Saturday 31 October 2015

Halloween Quiz by Malachy Doyle

As it's Halloween, and as I'm still a bit jet-lagged having only just got back from Grandparent duty over in Wales, here's a quiz.

The three year old was adamant he wanted to dress up as a rhino, by the way. And his dad had made a pumpkin into the monster from my picture book Hungry, Hungry, Hungry - which gave me the idea for what follows. 

Here's eight well-known Halloween-ish picture books.  I'll show you  a foreign edition cover and you have to tell me the title it went under in English. 

The prize is I don't come round to your place trick or treating. OK?

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Thinking in scenes - Lynne Garner

  One of my dad's shots - he used to take promo shots for the theatre
So guess where I spent some of my childhood? 
Earlier this month as I read Abie’s fab post ‘Ten ways I use panto for picture books’ I began remembering one of my first jobs and how it now helps me write my picture books.
During my late teens and early twenties I worked in the local theatre as wardrobe mistress. It was a job I loved, even if it was hard work. When we had a visiting company I often helped with their costumes. This meant late nights (repairing costumes on the run and once the curtain fell collecting those that needed washing) then early mornings (mending and washing/drying costumes so they were ready for that evenings performance). However it also gave me to opportunity to watch a huge variety of plays, both good and bad.

Why am I telling you this? Well I now use some of the knowledge I gained from watching those plays when I work on a new story. I relate each double page spread in a picture book to a scene in a play. In a play each scene must:
  • Keep the audience entertained and make them want to continue watching the play
  • Move your character a step closer to their goal
  • Encourage the audience to invest in the characters, even if they don’t like them
  • Give the characters something new to do and say
These points are exactly the same for each double page spread in a picture book. If each spread doesn’t entertain your reader, different enough to advance your story line towards a conclusion, make your reader want to turn the page, create some form of emotion in them then they’re not going to finish reading your book. They’re also unlikely to want to purchase your next book. So perhaps when you’ve finished your current work in progress why not try breaking it down into scenes. If the scene you've created doesn’t fulfil the above then tweak until it does. Hopefully in this way your finished story will wow your reader and just as importantly that commissioning editor or agent.  

Lastly if you give this a go please let me know if it works for you, I'd love to know.


Don't read unless interested in blatant plug:
My latest short story collection - Coyote Tales Retold is now up and selling on Amazon in ebook format.

My online courses with Women On Writing:
How to write A children's book and get published
5 picture books in 5 weeks
How to write a hobby-based how to book

Saturday 17 October 2015

Turning your family into animals by Jane Clarke

In the fifteen years I’ve been writing picture book texts, I’ve turned most of the members of my family into animals by matching up a trait of theirs with an animal that can be used to exaggerate it. Often this is just in my head, and incidental to the story, but occasionally the match up has made a book:

My dad hated to go to the dentist - and as a result had a couple of false teeth.  I turned him into the grandpa walrus who is persuaded to go to the dentist and in Tusk Trouble, illustrated by Cecilia Johansson.

One of my sons was prone to very impressive temper tantrums when he was small - he’s Trumpet, the Little Elephant with the Big temper, illustrated by Charles Fuge. 

My other son never could resist a dare - he's the racoon in Creaky Castle illustrated by Christyan Fox.

And me? I’m quick to panic, so I’m the squawking hen in Stuck in the Mud illustrated by Garry Parsons.

Have you turned any of your family into animals? Let us know if you have - and if you haven't -  why not have a go? 

Jane's latest picture book, illustrated by Charles Fuge - and inspired by her baby granddaughter.

Sunday 11 October 2015

An exciting picture book commission: Writing a picture book to raise money for Birmingham Children's Hospital by Juliet Clare Bell

                                       The front cover of our book, illustrated by Dave Gray

If you’re going to work with children on a picture book project, one thing you can be confident about is that it’s not going to end up how you imagine it.

No preconceptions? Or so I thought…

I was overjoyed (and slightly nervous) when I was commissioned to write a picture book for Birmingham Children’s Hospital. The brief was great: I would go and work in the hospital school with some children, engaging them in writing and reading for pleasure (I love author visits and working with children), find out about their experiences  -of being in hospital, and of their medical conditions (I am always fascinated talking to other people about their lives), and then write a picture book that reflected the lives of children in hospital (I love writing stories, and it was for an excellent cause). 

I thought I had no preconceptions about the book I would write; that I was starting with a properly blank sheet. I had deliberately tried not to come up with ideas for the story before I joined the children in the hospital school (hence feeling slightly nervous: I had no idea what I’d write but I knew that the as yet totally theoretical book would actually be out for Christmas). But I fully expected to be chatting away to the children about their experiences and challenges and getting lots of ideas for the story…

…only that didn’t happen. In the weeks that I was at the school, there were both siblings and patients. Siblings sometimes stay at the hospital when a brother or sister is very unwell and I soon discovered that neither the siblings nor the patients were interested in talking about why they were there. 
Which was completely fair enough. 
This was their reality, and their reality was really tough. They were more interested in doing things that took them away from what was going on in their lives rather than describing it to someone.

