Monday, 16 July 2018

A Space For the Reader • Susannah Lloyd

Please welcome our latest guest to the Picture Book Den - Susannah Lloyd.

Ursula Le Guin once wrote: ‘The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on woodpulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.’    This could not be truer than for a picture book, a book for the very young; for readers absolutely brimming with the imagination required to bring a story to life. 
All my favourite picture book authors take a very wry and playful approach with their readers. They resist the temptation to wrap things up so neatly that there is nothing left for the reader to do. Instead they trust their readers enough to let them take an idea, let their imagination loose and just run with it.  As Le Guin put it ‘You can consider the reader, not a helpless victim or a passive consumer, but as an active, worthy collaborator.  A colluder, a co-illusionist.’  
But it needs careful consideration to make the most of your colluder’s valuable time and attention.  Mac Barnett, discussing his stories on the Picture Book Podcast, said of his work “I write a thing that has lots of gaps for [the illustrator] to fill in and then ideally, when the illustrator is done, there are still gaps for the person who is reading the book out loud to fill in and put their own spin on it, and then finally there still should be some spaces for the reader to crawl into and figure those things out.” To listen to the podcast in full click here.    
This is a topic dear to my heart. I am a new picture book writer and it’s what I’m always striving to achieve my own writing.  Needless to say, I have found that it is trickier than it first appears! 
One recent book that really carries this off is Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love.  I absolutely love this book. It is quiet, beautiful, thought-provoking and very moving. It had me sniffing back the tears before I even got it out of the book shop. 

Julian, a little boy, watches some glamourous women in mermaid costumes on his bus ride home from the swimming pool, and becomes totally lost in a day dream, imagining himself as a glorious mermaid.
JULIAN IS A MERMAID. Copyright © 2018 by Jessica Love. 
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
On the way into their house he declares to his grandmum “Nana, I am also a mermaid.” When she goes off for a bath he looks about the house and bedecks himself in everything he can find to transform himself into a mermaid. What will she make of his flamboyant homemade costume when she returns from her bath? 

The text of Julian is very minimal, and the words tell us nothing at all about what the characters of Julian or Nana are thinking or feeling. That is 100% the job of the reader to work out.  When his Nana returns from her bath and finds him dressed up in her curtains, plant and makeup, she says nothing but disappears off, leaving us alone with Julian for a very suspense-filled spread. Julian suddenly looks a little vulnerable, a little uncertain, as he peers at himself in the mirror.
JULIAN IS A MERMAID. Copyright © 2018 by Jessica Love. 
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
The fact that the readers are invited to fill these spaces themselves, and make their own connections, creates a gentle opportunity for them to experience getting things wrong, and then for them to re-evaluate  assumptions that they may have made.  When we turned the page my youngest son, quite certain that Julian would be in trouble, jumped back on the sofa, and looked cautiously through his fingers, finally taking his hands away and giving the page a long thoughtful stare. When Nana returns with a necklace to complete his costume, there are no words to tell us about how Julian feels about this, but there don’t need to be – the reader has felt it for themselves.
 JULIAN IS A MERMAID. Copyright © 2018 by Jessica Love. 
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
I recently listened to an interview with Jessica on the Picture Book Podcast.  She said that, in creating a book like Julian,  she is  “Throwing a ball up into the air, into the unknown, and the reader…has the opportunity to catch it….and the magic of catching it can’t happen unless it’s actually been thrown.  If someone just stuffs it into your hand, you haven’t caught anything, you’ve been handed something, and that’s not the same thing.” To listen to this interview in full click here.

This idea really struck me. I thought yes! This is exactly what I want to do in my own writing!  So, to learn more about the subtle art of the throwing, I decided to contact Jessica and ask her about this. 


