Sunday 4 August 2013

IDEAS AND INSPIRATIONS – Or "When is a picture book not a picture book?" by Penny Dolan (Guest Blogger)

From Mr Pod and Mrs Piccalilli (illus by Nick Sharrat)
Hello. I’m a little trepidatious about visiting the Picture Book Den, even as a Guest. Apart from MR POD AND MRS PICCALILLI, which I worked on with the illustrious Nick Sharrat, my “picture books” are known in the book trade as “early readers”, a term often spoken with a slight lowering of the voice. You won’t find the early readers in bookshops like Waterstones or submitted for awards.

Nevertheless, I – and others like me - write the books for enjoyment and for the pleasure of young readers. Unlike the traditional reading scheme, the various series that I write for have no set of established characters. There’s no single setting and certainly no running reference to a magic key.

Yes there’s a word count, but that’s all. I once tried writing to briefs based on a list of phonics. I found them impossible to write, and I wasn’t sorry. I don’t do lists. The vocabulary I use comes from years of hearing young children read – as a parent and as a teacher – and a love of rhyme and rhythm and simple wordplay. I write using familiar words, livened up with the odd interesting and intriguing word that they might have come across.

I must say that these books are a pleasure to write once you’ve got the idea. There’s none of the plate-spinning giddiness that comes with trying to manage a complex plot when you know guests are about to arrive. Also, there’s the definite deadline to encourage you to get on with the writing process, to refine your words and phrasing, just as Malachy Doyle’s described in his recent post.

You work to the brief – which is a word count and the number of spreads - and you know your idea is, potentially wanted. Early readers seem to have a faster publishing cycle so you may even see your book within nine months.

Oh! Assuming you actually have an idea? That’s always the problem.

So, where have I got my ideas from?

Some come from school situations as I do a lot of school visiting.

THAT NOISE! arrived because I heard a teacher at a weekly djembe drumming class talk about the drum group he’d set up in his primary school. Which kids, I pondered, would be good at drumming? Answer: the fidgety kids, the ones who can’t help tapping or clicking or making a noise. But plot? Suppose the kids thought they were in trouble with their teacher when what he wanted them for was to form a school drum group? Happy ending!

Here’s another school based idea: MRS BOOTLE’S BOOTS. Outside a school I visited stood rows of brightly-painted welly boots, each a colourfully blooming “flowerpot”. So I created a couple of children waiting for a delayed mum (Oh, the guilt, the guilt!), set them helping a grown-up sort out a box of lost-property wellies, let the mum bring in a tray of bedding plants to say sorry – and there you are: the welly planting plot. (And I sent a copy to the teacher involved with the real blooming boots!)

Nevertheless, the “school idea” comes with a warning. Schools change, both in curriculum and in what’s acceptable. Those wellies might have been part of a gardening club. The drums might be a new school music initiative. The funding for both may now have dried up so my clever little stories no longer link into school requirements. Helping sort old boots and shoes may even have become, in some schools, a health and safety issue. It’s always useful to check on current practice in schools and classrooms.

Note that both these early reader books are specific to a certain school setting. Such ideas would have no chance of being sold for a global market. However, it does mean that such stories can be about people rather than generic animals.

Sometimes commissions arrive. However, even a traditional tale needs thinking about. Take, for example, THE LITTLE RED HEN, where the hen finds the grain of wheat and the other animals won’t help. The plot where she has to do every task herself?

I decided my trio of unhelpful animals would not be the cat, the pig and the goose – or similar - of some versions but “the cat, the dog and the rat”. I chose my creatures because the “cat” and the “rat” made a satisfying rhyming pattern, and because the set of animals would be known by many children and also because they created no cultural problem for schools.

However, there was also the ending to manage. The Little Red Hen does all she must do, bakes her bread and then? Eats it all up herself - which makes her a greedy vindictive character? Not nice! So my Little Red Hen ends by “calling all my little chicks to help me eat the bread”. Rightness is restored. This might seem like a tiny moment, but in early reader and picture book texts, all is done through tiny moments.

