Thursday 26 March 2015

Look who’s laughing now - Crossover humour in picture books • Elys Dolan

A big THANK YOU to this month's guest blogger, Elys Dolan, author-illustrator of the very funny Weasels and Nuts in Space. Elys explores how picture book humour can appeal to both young and old in this post.

I’m a big fan of funny picture books. They’ve brought me moments of hilarity featuring everything from speedo wearing wombats to ugly ducklings that grow up to be even worse looking ducks. I’m so much of a fan I even try to make the odd one myself along with doing a PhD about them. I find such books funny even though I’m apparently a fully paid up grown up with a mortgage, a tax return and a grey hair I found the other day but don’t want to talk about.

So prepare yourself because I’m about to get very nerdy about the kind of picture books that are funny for both children and adults. I’ll be using the term crossover humour to describe it. I’ll wax lyrical about why they are the kind of books I want to make and the implications that come with that.

But before I begin here’s a quick disclaimer:

There are few things more subjective than what is or is not funny. Therefore I can’t guarantee that you won’t think the things I’m purporting to be amusing are quite the opposite. If this happens please accept my apologies and lets hope we never have to sit next to each other on a long plane journey.

There’s many types of humour used in children’s books but I’ve chosen three to use as examples, toilet humour, parody and physical humour, because they illustrate the use of different kinds of humour within the same book to achieve a crossover appeal. These examples are going to come from my own work. The first reason for this is that I’m deeply self-centred. The second is if I were to cover the subject in its entirety, in reference to various picture book makers, you’d be reading this for days and probably run out of food and other essential supplies. Thirdly I can put my own images on the internet without asking for permission and not get into trouble.

Toilet humour

I’ll start with the classiest type of humour. From my experience of doing book events this goes down brilliantly with kids. This vignette from my first book, Weasels, almost always gets a laugh because sometimes all you have to do is show them a toilet:

Having said that I find the grown ups in the audience aren’t above it either. You tend to have to be a bit subtler and let their own dirty imaginations do the work. I’ll often get the odd parent laughing at this bit from Weasels when the lights suddenly go out:

Toilet humour is frequently used in picture books, sometimes lazily and sometimes to great effect. Well know examples include Poo Bum by Stephanie Blake, The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew it Was None of His Business by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch.


I seem to do this a lot and won’t realise it until half way through development. I’ll think ‘I’m going to do a book set in space’ and some how I end up referencing, and poking fun at, Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001 A Space Odyssey and all the other stuff I’m a fangirl for. This is glaringly obvious in my second book Nuts in Space. Does this place remind you of anything?: 

And perhaps this Moose is a little like William Shatner in his own way:  

And there’s more than a few Bond film references in Weasels including this chap who’s a bit like a certain evil genius/super villain:  

It’s a fairly adult form of humour because it often requires prior knowledge of external references but I get a great reaction from the reader. Parody like this doesn’t seem very common but there are some excellent examples of parody when it come to reworking fairy tales. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith one of my favourite and there’s Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems.

Physical humour: Slapstick & Humorous Physicality

Under slapstick I’m including all Laurel and Hardy style falling over and comedic accidents. For example:


Ducks getting sucked into vacuum cleaners

And the classic slipping on a banana skin.

By humorous physicality I mean characters that are funny just from the way they look. I often do this by exaggerating certain features and essentially making them look ridiculous. For example here’s a Baywatch hippo:

I’ve exaggerated the size of said hippo, and trust me it’s no easy thing to make a hippo even chunkier, for comedic value. Putting her in a swimming costume and making her run seems to add to the entertainment too. There’s some great examples of exaggerated characteristics in Melvin Peake’s Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor and in Marc Boutavant’s animal characters from Around the World with Mouk.

I find that physical humour appeal much more to children than adults. I’m not entirely sure why, perhaps it’s slightly too direct for adults, and there are of course exceptions but in my own experience it’s the child that react the most to this.

So of the three forms of humour I’ve described parody appeals most to adults, toilet crosses between ages and slapstick appeals mostly to children.

