Friday 30 November 2012

Creating Strong Picture Book Characters

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about characterisation. I’m not working on any picture books at the moment (although I've come up with a few ideas I'm filing for the future) as I’m busy writing the sequel to my upcoming novel for ages 10+, in which a new central character appears. As a writer, one of your most important jobs is to create characters from your imagination that are completely believable to others. And characterisation in a picture book is just as important in a novel. Young readers have to be able to identify with, and relate to, the hero of their books, be it animal, child or adult. 
In a picture book, you don’t get the chance to describe your character in the same way as you would in a novel. The character has to be immediately appealing through pictures that grab the reader, thrusting them into the story and making them empathise with the characters and what they’re going through. There aren’t enough words to play with, or any small child’s attention span long enough, to sit through lengthy descriptions of personality and what the character is like before the story gets going.

Look at the phenomenally successful Gruffalo. The hero is a small mouse, who manages to outsmart all his enemies. For a child, there must be something very nice about seeing someone so small and seemingly powerless triumph over so many larger, and more formidable creatures.  The image of the mouse enjoying his nut in peace on the last page is tremendously satisfying. 

Children also enjoy characters they can easily recognise, like Elmer, or Maisy mouse. There is comfort in the familiar, and someone they can return to again and again, who ends up feeling like an old friend, or part of the family. There are a number of books featuring bears, mice and rabbits, enduring favourites that are soft, cuddly and reassuring (even if they aren’t necessarily that way in real life – I wouldn’t want to curl up with a bear!).

Picture books also often feature babies or young children, allowing the reader to explore different situations safely with someone they can identify with. Current favourite in our house include Dogger, where Dave, a young boy, loses Dogger, his much-loved stuffed toy, and The Pirates Next Door, where a little girl called Matilda has an exciting pirate family move into her neighbourhood.   

Through picture books, and the characters they meet there, children can meet new friends, experience new situations, visit new places, have adventures, or seek reassurance. Children have to like the characters they're reading about in order to return to the book again and again, something that's crucial in a picture book.

Which are your favourite picture book characters?

Karen Saunders

Sunday 25 November 2012

No plot? So what? (Why the ‘best picture book ever’ was nearly never) by Moira Butterfield

News flash: There’s more than one way to write a picture book! 

Really? You mean there isn’t a magic formula that everyone has to follow all the time?

NO! Read any selection of our Picture Book Den blogs and you’ll swiftly discover this to be the case, but I want to highlight it this week. In fact ideally I’d like to stand in the middle of Bologna Children’s Book Fair (where all the publishers gather) and shout it through a megaphone.


I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the importance of playing. Playing is being in the moment – allowing yourself to use your imagination freely and to experience it without judgement. It’s a marvellous and powerful feeling that engenders happiness, and picture books provide it for children. They also provide a glorious and rare opportunity for grown-ups to play as they read along.

To give readers this wonderful play opportunity you don’t necessarily need a plot. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean.

Picture Book Den blogger, Pippa Goodhart, recently won York Libraries' Best Picture Book Ever award for the fantastic You Choose, illustrated by Nick Sharratt. It got turned down by a lot of publishers before finding a home, because according to them "it doesn't have a story". And yet it is enjoyed over and over again by many children and the adults reading it with them, because it engages the imagination of everyone. Readers join in the fun and effectively make their own story, which is new every time they use the book. As you read, you play, and it’s very enjoyable. Those publishers who said no weren’t giving this feature any consideration. They need my megaphone treatment!

(By the way, Pippa’s new follow-up, shown below, has a strapline that says it all!)

Someone who has sometimes used a similar ‘no plot’ approach is Australian writer and illustrator Alison Lester, who I am delighted to discover is now Australia’s first Children’s Laureate. She’s created a series of books that follow the same diverse group of children. Titles include Clive Eats Alligators, Rosie Sips Spiders, When Frank was Four and Tessa Snaps Snakes. They all went down a treat in our house. In each book the reader discovers lots of details about each child’s life – from what they eat to where they sleep and what they want to be when they grow up (all beautifully illustrated). There’s no particular story. The books are more of an invitation to be interested in people, and to join in a conversation about lives. Like Pippa’s book, they’re fun for grown-ups as well as children because they encourage talking together.