Lately there’s been a demand for the “reversed traditional story” idea. Soon after having my knee nipped by a goat at a pet farm, I dreamed up LITTLE TROLL, whose happy, friendly under-the-bridge world is disturbed by the arrival of three bad goats.

Note: if I had a picture-book-writing motto, it would be “always think twice.” Or more than twice. As I wrote the word “billy goat”, I “thought twice” and re-wrote the word. In the book they have, appropriately, become the Bully Goats, reminding the young reader of the playfulness of language.

One problem with writing for a series is that the series editor and educational consultant will not want – for a while – a story similar to a book that already exists so if you are a new writer, check through the titles that are already out there. I must add that, less overtly, the “one idea at a time” rule is true of all publishers, expect perhaps for picture books about bears or kittens.

However, ideas can be used for more than one format. During the Darwin “evolution” anniversary, I wrote a couple of small scripts for an educational animation project. Somehow, trying to think up a Twisty Tale, evolution edged into my head again.

THE LOVELY DUCKLING became a story about how three slightly less-perfect ducklings use their physical differences to develop useful skills, whilst the poor, fussed-over Beauty - the lovely duckling – has to stay in the nest, bored and beautiful, until she opts for the everyday life of the farmyard herself. Call it my revenge on celebrity culture!

I can’t draw every well, but I do “see” the scenes on the page spreads and write imagining possible illustrations. It’s always a joyous moment when one sees the artist’s own version especially when they have added a twist that I hadn’t imagined.

As far as ideas go, it can be useful to think “idea plus genre”, and strengthen an idea by placing it within a recognisable but unlikely frame. My BIG BAD BLOB is a cautionary fantasy tale about the danger of dropping gum, written after having to walk over new pavements daubed with horridly spitty gum.

Yuk! So, writing the text, my mind was definitely focused on the horror genre, even though I knew the story needed to be humorous.

Now that’s another thing. BIG BAD BLOB is a great favourite from six years upwards. Children younger than that don’t appreciated the joke so clearly, although they like the illustrations.

Picture book ideas need to be within the understanding and experience or the “story experience” of the child. Too clever, and the book won’t keep their interest or reach their hearts.

I often use well-known rhythms and rhymes for my writing, and can trace several back to a familiar refrain, such as THE DEEP DARK FOREST. Early reader book words need to sound good in the mouth, so I revise by reading the text aloud over and over again.

Lost family pets have brought me ideas - THE WRONG HOUSE – and there’s also those bad pigeons. . .

Enough! You see, ideas are fluttering about everywhere.

Er, except when you really want them. Like now, today.

Grrr! I’m off to hunt through the old Brain Forest with my trusty Idea Net. If only the thing wasn’t full of holes. Both of them.

Thank you for listening, and happy reading and writing to you all, whatever kind of books you enjoy.
Penny Dolan

Ps. Written with huge thanks to all the illustrators who’ve made my small ideas into real story books.

To find out more about our Guest Blogger,
Penny Dolan, please visit her website


Jane Clarke said...

Fab post. Loving the image of hunting through the Brain Forest with an ideas net full of holes :-) Thanks for sharing where your ideas come from, Penny.

Pippa Goodhart said...

What a wonderful post! You've got to the humorous and kind and thoughtful heart of writing young readers, which are actually really hard to do well but so important. ALL children meet young reader books at school, and they can turn children into book lovers as well as technical readers if they are done well, as Penny's clearly are. Thank you, Penny.

Jon Burgess Design said...

Nice post. Congrats on your dedication to that particular niche. I've written a very few, and illustrated a couple or three 'young readers' over the years and found it a fun genre to work in. You can use humour that doesn't need to translate, so word play is more possible, as is rhyme. Not to mention the added bonus that the level of humour can come up a touch from the normal picture book age group, which can be refreshing.
I often wondered what it would be like to illustrate a huge series like the one you cautiously alluded to in your post. Nice regular work, but it might drive you nuts after a while ;-)

Linda Strachan said...

What a wealth of delightful stories, Penny.

