Friday 30 May 2014

The Rather Perplexing Picture Book Quiz, by Malachy Doyle

I’ve been rootling through my picture book collection and come up with twenty seven questions to provoke and perplex you.  Some are easy; some are, hopefully, stinkers.  A prize for whoever gets the most right.  (The prize is me saying WELL DONE YOU!)

Put your answers in the comments section and I shall reply with how many are correct.  I won’t say which ones, or that’ll make it too easy for the people coming after.  But as the number rises, feel free to keep trying till we get as close to twenty seven as possible.  Have fun!

1.Who am I, and what are my two grannies called?

2. Name Fungus the Bogeyman’s wife and son.

3. Who did the Tiger come to have tea with?

4. Who's this handsome man?

5. What’s hidden in each picture of Masquerade?

6. What two colours does Wally always wear?

7. And who do we have here?

8. What's the sweetshop called in The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me?

9. Where did Yertle the Turtle live?

10. Name Olivia’s little brother, who's always copying her.

11. Who's this Little White Rabbit with Wings?

12. Who does Handa go to visit?

13. What is the Paper Bag Princess's real name?

14. What did someone dream up to stop cavemen looking rude?

15. Who falls through the dark and into the light of the night kitchen? 

16. By what name is Prince Amir of Kinjan better known?

17. How did Rabbit save a little bit of winter for Hedgehog?

18. Name Orlando's three kittens.

19. How did Bella get Dogger back?

20. In what village did The Little Train and The Little Fire Engine live?

21. What did Big Mamma say when she made the world?

22. Name Captain Slaughterboard’s pirate ship?

23. Who is this car?  And what's its more formal name?

24. Green Frog, Green Frog, what do you see?

25. What should you not do if you want to walk in peace on a Summery Saturday Morning?

26. How does Big Bear eventually get Little Bear to sleep?

27. and finally... what are the only two words other than HUG?

Sunday 25 May 2014

Do The Words Just Come? - Lynne Garner

Uncle Albert during his national service
A few days ago I was on the phone to my Uncle Albert  - all my close friends have heard of Uncle Albert. He's an ace with wood (he was a cabinet maker in a former life and the queen has apparently made him a cup of tea - although in truth I think she got someone else to make it), has a great sense of humour and sometimes asks some very probing questions. Anyway we were discussing the weather, what the dog was up to and how my writing was going. Then he came out with "do the words just come?" I asked him what he meant. "Well do the words just come as you write or do you plan everything first?"

After a few moments of thinking (I only do that thinking stuff in short bursts. I don't want to burn myself out with too much of it) I realised it depends on what words he was asking about. By that I mean dialogue or action. I never used to be a planner but a few years ago I attended a couple of weekend writing retreats organised by the Scattered Authors Society and from that time forward I started to plan (although very loosely).

However after looking at my current work in progress and the plan for my last published picture book (Bad Manners Benjie!) I discovered I plan the action. I know what's going to happen and when but the conversation I leave to the characters to write.

For example for my latest work in progress (a collection of shorts stories rather than a picture book) I have the following scribbled in a book (I do my writing directly onto my laptop but my ideas and planning are done in one of my many note books. I've a growing collection of them with some of the really lovely ones still empty, as I just haven't had the heart to write in them yet). Sorry I digress. These are the notes for one of my short stories:

  • Character A is out for an evening stroll when he overhears a conversation between characters B, C and D
  • They are planning revenge for a trick he'd played on them the day before.
  • Characters B, C and D agree to meet in a few days once they've had time to come up with some ideas. At this time they'll agree which is the best idea and start to plan their revenge. 
  • Character A decides to break into homes of characters B, C and D to see if he can discover what their ideas are.
  • etc. etc. etc.   
As you can see I know what is going to happen but I haven't a clue what the characters are going to say. This includes the internal conversations my characters might have. You see by the time I get to the writing stage I know my characters (I've live with them in my head and often have conversations with them), so when it comes to writing what they say they can do the work for me. 

Therefore my answer to Uncle Albert was a bit of both, which seemed to satisfy him as we moved onto another subject. 

So my question to the writers reading this is  the one I was asked, "do the words just come?"


I also write for Authors Electric - a collection of writers who have self-published some or all of their work. 

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Food for Thought by Charlotte Guillian

Perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise to us at the Picture Book Den, but until now we'd never realised how many picture books were about food. Thanks to our guest blogger, children's author Charlotte Guillian (and co-author Adam Guillian), we'll now see food everywhere! 

Adam and I recently looked through the picture book ideas we have come up with together and were struck by how many of them involve food! Our first published picture book was Spaghetti with the Yeti, which will be followed later this year by Marshmallows for Martians – and there are other delicious adventures to come in the same series. This got me thinking about the picture books I read growing up and then to my own children – so many great stories involve food, usually of the yummiest kind.

