Friday, 30 January 2015

My top three surreal editorial comments by Jane Clarke

One of the things I love about writing picture books is the surreal conversations I have with editors. Here are three of my favourites. 

'Charlie's elephants don’t bake cakes!'

Fair enough. When I wrote the text I didn't realise I'd be lucky enough to have Charlie Fuge illustrate it, and Charlie does amazingly naturalistic animals. There's a fine line in the world of talking animals, and it has a lot to do with whether the illustrator is drawing the animal clothed or unclothed, in a natural or unnatural surrounding.  Unclothed animals in a natural setting don't bake cakes. The only trouble was, the pivotal point of the story involves a birthday cake.  We settled on a raw concoction of bananas and peanuts. 

From Trumpet, the Little Elephant with the Big Temper, illustrated by Charles Fuge.
I'm delighted to say that Charles Fuge is the illustrator of my upcoming picture book 'Who Woke the Baby', to be published later this year. No cakes are involved.

'Would a little dragon really say the same thing as a little knight?'

Once you give a talking animal (and an imaginary one at that)  a voice it has to sound authentic, so the question is a valid one. Saying the same thing was a useful device to emphasise their parallel thoughts and feelings.

From Knight School, 
illustrated by Jane Massey

'Should the cow have udders?'

Essential in real life, but not in picture books. No problem if the cow is in the field, but udders are somewhat disturbing when a cow is standing on its hind legs.  In picture books, dangly bits of any kind, belonging to any sort of clothed/unclothed/partially clothed creature, are most notable by their absence.

Some of the cast of  Old Macdonald's Things That Go, in the process of being illustrated by Migy Blanco.

 Picture book editors, writers. illustrators and readers, I'd love to hear your surreal quotes! 

Jane's currently doing lots of school visits in the run up to World Book Day and launching the first two books of a new series published by Oxford University Press on 5 February 2015.


Jon Burgess Design said...

Nice post. I know those kind of dilemmas well. The book/story has its own internal logic which will rub up against real world logic in odd ways sometimes. I can't think of any surreal examples, but I have avoided food as an issue in my Baby Owl books, as Baby Owls do tend to eat generally cute creatures such as mice and voles. . .
The issue of male genitals on kid's book creatures is tricky. They are plainly evident in real life, but to include them in a kid's book would feel wrong, which shows what a strange mindset we (adults) have. I guess that because they are almost totally absent, to include them would become a big statement about our values and distract from the story etc.

Jane Clarke said...

Well put, Jonathan, thanks

Moira Butterfield said...

As an editor I used to get regular comments on projects from frankly crazed salespeople, such as:
'Change that picture. Father Christmas doesn't tuck his trousers into his boots.'
'Don't show children with big eyes. People will think they're on drugs'.
Recently - 'we can't have a child eating honey sandwiches because honey is not healthy'
'boys don't like books with hugs in'
'any couples you show in picture books must have wedding rings on'
I'm not surprised by anything any more : )

Leila said...

Moira, those are unbelievable!! Love the post, Jane - really funny but telling, too.

Nick Green said...

More and more I think we should just leave the salespeople to write and draw the books themselves... Wait for them to starve to death... Then quietly start up again.

Deborah Fajerman said...

I did a picture book about cows positively bristling with udders a few years ago! It didn't seem an issue at the time. I wonder if a picture of a cow with no udders would look rather incomplete.

Nick Green said...

Also the comment about drugs is *especially* revealing...

Jane Clarke said...

I'll look out for that one, it sounds fab - I'm fond of cows and used to live in Holland in a place called Koewacht (koe being Dutch for cow). In the pic book that's currently being illustrated, it's only the cow in one particular pose that's the subject of surreal debate :-)

Jane Clarke said...

Now, call me naive, but I hadn't tracked these comments back to sales. Thanks Moira and Nick, illuminating.

Paeony Lewis said...

I remember a half-hour telephone conversation with a lovely illustrator. She asked me lots of questions about the main character in the picture book. I answered all the questions, even though many of them I made up on the spot, but I KNEW what the character's answers would be as she was real in my head. Afterwards it struck me how surreal the conversation had been!

Taurean Watkins said...

These are the kinds of things that can drive (particularly non-illustrator writers like me) CRAZY because I've only got words to work with.

Granted, I write novels more than picture books so my thoughts are colored with that POV.

That said, I think there should be more room to have a middle ground between cartoony and naturalistic.

My stories tend to be in that hazy middle between anthropomorphic and naturalistic, and for one particular project I've shelved for now (but will bring out) I'll indie publish when I can afford to do so as I'd need more back and forth with an illustrator that can pull it off visually.

My take specifically on the "Cow udder" thing is I think it should be a case by case basis.

Sometimes it makes sense to use them and other times it doesn't.

Cow (from the 90s cartoon "Cow and Chicken" ) flaunted her udder and it doesn't bother me, it is a natural part of the animal (blatantly cartoony as that show is) and lot of humor can come from exploiting the more unusual aspects of the animal. (Hello, skunks and their scent glands, anyone?)

What I personally find more off-putting is the cow from Nickelodeon's "Barnyard" series because he's male yet has an udder, and only females have udders, right? Okay, I'll end it here before I create a documentary out of this topic... (LOL)

Jane Clarke said...

Good to hear from you. Like you, as a writer I tend to have a 'hazy' idea of the pictures (and one that lurks somewhere in the middle ground you talk about), so I sympathise with the illustrators who have to decide how 'natural' our unnatural ideas are.

Taurean Watkins said...

Well, I actually have a quite a vivid picture of them in my head, but you know that "Trust the Illustrator" thing. I really want to be an illustrator one day for at least some of my books. I'm a firm believer that non-illustrator writers have an eye for visuals and blogging's a great way for writers to explore what they appreciate and love visually.

Lydia Syson said...

This made me laugh a lot!