Monday 28 October 2013

Writing picture books for 'reluctant readers' by Linda Strachan

Following from Jonathan Allen's recent post on illustrating picture books for educational /school publishers and we also had Penny Dolan's great Guest post in August where she talked about her 'early readers' in   Ideas and Inspiration or when is a picture book not a picture book  I thought it might be an idea to take a look at  a different side of writing picture books for the educational market.

I started my writing career writing books for children who are sometimes called 'reluctant readers'. Those children who find learning to read more difficult than others, for a whole range of different reasons.

My very first published books were a series of 8 books for educational  publishers Ginn (now part of Pearson Education) who asked me to write one level of a series called ZOOM  for children who were around 8-9 years old, but who had a reading age of 5-6 years.

There were to be 6 levels in the series ,each level was written by a different author and about different characters. Levels were labelled Sets A to F, and I was to write for set D.

The children would progress gradually through all 8 books on one level, following the characters and their adventures. Within each level the books got progressively more challenging so that by the time the child had got to the end of the 8 books they would be ready to move up to the set above and meet new characters and stories that would again be slightly more challenging.

My lovely editor for the series was Frances Ridley, and she guided me, a complete novice, through the process.  I learned a lot from writing these books and it was a great way to discover how many different ways you can say the same thing, in fewer words and still keep the excitement of the story going.

I was given a lot of information about how many pages each book should have, approx number of words on each page etc. etc. but after reading these through I knew that the most important thing was to get two characters the reader would care about.

It was more important than ever that the stories would engage the reader because when you find the actual task of reading the words on the page difficult, you need good a reason to read on, and to turn the page.

My books were about a boy called Tom and a strange alien girl called Zoola.

Zoola is really just a lump of green goo, but she can turn into anything she sees, which provides all sorts of possibilities for adventures.

Tom finds Zoola when he brings an old box out of a dark cupboard in an old house and ignores the instructions on the box....

So... he takes it out into the sunshine and it begins to wobble so he drops it and out oozes green slime.  The green slime then turns into a girl. (there is a cartoon of a girl on the wall behind Tom)

 This is Zoola

In Zoola and the Ghost they visit a spooky castle and make a startling discovery, the ghost is not quite what it seems.  They also visit a funfair and go on a plane, because Tom wins a holiday as a prize for foiling a burglary and catching the burglar, Zoola's help of course!


The illustrations, by Julian Mosedale, are really bright and colourful.
The text is short and snappy, with very short sentences, lots of repetition and the story layout carefully orchestrated so that you want to turn the page to find out what happens next.

 The stories were also designed to lead from one to another as Zoola learns about Tom's world and how some green things are not good to eat (like pond slime and caterpillars) but green apples are fine, as long as you don't steal them from a fruit stall.
 The prize trip Tom wins is a holiday in the USA so off the go on a plane.  As always with Zoola there are several mishaps on board but she does get  things right, saving them all in the end. This book is followed by the holiday story Zoola is kidnapped.

 When they visit a dinosaur theme park on holiday Zoola is kidnapped by Shorty and Lofty.

I wanted to try something a bit different with this book. So this is a bit of a departure because I wanted it to be a puzzle book.  As well as the story-line there are pages where the reader has to guess or spot things in the pictures.
Making sure that it is always moving the story forward, these puzzle pages added a bit of a challenge in different ways, sometimes in reading in others observations and sometimes counting.


  Together Zoola and Tom got into all kinds of trouble but in the end things always turned out okay!

Zoom Set D Zoola and Tom
I loved writing these stories and the great letters and comments I got about them from teachers parents and young readers themselves.  They taught me a lot about writing in general and it is applicable to writing a short story or a novel, just as much as a picture book.

                  -characters we can care about
                   -keeping the reader desperate to turn the page and find out what happens next
                   -finding the right word in the right place
                  -editing to make it as good as it can be.

The Zoola and Tom series was also on an audio cassette. The books were originally published in 1997 but now, sadly, they are all out of print.

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 Children
Website   www.lindastrachan.comBlog BOOKWORDS

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Author/Ilustrator Events by Abie Longstaff

I don't often get to meet up with my illustrator, Lauren Beard. She lives in Manchester, I live in London; and the process of making a book together is often more separated than people imagine.