Film Director Ernst Lubitsch apparently said:  “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever”.  I am completely hooked on trying to achieve this in my picture book stories. What are your thoughts on why this approach makes for such a satisfying an experience for the picture book reader, in particular?
This quote is a bullseye. I've worked for the last 13 years as an actor in the theatre--I trained at Juilliard and have been performing in plays ever since. One of the great assets of live performance is the immediate, legible feedback you get from an audience. You know when you have the audience, and you can feel it when you've lost them. 
Here's what audiences hate: being preached at. Here's what audiences love: making connections on their own. I feel confident saying this is as close to a universal rule as there is in the theatre: show don't tell. 
But the why of it is what you are asking about, and I've actually spent a lot of time thinking about this and here's what it boils down to: art isn't the object itself. Art isn't the finished book, or painting, or script. That is just the set-up. I think of it this way, art is the thing that happens when an idea travels from the mind of the artist to the mind of the viewer. It's like an electrical impulse leaping from one dendrite to the next. It is the leaping part that is magical. That is the miraculous current that gives the artist and the reader a little zap when they touch it. 
I think the reason this kind of story is so much more satisfying for the reader, is it allows them to participate, and do their job. I believe artists need to have enough respect for their readers to know when their job is finished, and allow the reader to do theirs. 
How do you ensure you don’t crowd out the reader’s space or role in your stories, and do you feel it helps that you are both the author and illustrator of the book?  
That is the question isn't it? How do you actually do it? I think the trick is to think of the reader as your collaborator. It is your job to set them up with the information they need, but connecting the dots is actually their job, not yours. 
When I first sold Julián is a Mermaid we toyed with the idea of making it entirely wordless. But here's the problem with that: if the reader doesn't have the information from the very beginning that Julián is a boy the reader doesn't have the right coordinates from which to start--they just assume he is a girl and never go on the journey. 
I think it is always a matter of asking, what is the least amount of information I can give the reader in order for them to make a connection? The bigger the leap, the more satisfying it is for them; the more thrilling the game of catch between you. 
What books have you loved which leave lots of room for the reader?
"Du Iz Tak?", written and illustrated by Carson Ellis. It is a masterpiece and it is in a made-up, bug language! And do kids get bored? No! They lean forward because finally someone has given them something to figure out!
DU IZ TAK? Copyright © 2016 by Carson Ellis. 
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
"Square", by Mac Barnett illustrated by John Klassen--how many children's books do you know that end with a question?
SQUARE. Text copyright © 2018 by Mac Barnett. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Jon Klassen.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
"Where the Wild Things Are"- Maurice Sendak is the consummate example of working on a deep, dream-scape level. He allows room for darkness, wildness, doubt, and fear. I think too often we are so afraid of these experiences in ourselves we try to blot them out in children as well, but childhood can be dark and terrifying. I remember how much I appreciated it when adults allowed for this, rather than yelling "THERE IS NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF!" which of course kids know is bs.
Thank you so much Jessica for your brilliant and thoughtful replies!
My own list of favourites is very long, as my groaning bookshelf can testify, but it includes these gems:
The Green Ship by Quentin Blake  
The reader is not given any heavy-handed instruction on the nature of Mrs Tredagar’s grief, but through the green ship’s journey, steering into the eye of a violent storm, and making it safely through, we can experience it. 

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen 
At the end of this story, Sam and Dave fall tumbling through the bottom of the hole they have been digging, and land safely in a place remarkably similar to the one they set off from. But something is not quite right. There is a pear tree where the apple tree was, a different collar on the cat, a different house, and … no hole. These details do not perturb Sam and Dave in any way, but they do seem to bother their dog.   What on earth is going on?  The back cover shows the original cat, peering down into the hole they dug, possibly trying to figure out the answer to the same question. 
SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE. Text copyright © 2014 by Mac Barnett. 
Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Jon Klassen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
Grandpa by John Burningham
The heart-breaking ending leaves us with Grandpa’s empty chair and his granddaughter, curled up, simply looking at it. There is no need for any words to spell out what has happened or how the little girl feels.  

Rosie‘s Walk by Pat Hutchins

An absolute classic.  Is Rosie oblivious to the danger she is in or is she making some very shrewd choices as to where to travel on her journey?  Perhaps she has even made a reconnaissance trip? My youngest son and I disagree strongly on this matter. 
Home by Carson Ellis 
Carson Ellis poses lots of questions for her reader in her book Home, such as ‘But whose home is this? And what about this? Who in the world lives here? And why?’  On another page she simply says ‘A Moonian lives here’, but whether the Moonian is the owner of the strange looking plant staring glassily back at us, or is the plant itself, is left up to us to decide.
HOME. Copyright © 2015 by Carson Ellis. 
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
Oh No George! by Chris Haughton
At the end we see George, who always tries so very hard to overcome his urges and ‘be good’,  considering the particular tempting delights of a full rubbish bin.  The reader is simply asked ‘What will George do?’ 
OH NO, GEORGE!. Copyright © 2012 by Chris Haughton. 
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.
Please let me know your own favourites in the comments below. I would love to hear from you, and I have a terrible book buying habit that only needs the very slightest encouragement

Susannah has picture books coming out soon with Simon and Schuster (2019) and Frances Lincoln (2020). You can follow Susannah on Twitter and Instagram at @squirrelpocket .