I was quite thrown by this, initially. However open-minded I'd been about the direction the project might take me in, I'd kind of banked on being able to ask children in the hospital what's your experience of being here? how does it feel? How would I be able to write the most genuine story I could write, set in hospital, without asking the children about their experience of it?

I decided to lighten up and what I soon found was that we could have a lot of fun together, playing around with words and sounds and with lists of the children's likes and dislikes. The original plans for my sessions went out of the window and I allowed myself to be led by what the children wanted to do. We didn’t ever talk about illness. We were silly. I wore elf slippers and told them lots of embarrassing stories about when I was younger. We read silly books with silly words, in particular Dr Seuss’s  Fox in Socks


                                                           (c) Dr. Seuss 

with the epic Tweetle Beetle Battle. If you haven’t read it, do.

                                                    Silly -and brilliant. (c) Dr. Seuss

                    Sillier -and more brilliant still. When I was younger, my dad would quote
                    from this battle whenever the mood took him -which was quite often...                                                                                                     (c) Dr. Seuss

The children came back to the Tweetle Beetle Battle lots –they wanted to take it in turns to read lines, and copy out some of the sillier words. With a bit of encouragement, they started to make up their own silly phrases. One day, one of the boys turned to me and said: “We’re going to make a book, like you do. Now.” It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. I started telling him how long it actually takes to make a picture book from start to finish and that I was going to be writing a book based on the hospital and children in hospital and that it would be out around about Christmas (which was actually a really, really quick turnaround for a book from conception to publication). He wasn’t interested in thinking that far ahead, where life might be very different from now. “No,” he said. “We’ll do one now.”

And so we did. It was a diversion from the actual book project I was meant to be working on, but the children (and I –it was so much fun) loved working on it and less than two weeks’ later, we had our own books of The Hungry Skinny Hairy Lion.

Our book project made by the school children, a light-hearted, strange story, full of silly words and phrases that were fun to say out loud (using, which is brilliant for projects with children).

More from the book project we made in the hospital school.

And another one.

Themes for the main hospital book

The Hungry Skinny Hairy Lion was never going to be anything like the book I’d write for the hospital, but I learned some really interesting things by doing it (and had loads of fun along the way). The children were interested in good things that might happen in the immediate future; brave characters in stories, and very clearly, distraction. The more wildly I asked them to imagine (using strange props from my magic bag), the more engaged they became.

It wasn’t appropriate to use the same kind of silliness and absurdity for the commissioned book, but I learned a lot from making it. So instead of trying to find out more about the conditions of the children who I would be talking to throughout the hospital wards, I focused on finding out what individual children were interested in. I joined children on the wards playing with their superhero collection cards; I talked with children about Eddie Stobart vehicles and chatted with a toy dog that talked (very quietly, through his lovely child owner); we discussed the films and TV programmes and pop music children liked and didn’t like. In short, I had a really enjoyable and often funny time, talking with children about really normal everyday likes and dislikes. Very few children (in the short time I had to visit them) chose to talk about their disability or condition and how it affected them. 

Some really interesting things emerged from our conversations that were extremely helpful for me in getting a feel for the story I would write, most notably, the importance of:

·         Going outside. Some children were indoors for long periods at a time because of their conditions. Lots of children talked about wanting to go in the garden and how they loved being outside. 

                                                             Illustrations by Dave Gray

·         Distraction. The medical condition of the children was their reality and a fact of life. I didn’t spend time with children who were usually well and who had broken a limb or got a temporary sickness, who may have been happy to talk about something that's so different from their normal everyday life. All the children I spent time with had chronic conditions. So distraction from the sometimes tricky normality was what many of them were interested in. There were lots of conversations which highlighted the children’s great imaginations, and it felt appropriate that fantasy as distraction would become an important element of the book.

·         Family. Family was clearly extremely important to the children I spent time with. But this often included the idea of a wider family including other adults in the hospital (medical and non-medical staff, and the parents of other children in the hospital, most notably on the renal and dialysis ward, where the families had often grown up together on the ward) as well as fellow patients.

 And so I made some decisions about the book:

The story would not be about sickness or disability at all. Although the book would be set in hospital, there would be no mention of anything medical at any point in the book. The beauty of picture books is that you can have things happening in the pictures that are never mentioned in the text, which felt similar to my experience with the children and young people at the hospital, with children talking animatedly about the latest Fast and Furious film whilst ignoring being attached to life-saving machines. Being unwell and needing treatment was the least interesting thing going on around them.

