Thursday 30 January 2014

Do The Boys Get All The Fun? By Pippa Goodhart

No they don't, but they just might get more than their fair share when it comes to picture books.
In early November I was emailed some questions by illustrations student Harjit Kaur.  She specialises in picture books, and was asking questions to do with her dissertation.  I answered her questions about why I might choose to use animal characters rather than human ones, whether or not publishers had a preference between the two options ... and then I was completely halted in my tracks by this question:
'Does the gender disparity in anthropomorphic characters in children's picture books make you less inclined to having female protagonists?'
Well I have to admit that I hadn't noticed any gender disparity in anthropomorphic characters, but Harjit kindly sent me links to some learned academic papers discussing exactly that.  Those papers went into complex detail about the dominant/subservient roles of male and female characters, geographical origins of different gender trends, the influence of the picture book examples chosen on young children's developing perceptions of the different genders, and so on.
My own perception of current children's books had been that we'd got the balance about right in the picture book area, although I very much dislike the present trend for pink fairy princess girly books as something quite separate from the snot, underpant and sometimes violent 'boys'' books in the book formats that come after picture books.  Surely we do better than that in picture books?  So I decided to do a small, and not very scientific, experiment.
I simply went through the first hundred picture books reviewed online by Books for Keeps.  Some of those books had no lead character, or the sex of the lead character wasn't clear in the review or cover artwork, in which case I left them out of the count.  But for the hundred with a clear lead character the results were -
Male lead 68%
Female lead 32%
That's quite a difference.  But, perhaps more interestingly, the split between male and female anthropomorphic characters (I'm including robots, monsters, teddy bears and yetis here!) were even more startling.  Removing human characters, we get the following neat percentages -
Male anthropomorphic lead characters 80%
Female anthropomorphic lead characters 20%
My flabber is truly ghasted by those figures!  I'd no idea.  So, why do we trend so heavily towards making animal or alien or toy characters male?  Is it a problem?  If so, why?
I'm glad to say that my most recently published picture book features a female anthropomorphic lead ... and the one I'm working on has a female alien, thanks to Harjit!
Little Nelly's Big Book


Saturday 25 January 2014

Seven picture book predictions

Moira Butterfield
As it’s a new year I have decided to look into my crystal ball to see the future. Well, I DO live near Glastonbury, you know! It’s basically Wizard Central in the UK, and it's easier to buy a crystal ball than a carton of milk there.
Looking into my crystal ball. Not.
Oh, alright. I admit it. I don’t really have a crystal ball, so please don’t hold me to any of my predictions.

In 2014 I foresee personal jetpacks, flying cars and houseworking robots for every home, obviously. That goes without saying. 
My personal jetpack, expected in 2014.

But what about picture books? Now I will try to use my magic powers…..

1. I foresee more picture books connected to online sites or Apps providing extra material - not just e-book versions but all sorts of activities and extra words. This will be done in clever new ways, involving swiping or pointing a smart phone at some part of the book. Hopefully authors will be asked to help produce the online material, to make it imaginative. You may or may not wish to be involved, but I guess you need to be aware of whether you do or not when you sign contracts (I foresee getting a knowledgeable agent to blog about that side of things here on Picture Book Den in 2014).

STOP PRESS; Since I did the first draft of this blog I’ve been asked to work on a series of books that connect to Apps, so that prediction has already come true for me. Maybe I DO have magic powers...Cool!

2. To compete in a digital age, books for adults are increasingly packaged with beautiful binding and cover effects to make them extra-desirable physical objects (check out the lovely new Gollancz Terry Pratchett Mort books being published in the UK as an example).  Perhaps the same will happen with picture books. We may see more beautiful ‘must have’ editions of favourites, not just the usual paperbacks and board books.

3. We are already seeing more and more books reprinted with added physical extras –such as pressout card models excetera. Authors might like to spend a little time thinking of their own list of suggested extra elements and offer this creative thinking to publishers, if appropriate.They might ignore you, in which case no harm done, but I'd have thought they're more likely to be pleased. 