Monday, 9 July 2018

GOOD VIEWERS ALSO MAKE GOOD WRITERS: Finding inspiration in films, TV and video games • Jonathan Emmett

The question I’m asked most often in school Q and A sessions is “where do you get your ideas from?” The answer I usually give is “anywhere and everywhere” before elaborating with some specific examples. I tell the children that I get many of my ideas from reading books by other authors – the oft quoted maxim that good readers make good writers is a sound one. But I also tell them that some of my best ideas come from watching TV and films and playing video games, because good viewers can also make good writers!

I always feel like I’m breaking some unwritten rule for authors visiting schools by telling children this. The main reason children’s authors are invited into schools is to help foster an enthusiasm for books and reading – not wax lyrical about screen media, the pervasive appeal of which is often blamed for the decline in children’s reading. However, while it’s clear that many young children prefer to look at a screen than a page, I think this preference has more to do with content than medium. And, if we want children to recognise that a picture book can be every bit as appealing as their favourite film, TV show or video game, it makes sense for picture book writers to recognise the appeal screen media has for many children and to try to channel that appeal onto the page.

One of the picture books I’ve written that was inspired by screen media is The Silver Serpent Cup which was devised in collaboration with illustrator Ed Eaves. The book’s main screen media inspirations are Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races animated TV series, which Ed and I had both enjoyed as children, and Nintendo’s Mario Kart series of video games, which were hugely popular with my own children and their friends. Ed’s action-packed illustrations do a terrific job of capturing the excitement of playing Mario Kart and when we were creating the book we’d considered including a Mario Kart style course map at the side of each spread, showing the positions of each racer, but eventually decided against it.

A spread from The Silver Serpent Cup, illustrated by Ed Eaves and Nintendo's Mario Kart.

When I read The Silver Serpent Cup in schools I preface the reading by talking about the inspirations behind the book. When I mention that Ed and I were trying to capture the thrill of playing Mario Kart and show an image from the video game, a noisy ripple of excitement ALWAYS goes around the room. Children who had been staring out of the window or fidgeting with their shoes are now giving me their undivided attention. You can sense what these previously unengaged children are thinking – I love Mario Kart! This book is worth paying attention to!

For our newly-published follow up, Cleopatra Bones and the Golden Chimpanzee, Ed and I drew our inspiration from video games like Tomb Raider and Temple Run and the Indiana Jones films. 

Cleopatra Bones and the Golden Chimpanzee draws inspiration from treasure-hunting games and films.

Creators of TV, film and video games have become extremely adept at recognising appealing content in children’s literature and channeling that appeal onto the screen. If we want to stop children abandoning pages for screens at an early age, picture book authors, illustrators and publishers need to ensure that this channelling works both ways by creating more picture books that reflect the appeal of popular films, TV shows and video games. We have to stop regarding screen media as a bogeyman who's luring children away from books and recognise it as a valuable source of inspiration that can make books more appealing to young readers.

Jonathan Emmett's latest screen media inspired picture book Cleopatra Bones and the Golden Chimpanzee is illustrated by Ed Eaves and published by Oxford University Press

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blog. You can also follow Jonathan on Facebook and Twitter @scribblestreet.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

What’s in a Word? Yes you CAN use challenging vocabulary in a picture book! • by Natascha Biebow

I was inspired by Geraldine McCaughrean’s recent Carnegie Medal speech in which she praises the book industry for at last allowing authors to tackle virtually any subject (for older readers anyway), but raises an important concern about the apparent focus on keeping vocabulary manageable: “Vocabulary must not be too challenging. Books will not be published unless they are accessible.”

What is 'accessible language'? Surely this is largely open to interpretation and depends on the reader, the individual child, and their circumstances? Luckily, in picture books, the pictures very often provide contextual cues and the person reading out loud with the small child is there to support and decode tricky language, exactly to make it accessible . . .

