Monday 31 March 2014

A writing process described

Moira Butterfield

A cover from the work in progress described below.

 “I like your story. When I read it, it’s like a movie in my head.”
That was part of a lovely email sent to me by a young US reader this week, and I was delighted with the phrase she used because it struck a chord with me, and made me think about my work process.
I work on books for all ages and in several genres. Whether I’m working on story material, non-fiction or practical make-and-do ideas. I’m doing my best to take my reader on a journey, and to do that I’m trying to imagine what effect the words and images are going to have. If my reader can ‘see a movie’ in their head, I’ve succeeded.
This chimes with something I’ve been working on in the last few weeks, so I thought I’d share the work process on the project, because it’s a particularly lively one. By-the-by, it’s also a peek into a different kind of author commission – intensive, fast and team-led – rather than picture book texts that develop over time without a specific brief. However, there are similarities.
The brief I’m going to explore came from an educational publisher Wayland. They wanted a series for children who are in the very first years of school (and who would therefore still respond to a picture book approach). For the visuals we had to use existing photography from photo-libraries where possible, combined in some way with backgrounds. The subject of the series was to be ‘my feelings’. The feelings were already chosen – When I’m - sad, angry, surprised, happy. The size was set – 210 x 210mm, 24pp. Now it was down to me to think of a way to do it (and do it very fast!).
The first step I took was to get out my sketchbook, and I began to think and to doodle ideas. What would a child think about being angry or being sad? How could words and pictures help them to think about it? How could I create books that were helpful and positive but not moralizing and patronising? How would the books work in a classroom or with a parent?
I didn’t think of all these questions at once. They came to me as I mused and doodled and, crucially, when I started running mini movies in my head imagining children using the books. I guess I started to imagine myself as a child. Yes, that sounds a little weird, and I do occasionally wonder if I am, in fact, crazy when I do this – But then I think most authors must probably feel this way at times. 
I soon realized that I wanted a great deal of fun in the ‘feeling’ books, and I wanted lively imaginative action – such as feeling angry enough to blow up like a volcano, making a face angry enough to scare monsters or feeling angry enough to bellow like an elephant.

Rough sketches and scribbles for 'Angry'
Each book needed to be crafted to create a strong shared experience and give opportunities for role-playing. Above all they needed to be fun. That approach could only work if we combined the photographs with very lively graphics. 
Here's me playing about with ideas for an 'angry' contents page (and repeating myself!).

Soon I was writing, sketching and selecting a range of possible photos, and luckily I found I was working with a fantastic design/illustrator team at Rocket Design in East Anglia. They really ‘got’ my ideas, ran with them and made them work. 

The designers took my text, sketches and photo suggestions and made them dynamic.

After writing an initial draft of the first book I realized that I needed to add more interactivity. I added extra words that children could say, such as ‘pop’ or ‘boom’, that could be integrated into the visuals. I wanted my young readers to really start acting and to have a laugh whilst thinking about themselves! I even added a whole acting spread at the back. 
An 'acting' spread in the process of being designed (the text relates to the rest of the book)

The words needed to be rhythmic so that they were easily and satisfyingly read aloud (perhaps by a teacher to a whole class, or by a child to a reading mentor). They had to get across the meaning, obviously, and also give the designers opportunities for those lively graphics. Of course, the text evolved as it went along, and I went down one or two wrong routes and had to reverse: 
 “Is angry really the right emotion for stubbing a toe? Hmm…Now I come to think of it, probably not. I’d be more likely to blub.”
The whole project sounds a bit complicated when written down, but it was mostly intuitive. However, it only gelled because I made sure I constantly thought of the child who was my reader. It’s the same technique I would use for any age-group or children’s book genre I was working on. It sounds quite intense, and does feel intense. For any genre, I'm putting in maximum effort and thought.

The thinking process would be similar in a picture book, but then one would have the time and space to go in any direction, unfettered. You might make a mood board, perhaps, or simply sit and play with words. You’d be unlikely to send sketches with your story, but perhaps you might do a few privately to help you think about a character. I’d be interested to hear. Do you perhaps run a movie in your head, then change it and follow different paths? And do you feel a bit crazy sometimes? Is it, at times, a very intense experience?

