Monday 28 December 2015

Most Inspiring/Helpful Advice I've Received From An Editor or Agent - Group Post

As this is the last post of 2015 we decided to share some of the most inspiring and helpful advice we've received. We hope you find it useful and if you've received any useful advice please feel free to share in the comments. 

Keep it global - Lynne Garner

I was once advised by an editor to think globally whilst writing a story. By this my editor meant unless the setting is an important element of the story then try not to include festivals, celebrations or holidays that are only enjoyed by one country or religion. This hopefully means your publisher can sell your book to a sub-publisher without making huge changes to your story. I followed her advice whilst writing A Book For Bramble" and made the celebrations Teasel enjoyed ones that were linked to the seasons. As you can see from the attached cover her advice worked and the book was translated into other languages, resulting in increased royalty payments for me.

Don't rush - Moira Butterfield 

When I was a young editor I was very gung-ho and wanted to do everything quickly. My boss, Jenny Tyler at Usborne, told me 'more haste, less speed', and I've never forgotten it either as an editor or as an author. I do tend to rush things by nature and have to rein myself in. It's important to leave text to marinade - even if you only have a limited time schedule. Give it space. Put it away for a day or two and then go back to it. Don't send it off to anyone until you are sure it's fully formed. That means reining in your initial excitement about it and not jumping the gun.

A spread from I Saw a Shark, illustrated by Michael Emmerson, out at the end of 2015.
I kept this text to myself for ages, tinkering
with it and not giving myself any pressure. 

Focus on your strengths - Jonathan Emmett
The most valuable piece of advice I’ve been given came from my agent Caroline Walsh when I was just starting out in children’s publishing. I’d intended to be an author-illustrator and many of my early projects were both written and illustrated (and sometimes paper-engineered) by me, but there was little interest from publishers. Caroline explained that there were plenty of illustrators who could produce good picture book illustrations, but not many authors that could write good picture book texts. Caroline told me that I could write good texts, so if I wanted to make a living out of picture books, I should focus on the writing. I followed her advice and I've been making a living as a picture book author ever since!

One of my early illustrations for the my picture book story Fox's New Coat,
which was eventually published with illustrations by Penny Ives.

Be prepared to change - Jane Clarke

When PictureBook Den's Natascha was an editor at Random House, she asked me to change a character in Knight Time from Mummy to Daddy - and it's a much better book because of it- thanks, Natascha!

Fab illustrations to the finished book by Jane Massey -and a very scruffy alteration to the original text by me: 

Have fun! - Paeony Lewis

Alex Bear and Baby Pog having fun in I'll Always Love You,
by Paeony Lewis, illus by Penny Ives
Long ago I sent three stories to an agent for children's books. Although this particular agent didn't take me on, she replied with comments. One comment in particular has always stuck in my head and it was simply to have more fun in my writing. So even now, when I've finished the draft of a picture book text, I'll read it and ask myself if  I've included enough fun. I appreciate that not all picture books are 'fun', but almost all include humour, even if it's subtle. For me it was simple, great advice.

Read it aloud in a different accent - Michelle Robinson

Don't assume your rhyming text rhymes in every tongue just because it does in yours (e.g. 'again' and 'rain'), and definitely don't cheat and tell yourself a near-rhyme will do the job because it almost certainly won't. I can't remember who gave me this advice now so I don't know who to credit - but it's something I still need to remind myself to do as it's not something that comes naturally. I also kind of wish I'd avoided ending lines with nouns in 'Elephant's Pyjamas' as having to switch words to their non-rhyming American equivalents (e.g. 'jimjams' became 'jammies') made doing the U.S. edit rather tricky.

We hope sharing the above will help and inspire you. We also hope that 2016 brings you all you wish for.

With our very best regards,

Everyone at the Picture Book Den

Monday 21 December 2015

And the moral of the story is… don’t write it for the moral. If you write a challenging picture book, do it because that specific story is the story you most want to tell right now and because you can tell it brilliantly. Oh, and (nearly) happy new year, by Juliet Clare Bell

I can't wait to read this book...

                                                (c) Jon Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith

Sometimes you read a blog post that feels like it was written just for you. This is how I feel about Brainpickings’ The Best Children’s Books of 2015, which I read earlier today –three times in a row, just to make sure all the recommended books look as enticing as they did first (and then second) time round… (and yes, they did).

Apart from the first, and second-from-last book, on their list, I’d never even heard of any of these 2015 picture books. But if I were to write a Christmas list for myself, those nine books I’d not heard of until today now would be the nine things on my list. This is a time of year for sharing so I would love to share this blog post with you and all its beautiful books, it’s such a treat.