4. I foresee publishers asking authors to make more and more personal effort to publicise their own work. That means being active online. It’s not easy, but we shouldn’t panic that we’re not on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and Blatherbox (It’s ok. I made that one up). We should do what we’re comfortable with and have time for. We should try to add some kind of value to the digital universe when we can, and not simply ‘sell, sell, sell’.  

5. I foresee more classic well-sold picture books being taken apart and reconstituted to create early learning ranges (eg: a counting book, a colours book etc etc). This is happening a lot. Nothing wrong with that, but it would be nice to see some more imaginatively reconstituted material in 2014.

6. The future of self-published digital e-picture books is very hard to predict. has been flooded with a tide of awful tat produced in the Far East, so it’s hard for professional independents to get noticed or make any money. I produced some bespoke ebooks in 2012 with Gerry Hawksley, but we were thoroughly demotivated in 2013 by the tat tide and by the capricious behaviour of Amazon. We have to get our mojo back on that one. Apps are very expensive for an independent author to produce, so it doesn't seem worth it. Sorry, my crystal ball has gone foggy here and I don’t have any predictions as yet. Perhaps there will be a gamechanger – a big 52-shades style hit that gets everybody thinking differently. 
Off to try my new wand.

7. I don't yet foresee a big picture book hit in 2014. That’s not because there won’t be one, but because it’s impossible to predict where it will come from. That’s a good thing, people! Keep writing!

Monday 20 January 2014

Digging Deep - Winter on Picture Book Island by Malachy Doyle

Back in July I wrote a blog called Summer on Picture Book Island.  A number of people said ‘Oh, you lucky thing!’ 

But Jonathan Allen, ever the sceptic, said ‘Yeah, but I bet it’s not like that in the depths of winter.’  So here’s an update.

7 a.m.  Dog yapping downstairs - ‘I want my breakfast!’  Writer puts earplugs in, and tries to ignore her.

7.15 a.m.  Dog ups the decibels.  Writer tumbles from warm bed.  In dressing gown and slippers, he descends to the chill of the kitchen. (It's the artist's dressing gown, by the way.  Writer's one got peed on by the cat and is in the washing machine. Long story.  And I know I look silly in it.) 

7.30 a.m.  Menagerie now fed.  Time to feed writer – muesli, orange juice, lapsang souchong, toast and tawny orange marmalade.  Writer is a creature of habit.  Reads last of the last Alice Munro, and sighs. (Watched over by grandson - who came to stay over Christmas, bringing untold delight).

 8 a.m.  Writer riddles rayburn (not allowed to do so before eight as it wakes the artist, sleeping above).  Gets the heat of the house going and brings artist her first mug of tea.

8.30 a.m. Writer switches on computer.  Checks email.  Has quick read of current picture book.  Changes ‘gone’ to ‘flown’.  Hyphenates ‘hot-air’.  Smiles.

9 a.m. Writer brings tea two to artist.  Dons running gear.  Running is writer’s latest obsession.  He aims to celebrate his 60th birthday, in June, by completing his first marathon.  Is writer mad? 

9.10 a.m. Sets out, with dog, into the crisp, chilly air.  Up the lane, past the holiday cottages, along the road, over the sand dunes, across the beach, past the cemetery and home.  5k.  Under 25 minutes.  Not bad for an old fella.

9.50 a.m. Writer lets the ducks out.  Two eggs.  Artist has risen, as has the temperature (inside).  Time for shower and second breakfast. 

10.30 a.m.  Back to the story.  Working on it for two months now.  Initially it involved a trip to the zoo.  Agent liked the idea, but felt that zoo was ‘tacked on’ and asked writer to ‘find an adventure that grows organically out of the core idea… so it all ties indivisibly together and resonates with that core idea more directly and more meaningfully’  Serious business, this picture book lark.  Doesn’t get any easier, no matter how long you’ve been at it.

