Wednesday 26 November 2014

Ten signs that you’re a picture book writer by Jane Clarke

I didn't set out to be a picture book writer, I intended to write novels.  So for anyone else who is as confused as I was…

You know you’re a picture book writer if:

  • You seriously consider the point of view of talking animals.

From The Far Side by Gary Larson

  • Your story spends more time in your head than it does getting it down on paper.

One of Julia Woolf's fab sketches from my post on ideas composting

  • You see your story in pictures even though you’re not an illustrator. 
  • You can't resist planning it out in ten to twelve spreads.

This is how Knight Time looked before Jane Massey's wonderful illustrations

  • You automatically think 

  • You get more satisfaction crafting a story in 400 words than you do writing it in 4,000 or 40,000 words. 

  • You have lots of fun thinking of awful puns (often removed by editor) and adding layers that the adult reading it will enjoy as well as the child. 

From Gilbert the Great illustrated by Charles Fuge. The name of the boat references the Jaws films.

  • You spend ages agonising over a word.

  •  Steam comes out your ears when someone implies that writing a picture book is easy.

Grrr! Picture books require skill.

  • You're reading posts on The Picture Book Den!
Please add to the list in the comments.

Jane's currently working on a series of toddler board books for Penguin Random House, three picture books for Nosy Crow, and a series called Dr KittyCat for OUP.

Friday 21 November 2014

True Story Picture Books (or Creative Non-Fiction: It’s All About the Story) by Juliet Clare Bell

Are you sitting comfortably?

I’m not.

I’m itching to get up and discover. I feel like a puppy who hasn’t quite worked out which way she wants to go first and is darting from one place to another, happily, but slightly barking…

I’ve got the bug back. After feeling uninspired for quite some time, I’m very very excited about writing picture books again. I feel like I’ve re-understood something I knew a while back when I was writing my chocolate book, but had kind of forgotten.

I’m writing this in National Non-fiction November, in praise of non-fiction -although I reckon the term ‘non-fiction’ has a dry, almost negative, feel about it. Almost as if it’s not something worthy of a term in its own right, just that it is not something else. It’s not fiction, which I as an author –and reader- love. But what I love about fiction is STORY. And the best non-fiction is exactly that. So I’m re-thinking how I think of it in my head: I write picture books and at the moment, the picture books that I’m really drawn to writing are true story picture books, which sounds more fun than non-something else (to me, at least).

So what’s the real difference?

Apart from the fact that the story is true, there isn’t a great difference –if you do it really well. A great true story picture book still makes the best use of language and rhythm, repetition and sometimes even rhyme. It still makes use of the form of the picture book –exciting readers by interesting use of page turns.

The beautiful Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown, 2011).

It still exploits the rule of threes…

Story has to be at the very heart of it.

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin (Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet; Knopf; 2013)

And your heart has to be at the very heart of it too, when you’re writing it. Don’t write a true story picture book if the story doesn’t fire you up, first because your reader won’t love it, and also, because you’ve got to research and research takes time. Lots of time.

A close writer friend, Rebecca Colby, and I, were part of the Breaking into Nonfiction panel at the recent British SCBWI annual conference. Anita Loughrey blogged about the panel here.

Me on the far left, with Rebecca, next left at the Nonfiction Panel at the 2014 British SCBWI Annual Conference, Steve Rickard (Ransom), Sophie Thomson (Pearson) and Kersti Worsley (OUP).

It was loads of fun and we talked with lots of other writers and editors who were similarly fired up by the idea of beautifully crafted picture books that tell true stories. It feels like something really special is in the air… UK editors are certainly seemingly more interested now than before, but what’s changing?

I wrote about the market for creative non-fiction picture books in an earlier PBD blog post about the Cadbury book I was researching at the time. With the Common Core (adopted by almost all states in the US), 50% of texts for upper primary aged children in schools need to be informational, which means that publishers are taking on many more new true story picture books than ever before. And they’re winning prizes that have traditionally been won by fictional picture books.

And now in the UK, Nosy Crow has teamed up with the National Trust to produce children’s books that relate to National Trust properties. Although the UK market isn’t going to be as big as the US market (given their schools and library market in the light of the Common Core), I think that UK publishers are looking closely at what’s happening in the US market. It’s a really exciting time to be writing in this area.

So, what should you write about?