But I love seeing her when I can. We have the same sense of humour (so important when working together) and we both love the fairy tale world of Kittie Lacey that we've created.

So, when we were asked to do some events together at Seven Stories in Newcastle, we jumped at the chance.

We've never done an event as a twosome for The Fairytale Hairdresser before so we really wanted to get it right and plan something that would include both text and illustration.

We decided to travel up to Newcastle together so I picked up Lauren in Sheffield at a ridiculously early hour and we had a great time in the car plotting and planning the events as well as talking through the next Fairytale Hairdresser books.

 The story-telling space at Seven Stories is truly wonderful! It's up in the attic and there are books hanging from the ceiling as well as an enormous wooden chair to sit in. I loved reading the stories and seeing how much the children liked the books.

Lauren and I wanted to mix up the story and illustration and to pull out themes from the book to illustrate and discuss with the children. One of the themes we chose was emotion. In The Fairytale Hairdresser and Sleeping Beauty, the seven fairies are at first upset, then worried, then cross then happy. We asked the children to make the faces to reflect each feeling and Lauren drew the emotions in cartoon style.

We did some crazy hairstyles

and at the end I showed my writing books and Lauren showed her wonderful sketchbooks, and together we told the children how we make a Fairytale Hairdresser story.

It was so good to do an event with someone else. Occasionally events can feel a bit lonely and it was fantastic to have Lauren there! I also think it added so much for the children to meet both creators of the book and learn about both sides of the process.

I think they had a good time - afterwards there was certainly a long signing queue...

Friday 18 October 2013

On being told what to draw. . . by Jonathan Allen

From 'Fish and Chips' - a book by Julia Donaldson for Oxford Reading Tree

I have, in my career, done a reasonable amount of illustration work for educational publishers, and found it enjoyable, and a good way of keeping the wolf from the door in the 'inbetween books' times that I assume most writers and illustrators go through.

Although ostensibly it is doing the same job as illustrating a picture book for a non-educational publisher, if that's the generic term ;-) there is a completely different relationship between artist and editor.

For a non-educational project, you get given the text, with the pagination pretty much sorted out, and are, by and large, left to work it into rough visual form. You can have input into the position of the text, and can make a case for changing the layout from the original guidelines should the visual dynamics be shown to demand it. So you are a key part of the creative process and your skill and experience is made full use of.

An educational book project isn't like that. The layout is as good as set in stone, and you usually get very detailed instructions about what should be in each picture and where, down to what seem sometimes to be pedantic levels. As someone who has made a living out of being original and creative, this prescribed approach was a bit of a shock the first time I encountered it ;-)

This isn't really a moan about me, the poor artistic type yearning to be free but being strangled by the pedantic demands of educational publishers, it really isn't. I actually enjoy switching off my creative side for a while and just doing a bit of 'Doing'. I know I can do it well, and I guess I am happy to trade my artistic skill for the money (especially what they pay these days, say no more!), but not my ingenuity. That's extra ;-)

Which leads me to my main question, which is, "How did this artist/publisher relationship come about?" It does seem overtly and anxiously controlling, and to me, a bit odd. I detect a distinct lack of faith in what illustrators are capable of doing. I smell committees. . . and hear the wheels of corporate decision making grinding. Maybe they are right, maybe illustrators come up with total garbage when not reigned in. . . I dunno, but right or wrong, it has evolved into 'the way things are done' in the educational sector and I am curious as to why. And why the non-educational sector is so different in it's mindset when, as I mentioned before, it seems to me that they are producing, by and large, the same thing.

Do writers have these sort of issues? I imagine writing for a very particular age group must have strict 'do's and 'dont's'. . .

Sunday 13 October 2013

What's The Magic of Wordless Picture Books? by Pippa Goodhart

I love the lyrical text of a picture book such as Malachy’s ‘Dancing Tiger’.  I love the pow zap language action of comic strip stories.  I love the expressive font usage of particular words in Lauren Child’s ‘That Pesky Rat’.  I love the use of pictures as if they were words in Polly Dunbar’s ‘Penguin’.  But I also love picture books with no words in them at all.  In fact I have an ambition to be the author of a book with no words in it at all.  I want to dream-up visual story or stories that will be realised by somebody else – an artist – and I want my picture ideas to be enough without words.

