Monday 27 October 2014

An Ode to Libraries - Wendy Meddour

This month we are delighted to have Wendy Meddour as our guest blogger. Wendy spent many years teaching English Literature at Oxford University but took a little break so she could concentrate on writing children's books. Only (thankfully for us readers) that little break turned into a big break and, though she's back teaching at university, she still loves writing for children and really can't stop.

I wrote 'How the Library (Not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel' before they started shutting them all down! I hadn’t planned to write a book ‘with a message’. I was just writing a love letter to the places I loved:

The library was always a magical place for me. And on occasion, it was also my child-minder. I hated going into the city centre when I was little. All those stuffy shops, shopping bags and legs. So when Mum needed to go and wrestle with the crowds, I would ask her to leave me in the children’s section, cross-legged on the floor reading books. (What can I say? Things were different then). It was one of the highlights of my week. Shelves upon shelves of colour and thought – just waiting for me to jump in and get lost.

The library was my ‘Faraway Tree’: I’d climb its branches and know that it would always take me somewhere new. It was my passport and the place of my dreams. And I was allowed to take some of those journeys home. For free! Those childhood years, in which I sat cross-legged on the floor reading books (instead of being bruised by shopping bags) led me to where I am now ...  

I took my paper pockets of thought home and read them in the top of the airing cupboard. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a sociable soul and my outside-of-the-airing-cupboard childhood was a very happy place. But whilst I was curled up on the top shelf behind the towels, reading book upon book upon book, I learnt empathy, humour, compassion & escape! For a child in a fairly cramped space, my world became extraordinarily large. This undoubtedly helped me on my way. I did pretty well at school. I travelled. I married someone from completely somewhere else. I got a doctorate and taught English at Oxford University. I made a living out of reading and writing books! Libraries led to lots of good stuff. In fact, I hold libraries and their contents largely responsible for the shape and colour of my life! And my life to date has been rather colourful. So thank-you libraries - you were my Mrs Doubtfire. My Faraway Tree. My very own Nanny McFee. 

To conclude a post about libraries, it seems appropriate to end with 'Story Time'. So here's a little snippet from the end of my picture book. Beautifully illustrated by the very brilliant Rebecca Ashdown, it says all I want to say:

Now Rapunzel has changed and it makes her wince,
to think that she used to just wait for a prince!
That she used to just sit.
That she didn’t move –
with nowhere to go and nothing to prove!

For now she reads three books every night
Under the beam of her bedside light:
She can tell you the distance to the moon,
    she can do Scottish dancing & play the bassoon.
She can speak in four languages, skip and play chess,
she can knit tiny egg cups and cross stitch a dress,
She knows the difference between crows and rooks –
And all because of ...


So don’t just wait for a prince to show,
He might turn up, but you never know.
Just pop to your library and borrow a book –
There’s so much to find out if only you look:
But don’t just sit and wait and stare . . .

When there’s more to life than growing your hair!

To keep up to date with The Bookseller’s campaign on Twitter, follow: @fight4libraries

To keep up with me (now I'm out of the airing cupboard), click here

To read a great article about libraries by Neil Gaiman, click here 

And to see a jolly photo of Einstein, don't go anywhere! 

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Extra Tips On Writing Picture Books, by Paeony Lewis

At the Picture Book Den there’s a titanosaurus-sized mass of tips on how to write children’s picture books. So is there any advice left? Maybe! I’ve decided to pass on four slightly different, personal tips.

Titanosaurus (BBC)

Tip 1
Join an evening class on writing poetry. Yes, you did read that correctly! I spent a year attending poetry classes with a friend and after a few months we discovered that the quality of ALL our writing had improved. Writing poetry (not rhyme) for adults made us think harder about word choices. Revision is constant and clichés are shunned. It’s the attention to EVERY word that has left the strongest impression.

So if you join a course on writing poetry and have a tutor that won’t accept lazy writing, I suspect your picture-book writing will stealthily improve. However, I won't guarantee how long the influence will last - I think I need to return to writing poetry!

Tip 2
Looking at published picture books can be daunting to a new writer. Perhaps you wonder if you’ll ever be able to match the awesomeness of your favourites. If this is a problem and you lack confidence, then type out the text of a picture book (one that is understandable from the text alone). This makes the process of writing a picture book feel more manageable and may help with the analysis of the story.

Tip 3
As many of you know, picture book writers often divide their text into twelve spreads (a spread is a double page). Or sometimes writers follow the example of illustrators and ‘storyboard’ using twelve boxes to represent the twelve spreads. However, I’ve found that taking this a step further with a simple, physical mini book can help new writers think harder about the potential illustrations and story structure. Of course, the final illustrations may be completely different and if you don’t illustrate then they’ll be out of your control, but at this stage you’re just planning and moulding the story.