So the zoo disappeared.  Prose turned to rhyme - sometimes you just can’t stop it - and a new plot appeared, involving cupcakes.  Agent’s view?  ‘It’s starting to get somewhere.  The domestic set-up is beautifully done, and funny too.  But the second half feels undercooked.’  A pun on cupcakes, presumably - agent has a wry humour.  ‘Ending feels more like a twist or punchline than a real ending that ties things up.  It feels closer to the core of the idea, but I need you to dig deeper!’  

Thunder, lightning and emotional depth added.  Agent liked it.  Tried it out on publisher.  Who said, ‘Here we have the beginning of a potentially appealing character around whom an emotionally expansive story could be written.  But, as it currently stands, it doesn’t take the reader far enough. In fact, it doesn’t really take them anywhere.’   Oh dear.

Agent said, ‘Go find a new story that gets right to the core of what it feels like to be that character.  DIG DEEPER!’   

The story has to fly, and that’s where the hot-air balloon comes in.  I’m digging, digging, digging, and I know I’ve got to get there this time.  There’s only so many times you can to-and-fro a piece before people lose faith in it.

12.30 p.m. Lunchtime.  Sitting round the rayburn, with soda bread and beetroot soup.  It’s winter on Picture Book Island.  A time of wind and rain, of hail and storm, of occasional frost and even more occasional snow.  A time for wrapping up warm.  For bedding down and digging deeper.

But already snowdrops are peeping up through the cold cold soil.  Already daffodils are shooting, and montbretia, a blaze of orange later in the year, is pushing its way out.

And my story’s finding its form.  At last it's finding its form. 


P.S. Snowy pix are from a previous winter.  Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Malachy is pleased to announce that The Snuggle Sandwich, his picture book with the illustrator Gwen Millward, has been shortlisted for the Dundee Picture Book Award.

Also his most recent picture book, Too Noisy, with Ed Vere, has been nominated for the Greenaway Award.


Wednesday 15 January 2014

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words - Lynne Garner

A friend recently posted a cute animal photo on my Facebook page. As soon as I saw it I just knew I had to use it as a basis for a picture book story. So I grabbed a sheet of A4 paper and divided into 12 sections (I tend to write the traditional 12 double page spreads). I started to plot my story, which started well. However when I reached the last page I stalled. I had the image in my minds eye, I knew what action was taking place but I just couldn't put it into words. I decided to put the story to one side and allow my subconscious solve the issue for me. However a week or so went by and I was still stuck. Suddenly it hit me. The page didn't need words, the picture could show the reader what I wanted them to know.

I'm not the only author to let the picture tell the story. In the hands of the right illustrator the story can be told successfully without a single word on the page. For example in one of my favourite pictures books The Big Bad Mole's Coming! written by Martin Waddell and illustrated by John Bendall-Brunello there are two pages that contain no words (part of one page below). The action needs no words, I can tell exactly how the animals are feeling from their body language.

Another book that uses this device is Knight Time written by Jane Clarke and illustrated by Jane Massey. The page is a fold out page which opens to reveal a second page with text. Jane informs me the idea was that as the reader turned the page they would feel they were entering the forest where Little Knight and Little Dragon are lost. As you can see from the page below you don't need words to feel the tingle run up your spine and to start to worry about the main characters.

So to all those picture book writers out there. If you're working on a new picture book story and stall ask yourself "can a picture paint the words I need?" If the answer is yes then don't be afraid to allow the illustrations to tell the story for you.

