual life. The only times I’ve taken a picture of a character, and then worked stories for that character have been when writing the Winnie the Witch story books; never for picture books. So I thought I’d have a go. Here is the all-important Small Bear.
When working in my usual way I don’t think through my own thinking processes at all; I just DO it, and then try and work out how to make the story and text better. But I thought it might be interesting to chart something of my own thoughts as I set myself the task of writing a picture book story about that Small Bear. So here goes –
What do I know about Small Bear from the picture of her?
She (no idea why, but she’s a ‘she’ in my mind even though, to others who commented on the blog, she was a ‘he’) is defined as being ‘small’. Is she perhaps small in relation to other bears? Or to a task she’s been given? Is her size problem or an asset, or both or neither?
She is boggle-eyed with something – naivity, amazement, fear, eagerness, hope, embarrassment? And she’s got her mouth open, so she’s telling us something, or asking for something, or singing, possibly? Her stance, hands behind back, suggests that maybe she’s self-conscious and addressing some authority figure. Performing? Or eager to please? Perhaps she has been naughty (small children DO love a story in which somebody is naughty!) and is making excuses whilst trying to look extra-good? Or are her hands behind her back because she’s hiding something out of our view? I showed the picture of Small Bear to one of my daughters, who immediately said, “She’s saying, ‘Guess what?’”. So now I’ve got a Small Bear voice developing in my head.
I like the picture of Small Bear being monochrome. Perhaps that could be kept, having Small Bear in monochrome as she stands and tells us whatever she has to tell, whilst behind her all the action of what she’s telling is in full colour? (I am no artist, but I can’t help thinking pictures and design as part of the process of working out story and words, even though the pictures and design will be decided about and executed by others, if it ever becomes a book.) To me, that monochrome against colour suggests storytelling by Small Bear.
I need a story topic for Small Bear which will resonate with a young child audience, and preferably also with the adults who will read the story to the child. Maybe Small Bear is a child’s teddy bear who is ‘real’? Ah, but that would involve human characters, and publishers prefer all-animal casts of characters for picture books. Could she be the smallest sibling in a big family, struggling to keep up with the others in a ‘wait for me!’ kind of way? Maybe she’s left with a strange babysitter, or at a house she doesn’t know? Or perhaps she gets lost from the company of just one parental kind of bear? Perhaps she thinks that HE is lost, rather than her? On a picnic? We all know that bears love picnics!
How can this stirrings of a story idea be told in an exciting and attractive way?
Since Small Bear is facing us, so perhaps there could be a dramatic tension in Small Bear being an unreliable narrator; she’s telling us some things that we can see for ourselves in the pictures aren’t actually what she has supposed they were. Perhaps use something like the Rosie’s Walk trick where the main character walks along without noticing moments of impending danger and lucky escape that we can enjoy in the pictures, so that we know more than her, even though it’s her telling a story about herself? Maybe use visual, rather than verbal, storytelling further … in the form that small children meet in the very first reading books which offer a series of pictures to be ‘read’ with no text? Perhaps like the wonderful outpouring of Penguin in Polly Dunbar’s picture book? That would give a whole chunk of story, or whole other story, that a child could access for themselves without adult help.
Make the story that Small Bear is telling catch-up with itself, coming together at the end into real ‘now’ time so as to make the whole thing feel more immediate than it would if it was all a retelling of something that is already over and done with.
I want some adventure and surprises, and some jokes too. How can this be done simply, using words and pictures playing games together? At the same time as showing Small Bear getting it wrong, can I make small readers themselves get it wrong in hinting at some menace coming? Then release that tension happily … with the ‘monster’ that’s chasing Small Bear turning out to be the parent bear?
If Small Bear is addressing us, then who are ‘we’? Hmm.
Please read the following story text critically, and then leave comments. I really want to know what does or doesn’t work. This is an experiment, and my hope is to get some really useful feedback out of it, and perhaps some discussion back and forth, so don’t hold back!
Small Bear’s Story (for a start, I probably need a better title!)
Small Bear is facing us, depicted in black and white (as in the sample picture), telling us her story. That story, in full colour, fills the spread behind her. We can see what she can’t; that things aren’t always quite what she’d supposed. When Big Bear returns and Small Bear’s story is brought up to the present, Small Bear joins the main picture in colour. Then we swap to both bears being in black and white whilst the main space is given over to Big Bear’s visual story bubble at the end.
Some spreads might show a series of images, others a single one.
Endpapers show a map of the jungle/forest, but also showing the Bears’ home, and the Lost and Found office which, we’ll realise, is where ‘we’ are, and to whom Small Bear is telling his tale.
Title page includes a vignette of Small Bear, as in sample picture, saying ‘Guess what?’ (Maybe that should be the title? Right, I’ll shut up now, and you think your own thoughts about what follows!)