Why is it important to include diverse vocabulary anyway? Here again McCaughrean sums it up in a nutshell: “. . . because you need words to be able to think for yourself.” Quite right. The only way to master words, McCaughrean argues, is to meet them.

So I wondered: are our young readers meeting them? Those words, words, words, all kinds of words for every occasion and need?
I took a look at my bookshelves to see how authors are using interesting, challenging and diverse vocabulary and language to tell their stories:


McCaughrean is right: we as authors have a moral obligation to deliver words – lots and lots of different savoury words – to young readers by the truck load, so that we can give them "the LEGO bricks for building" and thinking and therefore create expressive, problem-solving, creative, forward-thinking individuals. They will, after all, be the future of our world. And they need those words!

Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor
Natascha is the author of The Crayon Man (March 2019), Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. She runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. Check out her Cook Up a Picture Book courses!

Monday, 25 June 2018

Writing an accidental Picture Book Series by Chitra Soundar

I didn’t start out to write a series of picture books. But now I realise I’ve one successful series and another one edging in that direction.
I’ve always been a fan of series fiction – whether as chapter books or as picture books. When I fall in love with a character, be it Elmer or Lulu, I love to read other stories about them. I want to see them do different things.

 But as a writer, I always knew that a series is something you can plan for, but actually getting to publish one, is not up to me. So even though I never intended to write one, I stumbled on to a series.

The Farmer Falgu series originated in India and is now available worldwide in many languages. And this is how it started.

I wrote a story about silence and the joyfulness of noise set in an Indian farmer’s life. I wanted the story to have musical elements and I wanted my farmer full of positivity. I didn’t have an idea that I was creating a friend for myself.

After I submitted the story and it was accepted, I happened to realise another one of my story ideas will fit this character. So I asked the publisher if they would accept another story for the same character. Now this was even before an illustrator was chosen for the first. While the first one focussed on sound, the second one was all about food.

It was a gamble but the editor said yes and to my delight both Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip and Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market is available in many different languages – from French to German to Japanese and American English.

The success of the first two books both in India and abroad, triggered a commission of two more stories. And a series was born.

But the thing about series is, especially one that has become popular is, there’s more at stake. I wrote so many different stories for the same character, trying to find the third and the fourth I was commissioned.

But the 3rd and 4th book would not have been possible if I wasn’t doing extensive research on both Farmer Falgu and India in particular looking for stories.

Farmer Falgu was completely a product of imagination and a series of accidental events. So after I created the character, I did a lot of research on his back story. I had chosen a name that happened to have historical significance. And that was a happy accident. The illustrator had set him in Rajasthan and that was another happy accident for me (although she would have made a conscious choice).

So I researched the background of the state, created resources and activities for kids. This led to my researching the kite festival, which then turned into an idea for Book 4.

Researching India and having a discussion with the publisher gave me another idea – the Kumbh Mela – the biggest festival on earth. I loved that it had all the elements I love in a story and in life – rivers, trains, food, elephants and a Farmer Falgu who couldn’t catch a break. Or did he?

So as I wrote Book 3 and 4, I learned some key things about writing an unplanned, accidental series.

a)    The character now has a life of his own. And therefore the story has to fit this life.
As the illustrator Kanika Nair made him a Rajasthani farmer, the new stories needed to fit his new life in Rajasthan and what happened there.

b)    The throughline – the first two stories had unconsciously created a personality, a theme and an ethos for my character. He was a glass-half-full guy and therefore any new story needed to fit his ethos.

c)     The Economics: Three or four books of the same character, the same author-illustrator duo is an investment for a small independent publisher from India. They had to be really sure that the 3rd book and the 4th book would work. So there was a lot more scrutiny, review and discussion before these stories were even written.

d)    The expectations: These stories showcased India in a small way and with the first two books having sold in many foreign territories, a need to show some wonderful events or places in India within Farmer Falgu’s life was tempting. We zoomed back from his farm out into a bigger world for Book 3 and 4.

e)    Series guidelines: These weren’t written down – but there was a sense of how long the book would be, the pattern, the setting and the title. The first two titles had “Farmer Falgu Goes…”. So I had to make him go somewhere in each story.

As a writer, suddenly I had to work within a framework. Sometimes it felt as if the story didn’t come first, the series guidelines did. But then pushing the story to the forefront and making the character centre-stage helped me plot Book 3 and Book 4.