I recently went to an exhibition of Edward Lear’s work. A lot of his time was taken up doing landscape pictures for his patrons, but whenever he could he played – gloriously – and the sheer joy of doing it comes through in his quickfire pen sketches and silly scribbled words. Why not? Nobody was telling him ‘there’s no plot’ or ‘that idea doesn’t make sense’. He was doing it for children he knew and for himself too. He evidently suffered from depression all his life and needed to play to lift his spirits. What power play has! Not plot. Play!

I’ve become rather passionate about the playing aspect of picture books, as you may have gathered by now. I’ve even started a blog about it elsewhere, offering parents and carers play ideas that lead on from the books that children are reading, hopefully helping them to explore the effect of a book on their own imagination.  I’ve also started planning some rather off-the-wall picture book ideas for 2013, all to encourage play. I expect to take the ebook route with them because I don’t want to compromise and fit them into a mould. They won't have a plot, and I want some freedom to muck about!

 “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.”

That’s philosopher and superbrain Carl Jung talking. Surely it applies both to picture book authors and to picture book readers? 

Now where’s that megaphone….

Tuesday 20 November 2012

A Spontaneous Reaction by John Hamilton

My name is John Hamilton and I am very new to the world of children’s books!

Over the last 17 years I have been a practising artist, based at Rogue Artists Studio in Manchester City Centre. I specialise in painting, drawing and printmaking.  My work has always been narrative or story-based and has always had a tale to tell.

I have developed a character that appears throughout my paintings and drawings, making my work instantly recognisable. I have exhibited and sold work across the UK, Germany, Australia, Cyprus and USA.

Storytelling has always been important to me and people have often asked if I illustrated children’s books. It is something I had always wanted to do but time has never allowed it. I decided recently that I wanted to do a Masters degree and I came across a Masters course in Children’s Book Illustration.  

This was a great opportunity for me to focus on children’s books. I had decided that I wanted to take the character that dominates my work and use it for the character in the picturebooks. Although there were some issues regarding eyes, hair, size etc. I think I managed to make it child friendly and loveable to suit children. I was encouraged to write my own stories.

I enjoyed learning about various book formats, layouts and dummy-books. As a painter I have always used sketchbooks and love the whole planning and preparation for a piece of work.

When looking through my own sketchbooks, it is often the scribbled bits, the notes written on the sides, the uncorrected mistakes that draw my attention. Rubbed out arms and legs that are still slightly visible, then drawn over the top. A redrawn head at a slightly different angle, or with a new expression. All these things give the work character, make it come alive and make it feel real. These are often images that other people do not get to see, they are in small notebooks, on bits of scrap paper, beer mats, whatever comes to hand when that idea comes into your head. It is the act of recording something quickly without too much thought. A spontaneous reaction. And knowing it is for your own personal, private records the quality may not be important. But it is these sketches and drawings that contain so much more life and are more personal, than the final version that may be created and become a painting or illustration for publication.

For many illustrators, reproducing these initial drawings is often too difficult, or some would say impossible, to do.  Trying to recapture that initial image has proved to be one of the things illustrators find frustrating. Most illustrators have commented on how they do lose the spontaneity, each time they have to redraw something and that by the time changes have been made to satisfy editors, designers, foreign markets etc. a lot of the dynamics have been lost.

For my book illustrations, I wanted to try to keep the initial spontaneous drawing quality in the final artwork. I decided that I would use watercolour for my illustrations, but produce my drawing on tracing paper, which I would then layer over the top of the watercolour. This allowed me to retain the quality of my drawings and combine it with the clean neat quality of the painting.

I produced three ideas for books on the course – ‘ Surprise Disguise’- a story of a boy’s dilemma of trying to choose an animal costume for a party. This was my first attempt and a learning curve! Looking back, the ideas and the story were good but did not have the knowledge to produce it properly. I need to revisit it at some date and illustrate it again.