"...known in the book trade as “early readers”, a term often spoken with a slight lowering of the voice. You won’t find the early readers in bookshops like Waterstones or submitted for awards."

It is such a shame these early readers are not recognized the way other trade books are. They are so important for new readers and encouraging their love of books and reading.

Paeony Lewis said...

Really enjoyed hearing how you find your ideas, Penny. I tend to get my ideas from things I hear said, which is weird as I'm more of a visual person.
Adore the Wellington boots filled with flowers!

malachy doyle said...

Thanks Penny. Many of my early readers are stories I originally intended as picture books - it's great having the added word count (and reading age) to play about with.
Yes, phonics weren't for me, either - somewhere between a story book and a crossword puzzle.

Chitra Soundar said...

Thanks Penny, Very interesting and useful post. Although for writers without agents like me - it is hard to get into easy reader market. I've been trying for very long.

Your post has given me good guidance on how to choose a topic or a story or a setting.

Thanks again

Penny Dolan said...

Sorry, couldn't pop back to Picture Book Den before as the family were up for the weekend. However, I was both interested and pleased to see that the grandchildren (after an active Saturday out)spent around three hours on Sunday reading through my large collection of picture books (by various people!)in a chilling out mode, even though they are seven and nine and well able to "read longer books" if they had wanted to.

Re-reading my post above, I did suddenly feel rather proud about these early readers and all who work on them. All over the UK (and possibly beyond)children read these books as part of their in-school reading development - that's a lot of readers, even if they don't show up anywhere.

It's a lot of writers met in print too, although when I chat to children in schools, they often have no real concept of who is the author/illustrator of which book in these series; they just show pleasure in recognising these particular series titles by their design as being "good stories" and maybe as "a really funny book." No different, I guess, to grown-ups recalling the story but forgetting the author?

ps. My drum title was THAT NOISE! but I must have lost a couple of letters on the way. The story plays with the idea that noise can be "good" or "bad" - and ends with the joyous cry "We all love THAT NOISE!" Quite a lot of my stories seem to be structured around sound or words, Paeony, although the ideas definitely visual when it appears.

Isn't it interesting that I - and you Picture Book Denners and more - could probably write more words about where a story came from, once I really began to expand on the idea and the book and the interplay between illustration and text, than the story itself might have used.

Paeony Lewis said...

Oops, sorry Penny, AT NOISE is now corrected to THAT NOISE. You should have made a noise about it! ;-)
Pleased to hear your grandchildren still enjoy picture books. I've decided to stop being embarrassed about buying them for ME!

Moira Butterfield said...

Thanks for a fascinating post, Penny. It's great to hear that you read all your work out loud before finalising it. It's a vital step. And yes, I think you should be proud - Extremely proud that you have helped so many children in their steps to reading and to enjoying stories. Prizes shmizes.

Penny Dolan said...

Moira, I believe that these particular early reader texts/ms are (or certainly were) also read aloud to young children in a nearby school by people from the editing team.

However, I have had a KS1 school visit cancelled by a head teacher because a local bookshop was "not able to get hold of my books for the children to buy".

Getting hold of such book stock is obviously more complex than one would imagine. Although that is THE only time I've heard of such a requirement being made - usually the very opposite.

Moira Butterfield said...

That sounds bizarre! I can't see that there would be any problem. All they need to do is ring a publisher. Sigh.

Penny Dolan said...

Life is full of little mysteries, Moira! :-) Far easier to to just go hunting for ideas . . .

Unknown said...

What a delightful post! Thank you for sharing. I could visualize how you were able to gather inspiration from those places. As a new to writing person (experienced K-1st grade teacher), I am always inspired by authors that are able to not only capture children's attention, but tell a wonderful story with limited words AND inspire children!

Penny Dolan said...

So many schools seem to have odd half forgotten objects or paintings and suchlike around in them that the children and staff barely see any more. Such things might not make it as a picture book idea but they are often fascinating tales.

For example, if there's a notice that says "Don't do X!" it usually means that someone DID ONCE do X - and WHY and WHAT might the consequences have been? Love that!