Tuesday 29 July 2014

Think Globally As You Write - Lynne Garner

For the last couple of years I've taught a variety of writing courses including two eCourses on writing picture books (How To Write A Children's Picture Book and Five Picture Books In Five Weeks). So some time ago when a friend asked if it was ok to pass my details on to a local aspiring picture book author I said it would be fine. A few days later he called and opened the conversation by telling me he’d written loads of stories and wanted to get them published. He asked if any of my courses would be suitable. I went through the syllabus and asked if he felt it was what he needed. “I’m not sure,” he responded.

Silent groan!

So I asked if he knew how the publishing industry worked. “Well, um… no,” was the reply.  “Then if nothing else you’ll gain a better understanding of what books make it to market and why. You can then edit your stories to suit the market, giving you a better chance.”  “Oh I know my books will sell because my wife and kids love them," was his reply.
Silent groan!

I told him it doesn’t mean they would be suitable for today’s market. To make my point I told him about my mistake when submitting my first story. The story included three celebrations, these being: Easter, Guys Fawkes Night and Halloween. I continued I’d been extremely lucky that the editor who read my story liked it. She took the time to write the nicest rejection letter I’ve ever received. She pointed out that in order to sell globally I would have to think globally. Not everyone follows a Christian faith, so would not celebrate Easter. Only England celebrates a foiled plot to blow up their government, so would never have heard of Guy Fawkes Night. Finally she pointed out that not everyone celebrates Halloween and some even find it offensive. She finished by saying that if I could make a few changes she’d be pleased to read my story again. I made the changes, re-submitted and that story became 'A Book For Bramble.' 

“Oh, but I’d only submit to an English publisher,” was the reply.

Silent groan!

I continued that gone are the days publishers only publish in their own country. In order to make a book viable the rights would be sold worldwide. My books have travelled as far as America, Australia, Indonesia, Korea and my publisher has recently sold the Hebrew rights of one of my books.

“Oh, so you’re saying I may have to change my stories slightly.”

Silent groan!

I finished by stating that unfortunately today you have to realise we are creating a product. To get that product onto the market (published) you have to think about what the client (the publisher needs) and this product is an item that must have global appeal. So today when writing my books I always have this in mind. So if you want to give your story the best chance think global appeal.

Thursday 24 July 2014

Challenging Content in Picture Books by Emma O'Donovan

This month's guest blogger, Emma O'Donovan, discusses the potential for challenging, sometimes controversial picture books. Emma has spent the past ten years in the world of children's books, first as a children's bookseller and now as a publishing marketing manager. She may be found at The Book Sniffer.

As we bound head long into a new and magnificent golden age of illustrated picture books, I feel it’s time to take a moment to reflect on the role of challenging and controversial picture books in a world in which children are increasingly exposed to sensitive information. From the dark depths of Grimm’s fairy tales to an egg-laying mummy, dogs' bottoms, ‘boobs’, and the grim reaper, it seems there are few restrictions in terms of what is deemed acceptable content for the very youngest of readers

Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch 
Historically the picture books available to young readers were thoroughly smattered with terrifying bone chilling characters (the mere mention of Struwwelpeter strikes fear into the hearts of many adults I know). Back then they were actively used by parents as a tool  to instill good manners, etiquette and a good moral standing in the young. Although perhaps some of the methods depicted in Struwwelpeter were slightly harsh.

Image from Struwweelpeter

It is probably fair to say that as a general rule, in anticipation of the impact on international sales, publishers tend to avoid content which may be considered controversial. It is well documented that tolerance for challenging picture books appears to be extremely risky, particularly so in the US markets.
With the picture book market beginning to flourish again perhaps now is the perfect time for publishers to create interesting and challenging picture books; for parents to trust with complete confidence the decisions made by the books creators; and for authors and illustrators to be given new freedom to experiment with new themes. It is certainly evident that picture books are becoming increasingly experimental in terms of design and the complexity of the stories within them. 