The second story is called ‘The Day Dad Did Everything’. This follows the tale of how Dad tries to help out around the house but makes things a lot worse! The story is a funny look at the Dads attempt to multi-task through the eyes of the child, but as always, Mum saves the day.  

I’m really pleased with this story and want to return to it and continue with the colour work.

The third book is ‘The Boy who Really, Really, Really loves Lizards’. It follows a boy called Oliver who is obsessed with lizards and reptiles. Everything he does, eats, wears has to be of a reptile nature.

His trip to the museum opens his eyes to the real thing and his opinions change!  This is the book I completed for my final project and I’m really proud of the finished product. The Manchester Museum, where the story is based, are really keen to do something with the book or to work  with the department in some way.

In terms of the MA course, I had expected to have more contact with industry and some input from publishers. I wanted to have some ideas of what the publishers look for and how to approach them. Was the course worth doing? Yes. It made me get my act together and produce ideas and I ended up with a finished book – so I know I can do it and the time-scale to complete a full 32-page book.

I have yet to approach publishers. I am aware that getting published is not easy so I am preparing myself for a long ride but sure that I will get there in the end!

You can see more of my illustrations on my blog at

And my other artwork at

Any thoughts, feelings and feedback are welcome, and if there any publishers out there interested you can contact me too!

Thursday 15 November 2012

Setting a Challenge

I teach a distance learning course How to Write A Picture Book for Women On Writing (do take a look it's a great site and eZine) and they sent me a link for Picture Book Ideas Month.

The concept is to come up with 30 ideas for picture books over a 30 day period. Thankfully those who take part don't have to complete 30 manuscripts in 30 days or even write a potential best-seller. You simply have to come up with an idea that can be used in a picture book. Perhaps a title, a character, an idea based on something you overheard or a fact. The idea was devised by children's author Tara Lazar and is meant to 'exercise' your writing muscle and create a pot of ideas you can plunder when you need to.       

I must admit having to coming up with 30 new ideas over a 30 day period scared me and excited me. I debated for a week or so if I should take part but finally took the plunge. I'm now 14 days into the exercise and have surprised myself by coming up with a new idea each day. So far I have ideas that involve something to do with:
  • A young hare (inspired by a book written by Dennis Hamley called 'Hares Choice' - well worth a read)
  • An apprentice fairy who loses her powers (inspired by a news piece about apprenticeships)    
  • An old dog being taught new tricks by a younger dog (inspired by my dogs new best friend, who is six years younger than her)
I'm hopeful by the end of the exercise I'll have 30 ideas scribbled down. I realise some will never become a manuscript and those that do may never be published. However I'm enjoying the process and if I get just one published title based on one of the ideas generated I'll be a very happy author.

Lynne Garner
I'm also part of the blogging team on:

Saturday 10 November 2012

What I've learned from reading aloud, by Jane Clarke

Picture books are designed to be read out loud by an adult sitting next to a child – and I adored reading them that way to my sons when they were small. Later on, as a library assistant at Antwerp International School, I read face to face, holding the books open and reading the words upside down and sideways, so that a whole class of children could see the pictures.  I often do that today, on author visits to schools.

Back them, I had no idea that I would end up writing picture books – but without realising it, I absorbed the pace and cadence of a picture book, and I learned:

Different characters have different voices.

From Trumpet the Little Elephant with the Big Temper, illustrated by Charles Fuge

Page turns have drama.

From Creaky Castle, illustrated by Christyan Fox

There are opportunities to vary the speed and tone of the reading.
From Knight Time, illustrated by Jane Massey

Words can be enjoyed for their sound and rhythm.

From Dance Together Dinosaurs, illustrated by Lee Wildish

Jokes and puns in the words and the pictures can be quite sophisticated and enjoyed on two levels – the adult and the child.

From Gilbert the Great, illustrated by Charles Fuge. Charlie slipped in some pictorial references to the Jaws movies.