One of the first foodie picture books I remember from my own childhood is Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I can remember poring over the spread ‘On Saturday he ate through one piece of chocolate cake…’, wondering what Swiss cheese and salami tasted like (this was the 1970s and Sainsburys didn’t have quite the range it does now…) and deciding whether I’d prefer the chocolate cake or the cherry pie. I was fascinated by the bright pink slice of watermelon and repulsed by the green pickle!

Other childhood favourites for me were John Burningham’s Mr Gumpy books. The spread at the end of Mr Gumpy’s Outing, where everyone sits round the table and enjoys tea together, needs no words as the scene is just so satisfying. I can remember looking at this picture for ages thinking about who I’d like to sit next to! What can be better than a story that ends with a picnic or special tea?

And of course there was Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea. I must have had a deep-seated fear of ever having to miss tea because I can remember the anxiety I felt every time we got to the part when there is no food left in the house. But the wonderful, cosy ending with a trip to a café was just perfect.

More recently I’ve enjoyed other food-focused books with my own children. John Vernon Lord’s The Giant Jam Sandwich was a big favourite for us – we loved the ingenious ways the villagers bake a huge loaf of bread and find industrial quantities of butter and jam. And all just to get rid of some wasps! ‘Don’t they want to eat it?’ my daughter would always ask.

I’ve lost count of the times we’ve read Helen Cooper’s Pumpkin Soup. The illustrations and the text are both equally beautiful and the story sums up perfectly how some friendships are built over sharing (and cooking) delicious food together. We can probably all identify with the way one of the characters behaves in the kitchen – I think I’m probably mostly squirrel but there is definitely at least one duck in our house!

Then of course there’s Lauren Child’s I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato, a modern classic that is so much fun to read aloud as an adult. We still talk about moonsquirters in our house and it’s years since this book featured at bedtime.

Another great book that looks at the food children refuse to eat is Caryl Hart’s The Princess and the Peas (illus by Sarah Warburton). The rhyming text is so much fun to share and the story features one of the loveliest dads in picture books!

We’ve been trying to think of more books with very child-friendly food in them – chocolate, ice cream, cake, chips… Carla Vulliamy’s Muffin and the Birthday Surprise springs to mind – it captures perfectly that compelling urge to keep trying just a little bit more of something delicious. There must be others out there – what are your favourite foodie picture books?

Charlotte Guillian

Marshmallows for Martians, by Charlotte and Adam Guillian, illus by Lee Wildish,
 will be published by Egmont,
early June, 2014

Thursday 15 May 2014

The first picture book I bought for my first grandchild by Jane Clarke

I'm a grandma! Yaaay!

My granddaughter, currently known as Peanut, arrived a month early, and she can’t keep her eyes open for long yet -  but I can't wait to introduce her to picture books. Here she is in my son's hands.

I bought her a picture book when she was just a bump. It wasn't planned – I  was browsing aimlessly in the shop in the British Library and this jumped out at me:

So, out of all the wonderful picture books in print today, why did I choose this little board book? 

It's a heavily edited, lighthearted version of Jabberwocky by Lewis Carol  - a poem Peanut's grandfather,  my late husband Martin, had to lean by heart when he was at school. I have very happy memories of Martin reciting the lines (often in the wrong order) in a funny voice and making our sons chortle when they were tiny.

I hope this book with its daft verse and surreal illustrations will make Peanut giggle too  - and hear an echo of the grandpa she will never meet.

 And of course – it's only the start of a big collection. So back to the rejoicing…

What was the first picture book you bought for your child or grandchild?

Sunday 11 May 2014

What We've Learned Along The Way - Group Post Part One

Back in the mists of time we were all unpublished authors. Some of us had a background in publishing before we gained the 'label' of author, some of us did not. However one thing we all share is that we have all learned something along the way. In this post some of our team share one of the things we learned.  

Play. Sometimes we get caught up in the business side of writing: we write 'for the market' or because a publisher has asked us to write a particular story they have a slot for. But the best stories often come from simply playing with an idea just for the idea itself. You can work it and rework it; change theme or character or word length and it becomes something very different. If I get stuck I often draw - it helps me keep the story light and fun and reminds me to keep playing.

Jane Clarke
You can take a very simple, ordinary idea that develops out of something that happens to you or your family and and twist it so it becomes something special. Gilbert the Hero, illustrated by Charles Fuge, is based on how my older son reacted to the arrival of his baby brother.

Enjoy playing with words. When writing a picture book try exploring rhyme, rhythm or repetition. Using any or all can change a good story into one that captures the imagination and is a joy to read.   

