Thursday 29 August 2013

Getting to the heart of a picture book - Linda Strachan

How do you get to the heart of a picture book text?  I think the automatic reaction is to think a picture book must be in rhyme.  When you read some of Julia Donaldson's wonderful rhyming stories they look so simple and work so well that it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that they are easy to write.

It could not be further from the truth.

So what is the problem with rhyme?  (Aside from publishers often telling writers that they are not keen on rhyme because it can be harder to sell co-editions, sometimes citing the problems with translation as the reason.)

But often the problem is that the writer becomes so captivated with the idea of making every line or alternate line rhyme that they force the story out of shape, using words that would never otherwise be in the text, simply because they fit the rhyme.

That means they are probably starting in the wrong place.
It is almost like trying to ice a cake before you have baked the sponge mixture.

First you need to think about the story. That is the heart of a picture book.  Some writers like to know the ending first, so that it is as strong as the beginning.  If the story comes full circle bringing the answer to the problem posed at the beginning, perhaps with an unexpected twist, so much the better.

Ask yourself, what is the story about?  A picture book is not just a poem or a lot of rhyming words, there has to be some reason to tell the story in the first place.
The heart of almost any book is the characters and what happens to them. Why do we care about them? What is the problem they must solve, what exciting journey are they embarking on?

There have been several posts here on Picturebook Den discussing ways to start writing a picture book. Such as this post by Lynne Garner, talking about pace in a picture book and thinking about the story working over the length of the book.

It is a good way to start.
It made me smile when I heard Julia Donaldson yesterday morning on TV talking about starting a book and thinking about it being approx 12 double page spreads.

Once you have your story idea and have thought about the characters you might have already started writing the story (I am not much of a planner when I am writing a novel but I find picture books work better with this kind of framework in mind).
The words you use in a picture book will probably need to be refined and changed, moved about, used in a different way.  It is quite amazing ow many ways you can say the same thing.

A previous post by Jonathan Allen  looks at titles for picture books and shows how the words or expressions can make something either stand out or sound really boring.
I think that each line in a picture book should be examined to make sure it works well, that it keeps the story going, sounds like fun, and is the best use of words in that particular place.

Finding the right word is about making the text easy to read, with words that don't trip up the person reading it out loud, about having rhythm and making the story exciting, and engaging both child and parent.

After all these considerations you might decide that it will work better with some kind of rhyme, perhaps now and then, but only do this if it falls naturally and fits with all the other considerations above.  The rhyme is the least important part, many picture books work better without any rhyme at all, and it should only be used if it absolutely works with the story, fits in with the rhythm and without using archaic or odd language to make the rhyme work.

I've just come back from tutoring a week long residential course for the Arvon Foundation in lovely Moniack Mhor, near Inverness in Scotland, with co-tutor the author and illustrator Teresa Flavin. We discussed different aspects of writing for Children with the 16 enthusiastic and hardworking writers on the course.

Talking about writing picture books was only a small part of the week although it could merit an entire week by itself!  It is a complex and diverse subject as all the posts on this blog show.

So if you are thinking about starting to write a picture book make sure you get to the heart of the story.

Linda Strachan is the award winning author of over 60 books for all ages, from picture books to YA novels, and writing handbook Writing For ChildrenWebsite   www.lindastrachan.comBlog BOOKWORDS

Saturday 24 August 2013

The Wonder of Picture Books by Abie Longstaff

We all know the snuggly, cosy effect of picture books. They are designed to be shared and bonded over; adult and child leaning in together in a moment of comfort and joy.

But, as well as these snuggly qualities, did you know that picture books can promote language development, literacy and social skills? 

‘Dialogic book reading’ is a style of shared reading where the parent interacts with the child, talking about the illustrations and asking questions about the story. This kind of activity encourages the child to think beyond the story, to relate the pictures to their everyday life and to make sense of their world.

So, as parents and carers, how should we read to our children? 