Lynne Garner

I also write for: 
Authors Electric - covers digital self-publishing 
Awfully Big Blogging Adventure - the ramblings of a few scattered authors  
The Hedgehog Shed - concerned with hedgehog rescue
Fuelled By Hot Chocolate - my own ramblings
The Craft Ark - craft how-to blog

My online classes with WOW starting March 2014:

Friday 10 January 2014

A Family Affair by Coral Rumble

In October 2013, I had the great pleasure of seeing my picture book, The Adventures of the Owl and the Pussycat, published by Parragon. What made it even more exciting, was the fact that it wasn’t just my book, but a collaboration with my illustrator daughter, Charlotte Cooke. When she was still at uni, her tutors strongly encouraged her to submit an entry for the Macmillan Prize. Although she felt reluctant, because of other work pressures, she decided to play with an idea she’d had. At this point, Charlotte commented to me, ‘It says in the rules you can work with an author’, and so the die was cast! (She was, incidentally, awarded Highly Commended by Macmillan, and was exhibited with the other successful illustrators. Very handy for promoting a new girl on the block!)

As you might have gathered, our book is loosely based on the well-known, classic Lear poem. In fact ‘based’ is probably too strong a word as, although we use the titular characters in the story, they are, in fact, two children playing dress-up as an owl and pussycat. The text touches base with the original poem at the beginning and end. I wanted to echo some of the lines, and use the original iambic pentameter, to ease in and out of the adventure, and to suggest to parents the inspiration for the children’s role play. The rest of the poem takes the reader or listener on a quirky adventure, over and under the sea. The metre changes to a quicker pace, as we dance from one scenario to the next, with lines containing caesuras to create a seesaw effect. I thought the rocking effect might help a stressed parent at bedtime!

The most satisfying thing for us both, is that the book seems to have really caught the imagination of children, in just the way we had hoped. We wanted it to be a springboard for imaginative play. Charlotte’s beautiful illustrations are both detailed and humorous, and enlarge the possibilities for story development. We’ve been excited to hear of children dressing up for their own sea adventures:

 Writing is often a solitary act, so working alongside someone else is a treat. When the ‘someone else’ is your daughter, it’s a double blessing of delight! In fact, The Adventures of the Owl and the Pussycat, is a real family affair. I have dedicated the book to my parents, and Charlotte has dedicated it to her husband and children – although her son, Jasper, could only be referred to as ‘bump’ at the time it went to press! Her daughter, Amelia Belle, is named in the book on a passport, belonging to a globe-trotting puffin. In fact, all of the passport stamp dates on that page, are significant to someone in the family, or to Charlotte’s friends.

So, what started off as a vague idea in Charlotte’s head, and my desire to give her some text to illustrate for a competition, developed into a labour of love for us both. I’ve worked for many years as a poet, and never expected to work with my daughter. I think we’ve both learnt much in the process, as her career is just blossoming, and this is my first picture book. It has truly been an unexpected adventure! 

Coral Rumble has had 3 poetry collections published, and has contributed to 100+ anthologies. She often writes for Cbeebies TV and radio, and is featured in Favourite Poets (Hodder Children's Books). Michael Rosen has commented, "Rumble has a dash and delight about her work."

Sunday 5 January 2014

New Year's Revolution... Resolving to do it all again -tidier house, be more organised, oh yes, and write some lovely picture books, by Juliet Clare Bell

Happy New Year!

I’ve always loved New Year’s Eve and New Year: reflecting on the previous year, and even more fun, the promise of exciting things to come. It’s such an optimistic time. I know lots of people don’t, but I love new year’s revolutions (as a child I used to think that’s what they were called –and that’s how they can feel sometimes). I love them, even if they don’t quite turn into what they set out to be...

One thing about writing for a blog is that you become slightly more accountable for your resolutions, which can be a great thing, or it can make you look a little foolish. I was thinking about this blog post and what I’d put in when I realised I’d done one last year at new year so I checked it out...

...oops. Most of the same things.

I’d posted a picture of my newly tidied desk:

I had a great weekly plan which was making me much more productive:

I had a calendar and I was determined to use it!

To be fair, for several months I did do all those things and it was brilliant. The house was tidier than it had ever been, I was much more focused... but I can pretty much sum up the whole of the rest of the year from March 12th onwards in three words: my mum died. And that was 2013.

