Monday, 15 April 2013

The 'Small Bear' Challenge, by Pippa Goodhart

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!)

Illustration notes:

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)


…and ran….

(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.  )



Emma Barnes said...

Wow, Pippa - amazing. It's really fascinating to see a picture book take shape like this, with the visual descriptions, inspirations and of course, the text!

I love the way there are at least two stories going on here - well more, a story for each bear, and in Little Bear's case, a verbal story and a visual story. And a map - I love maps.

Also love the way the bees, bear humming, map slightly reference Winnie-the-Pooh which immediately creates a warm, glowing feeling!

My query would be - do bears, monkeys, crocodiles etc live in the same place? Maybe it's too pernickety but I think of bears as inhabiting northern forests, and it seems odd to me to have them encountering crocodiles? does this matter?

Also, I read the text aloud, and the voice of little bear is lovely, but as a parent/reader I'd like the dialogue at the start to be a little more demarcated from the main narrative I think for ease of reading.

Will be interested to see what comments others make.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Many thanks for these points, Emma. I must admit that I wondered about the combination of animals being 'wrong', but then thought that actually bears don't really go on picnics, so perhaps one more wrongness didn't matter. But it's interesting that it jarred for you. I suspect that it wouldn't for small children, but might annoy adults, so should be taken into account.
Interesting point about the need to know clearly that it is the voice of Small Bear that we are hearing. Perhaps she needs to be introduced with a touch of narrative? Or is there, perhaps a font that shows that it is bear-speak?!!
Thoughts to ponder on.

Jonathan Allen said...

Really interesting what you've done here. I like the mapping out of your mental process. You have extrapolated a great deal from one seemingly simple drawing, which just goes to show that simple isn't as simple as it seems ;-). I also find it interesting that you don't normally have a visual idea of your character when writing. I'm not sure how I could write a story not knowing what my protagonist looked like, but then I am an illustrator first and foremost.
The monochrome vs colour idea is nice. Shades of The Wizard of Oz, sort of. My first response to the story is that the pictures would be very complicated, with implied motives going on that have to be shown visually somehow. The monkey tripping SB up to save her from the bees for instance, how do you avoid it looking like a malicious act? And how do you show bees humming without resorting to Beano like text or speech balloons? (both of which I like, but they can be problematic in picture books) But these are issues illustrators face quite often, and it is part of their job to work out ways round them if they can.
I love SB's voice, and the lost/found concept. SB being oblivious to threats the reader can see is good, kids will like spotting those. The colour bubble showing the real story as opposed to SB's story is nice too, a fun graphic device, but again, complicated to illustrate successfully. A large format would help.
The seemingly anomalous animal question is trickier. It would faintly irritate me, but then I have been an animal geek all my life. Though an asian jungle might supply bears, elephants, suitable monkeys and crocs so you might be safe. . .
One technical point, the 'lost and found office' sign would mean that each language the book was translated into would need an extra black plate to show the sign in that respective language, and that gets expensive, I'm always told anyway.
A fascinating post, Pippa, thanks for choosing Small Bear as your experimental subject. i think the story works well, as an early draft. rrespect ;-)

Pippa Goodhart said...

Thank you for all those points, Jonathan. I'm relieved that my idea of Small Bear doesn't feel too foreign to her creator!
I think that all the points you make are absolutley right. The story is over-complex, and that's the result of the first draft process of thinking of ideas as I write. So, for example, the idea of Small Bear supposing that it is Big Bear who is lost only came to me when Small Bear was in full flow of telling her story. I now need to cull some of my ideas, and work a stronger main story through a simpler series of visual images.
Thank you for letting me play with Small Bear!

Emily Lim-Leh said...

I just subscribed to this blog and this is the 1st post I received. I found it very interesting how much you developed from this drawing and fleshed it into a whole story. Wow :)

I thoroughly enjoyed your story and liked your SB character very much – she has a strong voice and endearing character. I like how she bumbled along and had a completely different viewpoint from what was really happening which was being told through the illustrations. The ending had a nice “surprise” with Big Bear finding the new contents in the basket and telling his side of the story through the big bubble, similar to Polly Dunbar’s Penguin idea.

Personally, the choice of animals didn’t bother me at all. Seeing the others’ comments, I’m just wondering now if this would be or wouldn’t be an issue with publishers.

There is also a lot of commentary to the illustrator in this story and I’m also wondering how much is “permitted” for a writer who isn’t an illustrator and whether something like that is generally accepted by publishers. That said, this particular story did seem to need the extra notes. I have the same question about paginating a manuscript, which I get mixed comments on from industry folks.