Why on earth would I use crossover humour? 

I started using crossover humour, and any humour at all for that matter, unconsciously. I didn’t even realise I was doing it until people started telling me. Now the question that looms large for me is why would an author or illustrator include crossover humour in a book for children? I can’t speak for any other practitioners (although I’m planning to glean a range of opinions as part of my research) but I can offer my own philosophy.

I think the initial motivation was my own entertainment. This job is difficult, time consuming, and unlikey to make me rich so I’ve got to be enjoying myself. I do this by putting my own sense of humour into my work and doing things that make me giggle to myself like a crazy lady.

A less self-involved reason is how funny I find the book is a good form of quality control. I sometimes encounter the perception that children have lower standards of humour. I don’t think this is the case. Sometimes different things appeal to children but the standard is always very high and if they’re not enjoying it they will let you know. So, if it’s not good enough to keep me entertained how can I expect my readers to enjoy it?

I’m conscious that my readership isn’t only children. Children’s books are encountered by parents, older ‘reluctant’ readers, booksellers, publishers, other authors & illustrators, reviewers etc. I firmly believe you need to direct the majority of humour towards your core audience but I don’t want the rest to go wanting. If there’s a poor tired parent who’s been asked by their little angel to read one of my books for the 1000th time I hope I can at least raise a brief smile with a gag about death bananas.

Issues with cross over humour: 

I do occasionally meet resistance from my publishers and others in the industry when using this multi-level humour. Weasels went through a number of rejections and a few of them were because the humour was found to be ‘too adult’. I think subsequently crossover humour has been one of my unique selling points as an author and illustrator but I’ll talk about the pitfalls I’ve encountered.

Kids won’t ‘get it’. 

If you’re going to put in jokes for grown ups it may be that not all children will understand them. Children and adults have different frames of reference and a form of humour like parody require knowledge of external context for you to get the joke. The question here is does everyone have to get every joke? I know this can be a controversial view but as long as such jokes aren’t in the majority and they provide a different form of interest too I think it’s okay if they don’t.

For instance, in Nuts in Space there’s this moment:  

Now this requires a certain knowledge of Star Wars to get this joke. It’s fairly safe to assume not all children will have seen Star Wars so they won’t. On another level though I think an evil space monkey having a duel with a Moose using strip lights is a pretty interesting thing on its own. So, if it’s not going to be funny for everyone then at least make it interesting for the others so it works on two levels. I tend to think of the interest as the first level and the added joke as the second level.

The format makes it hard to to get the balance right

I was talking to an editor recently about why there’s more cross over humour in film and tv (think pixar films etc) than kids books and they said it’s perhaps because a picture book is like a haiku. Every word needs to count whereas in a film it’s one of many. Therefore in a picture book it’s much easier to upset the balance because too much of the content operates on the second level, excluding part of your audience. This is certainly a risk for simpler, more linear, picture books though it’s not impossible to achieve cross over humour in this context. Jon Klassen’s I Want my Hat Back has a kind of deadpan humour that appeals to adults whilst successfully telling a tale about a nefariously stolen hat to children. It works on those two levels and it does this consistently throughout the story. This subtle technique is way beyond the likes of me so I approach it in a different way. I work in a detailed, information heavy, manner so I can sneak in the odd moment of second level humour amongst the falling over and fart jokes.

What’s appropriate?

There’s all sorts of theories and differing opinions about what’s appropriate to include in children’s books and this does impact on the kind of humour you can use. For instance some toilet humour could be considered too revolting or some slapstick too violent. I encountered this recently in regards to dog turds. To be precise, this turd here: 

It’s the punchline of a joke which I’m not going to reveal in full because it’ll ruin the ending of my new book The Mystery of the Haunted Farm (yes that was a shameless plug). It seems the British reader has no problems with the odd dog poo but the publisher worried Americans would find this dog turd disgusting instead of funny because they have different standards of what’s acceptable. This lead to months of debate and extensive consultation with an American publisher to decide if dog turds are acceptable punch line for a picture book. Eventually it was decided that the turd could stay but it was a close run thing. I had to remove the blue bottles flying around it though. It’s a hard life.