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

During a recent acceptance speech at the Greenaway Awards, Winner Jon Klassen reminisced about how his initial concept for This is Not My Hat was much darker than the one which was eventually published, dipping its toe into the dark and murky underworld of underwater gang culture, only to be rebuffed by his US publisher for being too dark. It turns out they created an award-winner so in this case perhaps it was a good call and after all it is a marvellous book and *spoiler alert* the hero still in fact dies at the end so it's not entirely sanitised and sugar coated.

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

It seems to me that nowadays one of the best things about using picture books as an educational and emotional support mechanism is the propensity for readers to absorb information at their own pace whilst promoting further discussion. So often children are bombarded with information from all angles with no capacity for information filtration, but at least with a picture book they can relate an imagined scenario with their own and re-read to reinforce understanding.

It’s hard to believe that one of the most recent pioneers, legendary Babette Cole, created her magnificent picture books over 30 years ago! Babette illustrated books with confidence, engaging storytelling and side splitting comedy incorporating gender equality, sex education, puberty, death and same sex marriage in the most charming of ways, with a great majority of readers not even realising they were what are referred to as ‘issue driven’. Surely that magical picture book recipe can be replicated and re-invented.

Mummy Never Told Me by Babette Cole

I wonder if exploring challenging subjects that are enveloped in a safe and familiar picture book (probably shared with a grown-up you are very fond of) is actually the best place to do so.; and there we have yet another reason why pictures books are an invaluable and essential first step in the development of the next generation of marvellous book loving adults.

I’d love to hear what you think
Should picture books remain a sacred space for the pure innocent enjoyment of story and escapism and imagination?
Who holds responsibility for what our children are exposed to?
Which books have tackled challenging issues unsuccessfully?
Should books tackling ‘issues’ proactively advertise their content on the cover for added parental reassurance?
Does humour play an important role in broaching certain subjects with young readers?
It'll be great to discuss this further in the comments section below or on ‘The Twitter’ (please tweet me @maybeswabey with your thoughts #challengingpicturebooks).

Finally, some recommendations
In my previous incarnation as a children’s bookseller, I regularly recommended trusted classics to broach difficult subjects. There really is a wealth of brilliant picture books, covering all manner of subjects from dementia to late breast feeding and divorce. Here are some which I would confidently recommend (and a few suggestions from my dear knowledgeable friends on Twitter).  

Mum and Dad Glue by Kes Grey & Lee Wildish
Duck Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch  
Grandpa by John Burningham
The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
Maia and What Matters by Tine Mortier & Kaatje Vermeire
Sad Book by Michael Rosen & Quentin Blake
Grandma by Jessica Sheperd
Really and Truly by Emilie Rivard & Anne-Claire Delisle
Other / Bottoms 
The Great Dog Bottom Swap by Peter Bently & May Matsuoka
The Yes by Sarah Bee & Satoshi Kitamura
Elmer and the Big Bird by David McKee
Leave me Alone by Kes Gray & Lee Wildish
Is it Because? by Tony Ross  
Marmaduke the Very Different Dragon by Rachel Valentine & Ed Eaves
Ant and the Big Bad Bully Goat by Andrew Fusek Peters & Anna Wadham
Don’t Laugh At Me by Steve Seskin
Trouble at the Dinosaur Cafe by Brian Moses & Garry Parsons


Thank you to this month's guest blogger,
Emma O'Donovan,
who may be found at
The Book Sniffer

Saturday 19 July 2014

Using a picture book to help inspire children's stories by Jane Clarke

Like many picture book writers, I make a lot of visits to nurseries and schools, and I often use a  picture book as the basis of a workshop to inspire children to come up with their own stories. 

I've recently been working in parallel with poet Chrissie Gittins in Sandown Primary school, helping children to create their own stories and poems to exhibit for the Tell me a Story festival that took place this week in Deal, Kent, sponsored by the Astor Theatre. 

I used different picture books  to inspire work from all the year groups in the school, but for this post, I'll stick with Reception. That's Reception in the UK system  - they're a year younger than Reception in the USA. At this end of the school year, some are just beginning to write a word or two, but mostly they record their ideas in drawings – and they all love the idea of being authors and illustrators.

First, I read one of the Gilbert stories and we admired the wonderful illustrations by Charles Fuge, with the children identifying lots of sea creatures and getting ideas for what other things might be under the sea.

