Wednesday 30 January 2013

Books With Very Few Words, Some With None At All - Karen Saunders

This might be quite an unusual post for a writer, but today I wanted to blog about picture books that have limited, or no text. 

These sorts of books offer extensive opportunities for discussion with children, through talking about the pictures and what they can see on the pages.  They also offer children the chance to ‘read’ a book by themselves, as they can understand so much of what is happening just from looking at the illustrations, encouraging reading confidence. 

The pictures within these sorts of books can be interpreted so many different ways and imaginations can run riot, something that’s so important for encouraging creativity in the young. They also allow readers a chance to experience the subtle world of expressions such as body language and intonation, and begin to understand how these things work.  

So here goes, my top five books that fit into this category.

            You Choose, by fellow Picture Book Den blogger Pippa Goodhart, illustrated by Nick Sharatt

My toddler adores this award-winning picture book. We’ve found it’s particularly good for him to read and look at in the car by himself. Pippa has blogged about her book here in detail, but essentially it’s a book that's not actually a story as such, but one where children can make choices. They can decide where they’d like to live, where they’d like to go, who they'd like their friends to be, what they’d like to eat…there are many excellent discussions to be had from this book!


      Rosie’s Walk, by Pat Hutchins

Rosie the hen goes for a walk, while a wily fox tries to catch her. Rosie is completely oblivious to everything that’s going on behind her, as the fox gets out-manoeuvred at every turn. The way the fox gets his comeuppance causes much hilarity for the reader, because although what happens to the fox is never vocalised, no words are necessary for this very visual humour. This book has limited text, but you can get the complete gist of the story from the pictures alone. 

      Hug, by Jez Alborough

Ah, the book that really tests an adult’s reading skills, getting them to interpret just one word, ‘Hug’, in many, many, different ways. A monkey walks through the jungle, looking for his Mummy, seeing other animals hugging along the way. It’s a great demonstration of the intonation of language, how a word can mean different things depending on how it’s said, and also of body language – we understand how the monkey is saying the word just from the expression on his face.


       The Snowman, Raymond Briggs

A Christmas classic that can be enjoyed anytime (For some reason, Christmas books go down particularly well in our house in the height of summer). The Snowman tells of a young boy who builds a snowman that comes to life. Beautiful illustrations do all the story-telling work, and the expressions on the young boy’s face show us how he is feeling and what he is experiencing. A wonderful first opportunity for young children to ‘read’ a story.


      The Baby’s Catalogue, Janet and Allen Ahlberg

The Baby’s Catalogue is a fabulous book, which features very little text, instead it shows the lives of several babies and what they do in their days. The babies sleep, eat, watch their mummies and daddies, cause chaos in the house, play with their pets and siblings, sit in their high chairs, have their baths and go back to bed. There’s no story as such,  but there are plenty of familiar things to see and discuss.

These are five books I’ve loved sharing with children, but which are your favourites?

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Wednesday 23 January 2013

Some thoughts on rhythm in picture books - Moira Butterfield

When I first started to think about this blog I was going to relay the good news that rhythm, offered to small children in the form of songs, poetry and picture books, helps to develop the brain. Now, thanks to the BBC, I’ve discovered that rhythm is even more important than that. Turns out it’s vital to humankind!

Good rhyme helps to anchor a text beautifully and is great fun to read, of course, but this blog is about rhythm – a pattern of beats in a sentence that makes it easy, natural and fun to read. It does a lot more than that, it seems. 

A couple of weeks ago I saw a TV programme (Science Club) in which a small baby had a little hatful of brain sensors popped on her tiny head. Experiments proved that her brain was not merely responding to rhythm but predicting what would come next. The baby had the innate ability to follow sound patterns, which would in turn help her to develop language (and possibly maths, too). This, the scientists suggested, was what separated humans from the rest of animal kind and might have helped them to start communicating in a sophisticated language when everything else was still squeaking and growling. In other words, it seems we’re hard-wired to pick up on rhythm and it helps us eventually to learn to speak.

"Hey Mum, my brain's getting smarter!"

So a tiny baby is already receptive to rhythm, and scientists studying brain development confirm that rhythm helps small children to grow their neural pathways. Very young humans grow their brains at a phenomenal rate, sparking up these neural pathways all over the place – like a tree growing branches. These brain connections help us to do things. Babies start off not doing very much, and as they grow into toddlers and beyond they make more and more neural connections and so start engaging with the world. Rhythm apparently helps to create the neural pathways and repetition helps to strengthen them.