Perhaps I should do another ‘feelings’ book especially for authors: ‘When I’m creating...’! 

Cover designs
PS: the books are still being worked on and haven’t gone to press yet. Many thanks to Debbie Foy and Steve White-Thomson for agreeing to let me write about the project.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Tear-jerkers: picture books that make you cry by Malachy Doyle

When I read, I want to care about the characters.  I want to become emotionally involved with them.  I love it when a book makes me laugh out loud.  I also love it when a book makes me cry.

Many picture books make you laugh out loud.  I've just spent a week with my nearly-two year old grandson, Daniel, and we laughed and laughed.  His favourite right now is Ding Dong Gorilla! by a certain Michelle Robinson - it's a scream!

None made him cry, luckily.  But picture books are for two audiences - the prime audience, young children, but also the adult who picks it up in the shop or library, and who then shares it with children.  It's crucial that the book works for both - and works, therefore, on more than one level.

Some books, which children happily accept as one more enjoyable story, somehow have the capacity to reduce adults to quivering wrecks.  I realised this when a very kind reader responded to a previous blog post about my book The Dancing Tiger. 

'Five years and two daughters on and after hundreds of attempts,' she told me, 'I am yet to actually finish the story. My noise twitches when I pick it up, it stings on the opening line and the tears are flooding at ‘But now that I am old and grey...' 
Luckily it hadn't put her off.  'I have discussed this book for hours on end and my sister and I often wonder if you or Steve and Lou (the illustrators) can actually comprehend what you have created. I have ten copies ready to pass to my children and my grandchildren. When my children ask (as they often do), do I believe in magic? I think of your book and gently reassure them that yes I do.'

Isn't that wonderful!  It got me thinking about the picture books that have had a similar effect on me.  I'm not sure if any have been quite so dramatic, but I'd have no trouble naming some that moved me intensely.

Books about death, if they're done right, are inevitably deeply moving: I'm thinking Frog and the Birdsong, by Max Velthuijs.  I'm thinking Badger's Parting Gifts, by Susan Varley.

And then there are books that are so beautifully told and illustrated that you just love them, over and over.  I'm thinking The Mousehole Cat, by Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley.  I'm thinking Susan Laughs, by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross.  I'm thinking Owl Babies, by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson.  And I'm thinking Dogger - always Dogger.  They don't necessarily make me cry, but they move me deeply, every time.

Anyone want to own up to crying at a picture book?  Any recommendations for the tear-jerker list?  Or just ones that move you deeply.  I'd love to read a few more.  (And maybe write a few more...) 

On that subject, I've a picture book coming out later this year (hopefully) called Tadcu's Bobble Hat.  Tadcu means grandfather in Welsh, and that's all I'm saying...

Sunday 23 March 2014

Turning Black and White into Colour: Creative Nonfiction Picture Books ... and Chocolate by Juliet Clare Bell

George Cadbury aged about 20 (c) Cadbury Archive.

I’ve fallen in love, and I’m having a whirlwind romance with [cue page turn]...

Creative nonfiction picture books.

Creative nonfiction picture books are simply picture books where the story happens to be true. Sounds really simple but it took me a while to work out that’s what I wanted to do...

I’d thought about writing non-fiction for younger children before. But the passion wasn’t there. I love picture books. I love the way the words and pictures are so much more together than they are separately. I love the drama that can be created in such a short space. I love the form and the constraints.

There was plenty of really interesting information in the nonfiction books I was looking at...

Save The Orangutan (c) Sarah Eason, Powerkids Press.

They all felt very educational –which isn’t a criticism at all. I love learning and I was enjoying reading them but they didn't make me want to write them (like good picture books do). So I shelved the idea of writing nonfiction until something that really grabbed me turned up. Then one day ... [cue page turn]

Something that really grabbed me turned up.

An illustrator friend, Jess Mikhail, and I were both approached by Bournville Village Trust, in Birmingham, UK. Would we consider writing and illustrating a picture book together about Bournville? This is where the Cadbury brothers built their famous chocolate factory in the late nineteenth century, followed by a model village, created for the benefit of the factory workers, wider community and society. The story is fascinating. It’s passionate, political, philosophical, ground-breaking with an extraordinary family at its heart. And of course, there’s chocolate. Lots of chocolate. Would we consider creating this picture book?