  • Research suggests we should encourage the child to participate in the reading process by asking questions, even at a young age.  
From Bye Bye Baby by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
  •  Ask questions about physical things: What do you see? Where is the baby? What toys does he have?    
From Thumbelina by Hans Christian Anderson, Kaj Beckman and M.R. James

  •  Ask about feelings to help the child express themself: The girl looks sad, why is she sad? Are the fish going to help her?
  • Let the child ask you questions too.
  • Feed back to the child; praising them when they notice something in the story. Don’t forget the illustrations in this respect. If a child is decoding a story simply from the pictures, praise this as much as when the child reads a word in the text. 

From Princess Smartypants, by Babette Cole
  • Adapt the reading style to the child’s growing linguistic abilities. For older children picture books can be used to discuss more complicated issues: Why doesn't Princess Smartypants want to get married? Do you like this ending? Can you imagine another giant pet for her?
From Where the Wild Things are, by Maurice Sendak
  •   Move beyond the text and relate the story to the child’s life: Would you like a boat like that? You like costumes too! 
From Possum Magic, by Mem Fox
  •  Talk about culture: What kind of animals are these? Can you think of any other Australian animals? Would you like to live in Australia?
Recent research has found that even picture books with very few words can encourage language development in two-year olds. A study by Manchester University revealed that when parents share very simple books with their child, the language the parent uses contains more complex constructions than everyday speech. This helps the child learn a wider vocabulary, grammar and even enhances their maths, as one of the key predictors in children’s mathematical skill is early language experience.

But, as Monty Python would ask; other than vocab, grammar, maths, sharing, expressing emotion, cultural values, and bonding, what have picture books ever done for us? Well, if that list wasn’t enough… 

...A study found those children who are read a picture book before having blood taken feel less pain.

More information
For tips on dialogic reading, see

For information on language development and picture books, see

For more on pain management and picture books, see
A Prospective Randomised Control Study: Reduction of Children's Pain Expectation Using a Picture Book during Blood Withdrawal Zieger B. et al (2013) Klin Padiatr; 225(03): 110-114

Monday 19 August 2013

The Thing That You Call It In Not Many Words That Kind of Says What it is and All That... by Jonathan Allen

In the online and other public discussions about what makes a successful picture book, that authors and other denizens of the publishing world have from time to time, the subject of titles doesn’t come up perhaps as often as it should.
The title is the first piece if information you get about a book and as such, what it conveys in the few words it has at its disposal is as important as it is disproportionate. In the case of a picture book especially, it can sum up the entire concept, the tone of voice, the feel and the probable purpose or intention of the publication in less than ten words. That’s powerful stuff! 

It needs to grab the attention and be memorable, like a newspaper headline, or a pop song title. It has to make you want to find out more, and most importantly and difficult-to-define-ably of all, it has to be 'right'. Sometimes the process of getting a title 'right' can involve much too-ing and fro-ing between an author and a publisher (incorporating much input from the marketing dept) before everyone is happy, and at other times the title can be the thing that triggers the idea for the book in the first place.

To be boringly self referential for a minute, my picture book ’I’m Not Cute!’ is a good example of what a title can 'tell' you. The whole concept of the book is encapsulated in the title. A character claiming not to be cute. That should grab the attention because picture book characters are pretty much universally cute, so what bizarre heresy is being conducted here? Picture book characters are not usually given room or opportunity to give their opinion of their perceived cuteness, so for one to speak out and refute this perception is unusual and worthy of investigation. So with 'I'm Not Cute!', in three words we get a concept, a tone of voice and a slightly anarchic feel, not to mention an insight into a character's, and by association, an author's personality. And that's before you get to see the pictures.

Think of your favourite picture book titles (or children’s fiction titles) and see whether they conform to my thesis. Here are some off the top of my head.

Farmer Duck
The Wind in The Willows
Where The Wild Things Are
Tom All Alone
The Magic Pudding
Five Children and It
The Man Whose Mother Was A Pirate

Well, that kind of bears me out. You would want to seek them out based on the titles.

The interesting thing is that some successful books have pretty prosaic,
bland names which largely disregard ’the rules’. . 

