Thursday 29 March 2012

Secrets and Scandals Here! Moira Butterfield

Hmmm. How can I follow Julia Donaldson with sage advice on picture books? Obviously I can’t…I know! I’ll use my best diversionary tactic and tell a rude story.

Did you know that there’s an old biscuit tin that collectors will pay a great deal of money to get hold of? It was made in the 1970s by Huntley and Palmer and it shows a charming Edwardian village scene – except that its designer was so fed up with his fee he sabotaged it and hid several characters in the background doing…ahem…extremely rude things.

Inspired by this, my blog today is a blatant attempt to create a lucrative collector’s market for children’s picture books that include embarrassing mistakes. Hey, every little helps these days, and many authors will have lots of old complimentary book copies kicking around the attic. Most of these are likely to be foreign language translations, admittedly, but there might be one or two with a continuity error in them, fit for collectors of dodgy biscuit tins, wonky stamps and the like. These things happen, even in children’s books. My personal examples come from the early 1980s, before computer systems took over the publishing process, making it easier and much cheaper to catch and correct errors before the printing presses rolled.

When I got my first job as a tea-making junior editor, a publishing colleague turned out to be so fed up that he’d lost the will to function at his desk. It was down to him to create a Disney board book featuring cartoon ducks Hewey, Dewey and Lewey. Nobody checked his work, so when thousands of the books were printed there was no ending to the story, It finished on an ‘and’. The weirdest thing was that nobody ever wrote in to complain. I expect to see it on the Antiques Roadshow any time soon.

On a photographic board book the same employee failed to spot a difficult feature on a photo of a young horse – a very excited young horse, shall we say. We had thick files of complaint letters on that one. By that time the editor in question had left to become a vicar, where I hope he concentrated harder.

As a newbie I was put in charge of innumerable colouring and dot-to-dot books, featuring various different licensed characters of the time. Each book had to have a legally correct imprint detailing the copyright owners – large and potentially litigious companies such as Walt Disney or DC Thompson. Printed advances went to these companies to be checked and signed off, and if anything was wrong, costly pulping of many books might follow. Imagine my panic when I accidentally got the copyright details mixed up on a couple of books and it looked as if DC Thompson owned Mickey Mouse and Disney owned Bananaman!The horror!

What to do? Luckily the young man responsible for sending out the advances could be taken into my confidence and persuaded to ‘forget’ to send them, so nobody noticed.

How much persuading? Well, it’s probably time I gave this blog a little more class and so, as they say in the very best books…Reader, I married him!

As an author you can’t control the mistakes of editors or illustrators but you can make sure you don’t start by leaving a gaping continuity hole in your work, by reading through it and getting someone else to read through it before you send it off. Then - and I know this all sounds obvious - but it really is vital to very carefully check any proofs that come back to you, just in case you’ve mentioned somebody who wears a red bowtie and he’s now wearing a blue cravat but nobody has noticed.

PS: On a non-picture book note, a company I worked for published a recipe book by a newly-celebrated young chef who went on to become a big celebrity. But somehow or other his quantities weren’t printed accurately and the book recipes were a disaster. Cue more files full of letters and a costly reprint. I’d better not point to his identity in any manner. After all, now we are all in another season… but there are two clues in this paragraph. Once you have solved it, it will be time to go and check your biscuit tins.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Guest Blog- Dramatising Picture Books by Julia Donaldson

Today we are delighted to welcome Julia Donaldson to the Picture Book Den.  

Julia became the Children's Laureate in June 2011.
Her wonderful picture books are loved by children and parents all over the world. Her rhythmic and rhyming stories continue to delight time after time.

Julia's events are always a lot of fun and here she talks about dramatising her books.

I did my first ever author visit eighteen years ago. The idea of “talking about my books” to a class of seven-year-olds was a bit daunting, so I decided to act out A Squash and a Squeeze (my first book).

It was easy. I just got the children in a circle, with two of them lifting their arms to form an arch, then chose four animals and a wise old man to stand outside the circle while I, as the little old lady, stayed in the middle. Some of the children in the circle were the curtains and some were the food, and they all joined in the chorus.
I’ve never since then managed to write a picture book which is quite so easy to dramatise as A Squash and a Squeeze. But I keep trying, and I now have a room in my house devoted to props and costumes.