(That's meant to be an excited me, pretending to have to ponder on the question that actually has an obvious answer. Didn't quite turn out that way...)

[cue the page turn where everyone knows the answer and can shout it out loudly together:]


Unusually, because this has been commissioned by BVT rather than a traditional publisher, we get to choose the angle and approach for the book and the design. At first, I thought we’d go down the route of fun historical book with lots of interesting facts and a mix of illustration, photos, letters etc.. There are some really interesting and fun books like that that we looked at:

I've read Mandy Ross's Children's History of Birmingham over and over and it's great.
(c) Mandy Ross, Hometown World.

...and we've really enjoyed the Avoid... books.
Avoid Being a Second World War Evacuee by Simon Smith, David Salariya and David Antram, Bookhouse.

I originally thought that our book might end up somewhat similar in format to these books.

But without thinking too much more about the structure, or indeed trying to impose in advance which story I’d try and tell, I got on with the research...

...and what an exciting area to research.
(My walk up to the entrance, where the amazing archives are located.)

I immersed myself in the world of the Cadburys and chocolate.

I’ve had amazing access to the archives and I’ve interviewed some fascinating people in their eighties and nineties, who used to work in the factory and whose families worked there well before. I’ve toured the Bournville Village Estate

(Old photos of Bournville Village Trust. Copyright BVT)

and watched footage that’s over one hundred years old.

I’ve read letters and handwritten personal reminiscences about the 1880s

(c) Cadbury Archive
(c) Cadbury Archive
Recognise this signature and what it became? (c) Cadbury Archive

and I’ve got access to incredible photos...

But back to the structure –and creative nonfiction...

After a while of playing around with different ideas, Jess and I decided we’d like for it to be a real picture book, telling a real story. I got loads of nonfiction picture books out of the library. Some of them were full of fascinating facts and were really well written. But I didn’t find any beautiful ones that were telling a story. So I asked at the library if there were any they thought were really unusual, arresting, beautiful. The librarian came up with one that she felt was in a completely different league from the others. But we couldn’t find a copy anywhere. I kept asking what made it so special and she said, “you’ll know when you see it”. I reserved it but in the meantime, I couldn’t resist and I bought it, too.

Can We Save The Tiger? by Martin Jenkins and Vicky White is indeed a beautiful book, which unusually for a nonfiction book, was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Award in 2012.
(c) Martin Jenkins and Vicky White, Walker Books

But I couldn’t find any others –except one story we had at home that was first out in 1999:

This beautiful book, Stone Girl, Bone Girl is about Mary Anning, the girl who inspired the popular children's tongue-twister She Sells Sea Shells on the Sea Shore (c)Laurence Anholt and Sheila Moxley, Frances Lincoln Books).
(c) Laurence Anholt and Sheila Moxley (Frances Lincoln Books)
(c) Laurence Anholt and Sheila Moxley (Frances Lincoln Books)

And then someone from my fantastic online critique group (most of whom are American) posted up about WOW Nonficpic, an online nonfiction picture book forum and about an online course that was coming up, run by nonfiction picture book author, Kristin Fulton, which some of us might be interested in. And I feel like I entered into a new world of creative nonfiction that is much more common in the US than here in the UK. There was lots of talk about different, beautiful creative nonfiction picture books and my wish-list grew and grew...

I decided to do the four-week online course, where I was introduced to yet more beautiful creative nonfiction picture books.

The beautiful, simple creative nonfiction picture book, Me...Jane about the childhood of Jane Goodall (c) Patrick McDonnell, Little, Brown.

(c) Patrick McDonnell, Little, Brown.

Balloons Over Broadway (c) Melissa Sweet, Houghton Mifflin

from Balloons Over Broadway (c) Melissa Sweet, Houghton Mifflin
Tree Lady by H Joseph Hopkins, Beach Lane Books.

Tree Lady by H Joseph Hopkins, Beach Lane Books.

A Splash of Red (c) Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet, Knopf

From A Splash of Red (c) Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet, Knopf

Henry's Freedom Box (c) Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson, Scholastic Press

Locomotive (c) Brian Floca, Simon and Schuster.