Available in the UK soon through Red Robin Books

As much as there is a pre-defined framework when you work on a series, there are benefits too. If parents and teachers like one of the books in the series, they’re more likely to buy the others. The characters turn into friends. I have Farmer Falgu talking to me at odd times when he sees something through my eyes. But also as a writer I start seeing the world through his eyes.

Available in the UK soon through Red Robin Books

And now I’m standing on the edge of another series. Fingers crossed!

You’re Safe With Me (illustrated by Poonam Mistry) was met with so much love even before it was published that the publisher, Lantana Publishing, commissioned a companion story, You’re Snug with Me. Although it is not the same characters in the second book, a pattern has emerged. Whether there’s a third book, only time will tell.

Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer of picture books and junior fiction. When she's not writing stories, she can be seen telling them to both children and grown-ups across libraries, festivals and schools in the UK and worldwide. Find out more at or follow her on Twitter at @csoundar.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Ssshhh! When a Picture Book writer embarks on an affair with a Novel. And what have other authors brought from picture book writing to novel writing, and from novel writing to picture book writing? by Juliet Clare Bell

You know when you first start writing, and how you keep your writing habit secret for a while, or only speak about it apologetically? And then once you’ve been doing it a while and feel more confident in your area, you might talk about with more certainty, and maybe you get a book published, and you feel more legitimate again…?


The joy of having your first book published and feeling like a 'real writer'. A young (non-panicking) Annika jumping for joy (on my behalf) at my first book, Don't Panic, Annika! 
(illustrated by Jennifer E Morris, 2011)

But what about when you feel legitimate in one area of writing but start doing something in a brand new one? Do you have to start again as a complete newbie? What strategies from one can you bring to the other? And can you keep some of that confidence, or do you have to go back to those terrible apologetic conversations with people about what you’re currently writing?

Well in the spirit of allowing yourself to be vulnerable and to take risks in order to be and know who you are (which is central to the story I’m writing), I’m ’fessing up, even though I’m at the early apologetic stage:


I had to delete and change that from ‘I AM TRYING TO WRITE A NOVEL’, the language I’ve absolutely slipped back into now I’m writing in a completely new field. But I am writing one. It may never end up getting published, but I AM writing it, rather than ‘trying to write it’ and I am trying to use what I already know from writing picture books.

I love learning from other people, and so I asked a few children's writer-y friends who have done/are doing both children's novels and picture books, for their thoughts…

First, I wanted to know how easy is it to work on both at the same time?

I asked this because I have so far found it extremely difficult to think about both. It turns out, the writers I asked who liked writing both genres all found the switching easy. Here’s Sophia Bennett, successful, award-winning author of novels including Unveiling Venus, Threads and Love Song  …. and who has at least one new picture book out in 2019 (she can't say too much about anything at the moment, but having read a draft of one of them, I can tell you that she is an exquisite picture book writer).

                          Sophia's most recent novel, Unveiling Venus (Stripes Publishing, 2018)

“Finding the time is extremely difficult. But when I do, I actually love skipping from one to the other, because each one uses different brain space and makes coming back to what I was doing before feel fresh, and a pleasure.”

                                                       (c) Jacob Sager Weinstein (2017)

Jacob Sager Weinstein is the author of The City of Secret Rivers (an absolute favourite with one of my children), for which he has been shortlisted for the Branford Boase award for most promising new author, and the upcoming picture book Lyric McKerrigan, Secret Librarian (illustrated by Vera Brosgol). 

(c) Jacob Sager Weinstein and Vera Brosgol (2018)

He agrees with Sophia:  

“In some ways, it’s easier than just working on one kind of book — if I’m not in the right frame of mind for one, I’m often in the right frame of mind for the other. God knows I still procrastinate, but at least I have the option of procrastinating productively”. 

Productive procrastination? I look forward to that…

Wendy Meddour, author of many books, including the Wendy Quill series 

                                               (c) Wendy Meddour and Mina May (2013)


 (c) Wendy Meddour and Duncan Beedie. Stefano the Squid, Hero of the Deep will be out with 
Little Tiger Press 

and also finds the shift easy, and does it based on timing: 

“I generally treat myself to writing picture books on weekends …and work on novels at night (after I’ve finished work and the kids are in bed)”. 