Children acting out my poem "Nut Tree" 
(from the picture book Wriggle and Roar,
 illustrated by Nick Sharratt).

I do recommend drama as a tool for any author visiting a school or library. The children love joining in, and it means they don’t have to sit on their bottoms for the whole session.

It’s surprising how many picture books can be acted by a whole class – even ones with only two main characters.

Pam Wardell, a drama expert based in Edinburgh, does a wonderful production of Brian Wildsmith’s version of The Sun and the Wind.

The class is divided up into different groups, such as Garden, and Sea. When the sun shines the plants in the garden grow, and when the wind blows the boats at sea (represented by hats) are tossed and buffeted.

illustrated by Joel Stewart

One of my own favourites to act out is The Magic Paintbrush, based on a traditional Chinese tale.
Everything that a little girl paints becomes real, but she’s only allowed to paint for the poor, so when the greedy emperor demands a tree of coins she has a problem.

Acting out The Magic Paintbrush

The best thing about doing this with a class is the children’s joyous reaction when their unsuspecting teacher gets cast as the emperor,

but they also enjoy being divided up into horrible henchmen (or women) and innocent villagers.

I am still, however, wrestling with the problem of how to stage my newest book, The Singing Mermaid (due out in April 2012, with illustrations by Lydia Monks).

In this story a mermaid is lured to the circus but misses the sea. Her escape is thwarted until an acrobat teaches her to walk on her hands. Tricky!   I don’t think many infant classes contain two children who can do this.

So I’m going to meet Kim and Symon from the Edinburgh Puppet Lab to see if they can make me a puppet mermaid.

Meanwhile, any suggestions gratefully received.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Forgive Me For Repeating Myself - Lynne Garner

I love to write.
I love to play with words.
I love my job.

Forgive me for repeating myself with the words "I love" in the above lines but I wanted to demonstrate how repeating yourself can be a wonderful writing tool. This form of repeating words is known as Anaphora and is used to give emphasis. Perhaps one of the most famous uses of this is the following quote from Winston Churchill: 

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." 

As you may have guessed this post is about repetition, which is one of the three R's authors often use in their work. The other two are rhyme and rhythm. 

Young children love repetition; it gives them something to listen out for. It allows them to anticipate a section of the story and join in. When I started to teach picture book writing I decided to invest in my own education, so got reading. I was amazed to discover how many ways you can repeat yourself. They include:

Where you take the last word of the previous sentence and start the next sentence with this word, for example: 

"Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." 

This time the repeated words are transposed (swapped around) for example from ‘Horton Hatches’ written by Dr. Seuss: 

“I meant what I said, and I said what I meant.”

Repetition of a word with one or more between it. As in this example taken from ‘Where There’s A Bear, There’s Trouble’ 

“Where there’s a bee there must be honey… sticky honey, yummy honey, drippy honey, runny honey…..”

This is similar to anadiplosis however the repeated word or phrase comes from the beginning of the first sentence and is placed at the end of the following sentence. For example this famous catchphrase from the entertainer Bruce Forsyth: 

“Nice to see you, to see you, nice!”

Is similar to anaphora but the repeated words are at the end of the sentence or phrase for example this quote from the bible:

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought like a child.”

This is where the same word is repeated for emphasis for example a quote Winston Churchill: 

“Never, never, never quit.”

Repetition also allows the writer to introduce a sense of rhythm to the words. For example in my book ‘Dog Did It’ which opens with Boris the troll eating something that disagrees with his stomach. His stomach begins to make noises: 

“He felt his belly grumble and growl. It grumbled and it rumbled. It rumbled and it grumbled”

A little later Boris’s friend, Dog has the same problem: 

“Dog felt his belly gurgle and bubble. It bubbled and burbled. It burbled and gurgle.”

As you can see by repeating words and mixing them with similar words the rhythm conveys the noises being made by Boris and Dog’s stomachs.

So don't be afraid to repeat yourself, it may just help you hook your reader.

