Wednesday, 27 November 2013

A book charity we should all know about. The fantastic work of Living Paintings.

Moira Butterfield

We all love the crazy, wonderful, colourful world of picture books, but how can children who are blind or partially-sighted join in the fun?  Yesterday I was moved and delighted to find out that some very special people are working hard to make sure that this happens.

I visited the offices of Living Paintings, a UK charity that’s also a unique publishing house. The charity creates and publishes tactile printed/audio books for blind and partially-sighted people and distributes the material to them free through a postal library. Some of the work it creates is prepared from scratch. Some is prepared with the agreement of publishers.

The material it offers is very surprising and varied. For adults it has worked with some very exciting contributors to create unique material. The architect Norman Foster and the artists Gilbert and George are two examples I found fascinating, and Tracey Emin is about to co-operate with the charity, apparently. Helping create access to art of all kinds is a big part of the charity’s ethos.

For young children Living Paintings has created tactile and audio versions of some of our most well-loved picture books, from Angry Arthur through to Where’s My Teddy, via Spot, the Gruffalo, Kipper, Charlie and Lola, and many more. The audio for these books is a real treat, read by such great voices as Martin Clunes and Bill Bailey, with added sound effects and music.

Older children and teenagers get a great range, too, including up-to-the minute material on fashion, music, cooking, science, nature and history.
Charlie and Lola in 3D

I saw 3D picture book images being created at the charity’s workshops near Newbury. The front cover image from Oliver Jeffers’ beautiful ‘Lost and Found’ had been lovingly carved in wood, ready to be made into a durable plastic 3D mould for touching. Publishing Manager Liz Davies made the mould before my eyes and it looked great. Nearby, volunteers were painting the moulds. Why? Because some readers will be partially-sighted, but also because blind children will be sharing their picture books with sighted readers, just as sighted children share their book-reading with adults. Living Paintings strives to make sure that its picture books lend themselves to that all-important sharing experience, and readers might want to talk about the colour as well as the image and the story.

On another desk lay some Spot learning books, in the process of being carefully re-configured for blind or partially-sighted children, with each image carefully pored over and selected for the 3D treatment.  

Celebrities give their time for free to Living Paintings, producing some fantastic audio treats. Liz told me that she wanted an American voice for ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, so she took a punt and wrote to Hollywood heartthrob Ethan Hawke when he was performing in London. Ethan Hawke said yes!
A happy library user shares Mole's Sunrise by Jeanne Willis
For older children, Phil Harding of Time Team fame has just helped produce some great audio material about Anglo-Saxons, which will be going out with touch moulds and all sorts of interesting material to support school history learning. I drove home listening to Sean Bean reading a children’s adaption of Beowulf for the Anglo-Saxon pack, and very stirring it was. 
Phil Harding working on the Anglo-Saxon material.
Alan Davies apparently had a ball in the office sound studio interviewing Arsenal Premiership footballer Carl Jenkinson, for teenagers to hear. What treats! Charity Chief Executive Camilla Oldland tells me that the families and schools who use this material get a very big boost from this kind of involvement.
Alan Davies reads Billy Monster's Daymare by Alan Durrant.
So how can we help? Well, first off, the charity needs as many people to know about its work as possible because it wants to reach as many blind and partially-sighted people – adults and children – as it can. Its guiding principle is that its library will always be free for them to use. It needs to get the word out, so please take a look at the website and pass on the link.

Secondly, it wants to engage more directly with authors and illustrators, because it knows that we are good sharers of information. It hopes to get the chance to introduce its work to more of us in 2014, perhaps even by running some events. Sometimes it finds that publishers haven’t told authors and illustrators very much about how their work is being used in this way, and they want us all to know just how strongly valued we are!

On its website there is a new icon that you can grab and put next to any books they’ve featured that you’ve been involved with. The charity finds it gets increasing amounts of click-throughs from parents who have visited author websites, so they know it works. I'm also going to suggest they produce a general icon that we can add to websites such as this one.