Perhaps all this is why adults instinctively sing nursery rhymes and ‘coo’ to babies. It most definitely suggests that it’s a good idea to read and reread rhythmic text to all small growing children, even the tiny ones. It turns out that babies quickly start to look intently at lips to work out how to copy the shapes that talking makes. So repeated rhythmic sentences (rereading that seemingly simple but well-crafted picture book regularly) can only help.

Science is beginning to prove what we already innately sense. I like to think of parents in prehistory starting it off, perhaps imitating a rhythmic bird call for their babies, then trying it on a drum.

For my part, I think rhythm has an amazing power to help memory. Many’s the time I’ve marvelled at how my brain recalls great chunks of meaningless non-rhyming pop lyrics from long-forgotten songs that weren’t important to me. They just stuck in my head. I think they were glued in by the musical rhythm.

Apart from having these learning superpowers, rhythm in a sentence is vital to someone reading out loud, of course. It makes the reading smooth and natural. Bad rhythm snags the reader, like tripping over a stone.

Rhythmic sentences could be said to be a form of spoken music– the structure of a tune without the tune. In fact, a good rhythmic picture book text is easy to sing, and after countless reads of the same picture book to my sons I’ve been known to do exactly that, to vary the experience for us all.

So rhythm helps the reader to make the experience of reading a picture book an engaging one for all concerned.

To sum up, rhythmic sentences – those that have a good working beat pattern like the beats of a song line – are a powerful tool for helping children learn communication, and they are a vital aid to the reader.

"I think I'll read War and Peace next."

In my next blog I’ll do some deconstructing of the best rhythmic non-rhyming sentences in picture book examples, to discover what works best. I’ll also be examining where problems can occur. All recommended text examples welcome. 

In the meantime you can bask in the knowledge that by writing rhythmic sentences you are not only making them easier to read but you are helping to develop children’s brains.

You probably knew so, but now scientists have said so!

Sunday 20 January 2013

Want to see my writing desk? (Malachy Doyle)

I’ve always been fascinated by shots of writers’ and artists’ workspaces, so if you want a snoop at the desk of a picture book writer, here’s mine, at the end of a working day.

On the printer are two sculptures of me and my wife, Liz, made by our clever son, Liam, and given to us as Christmas presents.  He usually works on blood and gore for horror films, so it’s nice to see him making something pleasant for once (Liz, I mean, not me…).  Also a top shell picked up on one of my walks round the island where I live, and a gecko bought in Santiago at the end of my Camino back in November.

Next to the printer is a beautiful bronze hare, who’s watched over me for many moons as I write. Sitting at his feet is a little art deco rabbit. 

On my screensaver is a photo of the view from my window, over the water to Errigal - my mountain, my muse.  It was taken when there was snow on top - a rare but magical event.   Every afternoon I walk the beaches of my island with my dogs, but occasionally, if I've written something I'm really pleased with (or just need a dose of Errigal exhilaration, for whatever reason), I treat myself to a walk up the mountain. 

Next to the keyboard is a card drawn by my good friend (and illustrator of three of my books) Jac Jones.  ‘Peace beyond Christmas’ Jac’s written, in English and Welsh, and inside he credits the image as ‘copyright Jones and Picasso.’ 

On my desk (a massive old green-leather-topped lawyer’s desk – I love it!) is my Penguin  Rhyming Dictionary – an essential tool for any picture book writer who succumbs to the temptation to versify. 

On the sheet of paper next to the keyboard is a print-out of the last thing I’d written.  A little bit of fluff that maybe might sneak its way onto the back page of a future picture book:

This story was written with glee
By someone anonymous. Me!
My name I refuse to disclose.
Can you guess by my stupendous nose?   
 (I'm seeing an illustration here of a masked man with a mighty schnozz)

Oh no, I’ve just noticed – go on take a look –
It’s written right there at the front of the book!
(And the pictures are great, don’t you think?  Well, I do!
They’re by …..   ....., and they’re specially for you.)

Under the rhyming dictionary is a copy of The Snow Queen illustrated by Bernadette Watts.  I love both the story and the illustrations, but the real reason it’s on my desk is because it’s a hardback that’s big enough to carry round the house (and outside) with print-outs of my stories on.  For me to catch my story by surprise, reading it aloud in the shed, the garden, the toilet...  To give to Liz to read and comment on (with her big pink pen)...  It’s always this book.  It’s become a ritual, a totem, like my hare, my island, my mountain...

In the background some of my children’s books, including a shelf of foreign editions of ones I’ve written.   I particularly like when they come through in Korean! (This is Charlie is My Darling, by the way.)

I'm hoping some other Picture Book Denners might add to this posting, showing us their desk and maybe telling us a little about it - the more untidy the better!