Overall, I love your story and would be most interested to see how a publisher/illustrator would produce this :) 


Pippa Goodhart said...

Emily, thank you so much for your nice comments!
The issue of how far an author should dictate content of pictures is something that people have different views on. My feeling is that if I don't tell some of what will be shown in the pictures I will end up telling in my text things which won't need to be told once the pictures are there. And of course it's especially true that what is to be shown might not be apparent from the text if that text is the voice of an unreliable narrator Small Bear! Having said that, I know that some editors prefer to receive texts with no illustrative suggestions at all, and to have the text not divided between pages and spreads. It would be interesting to hear views from both illustators and publishers on this point.
Your baby is beautiful!

Moira Butterfield said...

What fun this sounds, Pippa! My main reaction has been covered by Jonathan - That you're asking the illustrator to show a bit too much in the way of motives, which would be difficult - (the bees, monkeys point) - but I know this is the beginning of work in progress. My feeling would be that it might be better to show big bear doing all sorts of 'trying to catch up' things within the story behind little bear as we go through, because if all his bridge-building etc came out at the end I think it could feel very complicated for the reader. It has the feel of an old black and white Buster Keaton style movie, where all sorts of funny things go on behind an oblivious character, with perhaps the audience shouting gleefully 'Behind you!" It'd work for me if little bear was oblivious of crocodiles, angry bees et al all the way through. Perhaps Big Bear could be visually rescuing Tiny Bear, too - and exhaustedly gives it back to an unknowing baby bear at the end. It doesn't bother me at all that you've mixed up creatures, In children's minds it wouldn't matter at all.

Pippa Goodhart said...

I think you're spot-on with that suggestion, Moira, and that's very much the way I'd been thinking the whole story could be simplified and clarified. Thank you for clarifying and confirming my thoughts.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Hi Pippa. Fascinating post! Jonathan and Moira have said a lot of what I was thinking. You could simplify it and have more interaction from the child reader if Big Bear is in the background in some pictures and Little Bear is really trying to look for him as the focus. So if it's called 'Guess What?' it could be a page turner perhaps and guess what...? Big Bear was still nowhere to be seen... (and we can see him in the background, so the child reader will be shouting THERE HE IS!!!) and at the end, it could be the LOST and FOUND people saying GUESS WHAT..? to Little Bear (in a different font to differentiate it) and we can see that they're about to be reunited... Just a few thoughts. Nice first draft and it's fun to see the workings out of another author. Thanks, Clare.

Jane Clarke said...

Wow! Interesting experiment, thanks for posting this draft,Pippa. I always love your voice and the LB you have created is gorgeous. Bril monochrome/colour idea, lots to spot in the pics, and fun to help in the search. I'm wondering about the dramatic tension - we see LB narrating,so we know she comes through, maybe make her and the reader more worried about BB by leaving him crocodile wrestling in the pics in spread 10? The shadow (11) - is interesting in that it makes SB a giant, but it feels like it belongs in another story to me - maybe SB needs her own series.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Oo, I like the idea of a 'guess what' chorus,and I'm sure you're right that children would enjoy seeing very clearly how wrong Small Bear's story is. Thanks for those thoughts, Clare!

Pippa Goodhart said...

That point about having some peril not obviously safely resolved from the start is a good one. And I'm wondering whether a shadow might be used at the end when Big Bear comes along, its shape suggesting something sinister to us before revealing itself as Big Bear? Hmm. Lots to think about. Thank you!

Abie Longstaff said...

I'm really glad you took up this idea for a blogpost, Pippa. I always find it interesting to see how other writers and illustrators approach story making.

I agree it needs to be simplified. I love LB's voice, but at times it is a little confusing - I know you are trying to get across a very childlike speech, but I wonder whether schools might not like too far a departure from basic grammar, eg the use of 'found' instead of find.

When I read through a text I mark those moments which make me stop and pull me out of the story - for me they were: having a Lost and Found office in a jungle (could the monkeys be the ones who find BB instead, to keep it in a jungle world?) and the fish ending up in the basket - only because it is an animal based story so I didn't like the idea that the fish were going to be eaten. Could they find something different? A fruit or vegetable so that no animals are harmed in the making of the book?
Anyway well done to both you and Jonathan - it's shaping up really well!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Thank you, Abie! I admit that I wondered whether the misuse of the word 'found' would make people wince, and agree about the incongruity of the Lost And Found office in a jungle. It wasn't planned, just stuck in when the story seemed to need it towards the end. Needs a rethink. And the point about the fish also makes good sense. Helpful points, all. Thank you.