The Living Paintings website is newly revamped. Perhaps you could offer it a blog (which might become an audio blog). Perhaps you could point it out to your agent or your publisher. Perhaps you could tweet their blogs, to share the message. 

Finally, if you're feeling generous, this is a really worthwhile charity for authors, illustrators, publishers and agents to support. Living Paintings gets no government money. It relies on donations and help from individuals and on donations from businesses, so all word-spreading is good. 

Please take a look on If you Tweet, follow them on Twitter: @LivingPaintings.

PS: If you know of any blind or partially-sighted children, or perhaps a school near you that would benefit, check out the gift box range for sale on the website– with tactile pictures of Elmer, Mog, Winnie the Pooh, Harry (Bucketful of Dinosaurs) and Willy Wonka. The charity is happy to post these to worldwide customers, though they point out that the audio features British-usage language. They do work with some blind and partially-sighted individuals internationally, so please contact them direct if you want to discuss this side of their work.

Friday, 22 November 2013

What's the Story on Non-Fiction Picture Books? by Malachy Doyle

I’m a story writer, first and foremost.  But there’s a whole world of wonderful picture books out there that don’t tell a story.  Or not a made-up story, anyway.  I’m talking about the world of non-fiction.

Non-fiction picture books are a much bigger phenomenon in the United States than here (by here I mean Britain and Ireland, because that’s where I’m based and that’s where most of my work is published).  Here the market for picture books is very much age seven and under, and very much story-led.

There are exceptions, of course.  Walker Books, for example, have been, and still are, publishing a wide range of very high quality non-fiction picture books.  My first for them, way back in 1999, was Jody’s Beans, illustrated by Judith Allibone.

I wrote it as a story about a little girl growing a sunflower.  But a) I discovered there were too many books about sunflowers on the market so I turned it into one about runner beans. And b) Walker wanted to publish it in their Read and Wonder series, so although it was a story about a little girl and her grandfather, we threw in lots of added information and it somehow became ‘non-fiction’.
Maybe because they appeal to the schools market, non-fiction can sell well and remain in print longer, so though I’ve had four fiction picture books with Walker since, Jody’s outsold them all.

I then, in 2002, had Cow published.  This was basically a day in the life of a cow.  I went down to the river, sat in a field of cows, and meditated on what it might be like to be one.  Angelo Rinaldi did some superbly lifelike illustrations, and of all the nearly a hundred books I’ve had published, it’s still my highest earner. Oh, and it won the  English Association Award for best non-fiction picture book that year, so that was nice. 

Simon and Schuster wanted Angelo and me to do another one, and suggested horses.  I wasn’t at all sure about this, as I’ve always been somewhat wary of the beasts - they’re big and they bite.  But a job’s a job, so I spent the summer getting over my fear.  I visited Michael Morpurgo’s Farm for City Children when I was down in Pembrokeshire, and generally hung out with horses.  You still won't see me on horseback (once was enough), but I’m actually very fond of them now, and never go past one without saying hello.  And yes, you guessed it, Horse is still in print long after some of my other S&S picture books have fallen by the wayside. 

 So if you’re writing (or reading) picture books, don’t look down your nose at non-fiction.  Children need them (and love them – especially boys, who are often drawn to information books when they wouldn’t be seen dead reading a ‘story’ book).  They can be just as high-quality.  The research can be fun.  Oh, and they sell!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Help A Hamster – using a picture book to help children understand adoption, by Hilary Robinson (Guest Blog)

It was Sonia Benster at the Children’s Bookshop near Huddersfield, who suggested that my next Copper Tree series book might consider adoption as she was regularly asked for picturebooks on the subject.

So, in preparation, we set about speaking to adoption professionals and to families.

We found that while attitudes towards adoption had changed, three poignant elements remained constant.

Firstly, the agony of parting birth mothers from their children.

The words of actor Linda Bellingham seared into me when she described how, as a baby, she was handed over to her adopted parents. As their car pulled away her new parents could see in the rear view mirror, Linda’s birth mother, arms outstretched, running after them. In a split second they had to make a decision. To stop or to drive on. They accelerated away.