Then I introduced the idea of the class having a submarine adventure. I put a simple submarine shape made from paper tablecloth and sugar paper on the carpet and talked them through getting into the submarine. We set off  (making chugging propeller noises) on our exciting journey…

The children each drew a porthole to show their ideas  (real and surreal) about what they might see on their journey.

This time, the portholes were paper circles I'd cut out in advance for the children to draw on, but  if there's more time and more adults around, like this session in Herne Bay library

a sticky session with paper plates and craft materials is fun.

The children put their portholes on the submarine and I told the story (complete with joining-in  sound effects) of the class journey, pacing the exciting bits - a giant sea monster tentacle slaps agains the porthole…aargh!  
with the quieter aaaah moments of seeing, for example  the mermaids walking their dogfish and shoals of rainbow and sparkly starfish, fallen from the skies.

Each child then recorded their own submarine adventure in words and/or pictures in their Captain's Log - a small pre-made book.

We all had lots of fun.

Thanks and congratulations to the young  authors and illustrators for their fabulous imaginations and work, and to their teachers and parents for permission to the pictures .

Please feel free to to use and adapt the idea.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Where I Write - Group Post

As a group we're often asked where we write. We're not sure why people are so interested because it's something we do every day, so we see it as just another ordinary part of our lives. However, as we've been asked, it would be rude not to answer the question! So four of us have joined forces to let you in on the secret of where we write.

Abie Longstaff

I write in my writing hut in the garden.

It's only a few steps from my house, so I have a very short commute!

Inside I have a comfy chair, a desk and some big cushions in a pile on the floor so I can curl up and read.

Pippa Goodhart

For the first twenty years of my writing career I wrote in whatever corner of the house I could. The computer was in our bedroom, and the main table always had to be cleared for mealtimes. But then - da daaa! - my wonderful husband (who happens to be an architect) built us a brand new house. What would you like in it, he asked?  Well, where to begin?!  I now have a library landing with backlit bookshelves that leads onto a balcony with rocking chairs - bliss.  But he and I also share a big studio room; his drawing board and desk at one end, and my writing mess at the other. One long wall is lines with built-in bookshelves.  But, as you can see, even now I have to share my writing space!

Jane Clarke

I've taken over the smallest bedroom, overlooking the apple tree in the back garden. Watching the birds (and the occasional squirrel) is a great displacement activity.

The walls slope so fitting everything in is a bit of a challenge and things tend to get stacked in heaps in the corners.

I use the beams to pin things on.

Occasionally I have a tidy up and clear out, but clutter is the default setting for my writing room.

Jonathan Emmett

For the first 10 years as a writer/paper-engineer, I worked in a little room at the back of our first house that looked out onto the back garden. As well as a desk, I had a huge “double elephant” sized drawing board, a large light-box and a plan chest, all crammed into the same small space.

My first office in my old house was rather like a ship's galley.

I needed somewhere to store all my books and art materials as well, so I built a big storage unit to house it all. There's a diagram of it on the right and you can just see the edge of it on the left of the photo above. There was a very practical reason for the unit’s 'grand piano' shape. It needed to be narrow at one end, to leave me enough space to sit behind my drawing board, and wide at the other, so I could have a decent bookcase beside my desk. When we moved house, the storage unit came with me to my new office which is quite a bit bigger and looks out onto the street. As you can see in panorama below, I have a silver birch tree right outside my window!
A panorama view of my current office. Click on "view sphere", then click and drag inside the image to move around.

One of the best things about moving house was that I finally had enough space for a sign-writer’s vinyl cutter. These computer-controlled machines are usually used to cut out the coloured vinyl signs you see stuck to the sides of vans and above shops, but I’ve adapted mine so that I can use it to cut out the pieces of card for the prototype pop-up books I design. The home-made stand it's mounted on folds down, a bit like a deck-chair, so that I can store the cutter under my drawing board, when it’s not in use.

We hope you've enjoyed this group blog and if you're an author we would love to know where you write. So please do let us know.


Abie, Pippa, Jane and Jonathan.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

APTLY EVER AFTER: Why picture books need proper endings • Jonathan Emmett

Back in April, Natascha Biebow wrote a post for this blog about picture book openings and why it’s important to get them right. I think endings are equally important, so I thought I’d write a post about them.