I’m mighty glad to be starting 2014. It feels like a good time to try and get on top of things again, and actually not all plans for being more organised (and having a more sorted house and working environment) at the beginning of 2013 came to nothing. I'm going to restart my weekly plan that worked so well for a while, and I am at a better physical starting place (I can’t un-chuck all the masses of stuff I chucked out last January, so although there’s a long way to go, the house is in a much better state than it was a year ago). And good things did happen in 2013, including getting an office over the road with fellow children’s author, Leila Rasheed.

Writing goals for 2014

In our end of year local SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) meet up in December, we discussed our personal plans for 2014 and what had worked well/not so well for us in 2013. I realised that my three writing goals for 2014 are actually not even writing goals, but creating a better environment where I hope the writing will slightly take care of itself...

[1] Use a calendar properly. To many people, this seems ridiculous, but I still struggle with writing things down in one place and not carrying around most dates in my head. I spend half the time not using any calendars at all, and the other half, trying to use loads at the same time (two wall calendars –home and office; a diary; notes on my phone; the calendar on my phone; google calendar; a wall planner). Not this year! I’m going to try and master google calendar and pretty much use that and a wall planner (for all you organised people, if you’ve got any good tips, please please leave them in the comments...)

[2] Use a to-do list properly. If someone’s got the perfect to-do list system, please elaborate in the comments... I’ve just signed up to the free version of Simpleology (on the recommendation of other picture book writers) and I’m going to try using it every day for a few months to see if it actually helps (or whether it’s just another way of procrastinating).

[3] Staying on top of accounts. This has taken up ridiculously more thinking time than it ever needed to. I think I’ve realised that it’s actually all pretty straightforward –you just have to do it and keep doing it and have a spreadsheet and DO IT. And not waste time thinking about it and JUST DO IT!

I guess that sums it up for 2014: just do it. Oh, and also my favourite quote from David Almond at a talk he gave in Birmingham in November, in response to the question by a young girl on what should she do if she wanted to become a writer: "Make it lovely".

2014’s definitely going to be a happier year. There are lots of exciting things coming up on the writing front -once a fortnight, starting this month, Leila and I are hosting day-long writing retreats, where writers/illustrators can come and write in the (quiet) company of other writers; once a month, we’re doing an SCBWI-equivalent up at the new Library of Birmingham; I’m running another picture book writing evening class starting in a few weeks; I’ve got some lovely author visits lined up, including a really exciting one on World Book Day, and I’ve been commissioned to write a really exciting non-fiction picture book, which I’ve been doing lots of (delicious) research for and which I’m going to blog about in March. And Tara Lazar’s brilliant PiBoIdMo from November 2013 has left me with lots of new shoots for new stories which I’ll keep watering over the coming months...

Happy New Year! and make it lovely...

What are your writing goals for this year? Do you have any hints on doing a to do list well, or using a calendar efficiently?

Juliet Clare Bell is currently writing a picture book on Bournville, the Cadburys and chocolate, which is fascinating and very tasty...

Wednesday 1 January 2014

This year I'm cutting down on clutter by Jane Clarke

Happy New Year!

My new year's resolution is to attempt to cut down on some of the clutter in my study.
 This year, I plan to:

Get a proper prop box for the props I take on school visits as they have overflowed from my little suitcase.

Recycle papers and magazines and store pics that interest me on Pinterest instead. National Geographics are off to the charity shop.

Send a pile of foreign language editions somewhere useful. Any ideas where?

And finally…

This year, I WILL try to sort out my notebooks stuffed full of half-baked ideas. Has anyone tried organising picture book ideas in Schrivener or any other software? 

May your 2014 be full of fantastic picture books! There's always room for more of those …

Jane's currently working on three picture book texts to be published by Nosy Crow in 2015, and has just had a mini-series of board books accepted by Random House.