It’s fun to join in a refrain (but don’t overdo it).

From Stuck in the Mud, illustrated by Garry Parsons

Reading out loud is an important part of the process when you’re writing picture books. It helps highlight where the text isn’t working. I find it hard to read into thin air, but I can usually find an audience of some sort...

Some picture books work best snuggled up quietly, some work best shared with large groups of noisy youngsters. What picture books do you love to read out loud?

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Online writing communities for picture book writers: inspirational or distracting? A look at some gems including PiBoIdMo, 12 x 12 in '12 and online critique groups that really work. By Juliet Clare Bell

Me with one of my books that was brought to life by an online writing community. No really.

The romantic notion of the lone wolf writer, hidden away in some shed (or tucked up under a warm duvet in bed), scribbling away without distraction, may be true for some of us some of the time, but for many of us, the reality is that we’re usually sat at a computer (and often with lots of other things going on around us).

(Unfortunately, the 'other things' as I write tonight include a small child and a sick bowl.)

Are we writing our stories with the internet switched off? How often do we switch between our manuscript and email or FaceBook (just for five minutes. If I were at work, I’d talk to someone every so often, wouldn’t I?)

Well, there are loads of things to distract us online. But just in case you’re not quite distracted enough, I thought I’d share some more with you. Only these ones are so valuable to me as a picture book writer that I’m sharing them not so we can all be distracted together and share the guilt, but because if you haven’t already discovered these online writing communities and you also write picture books, then you might find them helpful too…

I love November. I really do. And a growing number of children’s picture book writers –published and working-towards-being-published- are also finding the cold, dark and wet month of November inspirational. But why…?

(or HoItNoAg -Hooray, it’s November again! –but don’t remember this acronym. I just made it up)

I appear to be a fan of groups with acronyms that no one is quite sure how to pronounce. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is an amazing organisation with almost as many ways of pronouncing the acronym as members (ok, well perhaps not –there are well over 20000 members worldwide, but it’s called, Scooby or Scwibby or Scibwee with such confidence by various members, that I can’t side with any of them and spend twice as long pronouncing it ESS-CEE-BEE-DOUBLEYOU-EYE). PiBoIdMo is Picture Book Ideas Month. I’ve always pronounced it Pie-Bow-Id-Moe. It turns out others call it something else. But actually, who cares? It’s an online thing and although you may end up writing it loads online, you’ll probably rarely say the word out loud to anyone other than yourself.

This is not another NaNoWriMo where you’re expected to write a novel in a month (and there are many opinions on the merits or otherwise of NaNoWriMo). Picture Book Ideas Month works very differently. It simply encourages every person who signs up to it to attempt to come up with thirty ideas for picture books in thirty days during November. It sounds simple, right? And something you don’t need an online community for –any writer can set himself or herself that task alone, do it and have plenty of ideas to pick and choose from for the coming year… Except PiBoIdMo is so much more than that –because of the online community that it has become. I asked creator, Tara Lazar (author of The Monstore) about it.

Incredibly, she managed to get back to me in spite of being caught up and powerless in Hurricaine Sandy:

I had no idea PiBoIdMo would grow this popular--we have almost 700 participants this year. When it began in 2009, I thought I'd maybe get 10 people to try it with me. The enthusiasm that writers have for the event has blown me away. Plus I keep hearing about success stories--PiBoIdMo ideas that have gone on to win contests, grants and publishing contracts. I'm truly amazed by the creativity of our community and grateful to the guest bloggers and participants for their contributions to picture books.

If you write or illustrate picture books, I would highly recommend checking it out (and looking back over previous years’ posts, too). We’re six days into it and I’ve already got seventeen picture book ideas. Well, ideas may be a grand way of describing them, but they're seeds, and I'll keep reading through them and adding bits as the weeks go on. Not all of them will end up as picture book manuscripts. If I find five or six ideas to work on out of forty or so I've come up with by the end of November, then I’ll be very happy.