All you need to do is take a pile of 8 sheets of A4 paper and fold them in half. That’s it! You have a cover and book! Now sketch out your story and don’t worry that the drawings look pathetic – nobody else will see your stick figures. The aim is to help you visualise the story and page turns and see what might appear on every page. There’s no need to write the text – just use thick lines to represent the sentences. Perhaps you’ll discover there is too much text and the illustrations are too samey.

Tip 4
With character-led stories your characters must be REAL to you, because if they’re not then how can you expect your reader to believe in them? The characters aren’t just nebulous talking bears, bunnies, pigeons, dinosaurs or small children. They’re individuals with specific character traits and emotions. It can be tricky with picture books as you have so few words, but take a look at picture books with main characters that have birthed several in a series and study what makes them come alive on the page. What makes that character appealing and ‘strong’ enough for people to want to read more?

Happy writing, everyone, and do whatever works for you!
Paeony Lewis

Friday 17 October 2014

Unhappily Ever After? By Pippa Goodhart

Does horror have a place in picture books?

There’s been a lot of recent discussion as to whether or not there are too many unhappy and hopeless endings in books for teenagers. But what about unhappy endings in picture books?

Jon Klassen’s ‘This Is Not My Hat’ won the Kate Greenaway prize at the same time that Kevin Brooks’ controversial book 'The Bunker Diary' won the Carnegie. Both deal in horror. Both could be said to end unhappily.

‘This Is Not My Hat’ is a very beautiful book. It's a very simple book. It's a very powerful book. It’s truly dramatic and exciting. (Spoiler alert!) We are told the story in a few sentences narrated by a little fish who is boasting that he’s stolen a hat from a big fish, but the big fish is asleep and probably won’t notice. But we can see in the pictures that the big submarine shaped fish isn’t asleep: he’s awake! And he’s angry! And he’s going after the little fish into a mass of green weeds … before coming back out with his hat. And that little fish voice has stopped.

Why is that so powerful? Its power is in what is not said or explained. It is in that space left to be filled with the reader’s own imagination.  What most of us imagine is a horrible massacre of the little fish by the big one. So it is us, rather than Jon Klassen, making the story end with horror. Is finding horror in ourselves more powerful than being given it from the outside?

A lot of the reviews on Amazon say that this is a book for adults and older children rather than children of the usual picture book age. When I think of my daughters at, say, two to five years old, they would have made that grisly imaginative leap and been upset by it. But would they actually, at some level, enjoyed the thrill of that horror, or just been upset? I don’t know.

One Amazon reviewer took from that book a message of: find out the perpetrator, kill him and eat him. But it's more complex than that. The supposition that the fish has been eaten (and it’s only happened in the reviewer’s mind, remember, not explicitly on the page in any way!) raises the big and important question of fairness. Did the little fish deserve to die for stealing something that wasn’t his, and then cockily boasting that he’d got away with it? Small children have strong opinions about fairness. Where does fairness lie in this case? And is capital punishment fair? It’s all so interesting! I think it’s the interesting moral dilemma in this story that stays with us more than the horror, whereas it was definitely the horrors in Struwwlpeter that have haunted me and has stayed with me long after ‘nice’ books have faded from memory.

There is the view that childhood is a golden time of innocence, where the nasty side of life doesn’t yet have a place. For some children their early years truly are like that, and I think I’d hesitate to upset things for those children with too early a dose of unhappily ever after. There are plenty of picture book stories that deal in horrors (think of The Owl Babies raising the possibility that Mum has been eaten by a fox!) but in which things are brought to clearly happy endings. The difference here is that we are left still mid-horror, albeit in a way that many would take as black humour more than straight horror.

There are ‘unhappy’ books that are aimed squarely at addressing some real life horrors, of course. Rebecca Cobb’s beautiful ‘Missing Mummy’ shares the misery and misunderstanding and anger of a small girl whose mother has died. I wouldn’t offer that to a child who had no notion yet that a mother could die, but it makes a wonderful discussion point for children who have experienced the death of their mother, or for those who know another child going through that real horror. 

Different books are going to suit different children in different situations and at different times, and we adults have a role in guiding the right books to the right children at the right moment. We have the luxury of a huge choice, even within picture books. I think that’s wonderful. But it trips some people up.