And if anyone else would like to tell us about where they write, and what's around them as they do so, it'd be lovely to hear from you.   

Tuesday 15 January 2013

The Gate Keepers - Lynne Garner

As a picture book writer I'm very aware I have to write a story not only children will love but also a story that a whole list of people I call 'the gatekeepers' will enjoy. This list consists of:
  • Commissioning editor
  • Marketing department
  • Bookseller
  • Purchaser 

This is a lot of people to get my story passed before it lands in front of the eyes of a child. I therefore have to ensure my story fulfills the criteria each one of these gatekeepers has. So let's consider each of them:
Commissioning editor
It's very difficult if not impossible to work out what editors want. However I've found many prefer a story to be character led. So when writing I have to try to create a strong character. Often this character has to overcome a conflict or shows signs of 'growth' during the story. So a plot has to have a strong start, an interesting middle and a satisfying end. 

Marketing department
A marketing department require a book that can be sold globally. This is the reason some publishers prefer animals as main characters because they can cross most borders. The marketing department also want a book that will sell well to a parent or grandparent but also someone buying for an institution such as a school or library. 

Similar to the marketing department a bookseller require a book they can place on their shelves and will sell itself (they don't have the time or money to 'push' every book they hold in stock). This is why so much time is spent on the 'look' of a book. 

Let's be realistic although a picture book is aimed at children it is an adult who purchases it. They are looking for a story they won't mind reading 10, 20, 30 or more times. So they are not only looking for a book that is interesting to read but also one they find visually pleasing.         

So I was wondering what picture book have you picked up recently and thought these gatekeepers know/don't know what makes a good book.

Friday 11 January 2013

What Shall I Write for a Story –and When? Or Using Other People’s Pictures, Things and Ideas for Inspiration in Writing; and How to Spend Less Time ‘Writing’ and Get More Done, by Juliet Clare Bell.

Happy New Year!

This year, I’m clearing space (physically and mentally) to be surrounded by things and people I love and appreciate everything around me. In this post, I want to share things that inspire me, in case they spark any ideas for your own stories, too. There will be lots of children’s pictures, which I’ve scanned during a massive clear-out, and magnetic words on whiteboards, and word games. Things that I often encourage other people to do (especially children in school visits) but don’t use enough myself. Or didn’t. This year I will.

And then, I’m going to 'fess up and talk about some changes I’ve made to my everyday life and writing life which will help me get more done –in writing (and everything associated with it) and in life. But first...

New Year, New Ideas...

I’ve always enjoyed seeing children’s pictures online. They can spark ideas for stories in so many ways –a new character, a story line, a feeling... Perhaps some of them will get you thinking about your current story ideas or possible new ones, so here goes (with huge thanks to my lovely children).

(I love this hedgehog one so much, I've had to do a close up of it -and I am currently revising a story with a hedgehog in it...)

I also had to remove one when previewing this blogpost as it gave me such a good idea for a story with a title and everything...

Some pictures are more unusual and have got me thinking about stories quite different from what I’d normally write (with some, frankly, quite scary)...

(If you're having trouble reading, this one says [Alien]: Squeeze my eyes then they'll turn around; [Girl]: No I won't; [Boy]: He's a silly alien)

And some just make me really, really happy...

(This one was left around so that when I'd finally lost my annoying ear worms, I'd read this and they'd start again...)

And then there’s playing around with magnetic words. Here are a few that my nine-year-old made the other night before bed (her bedroom and the office now share a room so she keeps playing with all my school visit stuff). They’re great –I think that magnetic poetry was actually devised by a guy who wrote song lyrics and had writer’s block so made some to help himself...

And then children’s word games... again, my nine-year-old’s been reading her new Tracy Beaker and Jacqueline Wilson annuals...

In them are ideas for creating silly stories by rolling dice and reading the beginning of a sentence followed by one of six silly scenarios (depending on the roll of the dice), then reading the next sentence starter, followed by one of another six silly scenarios etc.. After trying this out, she decided to have a go at making her own up:

I’m going to have a go at doing some myself and see if I come up with anything I can turn into something... (I had lots of fun doing something a little similar at a workshop run by illustrator John Shelley once, but with incongruous characters/places that we drew, too. I always thought I’d have another go at it but didn’t. Until now...).

But what to do with all these potential new ideas? After all, we’ve just had PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Ideas Month, which happens every November thanks to picture book author Tara Lazar) so I’ve got loads of ideas already. Well, I’ve been having a big clear out and shake up and I’m finally, for the first time in my life, getting...

ORGANISED! (cue scary music)

(Almost as good as a picture book. Thank you, FlyLady.)