The Jungle Book
Nonsense Songs
Fireman Sam
Thomas The Tank Engine 

But I guess they indicate what you are going to get.

Some are just deliberately and brilliantly wordy, like 'How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen.' 

A fun thing to do in a spare moment, if you have such a thing, is to take an interesting, snappy title and make it as prosaic as possible, to see if you would have given it the time of day under this boring guise. 

How about - 
Max has a Dream About Monsters.
The Ring That Everybody Wants.
Would You Like to Try Sam’s Unusual Meal?
Potty Training an Unwilling Princess is Difficult.
Craig Thompson and The Philosopher’s Stone
The Little Girl Who Went Through The Mirror
Etc etc

Instant classics?

Now you have a go.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

What Is The Magic Of 'Goodnight Moon'? By Pippa Goodhart


            There are some picture books which just work. Children ask for them to be read, and they look at them by themselves, over and over again, and it isn’t always obvious exactly what the attraction of those books is.  Sometimes it’s a personal attachment in one child to a particular book, but sometimes the appeal appears to be universal.  One picture book which has worked for generations of children throughout the world is ‘Goodnight Moon’. 

But why does it work so well?

            American teacher Margaret Wise Brown, author of over a hundred books, wrote the simple text in this book which will be familiar to lots of you –

‘In the great green room

There was a telephone

And a red balloon

And a picture of –

(turn the page)

The cow jumping over the moon’ etc.

Clement Hurd created the rather crude repetitive pictures in primary colours of the odd room with a burning fire, a rabbit lady knitting in her rocking chair, the kittens and mittens, the telephone, the bowl full of mush, the comb and the bowl of much.  The book was published in 1947 and has sold over twelve million copies in at least fourteen different languages in the sixty-six years since. 

            I used the book with my own children, and there truly isn’t a better one for winding a small child down to sleepiness.  The text is rhythmic and rhyming and repetitive.  Those ‘three ‘r’s’ are well known ingredients for a pleasing read out loud for young children, of course.  But here the rhythm and rhyme and repetition seem to be a substitute for story rather than a treatment of it.  There simply is no plot; no story.  This is just one small rabbit’s goodnight ritual.  It is dull dull dull.  Can you imagine a present day publisher accepting a page that is entirely blank of illustration, accompanied by the text ‘Goodnight nobody’?!    There is some small interest in spotting where the mouse and named objects are, but I think that it is the overall lack  of story stimulus that makes the book so successfully soporific. 

            And yet this book has been chosen by polls of teachers as one of their top hundred children’s books of all time.  Why would a teacher use a book that so clearly sends children to sleep?  Is there some other quality, beyond the hypnotic sleepifying one, that I am missing?  And why had I never before heard of the ‘companion’ book, ‘My World’, published by the same pair a couple of years after ‘Goodnight Moon’ proved such an instant hit?  Why isn’t that book as famous as the first one? 

Is there some magic ingredient in ‘Goodnight Moon’ which I should be aiming to emulate in my own books?  Any suggestions welcome!

            Footnote:  There’s an extraordinary true story attached to the fictional story of ‘Goodnight Moon’.  Margaret Wise Brown, dying unexpectedly of an embolism aged only forty-two, bequeathed the royalties from ‘Goodnight Moon’ to her nine year old neighbour, Albert Clarke.  To read what happened then to both the book and the boy, read


Friday 9 August 2013

Why did the picture-book illustrators grumble about drawing a certain animal?! by Paeony Lewis

In a picture book it’s easy to write Twenty-nine ancient elephants jumped over the dancing ladybirds. Or even Three smelly dinosaurs munched a castle built of diamonds and opals. But what of the illustrators? It’s not so easy for them! That’s why I tried to be really careful about the unpublished picture-book text I picked for two illustrators who were scheduled to perform a fast-paced ‘Sketching Duel’.

Sketching Duel: John Shelley  (Paeony Lewis)  Mike Brownlow
The live sketching event was to be in front of an audience at the Millennium Library in Norwich (the most popular public library in the UK). It was part of a day of writing and illustration activities organised by the Eastern Branch of the SCBWI* to accompany an exhibition of members’ illustrations. 