There are so many thousands of amazing stories out there, waiting to be told. It’s true of fiction ones, and it’s true of real life ones. What you need to do is be receptive to looking/listening out for them.
Here are some things you can do:

Talk to people

Talk to your family. What true stories did you love as a child? Growing up in our family of eight, we used to sit around for hours at the dinner table eating lots but talking even more. My parents were natural storytellers and loved telling, as well as reading, us stories. So I talked with my sister yesterday on the phone for over an hour and together we came up with over sixty ideas for true story picture books. Sixty (that’s this year’s PiBoIdMo sorted)… No wonder I’m on a crazy writing high today… My dad and his lovely new wife came up with a great idea for one, too, when we were chatting about it a few weeks ago. And today, I arranged to go on a really exciting research trip for one of these ideas in just two weeks’ time with another sister who feels similarly excited about the potential project. What a brilliant way to hang out with your favourite people and come up with great ideas/do research at the same time!

What true stories have captured your children's imaginations? What are they doing at school that’s really interesting? My ten-year-old came home from school earlier this week having seen half of a documentary about something (sorry –can’t say what, as I’ve nicked the idea for myself). They were going to watch the other half the next day. When she said to her teacher “I don’t think I can wait till tomorrow cos it’s too exciting!” her teacher said “Please don’t watch it at home [it was on Youtube]. I can’t wait to see all your faces when you see what happens!” So a topic that the children and teacher were all really excited about… Talk to your children (or other primary-aged children).

Talk to librarians and library staff.

They’re brilliant for knowing what people come in looking for and for saying what’s been covered before but not been done well. They’re also pretty fun people to hang out with (thanks to my lovely Kings Heath Library friend who I was out with last night, who told me about certain famous people who’d been written about lots but never in an exciting enough way.) Go on, you know you want to... Have fun and support your local libraries at the same time.

Given that the National Trust and Nosy Crow are now in partnership, have a look at different National Trust properties and land and think of what related stories are there to be told that really fire your imagination…

Watch telly, listen to radio programmes, read newspapers...

Check out the US Common Core -whether you're writing in the UK or the US or anywhere else.

I love stories and people. I want to understand better why people do the things they do (which is why I was a psychologist for so many years in my life-before-children). So for me, I’m fascinated by the person behind the invention/organisation/discovery...

Which inventions/organisations/discoveries fascinate you?

It could be the story behind the invention of the toilet... (Curse you, tiny toilet -I did actually have to look up 'how to draw a toilet' to get something even vaguely resembling one)

Or it could be a favourite organisation...

You can research them superficially and quickly to find which of them has a great real life story behind it. We came up with sixty ideas, seventeen of which I’m feeling really excited about. Those seventeen might result in my following up, perhaps, eight really seriously over the coming year. And mostly from brainstorming with a sister who I’d happily spend hours every day talking to about anything. This really is something you can have heaps of fun with.

Think about organisations behind the stories that you love. Is it possible that they could commission you to write a story for them? For my next book, More Than a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of the Cadbury Brothers,

Richard and George Cadbury (c) Cadbury Archive

it was Bournville Village Trust that approached me (and Jess Mikhail, the illustrator) and commissioned us rather than the other way round, but I would absolutely approach an organisation now if I felt that I loved a story that related to them and could do it justice. And I’ve loved the whole social reform and philanthropy side of the Cadbury story so much that I’m really interested in writing more stories with that at its heart.

Finally, think about stories where someone has done something against the odds. Could you turn that into a story that children will love and be inspired by?

The biggest problem may be curbing your enthusiasm. Right now I feel a bit like the guy from The Fast Show, who thinks everything is "brilliant!"
And one brilliant thought leads to another… and another…

I’ve had loads of fun brainstorming ideas and now it’s time to do the superficial research on the ones I’m too excited about not to check out now. I’ve set myself a deadline for emailing a list and a summary of a number of ideas for true story picture books that I promised I’d send to an editor. So next week I’m going to be researching all week to whittle it down to a manageable number of ideas to work with for now.

To anyone thinking of writing true stories for children, and to those who are already doing it, good luck. There are SO many stories out there, I think there’s room for lots of us to tell the amazing stories that amaze us.

(There’s a brilliant facebook group that is dedicated to non-fiction picture books: Wownonficpic, and a great four-week online course run by Kristen Fulton).

Do you have any tips for coming up with great ideas for true story picture books? If you’re happy to share, we’d love to read them in the comments below.