However, the main characters in our story would clearly be unwell and have disabilities. We deliberately went for a front cover that celebrates Maggie, the main character, and her determination, proudly showing her walking frame incorporated into her fantastical imagining.

Fantasy would play an important part.
After working with children in the hospital, I met with children from some local schools who are used to spending time in hospital but are currently outpatients. These children, who had chronic conditions but were able to lead lives in mainstream schools and mostly out of hospital, were happy to talk about their conditions and also how they distracted themselves when they were sick and/or in hospital. One child told me how he’d distracted himself when he was younger and needed to spend more time in hospital. When he had to put on a mask at night which he didn’t like, he pretended that he was getting ready to go into space. His story stayed with me and became the inspiration behind Maggie.

Trying to get out into the garden would be an important part of the story.
This reflected what a number of the children I spoke with loved to do when they were able to.

                                                           Illustrations by Dave Gray

Family (in the widest sense) and friendship would be central to the story.

And so I set about writing the book. And revising. And revising. And revising. Again. 
And as an extra perk of the project, I’ve worked closely with the illustrator, Dave Gray, throughout. As other picture book writers will know, writer and illustrator normally have little or no contact during the making of a picture book (kept at arm’s length by the editor and art director) and so it’s been a fascinating process seeing the book come to life picture by picture with Dave's beautiful illustrations. 

                                                               Illustrations by Dave Gray

And it’s been much more collaborative than normal, where I’ve altered text when I've seen what Dave has done with various illustrations, and we've both suggested changes to each other's work. It’s felt very different from a normal author-illustrator relationship, compounded by the very much shorter than normal timescale for the book.

It’s been an amazing and challenging project.
I’ve met and worked with amazing children, parents and staff over the past six months and my life has been enriched by the experience. And I’ve loved the challenge: to create a book that children will relate to and enjoy, regardless of whether or not they have personal experience of sickness, disability or being in hospital; to make the reader appreciate that what might seem small goals to some children are really big goals to others; to portray children with disability and sickness who are rarely represented in children’s books, in a positive and wholly un-patronising way; and create something that will raise money for Birmingham Children’s Hospital Magnolia House Appeal.

We’ll find out soon whether we’ve managed that, but it’s been a real privilege to be part of it.

For writers and illustrators out there, what have been your most interesting commissions? 
And I’d love to hear from anyone about picture books they like that have characters with disabilities. Please share your favourite books with us in the comments section below.

The Unstoppable Maggie McGee by Juliet Clare Bell and Dave Gray will be out on November 11th, 2015. Unusually, because The Wesleyan (Birmingham Children’s Hospital’s biggest sponsor) have absorbed all the costs of creating and printing the book, every penny of the £6 it costs to buy the book goes to the hospital’s Magnolia House Appeal. 

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Why we seriously need a new funny prize • Jonathan Emmett

The demise of the Roald Dahl Prize is nothing to laugh about

Like many involved with children’s literature and children’s literacy, I was dismayed to learn that the Roald Dahl Funny Prize was coming to an end.

The prize was launched in 2008 by the Roald Dahl estate, Booktrust and author Michael Rosen, as part of Rosen’s work as children’s laureate. The Dahl estate have said that they were withdrawing their support for the prize because it did not fit in with the estate’s plans for next year’s Roald Dahl centenary.

I was dismayed for a couple of reasons. The first reason is extremely selfish. I was an avid Roald Dahl fan as a child, Dahl has been a big influence on my writing and the books that I’m proudest of are the ones that - like most of Dahl’s – make children laugh. Although I don’t write books to win awards, if I could choose one adult-judged award that I’d liked to have won it would be the Dahl Funny Prize. When I met the 2011 Funny Prize winning author Peter Bently at an awards lunch a few years ago I contemplated holding my butter knife to his throat and forcing him to take me to his house so that I could steal his trophy confessed how much I coveted the prize. Now I’ve had to give up any hope of that dream coming true. *sobs uncontrollably into keyboard*

The second reason is less selfish. Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading report published last month demonstrated that, “above all, children want books that make them laugh.” When children were asked what they looked for when choosing a book to read for fun, humour was the most commonly cited factor by a considerable margin.

"Above all, children want books that make them laugh"
(Graph from the UK Kids and Family Reading report 2015)

Research shows that children that read for pleasure do better in maths, vocabulary and spelling than those who rarely read and they gain advantages that last their whole lives. The Kids and Family Reading report shows that if we want kids to read for pleasure, then we need to recognise and highlight the huge value of funny books. The Roald Dahl Funny Prize was the only high-profile book award that did this.