If you want to discover how not to use one of the other R's, rhyme then check out this fab post by Juliet Clare Bell

Thursday 15 March 2012

Why choose an animal character? - Jane Clarke

When I started writing picture books I became part of the playful, sometimes moving, and often surreal world of talking animals. Using animals as characters came naturally to me. I was brought up on Beatrix Potter and, when my sons were young, creations like Jill Murphy's Large family were part of our family too.

     But on a recent school visit, I was asked 'why do you use animal characters so often?' It made me stop to think, so I asked the same question to some other picture book writers who use animal characters.

Animal characters allow the author a lot of freedom.

     'You can have the best of both worlds with animal characters,’  Alison  Boyle told me. ‘Through them you can make observations about the human condition, but the fictionalised place you create for those animals doesn't need to conform to all of our rules - that's where you can be playful as an author.'

     ‘I use animals when I don't want protective adults looming in the shadows and interfering.’  Paeony Lewis wrote. In 'Best Friends or Not?' I use two little polar bears because I want to focus on the two friends solving their own friendship problems whilst they explore snowy mountains, icebergs and ice caves. It's more fun than a human school playground!’

     Ragnhild Scamell agreed  ‘animals can do things that children can’t.  They can go into deep, dark forests where dangers lurk behind every tree …Most of my books involve animals which have ‘good ideas’ or think they can do things which are impossible and, on the way, they learn a lesson or two.’

And  picture book writers like using animal characters because publishers like them, too.

     Moira Butterfield put the case very clearly:  ‘Animals transcend international and cultural boundaries, making them ideal for global sales. A human face varies from country to country, and publishing buyers can be very sensitive to it. In addition, there is great international variation in illustration tastes, especially when it comes to people, but animal images are easier to get consensus on. ‘

      ‘I think that it is easier for an audience to identify with a character who looks quite different from you than it is to identify with another human being who is different from you.’  Pippa Goodhart added. ‘ Somehow that complete removal from our own reality leaves us free to jump into that world in a way that a similar-but-not-quite-the-same world doesn't.’

     ‘Picking the 'right' animal' appears to also be very important,’ Lynne Garner  pointed out. ‘I wrote a book with a mouse and hedgehog, which became my first published book. This book sold well in the US but was asked by my publisher not to write other books with hedgehogs as the US don't have native ones...’

The answer I gave on my school visit?

     I told the children that I’m fascinated by animals – and love any excuse to research them.  I said how much fun I have creating the worlds they live in and the games they play and explained how I get enormous pleasure turning my family into animals to exaggerate  my story–  including  dancing dinosaurs, a walrus who doesn’t like going to the dentist, a little elephant with  a big temper and  a great white shark who say he isn’t scared of anything (but is).  

     What I didn’t tell them is that I also treasure those surreal moments when an editor says something like ‘we’re not sure if the dinosaurs would wear clothes and bake cakes’  - but that’s another blog entirely…

Friday 9 March 2012

How *not* to write a rhyming picture book (or If it's good enough for Old King Cole...) by Juliet Clare Bell.

Having received countless rejections (above) for unpublishable rhyming picture books before finally writing a publishable one, I thought I might share my top tips on how *not* to do it...

[1] Decide to have a go because you’ve seen lots of badly rhyming books out there and you’re sure you can do better.

It’s true. There are less than brilliantly-rhyming books out there…
BUT they are often written in-house by staff at the publisher’s, in order that a series can be made quickly, with an illustrator they already have in mind, and without having to pay an author. (Check out the copyright details in the book. Does it say Text © X-Publishers rather than Text © Author’s name?) I once received a rejection from a publisher saying “We like your rhyming story, but it’s the kind of thing we can do in-house”. You are not competing with these stories (or with stories published twenty years ago and no longer in print. Check when your 'competition' was written: publishing practice has changed). Give the publisher a rhyming story that no one else can write better than you. Yours needs to be as worthy of being published as one by Julia Donaldson or Jonathan Emmett (see his Someone Bigger, below).

[2] Let the rhyme dictate the story.