Why?  Because pictures on their own leave the audience to do the work of noticing all there is to notice; the job of joining the visual story dots to create the story that is probably more truly their own personal version of the book story than is the case when there are words to guide you. 

Many modern reading schemes now begin with simple wordless picture books in order to give children the experience of ‘reading’ a story in a way that all can access, without the skills for decoding text being necessary.  They get children into the habit of reading story (as they will with text) from left to right, turning pages from beginning to end. 

But, more excitingly than that, wordless books make children use their story imaginations, and gives them the chance to express those stories in their own words.  And this isn’t just true for small children, of course.  Shaun Tan’s ‘Arrival’ is a wordless picture book that stretches adult imagination in the most brilliant ways. 
These books become story creating experiences that hand story power to the audience.  Instead of listening to an adult reading out prescribed words, any words (if any are even needed) come from you.  That’s exciting, and involves an author/illustrator who dares to trust their audience to handle the story themselves.

 Apparently studies have shown that parents ‘reading’ wordless picture books to children use much more sophisticated language than would normally be found in a picture book text.  So maybe, ironically, wordless picture books extend children’s vocabulary more than those with words?

What are my favourite wordless picture books? 

Beatrix Rodriquez wonderful stories about a ‘Fox and Hen’ are exciting, funny, moving and memorable. 

Raymond Briggs’ ‘Snowman’, shown in wordless cartoon, has of course become a classic, although many versions of the story now have words added, which seems a shame.

Jeannie Baker’s ‘Home’ is most moving and challenging ‘Home’ and other titles are important books for a wide age range. 
Quentin Blake’s ‘Clown’ is another moving tale.
Come to think of it, all these examples are of quite challenging stories.  Perhaps wordlessness is a way to cope with what might be uncomfortable if it were to be articulated?  What do you think?

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Go on, try an experiment with your picture book writing, by Paeony Lewis

If your story just isn't working, you could screw it up and fling it in the bin. We all have ideas that need to be abandoned. We also have ideas that don’t appear to work, but we’re not ready to give up. There’s something there, but what? Maybe it needs more than the sort of revision that merely moves words around? Maybe it needs you to slip on your white coat and start experimenting?

Sometimes experiments fail, sometimes they succeed. I prefer to concentrate on the successes and conveniently forgotten the failures. And don't forget, the great thing about picture books is that they’re short, so if your experiment fails, you won’t be engulfed in an explosion of thousands of random words.

A Small Experiment: Change the Point of View
Often it’s easier for a young child to understand a story in the third person (he, she). Therefore I began writing my first Florence and Arnold story in the third person. Hmm… Florence’s personality was there, but I wanted more of her feisty determination to shine through. So I experimented and wrote the story in the first person (I), and her attitude burst out of the page. That was the Florence I wanted, but something still wasn’t quite right. 

Florence and Arnold in
No More Yawning,
 illus by Brita Granstrom
Here they are again in
 No  More Biscuits
illus by Brita Granstrom

Another Small Experiment: Change the Tense
For my next experiment I changed from the past tense to the present tense. Ah ha! Now I felt the sense of immediacy I’d been fumbling for in an exuberant young girl, like Florence. Using the first person, present tense, seemed to reflect Florence’s character. Florence’s voice could be clearly heard and a publisher (Chicken House) took two stories (No More Biscuits and No More Yawning).

New US edition (Tiger Tales), 2013
by Paeony Lewis, Illus Penny Ives
A Fundmental Experiment: Change Direction
My story, I’ll Always Love You, was also an experiment, although it was written in the traditional third person and past tense. The experimentation for this story came earlier and was far more basic.

When I first started writing I wrote quirky tales that appealed to my ‘individual’ sense of humour (imagine a dragon on a motorbike in the wild west?). I’d had lots of positive comments, but no contract. So I took another look at the picture books on the shelves in bookshops. Many were cute cuddly tales that oozed emotion and love. They felt a little twee, but hey, I decided to experiment with my ideas and writing.