Of my 2011 ideas, a couple, which I worked into stories, are under consideration with a publisher; a couple I can safely say I’m unlikely to pursue (Day 8 and Day 27 spring to mind…). And about fifteen of them I still like and am waiting for the right time for them to develop into something more than an idea. It could take weeks, or it could take years. But they’re there and waiting for me.
Penny Morrison, one of the commenters on today’s PiBoIdMo post, said something similar:

…writing picture books seems to be about waiting. A bit of planting and watering, but mostly waiting.

PiBoIdMo has guest blog posts every day throughout the month, from authors, illustrators, editors and agents. Some are great for generating ideas; some inspire; some provide that all-important introduction to an editor or agent (and there are giveaway critiques with some of the editors and agents for those who are signed up).
I love the posts where I'm encouraged to generate ideas in certain ways, which in previous posts has included going through photos...

Any ideas, anyone?

Or children's drawings (try looking at them first and then ask the child what it's actually about. It can be illuminating)...

Anyone like to guess what this story is about? (OK -first, the doorbell rings -DING DONG- then the boy answers the door. He sees that it's a witch (who looks very cute and smiley in the picture but it's obviously an act) and thinks about his toaster. Then he thinks 'I can put the witch in the toaster!' and all is ok once more...)

Now this one looks more straightforward...
But perhaps it's not...

PiBoIdMo participants include those with lots of books under their belts and those writers who are just starting out.

Corey Rosen Schwartz, author of The Three Ninja Pigs, wrote up her idea number 28 and it was bought by Putnam (I quite like my no. 28 from last year, too. I might still write that into a story. But my no. 27? Now that's unlikely to have been quite as successful…).

I love PiBoIdMo. I always get 30 ideas (at the very least) in 30 days and I feel like I'm part of something at the same time. And it gets me back into good habits about being present and receptive to any hints of a story in my surroundings. But where do you turn to next online, once you've got your creative juices flowing and have all those picture book ideas...?

I came up with the idea for 12 x 12 as a way to increase my own PB-writing output using all of the great ideas I was mining in PiBoIdMo. I figured if I needed the motivation of a challenge, maybe others did too. So I sent out the notice and let people sign up. I expected maybe 50 people to join me.

Well, 400 signups later, 12 x 12 has become much more than a writing challenge. It has become a genuine community where participants learn from each other, help one another and offer support and encouragement… We keep each other going.

Julie Foster Hedlund

And what do other writers say about it? Susanna Leonard Hill, author of April Fool, Phyllis! and Can't Sleep Without Sheep:

There are always things I can do better and ways I can improve my craft. So I joined … PiBoIdMo partly for all the excellent author interviews and tips on writing. But the main reason I joined both [PiBoIdMo and 12 x 12 in ’12] was for the community, the camaraderie, and the inspiration. Writing can be a lonely business sometimes, and it's nice to feel like you're part of a group who understands all the joys and frustrations.

There are plenty of people in the group who will end the year with twelve manuscripts.


I won’t be one of them
Oh no. Really?

–I should end up with nine. But that doesn’t matter. I’ll still have written more than I would have done without it.


–as will Deb Lund

With marketing books, revising a middle-grade novel and doing school visits and conference presentations, it's not always easy to find time to write. With PiBoIdMo pestering—um, encouraging—me to keep up with new ideas, and the 12x12 deadline—um, encouragement again—I wouldn't be writing as many new pieces or getting to know the wonderful creators and participants. I'm looking forward to writing a post on the PiBoIdMo blog later this month, and to having thirty more picture book ideas than I would have had if not for also being a participant.

For Lori Degman, author of the award-winning 1 Zany Zoo:

the most valuable thing about both PiBoIdMo and 12X12 - the people! I have learned so much from the creative and generous authors and illustrators in this group and I feel I've made a lot of friends, though we may never meet in person.

You can sign up for 2013's 12 x 12 here.