Even for professional illustrators, the 'Sketching Duel' was quite a challenge. The illustrators weren't allowed to read the text beforehand, and each double-page spread was to be read out in turn, and a rough illustration drawn in mere in minutes. Yikes, don’t blame me, I didn't make the rules! So I chose one of my picture-book texts that had a very simple, traditional structure and no over-the-top scenes. What could possibly go wrong?

The two professional illustrators were:
 John Shelley and Mike Brownlow.

John draws all sorts of things…

Mike draws all sorts of things…

So with two flipcharts and an expectant audience, we began. I told them the story was about a horse named Ivor.


Yup, a horse. Not so bad? Ho hum, it seems I could ask them to draw penguins or dinosaurs or humans or bunnies or anything EXCEPT horses! But it was too late. It was horses.

As I've said, John and Mike are professionals, so they began. Reluctantly…

John Shelley drawing Ivor the horse

Mike Brownlow
 In this image Mike has given Ivor the horse a thought bubble containing a child. Oops, I hadn’t explained that the other character, Little Nelly, was a foal, not a human. We writers sometimes forget that although we know the story inside out, the reader/illustrator doesn't.

Of course, despite my unintended attempts to thwart the illustrators with horses, they didn't turn away from the challenge and went on to produce delightful images that reflected and added to the story. Here are a few they drew in mere moments, with a snippet of the story (not all their images were so similar).

Above Mike, below John.

Story snippet:
Clip clop, clip clop, Ivor trots on until he sees a wide river. He jumps.
“Whee! Oops!”
Splosh! The golden sugar lumps plop into the mouth of a huge salmon. “Yummy.”

Above Mike, below John.

Story snippet:
Clip clop, clip clop, Ivor trots through towering trees.
Shadows move and out bursts a sneaky squirrel.
It grabs the dazzling red apple and dashes up a pine tree.
“Yummy yum!”

Is Mike smiling because he was allowed to draw a bunny?!

John explained how an illustrator can hint at something that has happened, without actually drawing it. Here, Ivor the horse runs up the hill, and then begins running down. Hoof prints are the clue that he has already run up.

Whilst here, I asked John why he’d drawn the rear of Ivor. John explained that illustrators sometimes do this to show a transition scene. It’s an illustrative way to show the story is moving on to something new. It also gives a sense of anticipation.

John Shelley
Finally, here are the last pages, and I was intrigued how the horses had developed over the twelve illustrations. When I asked how illustrators decide on whether to use a cartoon or realistic style, the illustrators explained it often depended on the story. The more anthropomorphic a story, the more a story is likely to need cartoon illustrations because a realistic horse would look ‘wrong’ doing human-like actions.
Mike Brownlow

As somebody who writes, and doesn't illustrate, I was blown away by John and Mike’s fast, unprepared sketches. I also learnt new things about the way words and illustrations combine. However, I still didn't understand what it was about horses that made them cringe. So later I asked them.

Mike Brownlow
“I draw in a stylised, cartoony sort of way, and I think part of the reason I don't like drawing horses is that they're almost impossible to draw standing up. Everyone's idea of a horse is of an animal on four legs. But the really popular children's book animals such as bears, penguins, dogs, cats, rabbits and pigs can all be made to act as substitute humans by putting them on two legs instead of four. It's really tricky to do that with a horse. I can't honestly think of an example of one in popular children's literature apart from Black Beauty. That was a very naturalistic story, though, and horses were drawn realistically. In the modern picture book era, I can't think of one. Can anyone else? Maybe it's the long face. Cue old joke.”

John Shelley
“What's the problem with drawing horses? I actually like drawing horses when I have plenty of time, but conjuring a horse character straight out of your mind can be more of a challenge!