Look at the reviews for Jean Willis and Tony Ross’s ‘Tadpole’s Promise’, and you’ll find much greater outrage than for ‘It’s Not My Hat’. I suppose that is because people have picked up what looks like a nice little love story about a tadpole and a caterpillar who promise to love each other for ever and never to change …. And they haven’t thought through the inevitable problems implicit in that set-up! Clearly people have bought the book, and not read it themselves before reading it aloud to a small child audience who are sometimes horrified when the frog eats the butterfly! An outraged adult reader is going to produce an upset child. Maybe some children will be upset even if the reader has warned that this is a story that isn’t going to end happily. But for some the kind of bright child who delights in following an idea through to a logical conclusion, that book is an absolute delight! Besides, the frog isn’t unhappy because it’s oblivious of quiet who it has just eaten. And the butterfly isn’t unhappy because it’s, well, dead. This is a great book to read out loud to students of writing. They tend to gasp and say, ‘but I didn’t think that children’s books could end like that!’

Should they? What do you think?

Sunday 12 October 2014

Let’s play! Some fast and fun writing games to try.

Moira Butterfield
I’m in the midst of writing something that’s pretty off-the-wall at the moment. I hope it’s funny. It’s meant to be, and to do it I have to get into a different mindset away from my everyday concerns. 
To get into ‘anything goes’ mode I need to free up my thinking, so I’ve made a list of quick writing games to try at the beginning of writing sessions. I thought you might like a list, too, to have handy whenever you fancy a bit of writing play. I think of it as taking a lovely warm cleansing brain shower! Use the games to kickstart any kind of writing, from picture books upwards. Tailor them to suit.

In general the idea is to chuck away what you’ve written as it’s for pure fun, but if you decide you’ve hit on something, then good luck!

Add your own suggestions and favourites in the comments section and I’ll then create a document of creative writing games that we can all share as a writing resource in the free download section of this blog. When it’s ready we’ll tweet about it on @PictureBookDen.

I’ve found some of the game suggestions online. A couple I’ve experienced in workshops and a couple I’ve made up for myself. I haven’t tried them all yet, so I’ll be working through them and perhaps tweaking them a bit. I’ve not put them in any particular order, but I’ve given them my own names.

As a rule of thumb I reckon that none of these should take longer than it takes to sit and drink a cup of coffee. 
Story photobomb
Grab a magazine or a catalogue that you’ve got lying around. Open it and select a photo (do this really quickly - no going through the pages and making involved decisions). Now write one paragraph of story about it (for any age you like, depending on how you feel). Stop after 5 minutes (you could put your phone alarm on to stop yourself). 

Snake eats bus
Write down the numbers 1 to 12. Now quickly write the name of a character by 1. Then write a plot sentence by each number, taking this character onwards. It doesn’t have to be good because nobody is going to see it. It can be as mad as anything. That’ll be all the more fun for your brain. Here’s one I’ve just started quickly for the blog, as an example.  
1.snake 2. eats bus 3. bus keeps driving 4. snake has to go where bus goes.      

You get the idea. 
 Brain takeover
Open a book or a magazine. Choose a simple everyday word (point at one randomly with your finger). For just a couple of minutes at most write down lots of other ways of describing that word, and gradually just let yourself go off in any direction. Go as off-the-wall as you want. I’ve just done one quickly, and I began by pointing to ‘no one’. 
No one, nobody, no person, nix persona, lots of twos, all alone, no humans, hold on, there’s an alien, does that count? so if someone said ‘there was nobody there’ but there was an alien were they lying or not? 
I went an unusual way and ended up with a fun idea for a sci-fi short story (which I will probably never write but who knows).  
 Head yoga
This exercise comes from a psychologist, to encourage ‘thinking fluency and flexibility’ apparently. Maybe we need to keep exercising our brains this way to keep them flexible, hence my title. 
Begin by choosing a four-letter word. (The example I saw was IDEA). Now write three or four sentences using the four letters as word initials. Eg: 
I Don’t Enjoy Apricots
If Dogfish Eat Apples
Interview Didn’t End Angrily
India Elephants Dawn Attack  

Then swap for another four letter word. It doesn’t matter one bit if your sentences are nonsense. It’s the word association that’s the brain-stretching part. 
 Eureka writing
Varying the words in a given phrase can bring about exciting problem-solving  breakthroughs and once led to a man inventing an entirely new type of food (a microwaveable egg cube). Or so I read in Thinkertoys. A handbook of creative-thinking technique, by Michael Michalko. His book is about solving problems using creative thinking, but I’ve adapted the idea to make it purely for fun. 