I wanted to be immersed in a world of books that was new to me (and which there was little access to in the UK) and to be surrounded (virtually) by other people who were passionate about the form of creative nonfiction in the way that I’m so often surrounded by those writers who are passionate about picture books. The course was extremely good (I’d very seriously recommend it to anyone writing or interested in writing nonfiction picture books)–and timely for me. I’ve learned lots, and have now got hold of a pile of books that I can use for inspiration (about completely different subjects). I’d already fallen in love with the research and the story for our book, but now I’d fallen in love with the form of book, too.

About four months after I’d starting researching the book, I decided which story I wanted to tell (the history is so fascinating I could have told lots). I spent weeks working on a picture book structure and testing it out with other writers.

And I presented it to all the relevant people in Bournville earlier this week and it got the big thumbs up.

Creative nonfiction is very much like a fiction picture book. It’s about the story and the way you tell it; the use of page turns and the highs and lows. The expectation and surprise and like all good picture books, it needs to stand up to being read again and again. And the illustrations must be lovely, as with all good picture books.

The very beautiful The Journey Home by Fran Preston-Gannon, Pavilion Books. It's not quite creative nonfiction (it's a made up story about endangered species) but it's beautiful and inspirational.

(c) Fran Preston-Gannon, Pavilion Books.

I’m so excited.
First, by the story –of two innovative young Quaker brothers...
Richard Cadbury in later years (c) Cadbury Archive
George Cadbury as an older man (c) Cadbury Archive

who did something remarkable. The death of their beloved mother had left their father, John Cadbury,

John Cadbury (c) Cadbury Archive

a broken man and his cocoa factory and business was failing badly. With great integrity, humanity, sacrifice and an extraordinary vision, they took on the business, and turned it round to become incredibly successful throughout the world, whilst at the same time working to create much better working conditions,

Bournville, the 'factory in a garden' 1879 (c) Cadbury Archive

The girls' dining room (c) Cadbury Archive

living conditions

from this...
Birmingham slums (c) Cadbury Archive
to this...

(c) Cadbury Archive

circa 1905 (c) Cadbury Archive

Bournville Green (c) Cadbury Archive

Early cottages built for the new model village (1905) (c) Cadbury Archive

Early housing (c) Cadbury Archive

Almshouses for former factory workers, built by Richard Cadbury (c) Cadbury Archive

First Bournville cottages, 1880 (c) Cadbury Archive

and spiritual and physical conditions for many thousands of people.

Early shot of girls at the factory (c) Cadbury Archive

Bournville Friends Meeting House (c) Cadbury Archive

(c) Cadbury Archives

Friends Hall 1901 (c) Cadbury Archive

Girls' Physical Training Den, 1902 (c) Cadbury Archive

Camp school (or 'school on a barge') 1919 (c) Cadbury Archive

Day continuation school (c) Cadbury Archive

(c) Cadbury Archive

Girls' gymnastics, 1912 (c) Cadbury Archive

Swimming lessons, provided free during work time, 1910/1911 (c) Cadbury Archive

But I’m also really excited about having discovered creative nonfiction. I’ve got several other creative nonfiction books I’d really like to write after this one. I think that this love affair will go far...

I’ve spent so much of my time up at the factory archives, breathing in the sumptuous smell of chocolate as I get off the number 27 bus, I know I’m going to feel quite bereft when it’s over. It’s been like a dream job and I don’t want it to end.

But it’s time to get down to the actual writing now, bringing colour to the black and white, having made piles of notes over the past few months. The first really really rough draft will only take a couple of days to write as I know the story so well and I’ve got my structure sorted. Then I’ll spend the next couple of months playing with the language, fleshing it out and editing it.
OK, we're not quite (?!) there yet, but we will be... once I've finished the text and Jess has illustrated it...

As the wonderful David Almond said at a talk I went to last year:

“Make it lovely.”

And that’s what we plan to do.

What are your thoughts on creative nonfiction? Why are there so many more beautiful creative nonfiction picture books in the US than in the UK? Do UK publishers not feel there is a market for them? Are they there and I’m missing them? Or is there going to be the same explosion of these books in the UK in the coming years? I really hope so. Jess Mikhail and I are in an unusual position of being able to create what we most want to create, knowing that it will be produced and published (in conjunction with BVT), but it would be fantastic to see lots more on the shelves in schools, libraries and bookshops...