I’m feeling more hopeful now. I had naively thought when I started that I could work on my novel from 6-7am each morning, and then do everything else (picture books, author visits, admin etc) during the rest of the time available and that I could make the switch easily. But unlike the authors, above, I found it almost impossible to think about picture books at all whilst I was in the really early stages of doing the novel. As a picture book writer, I think loads about structure as it’s so critical to a picture book. I knew that I know how to write; I knew I know how to structure a picture book, but what I didn’t know was whether I could structure a novel. And so I made myself work on the structure and get that sorted (including having a description of each scene) before I actually started writing out the story at all. There was no way I was going to embark on a full-length novel if I wasn’t sure I could complete it in a way that made sense (I had started an adult novel about 17 years ago but never got beyond Chapter 3 as I just didn’t have a structure for the whole thing, even though I had hundreds of pages of rough notes about the characters). This was before I’d written picture books, and now I’m used to plotting and I’ve seen how a longer story can crumble so quickly without decent foundations. And, taking to heart the sentiment of Seamus Heaney's wonderful poem (with apologies to him for the spurious connection of his poem to the subject of children's novel writing, as opposed to love -but it's a great poem, and reading, of) Scaffolding I would never embark on such an enormous story without feeling I’d got my scaffolding in order:

Seamus Heaney reading his poem, Scaffolding
As Sophia says:

I do find each novel daunting… knowing I’m going to risk writing for a whole year about something readers may not connect with when it’s done. You never know. That aspect of novel writing seems mad. At least with a picture book it’s quicker!”

Exactly. That’s why it’s taken so long for me even to consider trying to write a novel again. And at least if you have the scaffolding there, you feel more confident that what will stand at the end of it will be solid. Ish. And now, having finished the structure for the first draft, it feels like I don’t have to hold it all in my head anymore; I can just write what I’m told to (by me), looking at each scene description and following its structure. As a picture book writer, this feels much more familiar –and safe- and I am now going to put my Wendy Meddour hat on and write the novel at certain specified times of the week, and picture books at others, and I have just in this last week got back into thinking about picture books again. (Unless I am in need of a bit of Jacob's productive procrastination (thank you, Jacob), in which case I might be really frivolous, and swap...).

So how do the picture-book-and-children's novel writers I spoke with use strategies for plotting and structuring one type of book for the other?


“I am a planner. With all my books - adult, young adult and picture books - I plan and research a lot before I start, and more as I go. Even so, the story moves off in directions I wasn’t quite expecting. With all of them, my core subject is something I’m passionate about, so I put a lot of myself into them.”

                                                                    Sophia Bennett

And on using novel writing strategies for a picture book?

“I think of it in various acts! Even though I only have a few hundred words to play with, I have my opening section, the building action, the climax and the resolution. I try and use interesting dialogue. I research a lot, think hard about the characters and have it plotted out in my head before I start, but then let the poetry of the words lead me on as I write.

As I’m new to picture books I don’t really have strategies for it - just an endless learning process. Hopefully I’ll have something to bring from it to the other books eventually. It might be to do with how much you can leave unsaid and still get the message across. I keep finding that the more words I cut, the better it gets.”

Candy, your thoughts?

Candy Gourlay, award-winning author of Tall Story and Shine

                                                             (c) Candy Gourlay, 2010

whose first picture book, Is It a Mermaid? (illustrated by Francesca Chessa, Otter Barry Books, 2018) is just out

                                           (c) Candy Gourlay and Francesca Chessa (2018)

and whose new novel, Bone Talk (David Fickling Books, 2018) will be out later this year, talked about writing picture books as an author of children's novels: 

“because novel writing has a lot to do with structure, I find myself applying longer format structural rules to my picture book writing. Like putting a plot pivot at the very middle of a story. And thinking hard about context and set up to create a satisfying pay off. I do this a million times over the course of writing a novel … so I can chart a reader's emotional arc as they read the novel. But in picture books, you only get one shot at satisfying your reader”.

 (c) Candy Gourlay (2018)

And Jacob?