Develop a strange personality that is part-arrogant, part-modest.  You need the arrogance to believe in your best ideas, even when others, including publishers, don't.  You need persistence to keep trying, working out how you might make those vital publishing minds see your vision in the same way that you do.  But you also need the modesty to recognise when your ideas are not strong enough to compete with all those wonderful pictures books already published, or simply don't suit the format or the market ... at which point the arrogant side kicks in again, and you see if you can use that precious idea in some other way that WILL excite publishers and book buyers!  So, for example, the wonderful large full colour picture book story of Dick Whittington that I loved ... became a much smaller and simpler little book that is published as in OUP reading book.

We hope you have enjoyed reading about our experiences. We've enjoyed sharing.

Monday 5 May 2014

A Change of Character by Michelle Robinson

Characters have always felt like a chink in my armour. When I’m writing a picture book, I tend to work roughly like this:-

- Concept
- Work out the best beginning, middle and end
- Write it down
(Ah, I make it sound so simple! Trust me, there's always plenty of brain ache involved along the way).

Sometimes the order I work in changes, and there’s usually a lot of revisiting any one - or all three - of those steps to find the right voice and whatnot, but that’s really about it. I’ve always known there’s something missing in my approach: CHARACTER.


Characters are what publishers want to see and who readers want to meet. Yes, they want great stories, but the key to really hooking people is who that story belongs to. Who's unique voice are we hearing? Who are we going to side with? Fall in love with? Worry about? Tut at? Snuggle up with by the glow of our night light?

The trouble with my natural approach writing is this: characters are often just the person (or chicken/gorilla/mammoth) the plot happens to. That’s not to say they aren’t good or believable characters, because I usually manage to get the reader to bond with them emotionally. But they're certainly not as strong as they could be; not multi-book-TV-series-and-a-cuddly-toy strong. That's often what lets my stories down at acquisitions meetings, if they make it that far. 

No merchandise? Get your illustrator's mum to make it. Thanks, Mama Hindley!

Not one to mope over criticism, especially when it echoes something I already know, deep down, I recently took myself on a one day course in 'Character Mapping'.

I had to smile to myself as I sat in the lecture theatre, taking notes as the inventor of 'Character Mapping', Laurie Hutzler passed on her wisdom - and she really is wise (and perceptive, fast and funny - highly recommended). Sure, Laurie comes from a screenwriting background, but her approach to storytelling translates to picture books, too. I found myself smiling wryly as she spoke about characters needing to face up to their fears instead of holding back from becoming their truest, bestest selves. She may as well have been talking about me.

I took 26 pages of workshop notes. TWENTY SIX.

I do hold back. I worry that I can’t create great characters, so I don’t risk trying. I stick to what I know - concepts, plotting, word play. Not any more!

Now I have new, improved SUPER POWERS and the knowhow to create stories that start and end with characters - authentic ones who act just the way they ought to as individuals. Even if they are completely made up, even if they do live on the moon and have five legs, they will behave in a way that is totally real and - in true picture book style - totally relatable. 

I like to think I had something to do with creating the characters in
There's A Lion In My Cornflakes, but I suspect it was all Jim Field's doing.

So I'm going to try breaking the habit of a lifetime, starting with character rather than concept. It can't hurt to try. I won't necessarily use the full 'Character Map' to do it - although I would certainly use it for longer fiction - but I'll use some of the lessons I learned along the way. Lessons like:-

- 'TELL ME MORE!' the required response from a reader when they first meet a character
- THE DEFINITION OF 'TO BE ENTERTAINED' IS TO FEEL SOMETHING if the reader isn't feeling something, they're not being entertained - and they'll lose interest
- To create emotional connection you need VULNERABILITY and VERISIMILITUDE
- And in comedy, IF IT DOESN'T HURT, IT ISN'T FUNNY 

I love that last one. I also wrote down 'DELIVER SOMETHING EXPECTED IN AN UNEXPECTED WAY'. That sounds awesome, if quite a challenge. My unexpected way is going to start with the writing process itself, by putting character at the heart of my stories. What's the worst that can happen? If I do find I'm naturally, incurably concept-driven, from now on at least I'll always write with much more awareness of character and they won't just fall out of a plot ever again. (I might at least add one sentence that shows I've thought about them...)

You can read about Laurie Hutzler's 'Character Mapping' in detail here. You'll want to free up some time and get yourself a whole pot of tea first, it's quite detailed and lengthy, but it's very good.

Thanks for reading, I hope it helps you think about the way you write. I'm off to enjoy today's Bank Holiday with two very real, very chirpy characters who have been acting true to form by bouncing on the bed next to me while I typed. Please excuse any typos.

For more on Michelle Robinson, including writing advicecolouring sheets and free audio games to accompany her picture books, visit her website