It’s great to play around with a story and get carried off in unexpected directions (and you can have a lot of fun with a good rhyming dictionary –I love the Chambers Rhyming Dictionary, with a foreword by Benjamin Zephaniah). BUT if your story is taken hostage by the rhyme (your sweet little rabbit heroine turns into a nun because 'habit' is the only rhyme you can come up with), it probably won’t be a very satisfying story –even if your rhyming is great. If you write your story out in prose, you will soon see if it’s substantial enough as a story or whether the rhyme is carrying it. The plot and characters need to be as strong as for one written in prose. Clever rhymes can be fun to read once or twice but the book won’t stand up to endless repetition if there’s no substance to the story.

Would you want this poor rabbit changed into a nun because of the constraints of the rhyming picture book? (And you can see why I'm a writer and not an illustrator.)

[3] Use sentence structure like old nursery rhymes, or lyrics from a song. It was good enough for Old King Cole…

What’s wrong with Old King Cole calling for his fiddlers three (because a merry old soul was he)? Or with having five little snowmen fat (because each had a funny hat)? It’s easier to find a rhyme for three than fiddlers, and having fat at the end of the line scans better than ending with snowmen. So why not rearrange sentence structure wherever it suits you in order to make the rhyme work? Because… it’s lazy rhyming, it’s not how people speak and publishers don’t like it. If you have to make your sentence structure sound forced and unlike real-life speech, it’s not working. Old King Cole is great (and you can forgive a lot for a good tune), but it is of its time and it wouldn’t get a second glance from a 21st Century editor.

These days, with his fiddlers three, Old King Cole would be published not.

[4] Don’t worry about meter and length of lines. Your readers will learn how to read it after they’ve tried it out five or six times. And then they’ll be able to enjoy it for years to come.

Except they won’t. No one’s going to work hard at reading your picture book, not a potential reader in a shop and certainly not an editor. Picture books are created to be read aloud. They have to sound right, and it’s especially true of a rhyming picture book. So read it aloud –LOUDLY, with feeling. Even if it is embarrassing. (I’ve even cut out a manuscript of mine and blue-tacked the lines of text onto someone else’s picture book where I thought they should go and then recorded myself reading it, to hear what it really sounded like with the breaks for page turns.)

But even when you’ve read it aloud and feel happy with the rhythm and rhyme, you know how it should sound. Which also means you can read some words more quickly than others in order to fit everything into that line and scan it perfectly. So let other people (preferably not family and friends who are either going to love it –good or bad- because it’s written by you, or not love it and upset you –I’ve had both). (For hints on joining or setting up a critique group, click here.) If other people read it and bits of it don’t scan for them, you need to work on the scansion-even if you can make it scan perfectly.

Scene from an SCBWI open critique meeting in Birmingham, UK

[5] Write a poem and call it a picture book. No need to think about the picture element and page turns.

You’ve written a great poem. You want to get it published and you could submit it to a poetry anthology or you could send it to a picture book editor. Much better to get a whole book out of one poem, right…? Except that picture books are about the interplay of words and pictures. Readers will slow down to look at the pictures –you need to take this into account. It can work –with a brilliant poem, a fantastic illustrator and a great publishing team (see Jim by Hilaire Belloc and Mini Grey, below). But it will need all the elements of a great picture book (with exciting page turns and changes in pace, etc.).

[6] Don’t read other rhyming stories before you start to write because they might curb your creativity and you might be too influenced by them.

Much better to write straight off without reading what’s already out there. You’ll end up with something much more original… Except that you will learn a lot by reading a lot –the good and the bad (and think about why the bad is bad). I actually type out stories that I really like so I can look even more closely at the structure, words/syllables per line, internal rhyme, etc. Ones I’d definitely recommend are: Room on the Broom (Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler), Someone Bigger (Jonathan Emmett and Adrian Reynolds) and my personal favourite, When a Zeeder Met a Xyder (Malachy Doyle and Joel Stewart, below. When a Zeeder Met a Xyder actually uses rhyme more playfully –but you can use it more playfully once you really know how to use it).

[7] Write in rhyme just for the sake of it.

