Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Chicken or Egg? by Polly Dunbar

'Where do you get your ideas ?' is the first question I am asked, as an author and illustrator. The second is the eternal 'chicken or egg' question: which comes first, the words or the pictures?  I'll try to answer here. 

I am fascinated by the third element in the making of a picture book - the special space between the words and pictures into which a child is invited to fill the gap with their own imagination. If allowed, the reader plays an active part in the story, breathing  their own life into it;  when this happens successfully it's like a tiny explosion in the mind.

These little explosions can trigger all sorts of responses: they can be shocking; they can make you laugh; they can be intriguing. The important part is reaching a conclusion all by yourself rather than have it spoon-fed by the author.

Jon Klassen is a master of balancing words and pictures and leaving us a gap. Here is a picture from his new book THIS IS NOT MY HAT, with a fish that looks very much AWAKE - brilliant!

Because the ending isn't spelled out, the reader has to work out what happens to the narrator fish without being told. The ending you come to in your own mind might be hilarious or horrifying or perhaps it's a completely different ending to the one the author intended; it doesn't matter, what matters is the huge pleasure in getting there with your own imagination.

My first published book was a series of cartoons about being a teenager. I was interested in the work of Gary Larson - I loved the way he combines a picture that tells you one thing and a line of text that tells you another: bingo...something absurd...an explosion...usually of laughter! 

So I started writing/drawing my own cartoons - which turned out to be very good training for writing picture books. It's an exercise in paring down what you are trying to say to its absolute essence, allowing the words and pictures to come together creating a friction or a vibration, like forcing two magnets together that don't want to meet. Synergy.

An example of the connection between words and pictures is cleverly done in a series of HCBC adverts, putting different words with the same picture. It is startlingly effective - to have one's mind prompted into making so many different associations to the same picture, making it look or 'feel' different each time.

This power between words and pictures is for me what makes picture books so special, why they have a magic that is hard to capture in animation or apps. I'm all for telling stories in different ways using different formats - pictures that move and dance and sing, with buttons to press and things that squeak. Although I love all this, there is infinitely more pleasure in making those pictures dance and sing in one's own mind, to feel those synapses snapping to make it come to life in a way that is unique to you, giving power to the reader.

With my very first picture book 'FLY AWAY KATIE' I had decided I wanted to be an 'author' as well as an illustrator.  I set about writing a story that was about 4000 words too long, getting myself into a terrible muddle describing everything that was happening, how the character was feeling on each page. One day I sat down, threw out all the words and just drew the story in a series of pictures...and there I had it. I added a few words to help the story along and left it up to the reader to decide how Katie was feeling.

So back to the 'which comes first' question, writing or drawing? Capturing ideas and turning them into stories is an elusive business; the essential elements, of words, picture, idea, never seem to be in the same place twice.  I doodle in my sketch books, images, phrases anything that has caught my attention. Sometimes if I'm very lucky a drawing cross-fertilizes with another image or a phrase, and the juxtaposition of two things will create a spark and lead to a story. My book PENGUIN started with this sketch of a toothy penguin and the words 'bit hard very hard on the nose.'

The beauty of being an author/illustrator is that you can prune your own words and let the pictures do the work. Very young children are visually literate and can read body language far earlier than they can read words.  On this page in Penguin, I could have described the tantrum that Ben was having, but I didn't need to - , the pictures are enough.

At the end of the book Penguin says 'everything'  in pictures alone. At first my editor and I were a bit worried that readers might flounder on this page, with no words to guide them through the story. But rather than leaving the reader stumped, it gives the child a chance to be the storyteller, to bring it to life in their own words. 

Children's authors don't have to illustrate their own work, they just have to invite the illustrator to dance with them, being careful not to tread on their toes. I'm doing this dance at the moment with my Mum, Joyce Dunbar. She has written a text called PAT-A-CAKE BABY. Mum wrote some words, I did some doodles. Mum wrote more words and we danced chaotically, not sure who was leading until we learnt the steps, and now we're nearly ready to invite people to dance with us.

It doesn't matter which comes first, the pictures or the words, so long as when they come together you can hear an unexpected and wonderful fizzing in the mind of the reader.

To find out more about guest blogger, Polly Dunbar,


Paeony Lewis said...

The author and illustrator dancing together, without treading on toes, is a wonderful concept within a great post.

One thing I'm not sure about with very ambiguous picture books is how easy they are for children to interpret if the children haven't had their imaginations stimulated. Children and adults who are familiar with books will relish picture books that allow them to weave their own interpretations. I know I adore them. But when you have children whose attention is difficult to keep, and they tend to take things at face value, I wonder if they will flounder? However, I suppose that’s why we have different types of books.

A stimulating post and I'm looking forward to seeing Pat-a-Cake Baby. Thanks!

Jane Clarke said...

Really interesting post, Polly, thanks. I love Far Side cartoons, and tiny explosions leading to wonderful fizzing is a fab explanation of what can happen in the gap between words and pictures. I'm off to look for your books, and Jon Klassen's too.

Pippa Goodhart said...

A treat of a post! Those cartoons made me laugh out loud - that's exactly the power we're after.
PS We enjoy your smiley cat in a tree (from 'Rat Boy') in our hallway every day, Polly. Thank you.

malachy doyle said...

Yes, it's my favourite dance, that author / illustrator one. It's those pesky editors and art editors in their great big clodhoppers we need to watch out for!
(I love them really)

Thanks for a wonderfully entertaining and thought-provoking post, Polly.

Abie Longstaff said...

Lovely post, Polly, thank you. I am an author who draws for fun and, although I never illustrate, I do always draw out full 12 spread thumbnails for myself every time I write a book. I find it really helps in getting the pacing and page turns right, and in finding the balance you talk of between the pictures and text.

Zoe said...

What a great post - thank you Polly for this!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

'A tiny explosion in the mind' -I love it! Thanks for a great post. I was interested in what Paeony said about children who aren't used to looking at picture books and whether it's harder for them to make that leap (with less visual literacy). I've worked with some children who are completely unused to looking at books, where we used wordless picture books. Initially, they found it extremely confusing but very quickly, with a bit of encouragement, took it on board and loved it. You could almost see the tiny explosions in the mind. But without that scaffolding or encouragement, it could be very different.

My children (and I) still love your 'everything' last spread, Polly. And I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen is inspired! Thanks again, Clare.

Moira Butterfield said...

A very inspiring post about what it is to create. I am going to print this out and pin it up! Thanks, Polly.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your comments.

Yes, I agree if you are too ambiguous you can lose the child (and often the grown-up reader too) if it's too prescriptive they can feel patronised, that's the balance that's so hard to achieve.

I find when I'm writing, if I don't know what the story is about at it's core then it won't work, I have to know what I'm saying absolutely, even if I'm not being explicit. I suppose it's the difference between something complex being simplified or something vague and simplistic. If that makes sense..perhaps I should draw a picture!


Anonymous said...

Hi Pippa! Lovely to hear you still have the smiley cat on your wall. xp

Heather said...

"I am fascinated by the third element in the making of a picture book - the special space between the words and pictures into which a child is invited to fill the gap with their own imagination." Yes, the best books have this element. It's hard to define, but easy to feel when it's not there!

Lynne Garner said...

A great post. One I'll be pointing my students towards. Time and again many stumble over the relationship with words and images.

Linda Strachan said...

Fascinating post. It completely describes the way you have to feel your way in a picture book until it clicks into place, and I love it when the pictures tell a slightly different story.
'Very young children are visually literate and can read body language far earlier than they can read words'
I think we all translate the world instinctively through what we see, reading faces and body language.