Is it any coincidence that these writing communities have sprung up in the US? With so many people spread over such a huge area, belonging to online communities may be much more realistic than in-person ones. Penny Klosterman (Barbara Karlin 2012 runner up) says of the online 12x12 community:

This is extremely beneficial to a gal who would have to drive 3 hours one way to meet a regional chapter of SCBWI.

And this brings me onto my third online writing community (since Penny is a member of this group, too): my online critique group.

In an online critique group where you don't ever meet in person (with the majority of the group, at least) it's (almost) all about the books...

I probably spend an hour and a half a week on this group, and it’s a very important part of my life. And yet I’ve only met two of the other members (there are eight of us). In fact, I wouldn’t even recognise five of them if they past me on the street (which is unlikely since they live in the States and I’m in the UK) and yet I have a really special bond with them. It’s taken a while to find the perfect online group, but it’s absolutely worth it.

But what makes it work? Rebecca Colby, Winner of Barbara Karlin, 2011:

While we're spread out over two continents and divided by an ocean, we are united in our love of picture books and our confidence in and support of each other's work. We may not be on each other's doorsteps, but we communicate more often than most in-person friendships… Every success is celebrated and every rejection is commiserated amongst friends that can truly empathise. I'd be lost without my critique group… I'm sure I could embrace an in-person picture book critique group, but it is rare to find so many people writing for the same age group in one area and at the same stage of their writing career.

And that’s crucial: no one feels like they’re putting more into it than they’re getting back. It works because we’re all at a similar level and everyone knows how we can help each other progress.

We bounce ideas off each other, push each other to think beyond the first few solutions that come to mind. We are quick to encourage but also brutally honest.
Kristin Gray

They are my support system. They continue to push me to become a better writer... Sherry Dargert

There are a great many more online writing communities, including joint blogs like PictureBookDen, which I love being a part of. And I’m a huge advocate of SCBWI (hmmn, did I ever mention that before?). But fortunately, for me, with the UK being small, I do see lots of SCBWI members throughout the course of a year (and especially at the annual conference -the other reason I love November). Our online communications, through a Yahoo group (for which you have to be a member) and the FaceBook group (for which you don’t –anyone can join) are really important and form a regular part of my day to day working environment but PiBoIdMo, 12 x 12 in ’12 and my critique group are truly online in that I’m unlikely ever to meet the vast majority of these people I spend so much virtual time with.

Online writing communities don’t always work. I know I spend too much time on Facebook for example, even though the majority of my FaceBook friends are writers, and I am guilty of kidding myself into thinking things are work that actually aren’t… And there have been upsetting stories about internet trolls recently, one where much loved picture book author and illustrator, Debi Gliori, has been bullied as a result of a complete misunderstanding of the nature of ideas and copyright.

One of my all-time favourite picture books: Debi Gliori's No Matter What. And for any of you over in the States reading this blog, I urge you to get hold of the original UK version which deals with death in a beautiful way (but which had to be changed for the US edition).

But it can work brilliantly and help us to be more creative and feel less isolated.

What are your experiences of online writing communities? Have you got any favourites you’d like to share? And in the spirit of helping out other picture book writers as happens so much in online writing communities such as PiBoIdMo and 12 x 12 in 12, do you have any discarded PiBoIdMo ideas that you’re happy for others to use? Let's see if anyone can get a decent idea for a story (you don't have to share the idea, just whether you've got one) from other people's discarded ideas... you're welcome to my 2011 ideas no. 8 and 27, though they're not the best: 'underwater pants' [8], and ‘I wish I was made out of recycled paper’ [27]). Do you have any success stories from virtual groups you belong to? How do you get the balance right between checking things like blogs and groups online and actually writing?

I’d love to hear from you.

Juliet Clare Bell is the author of Don't Panic, Annika! (illustrated by Jennifer E Morris; Piccadilly Press); Pirate Picnic (Franklin Watts) and The Kite Princess (illustrated by Laura-Kate Chapman and narrated by Imelda Staunton; Barefoot Books).
Click on the links for tips on how (not) to write a rhyming picture book; editing your manuscript and making the most of feedback.