Using cross over humour can be like walking on a knife edge desperately trying to keep your balance. Despite this it’s the times when I’ve done a reading of one of my books and I’ve got both kids and parents laughing that makes all the fretting, rewrites and frantic colouring in worth it. So if you’ll excuse me I’m off to draw a pig wearing underpants falling down toilet whilst dressed like Darth Vader and do it all over again.

Elys Dolan's latest picture book Nuts in Space is published by Nosy Crow.

Find out more about Elys and her books at
You can also follow Elys on twitter @ElysDolan

Saturday 21 March 2015

Drawing the anthropomorphic line: How human should your characters be? • Jonathan Emmett

Drawing the anthropomorphic line 

The “Pig Tales” session I often do on my school and library visits features three picture books I’ve written about pigs. In between reading the three stories I explain that one of the things that makes them different from each other is how much anthropomorphism they use. I explain what this ridiculously long word means and why it’s such a useful tool for storytellers.

The dictionary definition of anthropomorphism is “the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object.” I tell the children that anthropomorphism is simply “making something more like a person.”

Many of mankind’s oldest stories come from Africa, the birthplace of the human race. In the African stories of Anansi the spider, Anansi thinks and speaks like a human and in some of the stories he takes on human form.

Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott

Storytellers have been using anthropomorphism – making animals think, talk and look like humans – ever since.

Lucy Cousins's Maisy Mouse

And it’s not just animals – you can anthropomorphise almost anything … 

… vegetables …

… vehicles …

… even household appliances!

One reason storytellers use anthropomorphism is because people usually find characters more appealing if they think they are like them. Anthropomorphising an animal or even a toaster makes us care about what happens to them.

Anthropomorphism is not an either-or option; you can vary the amount you use. And, if you are creating a picture book, it’s worth taking the time to get the balance just right in both text and illustrations.

You can use varying amounts of anthropomorphism

My picture book story Pigs Might Fly is a sequel to the traditional tale of The Three Little Pigs. The pigs in my story build and fly aeroplanes, so they are fully anthropomorphic – the story could just as well be about three humans. This was reflected in some of illustrator Steve Cox’s first character sketches for the book, where the pigs are fully clothed and one of them is carrying a phone and a laptop. However, the publisher felt that these characters didn’t have quite the right appeal, and the character designs that eventually appeared in the book wore less clothing and were more recognisably pig-like.

Some of Steve Cox's character sketches for Pigs Might Fly:
Early, fully-anthropomorphic characters on the left and final characters on the right.

The pig in The Pig’s Knickers lives outdoors on a farm and – before the events of the story – would not usually wear clothing. However I made him talk, think and feel like a human in the text and Vanessa Cabban’s illustrations show him dancing on his hind legs and picking things up with his front trotters. As such, he’s a good example of a semi-anthropomorphic character.

One of Vanessa Cabban's illustrations for The Pig's Knickers

The Princess and the Pig is the story of a piglet that gets switched at birth and is brought up as a princess in the mistaken belief that she has been bewitched. The running joke in the story is that, while the reader knows that Princess Priscilla is nothing more than an ordinary pig, the characters in the story don’t and spend all their time trying to make her look and behave like a human. When I first started thinking about the story I considered making Priscilla a little anthropomorphic, but in the end I decided that the story would be much funnier if I didn’t anthropomorphise her at all.

One of Poly Bernatene's spreads for The Princess and the Pig

So the next time you’re writing a story with animal* characters, take a moment to think about where’s the best place to draw your anthropomorphic line!

*Or vegetables or vehicles or household appliances!

Jonathan Emmett's latest semi-anthropomorphic picture book is A Spot of Bother illustrated by Vanessa Cabban and published by Walker 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.