“Plot is probably more important in a novel than in a picture book. A picture book can be purely about language or character or a single emotion; a novel needs a well-structured story to drive it forward. For better or for worse, my picture books are very plot-driven. I’m in awe of PBs that don’t have a traditional plot, and I have no idea how to write one.
“When you’re writing a picture book, you have to think carefully about every single word. With a novel, it’s easier to let flabby language slide. My last major rewrite of a novel is always to read it through and cut out as many words as I possibly can. I’m only realising it now, as I answer this question, but that definitely involves looking at my novel with the eyes of a picture book writer.”

Wendy, on the other hand, is not a natural planner:

“I’m not a good planner. I wish I was. But I’m not. I just love to write. This is true for both my picture books and novels. It’s the idea that is crucial. I never know exactly where I’m going to find myself. I just trust that some part of my brain does.  

With both novels and picture books, an idea starts fizzing, one that I can’t ignore, so I write it out furiously. Then edit. And edit. And edit. Ideas often emerge when I’m trying to process an experience in real life: say, a worry about someone or something, or a topic I feel strongly about at the time: child refugees, migration, Islamophobia, childhood anxiety, library closures, sexism. Whatever. Writing it out (in fictional form) allows me to feel like I’m doing something productive. As to strategies, having always been an avid reader, I’m very familiar with both genres, so although it feels like a ‘natural process’ when I’m writing, and I’m not a planner as such, I think I am probably quite technical in my writing without being particularly conscious of it. I’ve read so many novels and picture books over the years that I know how to structure them, hook the reader and vary the pace. I also teach creative writing at Exeter University, so am used to giving lectures about ‘character’, ‘style’ and ‘form’”.

Malachy Doyle, whose picture book Cinderfella (illustrated by Matt Hunt) is coming out later this year with Walker, 

                                                (c) Malachy Doyle and Matt Hunt (2018)

and who has written many picture books, including one of my favourite picture books

                        When a Zeeder Met a Xyder ( (c) Malachy Doyle and Joel Stewart, 2006)

is not a planner either:

I find that, when I write longer, it can be very time-consuming because I craft every sentence, sweat over every word, as I would when writing picture book. I haven't learnt to run loose.   I like to work in miniature - poetry, picture book, Barrington Stoke length books for older readers. Somehow it just suits me.    
I never plan. Which may work better for picture book than full-length novel, but it's just how I work. Find a character, put them in an interesting situation and run with it. Surprise yourself!”

And what do you find are the advantages and disadvantages of staying with a story so long when you’re writing a novel as opposed to a picture book?

“By the time a novel goes to print, I must have read its 60,000 words two dozen times. That’s like reading one very repetitive 1,440,000 word novel. I’m sick and tired of it, and I struggle to remember that readers will be coming to it fresh.

On the other hand, it’s an absolute joy to plant a little clue on page one of a book, and pay it off in the last chapter, or even another book.  Plus, there’s room for characters to grow and change and surprise not just the reader but me as well. Picture book characters still need to go on journeys, but they’re much shorter (and, usually, much less nuanced) ones".

(c) Jacob Sager Weinstein (2018) Hyacinth and the Stone Thief -second in the trilogy 
         (out in the US already)


“[with children's novels] I can start behaving like my characters. My children used to ask me to stop being ‘so Wendy Quillish’ when I was mid-series with her. (She’s always taking things too literally and getting into trouble). The dangers of method writing! [But the advantage?] When the writing is flowing, and the words are doing what they should, it feels amazing. 

Also, I don’t think I do move on quickly [from picture books]. All the picture book characters I write stay with me. The process is very intense. Possibly more intense than novels. Rapunzel. The Glump. The Peeble. Stefano the Squid. All so very real in my head. Especially when an illustrator has helped bring them to life”. 

                                        (c) Wendy Meddour and Rebecca Ashdown (2016)


“I get to know my characters so well [in a novel]. Also themes emerge as I write that I didn’t know would be important when I started, but which obviously mean a lot to me and bubble up from my subconscious as I go. Often, what the novel ends up being ‘about’ is not at all what I had in mind when I started. Threads is definitely about the power of friendship, for example, but I meant to write about the unknowability of genius and the other girls were just in it to do functional things in the plot. Then their personalities took over and the pleasure came from how they interacted.”

And which do you prefer, or find easier to write?

“Picturebooks originally came more naturally to me. Before I turned to kids books, I had written short stories and screenplays for [adults]. Like a short story, a picture book is an intense narrative burst. Like a screenplay, a picture book text is just one part of a collaboration with a visual artist. So the skills I had spent years developing were much more applicable to PBs.
Now that I’ve written two MG novels (and a few drafts of a third), I think I’ve finally got the hang of it, and I don’t think either form is easier than the other.
I don’t have a preference, which is why I write both! I consider myself really lucky that I can work in both forms”.