Read it, read it now! Aren’t they beautiful?

This is going to be a short post as I mostly just want to share some beautiful picture books with you through the Brainpickings’ blog and these aren’t the most readily available books to buy in the UK so you may not have seen some of them, either…

I would like, though, to say how they’ve struck a real chord with where I am at the moment in my writing and in my life. The last few years have been at times quite personally challenging, but I feel that the changes in our lives have awakened something in me that has been lying dormant for a long time. I feel more excited about writing than I have for a long time and I’ve found that what I’m writing and what I’m thinking about and planning on writing next is quite different from what I was writing before. And it is definitely more challenging. But not because I’ve decided to write things differently. I am more engaged with what’s going on in the community, locally and globally, and that’s what I’m thinking about so it’s seeping into what I write.

I doubt that the beautiful books on the Brainpickings list have come about by authors and author-illustrators deciding that they’re ‘going to write a challenging book’. I don’t expect that Olivier Tallec randomly decided that he would like to create a picture book that has echoes of a psychology experiment from the early seventies by Philip Zimbardo, and then went ahead and wrote Louis I, King of the Sheep. I suspect that he came up with a great story that he was telling in the best way he could, and that it contains an underlying truth because he's telling it right and not trying to moralise.


                                                                      (c) Olivier Tallac (2015)

It doesn’t take much to draw parallels between the prison guard experiment where Zimbardo told some students they’d be prison guards and others that they’d be prisoners (with shocking consequences: see footage from the experiment here) and things that are happening throughout the world at the moment. Only last week I was talking with another writer about the very same experiment in relation to something that I’m writing at the moment. But although I’ve always been fascinated by this and Milgram's experiment (see Peter Gabriel's song, We Do What We're Told, written about the experiment, with chilling footage from the experiment -I was a developmental psychologist for years before I had children and started writing for children), it’s only now –with the current media manipulation in the UK at a terrifying level- that I’ve found it sneaking into elements of a story I’m writing.

I could talk about why I’m excited about each of those books, but I won’t as you can read about them for yourselves in the lovely blogpost. What I’ll end with, though, is the idea of being true to yourself as a writer. In Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess and Kris Di Giacomo (the one book on their 2015 list that I actually have), they quote E E Cummings:

                                             (c) Mark Burgess and Kris di Giacomo (2015)

A writing friend once talked about working towards making your picture book undeniable. I think that we need to 'become who we really are' fully for that to happen. I feel like these writers have probably got there. I’m not there yet but that is what I’d like to work towards in 2016… So a toast to 2016: let it be the year where we become fully who we are (for those of us who are not quite there yet) and then write wholly as ourselves. And let’s support each other to have that courage. I think there are some incredible books waiting to be created…  and in the current climate, these books are needed more than ever. Let’s get being… and writing, truly authentically…

To a more peaceful, safe and loving 2016...

Do you feel like you have become who you really are and that you are writing wholly as youtself? Do you have tips for others who aren't there yet? And if you're not there yet, what would help you get there?

Juliet Clare Bell's latest picture book, The Unstoppable Maggie McGee (illustrated by Dave Gray) has raised over £36,000 in book sales so far (all £6 goes to charity), for Birmingham Children's Hospital's Magnolia House Appeal. Her next book: Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury (illustrated by Jess Mikhail) is out in March, 2016. And she's very excited about the stories she's currently working on.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Christmas Picture Book Quiz

Christmas in the Emmett household is a time of treasure hunts, puzzles and quizzes.  So I thought I'd bring a little picture-book-based "quizzy-fun-fun" (to use a phrase coined by my son) to this blog.

Here are ten classic picture book covers that, by the magic of Photoshop, have been turned into stained glass windows. Can you guess the title of each book? Click on each image to reveal the answer.

Here's a really easy one to get you started.










And here's a particularly festive one to finish up with!


How did you do?

10/10 Picture book perfect! Congratulations. You're obviously a picture book devotee.
7-9/10 Pretty good. You know your Sendak from your Scheffler.
4-6/10 Not bad, but perhaps you should add a few picture book classics to your Christmas list.
1-3/10 That's an appallingly Gruffa-low score. You need to brush up on your picture book knowledge.

One last window before you go. Can you guess the message that's hidden below? Click the image to reveal the answer.

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 11 December 2015

'Refuge', a book for Now. Guest blog by Anne Booth

We're delighted to welcome Anne Booth as our guest blogger at a moment when her new picture book, 'Refuge', couldn't be more apt.  Written in response to the current refugee crisis, this simple re-telling of the Nativity story has clear resonance for us now.  Very beautifully illustrated by Sam Usher and published by Nosy Crow, £5 from every copy sold is going to the War Child charity to help today's child refugees.  Over to Anne ...