When I was reading picture books with my own children we were always disappointed by stories that ended inappropriately. Perhaps most disappointing of all were picture books that seemed to have no proper ending at all. We’d turn the page, expecting to discover how the story finished only to find that it was already over and we were at the back of the book. I think there needs to be a satisfying sense of conclusion when one reaches the end of a picture book, whether the story winds down gently or ends with a spectacular flourish or unexpected twist.

Some of the best children’s storytelling in recent years has come from Pixar, the animation studio that created the Toy Story trilogy and several other modern classics. While Pixar’s films are always visually impressive, the company attributes its phenomenal success to its motto – “Story is King”. Here’s one of Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling that’s also a great piece of advice for picture book authors.

Rule 7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

I’m a great believer in writing an outline before writing a story – even a short story like a picture book’s – and that means coming up with an ending before starting the first draft. I know that some authors dismiss outlines as limiting, claiming that they like to ‘discover’ the story as they are writing it. That might be true if the outline were a fixed document but, like most authors that use them, I’m constantly tinkering with the outline as I write the story. If a better ending occurs to me, I see if I can rework the outline to accommodate it. Writing a story with an outline is like going for a walk in the country with a map. You have an idea of what’s coming up, but you can always opt to take a different route and end up somewhere else if it takes your fancy. With a map, a walker is less likely to end their walk stranded in the middle of nowhere; with an outline an author is less likely to end up with an unsatisfactory ending.

I don’t know whether the authors of the following picture books use outlines or not, but here are three stories that all have satisfying endings that feel just right. I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, but if you haven’t read any of the stories mentioned below and want to avoid any hints as to how they end, you might want to skip over that paragraph.

The Great Dog Bottom Swap

Peter Bently

Illustrated by Mei Matsuoka

This is the tale of a Dog’s Summer Ball that starts well, but ends in disaster. It’s a farcically funny story, deftly written with lots of amusing incidents throughout. And – as if that weren’t enough – the text on the final spread reveals a twist that makes the reader see the whole plot in an amusing new light.

Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose

Dr. Seuss

I can’t think of another picture book ending that made me and my children laugh quite so much as this one when we first read it. The story concerns Thidwick, a kindly moose whose generosity is exploited by a collection of creatures who set up home in his antlers. When a group of hunters arrive, the overburdened Thidwick’s chances of survival look slim. The image on the last page gives the story an incredibly funny, totally unexpected and somewhat shocking ending. 

The Gruffalo

Julia Donaldson

Illustrated by Axel Scheffler

I know that The Gruffalo has had plenty of praise heaped on it already, but that’s because it’s such an exemplary piece of picture book writing. After the mouse’s death-defying adventure, Donaldson ends the story calmly and quietly. Having repeatedly escaped being eaten himself, the mouse (and the story) comes to a stop as the mouse sits down to enjoy a meal.

What are your favourite picture book endings? Let us know in the comments box below.

Jonathan Emmett's latest picture book is HERE BE MONSTERS, a swashbuckling tale of dastardly pirates and mysterious monsters, illustrated by Poly Bernatene and published by Macmillan Children's Books.
Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blogYou can also follow Jonathan on facebook and twitter @scribblestreet.

See all of Jonathan's posts for Picture Book Den.

Friday 4 July 2014

Getting it Right : the Challenges of Non-Fiction Picture Books, by John Shelley (Guest Blog)

This month our guest blogger, John Shelley, gives us a great 'behind the scenes' glimpse into illustrating fact-based fictional picture books. We discover how he balances fact alongside his imagination, and the joys and pitfalls of research and accuracy.

Currently many of the picture books I'm illustrating are either non-fiction built entirely on factual events, or fact-based fictional stories, that is to say, imagined stories used as a backdrop to explain real facts.

Stone Giant: Michelangelo's David
and How He Came to Be

(Charlesbridge 2014)
My last book, Stone Giant, is an example of the former, a historical narrative about the creation of Michelangelo's statue of David, written by Jane Sutcliffe and published by Charlesbridge (USA).