Some animals can be distorted or simplified and still read correctly – draw a furry body with heavy haunches - add long ears and it will be read as a rabbit. Same figure with pointier nose, round ears and a long tail - you've got a mouse. Horses though have clearly defined front/middle/rear proportions, and look awkward if you stand them on two legs. Lack of hands or paws makes it difficult for them to gesture. Then there's that big long face with small eyes! A challenge, but not impossible! I’m a great admirer of Norman Thelwell’s work, a brilliant artist who really knew how to instil character into a horse.”

At the end of the day of events, another SCBWI member and writer, Annie Neild, read out one of her picture book texts. This time John used charcoal instead of red highlighter pen (a frustrating medium). Mike stuck with pencil. Plus another professional illustrator was able to take part, Bridget Strevens-Marzo. Juggling pandas, giraffes, lions and crocodiles were all illustrated! Everyone was happy… NO HORSES!

Look what I've found:
a multitude of small animals, and no horses, in this lovely illustration
by John Shelley (Japanese book: Hoppy's New House)

 You can find out more at our websites:

Blog by children's author, Paeony Lewis

Mike Brownlow
John Shelley
Bridget Strevens-Marzo
*SCBWI Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (British Isles)

Sunday 4 August 2013

IDEAS AND INSPIRATIONS – Or "When is a picture book not a picture book?" by Penny Dolan (Guest Blogger)

From Mr Pod and Mrs Piccalilli (illus by Nick Sharrat)
Hello. I’m a little trepidatious about visiting the Picture Book Den, even as a Guest. Apart from MR POD AND MRS PICCALILLI, which I worked on with the illustrious Nick Sharrat, my “picture books” are known in the book trade as “early readers”, a term often spoken with a slight lowering of the voice. You won’t find the early readers in bookshops like Waterstones or submitted for awards.

Nevertheless, I – and others like me - write the books for enjoyment and for the pleasure of young readers. Unlike the traditional reading scheme, the various series that I write for have no set of established characters. There’s no single setting and certainly no running reference to a magic key.

Yes there’s a word count, but that’s all. I once tried writing to briefs based on a list of phonics. I found them impossible to write, and I wasn’t sorry. I don’t do lists. The vocabulary I use comes from years of hearing young children read – as a parent and as a teacher – and a love of rhyme and rhythm and simple wordplay. I write using familiar words, livened up with the odd interesting and intriguing word that they might have come across.

I must say that these books are a pleasure to write once you’ve got the idea. There’s none of the plate-spinning giddiness that comes with trying to manage a complex plot when you know guests are about to arrive. Also, there’s the definite deadline to encourage you to get on with the writing process, to refine your words and phrasing, just as Malachy Doyle’s described in his recent post.

You work to the brief – which is a word count and the number of spreads - and you know your idea is, potentially wanted. Early readers seem to have a faster publishing cycle so you may even see your book within nine months.

Oh! Assuming you actually have an idea? That’s always the problem.

So, where have I got my ideas from?

Some come from school situations as I do a lot of school visiting.

THAT NOISE! arrived because I heard a teacher at a weekly djembe drumming class talk about the drum group he’d set up in his primary school. Which kids, I pondered, would be good at drumming? Answer: the fidgety kids, the ones who can’t help tapping or clicking or making a noise. But plot? Suppose the kids thought they were in trouble with their teacher when what he wanted them for was to form a school drum group? Happy ending!

Here’s another school based idea: MRS BOOTLE’S BOOTS. Outside a school I visited stood rows of brightly-painted welly boots, each a colourfully blooming “flowerpot”. So I created a couple of children waiting for a delayed mum (Oh, the guilt, the guilt!), set them helping a grown-up sort out a box of lost-property wellies, let the mum bring in a tray of bedding plants to say sorry – and there you are: the welly planting plot. (And I sent a copy to the teacher involved with the real blooming boots!)

Nevertheless, the “school idea” comes with a warning. Schools change, both in curriculum and in what’s acceptable. Those wellies might have been part of a gardening club. The drums might be a new school music initiative. The funding for both may now have dried up so my clever little stories no longer link into school requirements. Helping sort old boots and shoes may even have become, in some schools, a health and safety issue. It’s always useful to check on current practice in schools and classrooms.