On a long car journey I asked myself what mattered most to very young children. I thought of my own children and I recalled that my little son, strapped into the car seat behind me, sometimes worried that I wouldn’t love him any more if he was naughty. Of course I would, and I was sad that he’d think otherwise. The words, “Will you still love me?” haunted me for the rest of the car journey. That was the inspiration for I’ll Always Love You (Little Tiger Press). By experimenting I discovered that adding emotional depth to a story can make it resonate.

A Scary Experiment: Start Again
Will my chickens inspire me?

Right now I’m experimenting with chickens and shoes (perhaps I’m reverting to my quirky ways). I sent the original story to my agent and heard a big fat nothing. So I put it aside. Then a year later I decided I didn’t want to give up on this story. However, hearing a big fat nothing made me suspect it needed more than just revision, so I’m experimenting by not even taking a peek at the original story. I’m starting again, from scratch. Plus as I’ve been attending poetry classes for a year, I may use a poetic form. It might work. It might not. It’s an experiment, so it doesn’t matter!

So go on, be brave, experiment with your writing. And if you've tried a writing experiment that failed or succeeded, do tell…

Paeony Lewis is a children’s book author and writing tutor.

Thursday 3 October 2013

To Rhyme or Not To Rhyme? by Natascha Biebow

A recent submission to Blue Elephant Storyshaping has got me thinking again about rhyme . . .

People frequently ask: is it OK for a picture book to be written in rhyme? Editors usually shudder and say that unless you are really good at writing rhyme, you should give it a miss. One of the main reasons is that rhyme is difficult to translate. In a market that is increasingly feeling the pinch and where publishers need to build up a print-run of co-editions in various languages to make publishing a new book financially viable, rhyme can be an instant turn-off.

Another reason is that many rhyming texts submitted are poorly-written with rhymes inserted for convenience rather than to further the story. Plus if the rhythm is off, it’s a huge turn-off and your manuscript goes straight to the rejection pile.

Books in prose by far outnumber those written in rhyme, including many award-winners. So, what makes a rhyming book one that children ask for again and again?

The answer is simple: these are the books where the story comes first.

Anyone can rhyme ‘mouse’ with ‘house’ . . .

But do you have a gift for writing in rhyme or are you in the shallow end of the literary pool with arm bands?

How not to do it:

Sometimes, the tendency is to add a rhyme to round out the stanza. The author opts for a word that is not the most obvious choice, which can lead to the use of unlikely phrases, concepts or vocabulary. As a result, the narrative isn’t coherent. A good test is to ask yourself, “If I were telling this story to a pre-schooler, would I tell it in this way and/or use these words/terms?”

In this example:

“For my birthday, she gave me the best gift ever,
a beautiful fan, made from a feather.”

In picture books, it is important to try to keep the imagery and words child-centred. The gift of a fan is probably not the most obvious one for a small child. Would the author have chosen a ‘fan’ made from a ‘feather’ if it weren’t for trying to find something to rhyme with ‘ever’?

The key to writing an un-put-downable picture book in rhyme is that even if you were to translate the words into another language or prose, you would still choose those same words to tell your story. If you choose a word simply because it rhymes in English, then when it is translated, the book falls apart:

“Milly Molly skipped out of her house
Said hello to a mouse
Who was nibbling some cheese
And jingle jangling its keys.”

The association of the mouse with cheese is logical in English, but ‘keys’ and ‘cheese’, though they rhyme, are completely random objects that would be depicted in the picture, yet not really be very logical in Spanish, for instance.

Forced rhymes will ruin a story.

“Lola shares a room with her brother, Zain,
All their toys and their toy train”

This author has used a rhyme in the first stanza to set up the story, but chose ‘toy train’ to rhyme with the name ‘Zain’. The problem is . . . there is no mention later in the story of the toy train!

The following verse comes at a dramatic point in the plot, where two boys are pretending to be caught up in a storm:

“I wonder what it’s like at sea, caught up in a gale,
Swirling winds and crashing waves as you try to sail?”

If the book were narrated in prose, the voice would shout something like, “Look out, the boat is about to crash!” Would the author have chosen the word ‘gale’ if she weren’t trying to rhyme with ‘sail’? Because the author is trying to make a rhyme, the voice comes across as distant and a bit too self-aware for a pre-schooler.