As I write, I've quite literally just finished the preparation sketches on another story by Jane, Will's Words, which will be an even more demanding historical project, this time about the original Globe Theatre in London, and how the language of Shakespeare has become part of our everyday speech. At the moment I'm entirely immersed in London at the turn of the 17th Century. At the same time I'm also working on a book about stargazing for Fukuinkan Shoten in Japan, Yozora o Miyage-yo, conveyed using the narrative of a child's discovery of the night sky with a typical Japanese family in Tokyo.

Dummy Sketch for Will's Words,
work in progress for Charlesbridge, USA

Nothing could be more different than these two books, and yet in a sense they are very similar. In both these projects I have to balance the requirement for scientific or historical accuracy with my imagination, which can be anything but scientific! I'm a fantasy artist at heart, in my illustrations I like to expand and twist the reality of life and draw windows into more imaginative worlds. It's hard to do this if everything is based in mundane reality. My tendency is to think with broad strokes, then get down to details – I have an idea for a strong visual composition, which I'll try to fit the narrative within. The image is the most important thing for me, the drama of the setting, so where my imagination clashes with historical facts it can be a challenge.

Dummy Sketch for Yozora o Miyage-yo (Let's Look at the Night Sky),
work in progress for Fukuinkan Shoten, Japan

There are ways we can get around this. One way is to look for the detail and viewpoints that bring drama to the scene. A small amount of distortion can help the narrative flow, provided it's still within the boundaries of the facts. The illustrator can play with secondary elements in the landscape, perhaps little details unmentioned in the text. The physical landscape of a painting can offer opportunities for witticisms and visual asides, provided the overall theme of the image remains within the facts.

From Stone Giant,
showing how I used Renaissance decoration
 to enhance a page of factual text.
Another way is to use decorative elements to frame the facts within a more whimsical world of imagination. In Stone Giant I used a lot of decorative elements from the Renaissance to enhance, or expand on, the historical narrative. Abstract concepts in the text might conjure fanciful visuals that can be superimposed on to an otherwise "straight" drawing.

So there are ways to step outside the "box" of reality, even with non-fiction, how much you can get away with though depends on the requirements of the publisher! In my first sketches for the Japanese stargazing book Yozora o Miyage-yo, for the large part I completely ignored the scientific requirements of the night sky – as the sky is a background to the lives of the characters I designed the book on the narrative, knowing the hard science and star locations would be dropped in later. What mattered to me in the early stages was to show a rollicking good family yarn. This eventually led to several problems when we began to examine the astronomy – I had to redraw a lot, cut back many of my more fanciful ideas (so no exaggeration of features), specify the exact season and point of compass in each image so the correct stars would be seen in exactly the right place in the sky, and, as much of the book is based around viewing the sky from the same apartment balcony, I had to re-plot the entire landscape viewed from the apartment, building by building, so each view would match in consecutive images, no matter what angle.

1st Dummy Sketch for Yozora o Miyage-yo, an abandoned image that had to be
completely redrawn to show more accurate renderings of the sky, hills and stars.

So all in all, finding that balance between leaps of fantasy and the core of reality is a challenging task. Yozora is still awaiting final art after a very long gestation period of two years, with multiple author rewrites and image re-designs.

Will's Words is much more complicated for setting and historical detail, though hopefully a little smoother in regards technical details. The great challenge here is not to get carried away by research, which I really love, and which has already absorbed much of my energy this summer – the more you research the history, the more you want to include it in the book! It's important for me to immerse myself in the era, to place myself within the setting, to mentally inhabit the world, and in order to do that I gather as much on the era as I can. Naturally there will always be a degree of conjecture, so I try to narrow this down as much as possible. A lot of the research may not even make it into the book, I realised at one point I'd spent the best part of an hour reading up on the Society of Stationers and printer guilds, just because of one small barely noticeable wall plaque that's not even mentioned in the text! It's easy to go off at tangents and spend hours researching small details, especially with the Web!

But so it goes. Research, especially historical research, is one of the most pleasurable things about working on non-fiction. The reader may never notice, but I know, and there will always be some expert out there pointing and picking over the accuracy. And of course... Shakespeare himself would know!


John Shelley
Twitter: @Godfox