Almost seventy years later *Callum’s alcohol dependent mother endured the same agony.

After immediately handing over her baby to social services in the hospital, and after regular visits to see, nurse and play with her baby at a contact centre, she was too distressed to say the final goodbye.

But unlike Linda who relied on anecdotes about her circumstances, Callum, like other adopted children today, could refer to his Life Story Book where the main details of his circumstances were recorded.

Life Story Books, it’s believed, help children, separated from their birth family, make better sense of their situation and this became a crucial element in Help A Hamster.

The Copper Tree books feature the same group of children and it seemed right that in this instance, Alfie Tate, the class character, should be the pupil that explains his adoption story.

Alfie had been appointed ‘Hamster Monitor’ when the class discovered that, Henry, the class hamster, had given birth to four babies and was clearly finding it hard to cope. This gave Alfie an opportunity to show his Life Story Book and the children discover that his birth mum “really loved him but she found it difficult being a mummy.”

We paid careful attention to the language and to the circumstances. Alfie, his parents and the teachers took the form of the social services in determining which hamster would suit which home and when one, named Alfonzo, is left, Alfie negotiates with his parents who decide that they will give Alfonzo a home.

The third constant that emerged was the tremendous integrity of families who are prepared to open their hearts and homes to strangers’ children.

One couple went from having no children to three – all from one family – while Callum’s family know that his development will forever be hindered by the after effects of foetal alcohol syndrome. His learning capabilities are impaired.

As with so many picture books, Help A Hamster, can be read on more than one level. Above all, I hope it serves as a reminder and a celebration of the human condition. Words and pictures combine to show us that while attitudes and circumstances may change and continue to evolve, kindness, respect and love towards others will always remain the most significant constant in an ever changing world. And this has to be good for children.

*name has been changed to protect identity

Help A Hamster by Hilary Robinson,
illustrated by Mandy Stanley
Strauss House Productions
ISBN 978-0957124523

Our Guest Blogger, Hilary Robinson,
has written over forty illustrated
children's books.You can find out more

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Seasonal Picture Book Stories - Lynne Garner

A few of years ago I wrote two picture book stories 'Where It's Always Winter' and 'The Perfect Christmas Tree.' As the titles suggest they both have a festive or seasonal link. Once I'd completed them I sent to various publishers who I believed (because I'd researched their previously published titles) might be interested in them. Again and again they were rejected, which is something you sort of get used to as a professional writer. However a couple of the publishers didn't send me the standard rejection letter. They told me they'd enjoyed the stories but were withdrawing from seasonal books so weren't in a position to take.

This is where my journey into becoming a publisher started. MadMoment Media Ltd was set up and with a very limited budget we had these two picture stories (plus a few others I'd received good feedback on) into apps for the iPhone and iPad. This meant a steep learning curve and a fair few hours spent in a recording studio, as yours truly narrated them.  By the end of 2010 they were ready and uploaded onto the iTunes store. A few months later we converted all of the stories into picture eBooks and uploaded onto Amazon (Amazon UKAmazon US). Our non-seasonal stories sell a few copies all year round. However although 'Where It's Always Winter' and 'The Perfect Christmas Tree' are seasonal we sell as many if not more of them than our non-seasonal titles.

Now you may be wondering why I'm sharing this with you. Well I wanted to demonstrate that just because a large publishing house doesn't see the point of selling seasonal picture books it doesn't mean there isn't a market for them. So if you have a book that's received good feedback but isn't marketable all year round why not give it a go yourself. It's worked for me it could work for you.

Lynne Garner 

I also write for:
Authors Electric - covers digital self-publishing 
Awfully Big Blogging Adventure - subjects connected with writing
The Hedgehog Shed - concerned with hedgehog rescue
Fuelled By Hot Chocolate - my own ramblings
The Craft Ark - craft how-to blog

My online classes with WOW starting January 2014:

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Wandering Off by Jane Clarke

My best ideas often come when I wander off somewhere with nothing specific in mind. Here are three of my favourite wanders:

Letting the dog take me for a wander

Old dog pace is slow, with stops for joyous sniffs and rolls.