A 'really lucky' Jacob Sager Weinstein


“I enjoy all forms of writing. They exercise different parts of my brain and allow me to explore ideas and play with thoughts in different ways… Adapting my style or tone of voice to suit the intended audience is all part of the fun. Rhyming picture books come very easily, as they have a certain silliness and structure, but if I can hear a character’s voice in my mind, then I’m off”.


“I find both difficult. The only books I have ever found easy were the very first one I wrote - an (unpublished) adult detective story, and book two of the Threads trilogy, when the characters just seemed to do whatever I needed them to without question. I think I enjoy writing picture books more though. Because every word counts, I can take pleasure in each one. I also love imagining what an illustrator will do. I want to write one for 5-7 year olds about Abstract Impressionism, so I don’t exactly set myself the easiest tasks, but I’ll be so pleased if I manage to make it work the way it does in my head”. 

Beads, the only one of Sophia's published books that she found easy to write

And Malachy?

“Picture books are my first love. I find that when I go teenage - Georgie, Who is Jesse Flood? for example - I go all angsty. I find that I become the age I was then, in a strange way. I've decided that I much prefer to inhabit the young happy enquiring Malachy than the angst-ridden teen Malachy, so that's where I concentrate my efforts these days.

I also love working with illustrators, and my books becoming more than the sum of their parts - when an illustrator totally gets where I'm coming from in my story, but then adds the depth and wonder that they can bring as a gifted visual artist, true magic, a form of alchemy, can happen.  My new picture book, Molly and the Stormy Sea, out this week from Graffeg, illustrated by the wonderful Andrew Whitson, is a perfect example of this”.

trailer for Molly and the Stormy Sea (c) Malachy Doyle and Andrew Whitson (2018)

I love picture books. I even found myself feeling guilty for choosing to write a (YA) novel when I’ve pledged my allegiance to picture books. But now I’m writing ‘up’ the novel (that is already planned and plotted), I’m back to continue with both. It may take many, many drafts (probably fewer than the 187 drafts Malachy had for his first picture book, and I hope fewer than the seventeen drafts Sophia did for her first published novel, Threads, before she was ready to send it off and then a further seventeen before it was finished and published, though very possibly not) but I’m ready to go with it. To accept that I’m going to learn a whole lot over the next couple of years about something new, that I’ll make a ton of mistakes along the way (like I encourage young people in schools to do, all the time), that I’ll probably feel the terror that I did when showing my picture book manuscripts back when I started, before I grew a very tough (picture book) skin. Will that toughness extend to showing people my novel? I suspect not, but I also suspect it won’t be quite as awful and raw as it was. And actually allowing yourself to be vulnerable like that is a pretty powerful thing:

                                                 Brene Brown's Ted Talk on vulnerability

I will do Jacob’s ‘picture book author’ edit on my novel where I try and cut lots of words that aren’t necessary. I am hopeful that writing this novel will also help me write early versions of picture books more quickly (if I wrote anything like as slowly with the novel, it would be many, many years before I got my first novel draft out). And that I’ll learn new things about structuring which will strengthen future picture books, too. Whatever the outcome, I will finish a first draft, and then a second, and subsequent ones, and I will learn loads –about story writing and myself. I hope that writing as a teenager won't make me get too angsty. Like Malachy, I was a much happier picture-book aged child than I was a teenager (so thanks for the warning, Malachy). And if it doesn’t end up as a published novel, well that’s not the end of the world. I will have gained much more than if I hadn’t tried (I've already read more novels in the past year than I probably had in the previous twenty). And who knows, it might even one day find itself a home…

Many thanks to Sophia Bennett, Malachy Doyle, Candy Gourlay, Wendy Meddour and Jacob Sager Weinstein for sharing their helpful thoughts on writing in both genres. If you've tried writing picture books and novels, how has the writing and planning of one type affected the writing and planning of the other? I'd love to hear from you with any thoughts, below.
Juliet Clare Bell is the author of five picture books and three early readers. She would love to add the novel she is currently writing to this, but fully intends to write many more picture books, regardless.