Write a simple sentence or find one from a picture book. Spend a little time substituting new words for the key words in the sentence. Do it fast. Here’s one I just tried: 
a teddy loses a hat
a dog finds a hat
a hat finds a dog
a girl finds a dog
a girl finds a hat
with a teddy in it 
I think I’d be happy to do this all day! It’s oddly soothing and it could go anywhere. The sentences could get longer or you could start a new sentence. It's your game!
Quickly choose a noun, any noun. Spend five moments writing one word to describe it, thus:
Door - big door, blue door, rotten door, ancient door, metal door, cold metal door 
Don’t give up if it gets hard, Just allow yourself to go a bit crazy:
jelly door, talking door, lizard door 
(No idea where that lizard door came from!). 
I’m little and I like…
Make quick lists of three things you loved as a child: 
Pieces of clothing
Mmm, I’m thinking of the smell of clean sheets that billowed all day on the line…

Write the letters of the alphabet down. Then write a word by each letter that’s as silly and as personal as you like (it’s for you, nobody else). I’ve got one on my wall that says g for gaullimaufry!  It was created by Peter Chasseaud at his Tom Paine Printing Press in Lewes, Sussex, and I've got it on my wall, handprinted on lovely handmade paper. Here it is for some inspiration.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Can ET riding on a car inspire me to get on with my writing? Writing when you don't feel like it by Juliet Clare Bell

ET's head, riding on a car. And why not?

Writing is personal, whatever it's about. And that's a good thing -it's what gives the story or article or piece, voice.

There are times, though, when it's easier to get on with less personal work, like sorting out school visits, doing professional critiques, preparing SCBWI stuff for an upcoming conference...

Sometimes, it's easier not to pick up a pen and actually write, and now seems to be one of those times. But that's not always very convenient. So, what do you do when you're feeling more inclined to make your google calendar look really colourful and pretty?

Look at all those colours (but not at the chocolate wrapper)

or when those windows suddenly look in urgent need of a clean, even though you've been completely oblivious to the mini hand smears until now...?

How can I possibly write when my window looks like that?

I thought I'd better take a leaf out of my teaching book. I'm always telling students, adults and children alike, that ideas are all around you and that you just have to be receptive to them. I was reminded of this from a friend's recent blog post, written by her primary-aged children, last week. It was a list of all the things they'd seen on a walk

It's great. (I particularly like the two pigeons out on a romantic walk, and a mushroom looking like a curly wurly swirly poo, and falling leaves that we reached up to catch.)

I decided to try that, but the children were at school and I walked in a slightly different direction from my friends and felt less inspired...

and then I decided to clear out the loft.

Now that was more like it. I found loads of old photos (including ET, above), letters, postcards and best of all, old school books from when I was five and six.

My six-year-old reading my five- and six-year-old school books

But would it spark any ideas for stories?

Well, maybe not that story exactly, but it's reminded me of the incident and some things around it that might be worth playing around with (and it was certainly very funny).

"Someone else came and he is going tonight we think". Did he go? Is he still there? That got me thinking (though perhaps not for a picture book).

I'm not sure I'd get away with this kind of cheat any more...
("I wish that the queen was not dead. So she was not dead.") Would be nice...

and the goal might need to be a little harder for the protagonist to achieve than this

But there's something good about rediscovering an old preoccupation with magic pigs

and the dated work has an added excitement to it
I wrote this exactly 38 years and three days ago as I write...

It's been a good way of reconnecting with things a little, even if some of those things are pretty poignant
Letters and stories from my mum, who died last year

My mum as a young child (with a distinctly sinister-looking doll), out in India

And in the meantime, I'm trying to be more present, aware of what I'm doing -and open to how I could incorporate it into a story (ok, that kind of goes against the being present bit). At lunch, I started making a lentil soup and got half way through making it before discovering that I didn't have any lentils. After I'd added enough water for an ingredient that was now missing. What could I do to my watery soup? Well, I looked around and turned it into anything goes soup

which kind of got me thinking along the right lines for picture books (and tasted ok, in spite of the slightly unusual ingredients).

And it may not be relevant but I really enjoyed this recent picture by one of my children

and this spider who was stretched out along a light-coloured wall, possibly to make the most of the sun? There were three of them together and I'd never seen spiders do that before...

Unfortunately, what I REALLY need to be doing right now is editing various manuscripts. And all the fun idea-generating distractions in the world won't help me with that. So I need to get down to it and focus. And actually, that pretty google calendar is helping me prioritise, but maybe I should just change that green to purple...

What do you do to get yourself going again when you're feeling less than inspired to write or edit?

Juliet Clare Bell (always called Clare) is a children's author who's excited about PiBoIdMo, the upcoming SCBWI British Isles Annual Conference in Winchester (in which she's appearing as a panelist representing creative non-fiction picture books, and is overseeing the crazy but fun and useful Friday Night Critique) and the tasty preparation for her first creative nonfiction picture book (out in 2015) on the remarkable Cadbury Brothers.