How to spend less time ‘writing’ and get more done.

I remember as a child thinking that the phrase: ‘If you want something doing, ask a busy person’ was a silly one. I’m still not a fan of the phrase (because of the tone in which it’s usually said), but there’s a lot more truth to it than I gave it credit for.

When I had all the time in the world, pre-children, I did long working hours in my job at a university, and felt that I absolutely had to work that long in order to get the job done. There was always so much more to do.

Then I had my first baby, who cried lots and didn’t like to sleep. I’d left my paid job to be a stay at home mother, the job I’d always most wanted to do. Very soon (when my daughter was about eight weeks old) I got the picture book bug and started writing. It was in short snippets –often really short snippets of ten minutes or so, a few times a week. But I let things play around in my head so that when I did get the chance to sit and write, I was focused. Having very little time, made me way more productive with writing than I’d ever been in my previous job.

More than eight years later and the youngest of my three started school full-time, back in September. What an incredible opportunity. I thought it would give me loads more time to write and everything associated with it (doing school visits/generating work etc) and, more important, get the house sorted. And yet it didn’t. I found myself slipping back into my pre-child work pattern of losing focus because I had more time to. I found myself being more distracted by FaceBook and other writers’ lives... and I wasn’t sorting out the house any more than I ever had. Ever.

So I’ve recreated some of the lack of time that seemed to have made me more productive when I was sleep-deprived. I now spend far less time writing every day than I (THOUGHT I) was doing last term when I was at home during the day without the children. And do you know what? So far (ok, it’s only been a week), it’s really worked. I’m way more focused. I’ve done what loads of people do all the time without having to talk about it and think about it: got myself more organised. I now have a diary, a calendar...

(See, I have an actual calendar -and a diary- and I'm not afraid to use them.)

... and most important, a PLAN. It’s a daily plan (Monday to Friday), telling me what I’m doing and when. Lots of people would laugh but for someone who is naturally disorganised, it feels revolutionary (and like a massive weight’s been taken off –thank you, Fly Lady!). I can just do as I’m told:

I write when I’m scheduled to -6-7am three times a week for brainstorming new picture book ideas, and 9.30-11.30 for writing my current work in progress. Crucially, I’m not online during that time. That’s proper writing time, when I don’t do anything else -as opposed to last term when I thought I was writing all day every day, but clearly wasn't. The rest of the day? I do what I’m told, when I’m told -so sorting out school visits, or working on my website, or doing SCBWI things etc., and, again, crucially, which part of the house I'm sorting out, each one scheduled at the same time on the same day each week.

I’d read about how to get organised/be more efficient lots of times but it’s only now that I’ve actually really believed I can do it. So I can. (If there’s anyone else out there who really struggles to be organised, especially in the home, then try Fly Lady –for me, it’s brilliant.)

So bring on 2013. This is the year for surrounding myself with love instead of junk. (I always have had lovely people and things around me but this year I’ll be able to see more of them without having to remove the boxes and bags of junk in their way. I’ll probably find some extra children I didn’t even know I had, and there’s definitely a husband hidden somewhere...).

And my writing environment? I can’t even show you what it was (too terrifying) but I’ve moved up into the attic which is now the office and my nine year old’s bedroom (“On one condition: that you keep it tidy”. That was her to me, not the other way around –and, for the first time in my life, I WILL). This is my desk now:

Surrounded by love, inspiration and things that make me really happy: a picture of an olive tree, painted by my mum, Margaret Storr; another, by my illustrator friend, Jess Mikhail. Then there’s Quentin Blake’s new book, which I love knowing is there for me to see whenever I want to; a happy pin-board; a book of poems by Robert Frost; a fifteen-year-old dinosaur toy for a story I’m thinking about; and some photos, including, on the right, the person who makes all this possible, Mark. There’s even enough room for my computer and notebook...

And a close up of my happy pin-board:

Are you planning on looking for inspiration from anywhere different this year? And have you made any resolutions about your writing life/ getting organised? Please feel free to share them, below.

Have a truly inspirational and extremely happy new year, filled with love, writing, reading and lots and lots of children’s pictures.

Juliet Clare Bell is a children's author (Don't Panic, Annika! illustrated by Jennifer E. Morris, Piccadilly Books, 2011; Pirate Picnic, an early reader, illustrated by Mirella Minelli, Franklin Watts, 2012; The Kite Princess, illustrated by Laura-Kate Chapman, narrated by Imelda Staunton, Barefoot Books, 2012) who used to live in a very disorganised house, but doesn't any more (as of the beginning of January). She is very interested to see if this makes a scrap of difference to her writing output.