It’s fun to rhyme and children love it, so why not write your story in rhyme? Well, it’s true, children do love it, when it’s done really well. But… you have to realise that you’re significantly limiting your choice of publisher by doing it. If you write out your rhyming story in prose, does it actually work better? Very often, removing the rhyming constraints opens up exciting possibilities and improves the story. If it’s not the very best way to tell that particular story, perhaps you should opt for prose? Never write in rhyme just for the sake of it. If you’re going to write in rhyme, do it because…
you can do it really well and you’re going to get feedback before you send it off; because it’s great and fun and good rhyming books are brilliant for children. Do it because you can’t not do it as it’s the very best way to tell that story.

Juliet Clare Bell’s rhyming picture book, The Kite Princess (see title page roughs, above) is illustrated by Laura-Kate Chapman and published by Barefoot Books and is out in autumn, 2012, in the UK and the US (with an accompanying CD of the story read by Imelda Staunton).

Monday 5 March 2012

What is a picture book? - Linda Strachan

It is fascinating to see  just how wide a spectrum the term 'picture book' can cover.

It can be a board book.
This is one of our family favourites that has stood the test of time.   It is a series by Stephen Cartwright where the child has to find a different creature (Duck, Bird, Puppy etc) in each book.

 In the original version there were no words in it at all, but in later additions a few words were added to each page.  The simple familiar illustrations which are not too fussy, make this an easy book to read with babies and very young children.

I think I prefer the older version with no words at all and the discussion of the picture is something that makes sharing it with a child all the more fun.

A board book
 is a lovely introduction for very young children and the thick board pages make it easier for little fingers to learn how to turn pages, without destroying the book in the process.

Probably what we think of most frequently, when we say picture book, is the familiar large format book for small children, where the pictures take up a lot of the space on the page.

This is where picture books come into their own as the images help to tell the story allowing the writer to cut out any unnecessary words and hone the story so that it flows and has rhythm.
The text may look deceptively simple and will often involve repetition, and sometimes rhyme.

 Picture books for young children are designed to be read out loud.  But for many people reading out loud is not something they have had much opportunity or occasion to do, quite often not since they themselves were novice readers at school.
For some parents it can be a new and at times daunting experience. But for the child the flow of the story is so much more important than the performance or any little mistakes the parent makes.

One of the joys of reading picture books is how inventive they can be and how even quite young children can understand layers in the story.

 One great example of this is Man on the Moon by Simon Bartram. Bob does his normal job every day - clearing up the moon after the tourists have left - and he laughs at the idea that there might be such a thing as aliens.

 The delightful thing is that  behind him on the moon and even on the bus he takes home back on earth the reader can see little aliens are everywhere but Bob hasn't noticed them.  Of course the children see the joke right away.

Another book I discovered recently is Baby Pie by Tom MacRae and Nick Ward.  Three little trolls Oink, Boink and Moink are looking for a baby for their baby pie.

I wondered about this at first but my little granddaughter of two and a half loves it and she adores joining in when they say
                 'lick lips, pat belly, my oh my!'

But of course the trolls are... well I won't spoil it for you - just to say that the baby ends up smiling and the trolls get more than they bargained for!  A delightful story, the twist at the end and repetition makes it fun to join in.

There are also longer picture books
where the story is much longer but the illustrations still take up around 50% of the book. As children get older they still delight in being read to but may be able to read it themselves.

Some stories are not written for  one particular age group. We all love a good story and stories such as the tale of Greyfriars Bobby, that faithful little dog who slept every night on his master's grave for many years, delight old and young alike.
Growing up in Edinburgh the statue of Bobby was a familiar landmark so when I was asked to write a version of  Greyfriars Bobby I was delighted.  It was great to be working once again with illustrator Sally J. Collins, whose images capture scenes of Edinburgh beautifully.

I often come across children of 8 and 9 who feel they are too old for a picture book and understandably they are still asserting their right to be  moving on from picture books, which can be seen as a sort of rite of passage.  But I think it is a pity that we tend to think that picture books are only for young children (although if you look for them, there are a few that are quite scary and definitely for older children and adults).

Do you have a favourite picture book?
Linda Strachan is the award winning author of over 60 books for all ages, from picture books to teen novels and writing handbook  Writing For Children