Funny books play a vital role in establishing reading habits at an early age and are particularly good at engaging reluctant readers. My son and daughter both adored Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum series and I’m always recommending them to parents who are struggling to engage their children with books. I don’t think many people appreciate how difficult it is to write something as absurdly funny as Mr Gum unless they’ve actually attempted it. As John Cleese once said, “it’s much easier to be clever than it is to be funny”.

Fortunately, I’m not the only person to feel this way. Once news of the Dahl prize’s demise got around, many people started calling for a replacement funny prize. Author Andy Seed suggested on Facebook that any new award should include separate categories for picture books, fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I love the idea of a funny book awards with multiple categories like the Oscars. You could have great fun with the awards ceremony by poking fun at some of the conventions of more serious awards. Instead of sitting there with a fixed grin, clapping politely when the winner is announced, runners-up could be encouraged to shriek “NOOOOOO!”, tear at their hair, wail inconsolably or shout insults at the winner. I’m sure that the kids attending would find it far more entertaining than a regular awards ceremony where the nominees are expected to behave themselves and I suspect that the authors and illustrators might enjoy it more too.

It would be hilarious to have an award ceremony where the runners-up were encouraged to voice their disappointment.

The recently created This Book is Funny website does a great job of waving the banner for funny books. When the Roald Dahl news broke last week, the team behind the site announced that they were already gearing up to step into the breach which is heartening news.

If there is a new funny books award, I hope that it will have a children’s vote to pick the winners rather than a panel of adult judges. Humour is largely subjective and there are no better judges of what children find funny than children themselves – as this second graph from the Kids and Family Reading report illustrates.

The best judges of what kids find appealing are kids themselves.
(Graph from the UK Kids and Family Reading report 2015)

We seriously need a funny prize, so – whoever organises it and whatever it's called – I have all my appendages crossed that we'll have a new one soon!

UPDATE: Great news! The week after this post went online, Scholastic UK announced a new funny book prize – The Laugh Out Loud Book Awards (AKA The Lollies)! 

The prize will be awarded in three categories:
  • Best Laugh Out Loud Picture Book
  • Best Laugh Out Loud Book for 6-8s
  • Best Laugh Out Loud Book for 9-13s
A panel headed by Michael Rosen will select four books to make up the shortlist in each category but the winners will be decided entirely by children’s votes. You can find out more on this page of the Scholastic website.

Jonathan Emmett's latest picture book is Fast and Furry Racers: The Silver Serpent Cup illustrated by Ed Eaves and published by Oxford University Press.

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 2 October 2015

Ten ways I use panto for picture books by Abie Longstaff

I love pantomimes. I like the silliness, the crazy costumes, the audience participation.
I like the way they cater for all ages - the children and the grown-ups - so that the whole event turns into a family affair.

Many of the elements of a good picture book can be found up there on stage under the bright lights: 

1. A simple, strong story
Most panto is based on a fairy tale or a ballet. Whatever your story theme, remember to make the essence of the story simple and obvious for young children. At their heart, good picture books have a strong story-line.

2. Evil villains and good heroes
Panto is extreme in this way. The baddies are really bad, and the goodies are really good. Whatever your version of good and bad - make it clear.

3. Great character names
Panto is brilliant for outlandish names. Widow Twankey, Buttons the groom, Hanki and Panki, Carrie Bucket.
Mr Lovelybuns, from the Claude books by Alex T. Smith - one of my favourite character names!

4. Jokes for the grown ups
Don't forget the adult who has to read your book over and over to their child (poor thing!). Try and think of something to keep their interest, as well as the child's. It could just be something small in the background:
The witch's books in The Fairytale Hairdresser and Rapunzel
5. In jokes or references
Pantomimes are very clever about playing with a well-known genre - this can be a great source of jokes:
The Looking Glass magazine in The Fairytale Hairdresser and Snow White
6. Slapstick
Children love slapstick humour. It's simple and visual. So many picture books do this well - Dr Seuss, Richard Scarry and others were masters of the genre. I also love the Hairy Maclary books for this:
Dogs going mad in Hairy Maclary, Sit by Lynley Dodd
7. Audience participation (He's behind you!)
Lauren Beard and I spend a long time making detailed scenes for children to spot characters. Detail can create a talking point and encourage that feeling of sharing a story together:
The high street in the Fairytale Hairdresser
8. Dressing up
Who doesn't like dressing up? Panto is fab for fancy, frilly, gender-swapping, crazy costumes.
The Fairytale Hairdresser and Snow White
9. A big finale
In panto this is often a big dance/song. The page turns of the book should lead up to a fun or exciting climax:
The winter ballet from The Fairytale Hairdresser and the Sugar Plum Fairy
10. A happy ending
Awww. Almost every picture book has a snuggly, cosy, happy ending.
Rapunzel getting married
But surely it's not panto season already?
Oh yes it is!

The latest Fairytale Hairdresser is based on The Nutcracker ballet