I said could we have a picnic and Big Bear said yes if I was good, and I WAS good, so I put honey and bread and bananas in my basket, and Big Bear put a rug and juice in his, and then we walked into the wild place …
…and Big Bear said take care because I don’t want you getting lost, and I WAS taking care but my paws had things to do so I didn’t hold his paw, and then I saw some flowers…
(Got Tiny Bear (his teddy bear) in one paw, and the small covered basket in the other)
… - THESE flowers - , and I picked them as a present for Big Bear, and after that …
(In the coloured story being told, Small Bear has put down Tiny Bear and the basket in order to pick flowers, and after this he will have the flowers in one hand and the basket in the other, so doesn’t notice that he’s left Tiny Bear behind.Monochrome Small Bear telling us the story has produced the flowers from behind her back to show us as she tells the story of when she got them. They will eventually be, rather wilted, decorating Big Bear in some way at the end)
…Big Bear wasn’t THERE!
(Small Bear in the forest with no sign of Big Bear, who has walked on without her.)
I shouted for him, Big Bear, Big Bear where are you, but I think Big Bear is lost because he wasn’t there at all, and then I thought that I might get lost too if I stayed there because Big Bear is a bigger bear to lose than I am and HE got lost there, so I sort-of hummed to be brave and I ran….
(She’s disturbed a nest of bees with her basket hitting a tree, and her shouting is disturbing monkeys picking fruit in the tree. It’s the bees who are really humming)
(She’s being chased by the bees, although she doesn’t know it, but the monkeys in the trees have seen the danger for her and are following, swinging through the trees after the Small Bear and the bees. They are collecting fruit as they go)
… until I fell and hurt my knee….See? … and then I saw …
(Storyteller Small Bear is showing us her hurt knee.In the coloured story picture a monkey with a twig has deliberately tripped Small Bear, just as the bees were about to surround her. She’s falling, and so is the basket. Out of it fall the pot of honey and the bananas, with other monkeys taking them. In the next picture we see that a clever monkey has unscrewed the honey pot and left it as a distraction for the bees, and another has swapped his tree fruit for the bananas)
…something hairy and stary in the water, and I thought I bet that’s the monster that GETS YOU LOST and I didn’t want to get lost like Big Bear, and then I dropped my basket and IT was about to be lost, but it had our tea in it so ….
(Getting up after the fall, Small Bear is close to a river, and what she’s seeing is a reflection of her own face in it. We can see a crocodile noticing her, but she hasn’t noticed it. There’s an elephant drinking on the bank.)
… I had to go in the river to get it and I can’t swim so I …
(She’s saving the basket by throwing herself into the river, and the crocodile is very pleased and opening his toothy jaws to snap her, although she’s still not noticed. The elephant has seen what’s happening, and is reaching out her trunk, which Small Bear takes to be a tree branch. Also in the pictures, but unnoticed by Small Bear, are the fish who are now in the basket. The elephant takes the bread that was floating away.)
… held on to a tree thing and got me over the water and then…
(Crocodile snapping, but missing Small Bear who is being swept across the river by Elephant. Big Bear, when he tells/shows his story at the end, is going to be seen to have had to build a bridge over that water, and that slowed him down in getting to Small Bear who is still, unknown to her, running away from him. We’ll see that Big Bear’s bridge didn’t hold him, and he fell into the water and wrestled with the crocodile, tying his jaws together, so he’s sopping wet when he appears)
…I SAW the monster and it was a GINORMOUS Great Big skinny monster really really near me, so I ran…
(It’s evening now, and Small Bear is being scared by her own elongated shadow that is raising its arms in a menacing way, just as Small Bear raises her arms in dismay at what she sees. Distant thumping sounds evident)
…all the way here so please can you found Big Bear for me before … Uh-oh!
Thump thump THUMP THUMP!
(Sounds coming nearer. These thumping sounds have been there, faintly, in previous spreads, growing in prominence in terms of size and boldness. Perhaps we can see a label making clear that Small Bear is now at the Lost And Found office.)
Small Bear speech bubble: “BIG BEAR! They DID found you?! Can we have our picnic now?”
Big Bear speech bubble: “There there, Small Bear, here I am, found. And here’s you, safe and sound. But I don’t think that our picnic ….”
(Big Bear, who has seen the bees with the honey, monkeys with the bananas and elephant eating the bread en-route, supposes there is no food now in Small Bear’s basket. But he’s about to get a surprise….)
Big Bear speech bubble: “Well, however did THAT happen?!”
(Both bears looking in astonishment at the fish and fruit in Small Bear’s basket as Small Bear opens its lid)
Then Big Bear told HIS story.
( Big Bear has a huge speech bubble that is full of pictorial depictions of what happened to him…. realising that Small Bear has gone, finding Tiny Bear, seeing Small Bear’s paw prints etc. He kept almost catching-up with Small Bear, but missing because Small Bear was getting away so fast and with help from the elephant etc.
Perhaps, at this point, Big Bear and Small Bear should be seen in sepia/black and white, and just the pictorial content of his big speech bubble be in colour? We can see that Small Bear has given Big Bear the flower that she had stopped to pick. It’s a big crumpled and wilted. Small Bear is now fast asleep in Big Bear’s arms, taking no notice of his story, and he is addressing us, just as Small Bear had been before. )