Wandering through old magazines

Thanks to poet Roger Stevens for introducing me to the delights of cutting and pasting random words, phrases and pictures and making surreal poems.

Wandering round a local place of interest

There are loads of interesting places, museums and art galleries where I live, but a supermarket or my local town, Deal, will do just as well, too.

Wandering around Dover Castle has given me ideas for three books - which I occasionally get invited to read in the awesome setting of the Great Tower.

I don't have a notebook by my side when I go off wandering- because that would make me think I had to have an idea, and the whole point of wandering  is that it's pressure-free. But I often come back with something to add to my compost heap of ideas.

Here's a link to my post about  ideas composting

But even if I don't come back with anything to put in the notebooks, wandering off occasionally stops me stagnating - and makes me feel less guilty about the chocolate nibbling when I'm back at my desk.

Jane's currently polishing up three picture book texts for Nosy Crow. She's been having a lovely time wandering round Dover Castle, and doing some readings there over the autumn break, and Bramble has taken her for lots of walks.  
Jane's Website   Jane's Facebook author page

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Quentin Blake, Picture Book Ideas Month (PiBoIdMo) and interesting facial hair. That’s right: it’s the inspiring month of November, by Juliet Clare Bell

It’s that time of year again: for some, it’s an opportunity to grow interesting facial hair


for several hundred of us, it’s the annual British Isles SCBWI Conference, with Malorie Blackman and Catherine Rayner for starters...

and for many hundred of us picture book writers throughout the world, it’s
PiBoIdMo 13! Yay!

November has turned into a month I get childishly excited about. And Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (where you have to come up with 30 ideas for picture books in 30 days) has a whole lot to do with it. Since it’s all about inspiration and good habits for being creative, I’m going to talk about inspiration here. And where better to start than with my favourite illustrator (author and illustrator of my favourite adult book –Words and Pictures, and illustrator of one of my very favourite picture books, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen), whom I met/saw for the first time last night (a long held ambition of mine)? It's the one and only...


Photos taken by fellow groupie, Dave Gray.

In the presence of great greatness...

The lecture was brilliant. He talked about the illustrations he’s been doing ‘beyond the page’ in the last ten years or so, on buildings, art gallery and many different hospital walls and on buses for education projects (his book Beyond the Page, is beautiful and is always on my desk for inspiration...).

An illustrated book bus in Ghana.

So how does this fit with PiBoIdMo?

Well this year, I want to try specific ways of coming up with my picture book ideas as well as just writing down ideas that come to me in the course of a day.

So where do you go looking for ideas?

...from pictures

Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking about pictures today. In bed this morning, one of my children, apropo of nothing, started talking about how the Paul Klee picture on the wall made her think about a story, which she proceeded to tell me.

This prompted my youngest to imagine a story coming from the other picture in our room...
Picture from the cover of One Hundred Years of Solitude

So one place I’m looking for ideas this month is in pictures –wherever I can find them. On walls, waiting to be hung in our new office, from notecards, in Quentin Blake and Shaun Tan books, the children’s (as always)....

...from books

This year, I’m going to practise what I preach. I teach writing picture books and it’s been too long since I’ve gone through my favourite picture books and tried to capture the essence of what it is I really love about them. Often, there's really interesting use of metaphor, as in Not Now, Bernard, by David McKee. I'd really like to play around with this more for this year's PiBoIdMo ideas... Quentin Blake talked about this in the lecture, using the example of The Story of the Dancing Frog, and how he was using a metaphor for bereavement but that he could just have easily had the main character learning to play the cello instead.

I love the idea that as an illustrator you can choose the metaphors you use in picture books partly based on your desire to draw that particular thing (he didn’t say that specifically in this example but he’s talked about it in other books before). As an author who doesn’t illustrate or know who the illustrator for my stories are going to be until after I've written them, it’s a slightly different game but I’m going to look at themes I’d like to explore and come up with visually different metaphors and see whether that leads to fresh story ideas.