Juliet Clare Bell is author of The Kite Princess (Barefoot Books, recently endorsed by Amnesty International) and Don’t Panic, Annika! (Piccadilly Press, recently featured on CBeebies). Her next picture book, More Than a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury, was commissioned by Bournville Village Trust, and is currently being illustrated by Jess Mikhail. She has seriously got the bug for telling true stories in her favourite form, picture books.
Clare lives happily in Birmingham, UK, with her three children (always a source of inspiration for true life and fictional stories, and life in general), almost within sniffing distance of the chocolate factory which she’s written about. Which is brilliant…

National Non-Fiction November is the Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ annual celebration of all things factual. Born out of National Non-Fiction Day, the brain child of Adam Lancaster during his years as Chair, the whole month now celebrates all those readers that have a passion for information and facts and attempts to bring non fiction celebration in line with those of fiction.

Sunday 16 November 2014

MARVELLOUS MACHINES: Technology in picture book illustration • Jonathan Emmett

Understanding how it all fits together is no mean feat.
One of David Parkins's techtastic illustrations for Eileen Browne's story, No Problem.

I’m a bit of a technophile and several of my picture books, such as Callum’s Incredible Construction Kit and Tom’s Clockwork Dragon have a technological theme. I’d like to think that my enthusiasm for technology comes across in my writing, but the writing only tells half the story in a picture book, the other half being told by the illustrations.

Some of the fundamentally flawed bicycle
drawings from Rebecca Lawson’s study
To draw a machine or mechanism well, an illustrator has to understand how it’s put together and operates. This cognitive skill doesn’t always go hand in hand with artistic ability and is relatively uncommon, not just among illustrators, but among the population as a whole.

Cognitive psychologist Rebecca Lawson demonstrated this last point with a series of experiments in which subjects were asked to either draw or complete a drawing of a bicycle. The bicycle is a simple machine that most people will have been familiar with from an early age and even non-cyclists encounter them regularly. While many people may think that they understand how a bicycle is put together, Lawson’s experiments (which she later published as a paper) show that relatively few people are able to draw one from memory without making fundamental errors.

Having established how rare this ability is, here are 10 techtastic picture book illustrators who excel at drawing machines.

You can see every nut, bolt and washer in David Parkins’s wonderful illustrations for No Problem, written by Eileen Browne. This book is one of my all-time favourite picture books about technology and was a huge bedtime favourite of my son’s.

The extraordinary Chris Riddell seems to excel at drawing everything and technology is no exception. The robots that inhabit Wendel’s Workshop demonstrate how technically detailed illustrations can also be brimming with character.

Mark Oliver, who created Monster’s - An Owner’s Guide with me, cites his engineer father as an inspiration for much of his work. Mark once told me that the key to illustrating technology well is that, “it has to look like it could actually work.”

Jonny Duddle’s The King of Space is full of superbly drawn spaceships and robots. Rex, the book’s anti-hero, lives on a farm which may be why the huge “warbot” he constructs looks like it’s made from tractor parts.

Ted Dewan’s re-telling of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice replaces magic with technology, and the work-shy human apprentice with an equally work-shy robot.

Although some of Callum’s creations in Callum’s Incredible Construction Kit are huge, Ben Mantle’s brilliantly detailed illustrations make it clear that they are constructed from pieces that a child could handle and assemble on his own.

William Bee’s illustrations for And the Train Goes are packed with the sort of wonderful technical detail that’s rarely found in picture books for the very young.

While cross sections are more commonly found in non-fiction, Steve Cox’s design for the crocodile submarine in our picture book The Treasure of Captain Claw was so stunning that publisher Orchard gave Steve this huge gatefold to show it off. Click here to see a much larger version in Steve's Flickr album.

No list of techtastic illustrators is complete, without the grandaddy of them all, Heath RobinsonThis illustration is from Railway Ribaldry, published for the centenary of the Great Western Railway in 1935.

And finally, I couldn’t resist sneaking in an illustration from The Clockwork Dragon (a reworking of Tom’s Clockwork Dragon), my forthcoming picture book with Elys Dolan. Elys is a self-confessed armour nut, and this certainly shows in her splendid illustrations of the eponymous dragon, which is made from recycled arms and armour.

Do you have a favourite picture book featuring marvellous machinery that I haven’t mentioned? If so, tell us about it in the comment box below.

Jonathan Emmett's next techtastic picture book, The Clockwork Dragon illustrated by Elys Dolan, will be published by Oxford University Press in February 2015.

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.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

The Curse of Busy-ness by Abie Longstaff

It's coming up to Christmas season. The shops are full of decorations, the ads are on the telly and the kids are behaving extra well just in case Santa's making a list and checking it twice.

I do love Christmas. I'm one of those people who gets ridiculously excited about the whole thing. I love seeing my family and consuming my weight in cheese. I'd happily have a glass of mulled wine with a mince pie any time of year.

