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….


Jane Clarke said...

I agree wholeheartedly, Moira. Like lots of people I've had fun ideas rejected because they lack a story. Pippa's book is a must for inspiring imaginative play.

Abie Longstaff said...

Great post Moira. Books without a plot can encourage the reader to use their own imagination and think of a story for themselves. After all, this is how children play with toys - they take a toy figure and invent a narrative for it. Pippa's wonderful book allows children to play with an idea in the same way as they would a figure.

Lynne Garner said...

Great post and one I'll be suggesting my writing students take the time to read.

Pippa Goodhart said...

It's playing around, at any age, that produces NEW ideas, so it's essential to society as well as to the individual. This would be a wonderful topic for a PHD! PS Thanks for the plug, Moira!

Karen Saunders said...

There's also the Baby's Catalogue by the Alhbergs - lots of pictures to talk about and think about,and something different comes out of each reading.

Moira Butterfield said...

Yes, totally agree! And yet we, as adults, so rarely give us ourselves the chance to play without judgement or some sort of goal setting. Reading picture books with children does, however, give us that opportunity.

Amy Butler Greenfield said...

Great post, Moira! Part of what's lovely about a book like You Choose is watching children use it to try out all kinds of alternative choices - playing with alternate stories, if you will. At least that's how it works here!