... exercises I do in school visits with children

I’m going to...
make up silly stories on the hoof the same way I get children to do collectively in school assemblies and see if any germs of ideas for something more substantial come (I’m the character in their story. Someone in the audience chooses what I am –it can be anything at all; someone else chooses a name; then what I most want to do in the world –or beyond- that day; what’s getting in my way, etc.. Because it’s all done quickly by different people, no one thinks about it much or feels self-conscious); the name game that inspired Don’t Panic, Annika! where you come up with characteristics of a character based on their name, using rhyme or alliteration. And when you’ve got those characteristics you work out what needs to change by the end of the story in order to make it satisfying/funny etc.; the What If? game I play in the classroom where we look around at the room, or the playground and turn ordinary objects or scenes into something quite extraordinary by saying: this may look like an ordinary whiteboard/wall display/teacher, but what if... (and similarly with objects taken from a bag).

And I’ll be reading Tara Lazar’s blog daily and follow the exercises that the guest bloggers suggest.

Basically, I’m going to allow myself to play for a month.

Do more creative pursuits that aren’t writing

This month, I’m trying out a local close-part harmony group. I joined a choir for one concert about twenty years ago but before that I’d not sung collectively since being in school, and although I love singing with the children, and in the shower, I’ve not done anything since. Again, inspired by Quentin Blake, as a non-drawer, I’m going to do five minutes of drawing each day throughout November just for the fun of it. And I’m attending the first in a series of traditional arts storytelling workshops, run by local storyteller, Graham Langley . And, since the death of my mother earlier this year, who was a prolific reader, and whose inscription is in many of the books that I have, I’ve started reading novels again in a way that I haven’t for almost twenty years. I do actually feel as if something has reawakened in me (so thanks, Mum, for that).

Different writing environments. Writing alongside others...
If you’re a member of SCBWI and PiBoIdMo etc., writing really isn’t the lonely occupation many think of it as. There’s such a huge, welcoming community out there. But a lot of it is online and this year, I’m arranging to do more writing alongside others. It started with a writing retreat last year where a fellow picture book author, Rebecca Colby, and I booked a cottage for a week and just wrote, usually in our own beds during the day, and then in the evenings, sitting together at the dining room table. We were joined for a couple of days by another children’s author (Addy Farmer), and it was an incredible week.

Whilst it’s extremely hard to get away for a week, I was really keen to try and replicate something of that communal environment, so from this month, once a month, our local SCBWI is going to host a free day-long write-in in the fantastic new Library of Birmingham...

where anyone can come along and write/sketch for the day together on their separate projects.

The children's section of the library, where all artwork, including the prints on the beanbags, is by Laura-Kate Chapman, who illustrated our last picture book, The Kite Princess!

I’ve also recently moved into an office over the road from our house, with another children’s author and fellow SCBWI-er, Leila Rasheed, which is brilliant. It’s freed up loads of space in our respective houses and has provided us with a fantastic working space. And from January, we’ll be running fortnightly day-long write-ins in one of the large meeting rooms there where writers and illustrators can come and write/illustrate for the day.

As always, November is going to be a busy month (especially in the run-up to the conference where I organise the mass Friday night critique with seventy-plus critiquers) and this year I’m also writing a commissioned book for which I’m doing loads of really interesting research/interviews at the moment, but that’s the joy of PiBoIdMo. It doesn’t actually have to take much time at all. You just need to do it every day and get yourself into good habits (and this year, I've actually bought index cards and a box to put them in, which is an exciting if unusually organised step to have taken). To finish with the wonderful Quentin Blake again...

“I don’t wait for inspiration. I’m not, in fact, quite sure what inspiration is, but I’m sure that if it is going to turn up, my having started work is the precondition of its arrival,” (Words and Pictures, p100).

Inspiration enough.

Happy November.

Do you have any PiBoIdMo tips or hints? Please leave them in the comments section below -and have a fruitful month.

Juliet Clare Bell is currently researching for a picture book based around the Cadbury chocolate factory and Bournville in Birmingham, which so far has been extremely interesting and very tasty...