But...for me the run up to Christmas is often filled with a growing sense of panic.

This time of year I suffer from the curse of busy-ness. It seems like there are never enough hours in the day to get everything done and every task is done at full speed.

Like many authors I have extra events to do or attend. I also have a Christmas book out which needs promoting. I have my day job, and my kids...and the Australian Christmas cards that need writing and posting...and every other reason to dash around like a headless chicken.

Only - the other day, because I was so busy, I didn't notice a good friend of mine was ill. I'd let my rushing around get in the way of something really important.

As picture book writers we need space to dream, and time to do it. As I run madly from one job to the next, scribbling on the train to make up lost time, I'm starting not to enjoy my creative work. I've been curtailing my day-dreaming time, cramming it between tasks. That's not the way to write. Worse; I've been neglecting my friends.

So my well-before-new-year's resolution is to slooooow down.

I've found some lovely bird song to listen to (it's tropical to remind me of growing up in Hong Kong):
I'm focusing on enjoying the journey; gazing out of the window instead of editing a book.

I'm going for a walk by the sea as often as I can.

I'm meeting up with my good friend next week.

And I found this lovely video of a craftsman who knows how to take time to make his creations perfect:

Wishing you all strength and TIME to cope with the pre-Christmas season,


(My new book is The Fairytale Hairdresser and Father Christmas)

Thursday 6 November 2014

Plot Twists that Zing! - by Natascha Biebow

So you’ve written a picture book and it’s got a beginning, middle and an end, but it doesn’t yet zing . . .  You’re still left asking, "So what?"

What can you do?

Lately, I’ve been noticing that the picture books that tickle my fancy are those that have something extra – a twist.

Remember I blogged about creating a breakout premise? Well, if you can surprise the reader and add some humour or unpredictability to your premise, you are definitely on your way towards creating a premise that is extraordinary.

Children love extraordinary flights of the imagination. They relish the unpredictable!
Here are some ways to add a twist to your book:

1. Give your premise a twist:

If you can turn the predictable on its head, you are headed for a premise that equals a distinctive USP (unique selling point). Editors, sales people, booksellers, librarians, children and all kinds of readers just love that!

Aliens that love underpants . . .

Aliens Love Underpants by Freedman & Cort

Pirates that are . . .

Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs by Andreae & Ayto

                                                                                         . . . dinosaurs!

from Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs by Andreae & Ayto

2. Give your characters a twist:

The Gruffalo really does exist . . .
from The Gruffalo by Donaldson & Sheffler

. . .  plus the tiny mouse is cleverer and braver even than this fierce-looking beastie!

The Gruffalo by Donaldson & Sheffler

This is Goldilocks’ story . . .

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems

. . . but no bears live here!

from Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems

This crocodile . . .

I Really Want to Eat a Child by Donnio and De Monfreid

. . . needs to eat bananas to get big and strong after all – not a child!

from I Really Want to Eat a Child by Donnio and De Monfreid

3. Give your plot a twist:

Two families plan to swap houses for their holiday . . .

Pirate House Swap by Longstaff & Chambers
But one is not quite what they expected . . .

Pirate House Swap by Longstaff & Chambers

Grandma mustn’t find out about the lion . . .

How to Hide a Lion from Grandma by Helen Stephens

 . . . but she has a secret too – she's hiding a bear in her bedroom!

from How to Hide a Lion from Grandma by Helen Stephens
4. Give your ending a twist:

Daisy doesn’t like peas!

Eat Your Peas by Gray & Sharratt

But she will only eat her peas if her mum eats her Brussels. 
And Mum doesn't like Brussels . . .  
from Eat Your Peas by Gray & Sharratt
But they both like pudding!

from Eat Your Peas by Gray & Sharratt
 The mammoth actually belongs to the boy . . .

A Mammoth in the Fridge by Escoffier & Maudet

. . . and he's not the only animal in the boy's bedroom!

from A Mammoth in the Fridge by Escoffier & Maudet
 A gorilla has come to visit . . .

Ding Dong Gorilla! by Robinson & Lord

. . . but not only did he make the mess – he left with the last of the pizza!

from Ding Dong Gorilla! by Robinson & Lord
Billy warned Dad that there were all kinds of sea creatures in his birthday bucket . . .

Billy's Bucket by Gray & Parsons
. . . but Dad borrowed it to clean the car anyway . . .
from Billy's Bucket by Gray & Parsons

What others can you think of?

Give it a twist and it will zing!

Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. Check out my NEW small group coaching courses!

Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.