Note that both these early reader books are specific to a certain school setting. Such ideas would have no chance of being sold for a global market. However, it does mean that such stories can be about people rather than generic animals.

Sometimes commissions arrive. However, even a traditional tale needs thinking about. Take, for example, THE LITTLE RED HEN, where the hen finds the grain of wheat and the other animals won’t help. The plot where she has to do every task herself?

I decided my trio of unhelpful animals would not be the cat, the pig and the goose – or similar - of some versions but “the cat, the dog and the rat”. I chose my creatures because the “cat” and the “rat” made a satisfying rhyming pattern, and because the set of animals would be known by many children and also because they created no cultural problem for schools.

However, there was also the ending to manage. The Little Red Hen does all she must do, bakes her bread and then? Eats it all up herself - which makes her a greedy vindictive character? Not nice! So my Little Red Hen ends by “calling all my little chicks to help me eat the bread”. Rightness is restored. This might seem like a tiny moment, but in early reader and picture book texts, all is done through tiny moments.

Lately there’s been a demand for the “reversed traditional story” idea. Soon after having my knee nipped by a goat at a pet farm, I dreamed up LITTLE TROLL, whose happy, friendly under-the-bridge world is disturbed by the arrival of three bad goats.

Note: if I had a picture-book-writing motto, it would be “always think twice.” Or more than twice. As I wrote the word “billy goat”, I “thought twice” and re-wrote the word. In the book they have, appropriately, become the Bully Goats, reminding the young reader of the playfulness of language.

One problem with writing for a series is that the series editor and educational consultant will not want – for a while – a story similar to a book that already exists so if you are a new writer, check through the titles that are already out there. I must add that, less overtly, the “one idea at a time” rule is true of all publishers, expect perhaps for picture books about bears or kittens.

However, ideas can be used for more than one format. During the Darwin “evolution” anniversary, I wrote a couple of small scripts for an educational animation project. Somehow, trying to think up a Twisty Tale, evolution edged into my head again.

THE LOVELY DUCKLING became a story about how three slightly less-perfect ducklings use their physical differences to develop useful skills, whilst the poor, fussed-over Beauty - the lovely duckling – has to stay in the nest, bored and beautiful, until she opts for the everyday life of the farmyard herself. Call it my revenge on celebrity culture!

I can’t draw every well, but I do “see” the scenes on the page spreads and write imagining possible illustrations. It’s always a joyous moment when one sees the artist’s own version especially when they have added a twist that I hadn’t imagined.

As far as ideas go, it can be useful to think “idea plus genre”, and strengthen an idea by placing it within a recognisable but unlikely frame. My BIG BAD BLOB is a cautionary fantasy tale about the danger of dropping gum, written after having to walk over new pavements daubed with horridly spitty gum.

Yuk! So, writing the text, my mind was definitely focused on the horror genre, even though I knew the story needed to be humorous.

Now that’s another thing. BIG BAD BLOB is a great favourite from six years upwards. Children younger than that don’t appreciated the joke so clearly, although they like the illustrations.

Picture book ideas need to be within the understanding and experience or the “story experience” of the child. Too clever, and the book won’t keep their interest or reach their hearts.

I often use well-known rhythms and rhymes for my writing, and can trace several back to a familiar refrain, such as THE DEEP DARK FOREST. Early reader book words need to sound good in the mouth, so I revise by reading the text aloud over and over again.

Lost family pets have brought me ideas - THE WRONG HOUSE – and there’s also those bad pigeons. . .

Enough! You see, ideas are fluttering about everywhere.

Er, except when you really want them. Like now, today.

Grrr! I’m off to hunt through the old Brain Forest with my trusty Idea Net. If only the thing wasn’t full of holes. Both of them.

Thank you for listening, and happy reading and writing to you all, whatever kind of books you enjoy.
Penny Dolan

Ps. Written with huge thanks to all the illustrators who’ve made my small ideas into real story books.

To find out more about our Guest Blogger,
Penny Dolan, please visit her website