Remember, though short, in a picture book, each word needs to be intentional! The rhymes in these examples do not further the story.

“But . . .” you say, “rhyme is so delightful to read aloud and makes learning to read so much easier for pre-literate children.”

Yes, it’s heaps of fun – when it’s done right!

How the successful have done it:

The classic example of an internationally bestselling book in rhyme is, of course, The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler.

Though Julia Donaldson admits that she chose the name ‘Gruffalo’ for its rhyme, the important thing to note about the book is that it tells a gripping, original story. The rhythm of the tale is constructed beautifully in classic picture book style.

A repetitive, cumulative opening phrase:

“A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood.
A fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good.”

Building up suspense:

Each time, the Gruffalo’s characteristics are slightly different and scarier.

Rounded off by a catchy refrain:

“A gruffalo? What’s a gruffalo?
A gruffalo! Why, didn’t you know?”

from The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

This pattern continues with the mouse meeting an owl and a snake.

The author follows the classic picture book ‘rule of 3’s’ in which three things happen before the turning point.

The denouement follows in reverse order, with the Gruffalo meeting the owl, the snake and then the fox. For young readers, the delight of the story comes, of course, from being in the know that the tiny mouse is cleverly tricking everyone!

Importantly, the ending is so very satisfying after the excitement of the narrative.

Another series written in rhyme that I just love, is the Duck series by Jez Alborough. This author is a master of using clever rhyme to further the story. Pre-schoolers also love Duck and his friends’ adventures because they are so funny!

In Duck in a Truck, Duck’s truck breaks down and he needs some help getting it out of the muck. The story follows a classic plot:

First, the protagonist gets into a tricky situation . . .

“This is the Duck driving home in a truck.
This is the track which is taking him back.

This is the rock struck by the truck
and this is the muck
where the truck becomes stuck.”

. . . things get worse (the truck remains stuck despite Sheep and Frog trying to help push it out).

Then Goat arrives . . .

“This is the happy sleepy Goat
relaxing in his motorboat”

(Arguably, the ‘motorboat’ is a random choice to rhyme with ‘goat’ but, importantly, it works to advance the plot since Goat’s rope is what helps pull the truck out of the muck. In future stories, the Goat’s motorboat is central to the narrative.) Plus this memorable turn of phrase stays with you after multiple readings.

There is a clear turning point . . .

from Duck in a Truck by Jez Alborough
(a great pause, where the characters think what to do)

. . . and finally everything is resolved.

Ha, ha! The helpers are now stuck in the muck, an irony that won’t be lost on pre-school audiences!

Recently, I came across Stanley’s Stick by John Hegley and Neal Layton. Whilst not totally written in rhyme, this book is a poem that tells the story of a boy’s journey to the seaside with his special stick. The short text has a wonderful rhythm to it, driven by the alliteration of the word ‘stick’ and ‘st’ sounds:

“So here is Stanley standing on the station,
taking his stick for a short stay
at the side of the sea with his mum and dad.”

When Stanley gets to the beach, there is a clear turning point to this story, too:

“Stanley hurls his stick into the wide tide.
What a tiny splosh for something that has been so big in Stanley’s days.”

The word choices sometimes seem a little sophisticated for pre-schoolers, yet, the lilting read-aloud qualities of this kind of writing are a great invitation for learning new phrases. Each word is carefully measured.

“Soon he stumbles upon a stick alone upon the shore.
It is quite different from the stick he had before.
It is wonky."

The stick is an unusual saxophone.
Stanley thinks of home and begins to blurt a tune for Bertie.”

from Stanley’s Stick by John Hegley and Neal Layton

It’s another way to think about telling a story using rhyme.

So, there we have three examples of how it can work. Sure, you can learn the mechanics of writing in rhyme, but will you produce a must-have book? The market is flooded with rhyming picture books that are just ‘OK’. They sell and they are read, but are they memorable? Do they have a compelling and strong story that pre-schoolers beg for again and again? Should you write in rhyme?

If you have the gift . . . yes!

Many thanks to our Guest Blogger, Natascha BiebowAuthor, Editor and Mentor. You can find Natascha at

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is a coaching service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.