Monday 16 March 2015

Collaborative Writing by Abie Longstaff

In the Winter edition of The Author I saw an article by Terence Blacker called 'The seven habits of highly ineffective authors'. His final no no was this:

I totally disagree with him. In fact, the instant shaking of my head as I read his point made me realise how much I like to collaborate. All authors work differently; I know plenty who do work better alone: they get inspiration from long walks, from listening to music, from living inside their own heads. I'm not one of these: I'm a talker. I like to think aloud, chatting through my plots and characters with friends. I've always enjoyed this part of the process and I find the act of verbalising my story, and of having others question me on it, forces me to formulate it properly and to ensure the plot (in terms of action and emotion) makes sense.

I brainstorm with editors, with my husband and with fellow authors (Jane Clarke, Saviour Pirotta, Rebecca Lisle and I recently had a fantastic joint session talking through plots and characters). I like hearing what other people have to say and I like thinking about their book issues as well as my own.

Once I've written a first draft I often do manuscript swaps with authors (we do a monthly one here at picturebookden where any denner can send round a draft for comment), I show it to my agent and to my editors.

Funnily enough, it's not that common for picture book authors to collaborate with illustrators. Sometimes I don't ever meet my illustrator and the editor acts as a go-between. On Fairytale Hairdresser, because it is a series, Lauren Beard and I do talk through issues and plots and I love hearing her ideas on the text. When we were making the Snow Queen Lauren and I met up for coffee. She said; I'm thinking Russian-ish, I said; I'm thinking blue and spiky, and we ended up with this jointly inspired look:

Recently I've heard a number of authors talk about more major scale collaboration: Sarah McIntyre and Phillip Reeve jointly authored the wonderful 'Oliver and the Seawigs' and they spoke at the Society of Authors about how enriching the experience was. Lee Weatherly and Linda Chapman talked at a conference about writing the 'Sophie and the Shadow Woods' series together and I know many other authors who write, or plot, with another person.

For me the phrase 'to be any good as an author you have to be on your own' just doesn't ring true. Where Blacker is right is that the final decision has to be mine, and I have to stand or fall based on it. But for me, listening to others makes my books deeper, richer and better.

What about you?

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Endings that Stay With You • Natascha Biebow

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a magic ‘ending machine’? You’d write your picture book and then feed it in and POOF! – out pops a spectacular ending!

Endings can be one of the most frustrating and nigglesome aspects of writing picture books. But when you’ve cracked it, a great ending can make the difference between that book that children ask for again and again, and the one they aren’t really fussed about ever reading again.

So, what makes a great ending?

• the main plot problem set up in the opening of the story must be resolved in a satisfactory way – the character’s hopes, wants and needs are met and realized.

• your characters must grow and change by the end of the book – they should have learned something and will be bigger, better people as a result of their journey. So, by implication, will the reader.

readers must feel satisfied and not be left hanging, wondering about unresolved plot points or sub-plots. All loose ends should be tied-up or dealt with.

Here are some examples where the reader can clearly see that the main character has gone on a journey and grown as a result of the action in the story:

What other kinds of endings?

Dark endings: The ending of Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross' Tadpole's Promise is controversial, but true to nature. The caterpillar turns into a butterfly and gets eaten by her true-love, the Tadpole–turned frog. Some grown-ups may wonder: what will children make of this realistic and not at all happy ending?! It is memorable, though – and it works!

From Tadpole's Promise by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

Circular endings: In A bit Lost by Chris Haughton, we see the classic ending that is the story starting all over again, with a slight twist. The story begins with Little Owl falling out of the nest and his quest for his mummy. Finally, reunited with her at last, Mummy invites his rescuers up to the nest, only for Little Owl to fall asleep again . . .
The first and last spreads from A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton

Unexpected endings: In Flora's Flowers by Debi Gliori, there is a delightful surprise in store for young readers who believed in little Flora as she plants a small brick and declares, "I'm growing a small house." Her brothers and sisters all made fun of Flora while the seasons changed from Spring to Autumn and Winter to Spring again, but look what grew!
From Flora's Flowers by Debi Gliori

The Baddie gets eaten up and everyone lives happily ever after: In traditional tales, the baddie often gets his comeuppance at the end of the story and meets a dastardly end, like the Troll in this retelling by Irene Yates of The Three Billy Goats Gruff:

From The Three Billy Goats Gruff, illustrated by Ailie Busby

Twists: sometimes, the ending is a twist that is a delicious visual joke or surprise reveal, as in these two examples:

Or the twist is an unexpected plot turn, as in this example:

P.S. endings: Sometimes, the ending is not quite the end. When Kes' son read Billy's Bucket, he was concerned for the whale, who came out of the bucket onto the street when Billy's dad borrowed his bucket to clean the car without asking. How would the whale survive? So we added a postscript on the back endsheet, in which the whale was safely shoe-horned back into the bucket:

From Billy's Bucket by Kes Gray & Garry Parsons
In another example: when Garry's son read The Dinosaurs are Having a Party by Garreth P Jones, he wondered: wouldn't the baby dinosaur who hatches out of the party bag egg miss his Daddy? Here is the solution on the back endsheet of the book:
From The Dinosaurs are Having a Party
by Garreth P Jones & Garry Parsons

The endings I like best are those that make me laugh or leave me with a warm feeling inside. They bring closure and a kernel of truth about life. Like these two:

What kinds of endings do you like?


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 the 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.

Friday 6 March 2015

What's your Other Life? - post by Jonathan Allen

As I've been at this job for a good thirty years or so, I think I can use the pompous phrase "In my long and varied career. ." without any exaggeration.

So, In my 'long and varied career' as a writer and illustrator, I have always had other interests bumping along in the back of the van, as it were. I suppose that, because I have never had what could be called a 'proper job', nothing that required travel to a place of work and a commitment to eight hours of labour of any kind, I don't compartmentalise my time. By which I mean that I don't feel I have to be doing any particular thing at a particular time of day. I am constrained by deadlines, but have free choice about when I do what in order to meet said deadlines.

I have lived long enough to realise that this is very unusual, and how lucky I am to be able to earn a living (of sorts) doing what I like and am good at. Basically I draw funny animals and get paid for it. . . Ridiculous. . .

A Fat Cat - but you knew that.

As what time I spend on what, is determined by me, I have been able to pursue other creative avenues in a fairly intensive way, deadlines permitting.

How about you? What interests do you have running parallel to your life a an author or illustrator?

I think creative people are inclined to use their creativity in all areas of life, after all it is a mindset rather than a 'hat' you put on from time to time. It would be interesting to know what strong interests other writers and illustrators have or have had in their lives alongside their writing and Illustrating careers, and how they feel it might feed back into their 'work'.

My list starts with music. I played bass in a band at art school, art school being one of the traditional places bands emerge from. We never got anywhere, but really wanted to for a while. From that I got interested in recording, and had a small studio in a house I lived in, with a couple of mates. I lost interest, as I hadn't got the level of commitment needed to spend long and antisocial hours in a darkened room with a rock band from Croydon (for instance). . .

Status Shark, 5 string, passive electronics. Ho yes.

I got interested in computer related music tech and electronic music. Sampling etc, but again, didn't pursue it to any tangible end. (story of my life. .)
That led to an interest in computer generated landscape software, fractal based forms and how to make 'realistic' textures and patterns using them.

This kind of thing - computer generated landscape from a good few years ago now. . .

I still mess with that stuff, but I now make abstract patterns and print the images onto ceramic tiles. Getting the patterns out onto real objects led me to polymer clay, which in turn led me to making beads and jewelry of a particular 'rustic' kind. I've started selling them online. . . (under another name so as to avoid confusion. .) I could never have predicted that one!

'Rustic' Image Transfer beads, antiqued up to high heaven - fun to do

I think it feeds back into what I do in that the same process of refining a rough idea into something finished goes on. (Well, obviously!) What I mean is that the process of structuring a good pop song, or bass line, or idea for a pendant etc is comparable to that of putting together good picture book. It's the same mindset at work, getting stuck in to the complex work that goes into producing something simple but solid in concept and execution.
Anyway, enough about me. What is and what has been your creative passion outside writing or illustrating, and has it been an inspiration or a distraction? (I think mine have been both at various times. . )