This is a very special year for me, as I turned 50 and had my first two picture books published, and now have been invited to write a post for the Picture Book Den!

My very first book contract was with Nosy Crow Books for two picture books : ‘The Fairiest Fairy’ and ‘The Christmas Fairy’, both illustrated by the wonderful Rosalind Beardshaw. As a new writer I was amazed at how long it normally takes to produce a picture book - the contract was in 2013 and ‘The Fairiest Fairy’ was only published in 2015, with ‘The Christmas Fairy in 2016! I learnt how it is definitely worth the wait and am bursting with pride at the result - to see Betty illustrated so beautifully by Rosalind has been one of the highlights of my life.

You can read inside here:  I particularly love the spread where Betty puts on her vest - it was everything I imagined and more!

So, having got my head around how long the process is to publish a picture book, you can imagine how amazed I am at how fast my latest book ‘Refuge’ has been produced. You can read about the process here and read inside to see the actual illustrations:

For those of you who know from first hand about the process - Samuel Usher’s illustrations - his palette and his tender lines - and the sheer achievement of producing such stunning work so quickly - will seem particularly miraculous. Added to that the wonderful design of the book, and the high quality of the finished product, and the generous way all those involved in the production and distribution did it for free or at vastly reduced costs, the publishing story of this picture book seems unique.

Just as the muddled Betty has more than a little of me in her, ‘Refuge’ means a lot to me personally. One of my earliest memories is toddling into the life size crib at church and throwing my arms around the donkey. Every Christmas when I was small I would run inside the crib to hug him - so it is fitting that I have written a book from the Christmas donkey’s point of view, to be enjoyed by little children and adults sharing it with them, and which hopefully will raise empathy and money for child refugees. I may have been having a wonderful year being 50, but for so many refugees it has been hell. Childhood should be full of lovely memories, like reading picture books and hugging donkeys - real or in church cribs - not of war and dangerous journeys.

I did not expect, in the year I turned 50, to have two picture books published, and illustrated by such great artists as Rosalind Beardshaw and Samuel Usher. In this, as in so many aspects of my life, I feel very, very lucky - and I feel so happy and grateful that, thanks to Nosy Crow and Samuel Usher and all involved in the process,  ‘Refuge’ - a beautiful picture book - one of the things which gives me the most joy in life - has become the means to help refugees this Christmas.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Writers' Retreats by Abie Longstaff

Last weekend I went away to a farm in the middle of nowhere with 17 other authors.

We meet up regularly through the year via the Scattered Authors' Society (which I thoroughly recommend joining). In February we meet to talk about business (I've posted about the 2014 meet up here). In November we meet to talk about creativity.

It's a lovely escape from normal life. We spend the three days playing - finding what inspires us or motivates us. We run our own workshops and this year we had:

Jen Alexander unlocking our subconscious to find images that would help us write
Liz Kessler describing the journey of a book that was heavily influenced by music
Jackie Marchant sharing her techniques for world-building
A group of authors being frank about the commercial pressures of writing
Lucy Coats leading us through a meditation
Steve Gladwin encouraging character building through drama
June Crebbin exploring poetry

In between the workshops we had cosy chats by the fire

long walks

 and plenty of cake.

This year I led a workshop on 'shaping' - it's not quite plotting (because I'm not a detailed plotter) it's more about seeing the arc or structure of a story. I use a picture book approach - setting out 12 spreads for all my books, even longer fiction ones. I find that being forced to select the 12 most important aspects (in terms of emotional plot or action plot) makes me prioritise.

I use a grid spread like this
There is a link to the PDF of this here in case you want to use it

and I plot out a common book structure on it - so you might have:

Spread 1          Set up – introduce characters
Spread 2          What is the problem?
                        (think in terms of the practical problem and its emotional effect)
Spread 3-10     The problem grows
                        Magic 3?
                        Increase to climax
Spread 11        Solution
Spread 12        Satisfying ending
                        Can have a twist
I find this method helps me see the shape and flow of the book; where the high and low points are, where the character development happens.

Sometimes I find it useful to plot out someone else's book to see their structure. Here is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen plotted out (messily) in 12 spreads:

I found everyone's workshops so inspiring. I love hearing how other authors write; how they come up with ideas, how they move on when they feel blocked. I tend to be quite a practical person - my approach is logical with plans and grids and lists - so it's wonderful to let go and listen to music or bird song and let the ideas come from somewhere deep down, in another part of my brain. Sometimes the necessary commercial aspect of our job means we forget to refill our creative well and I always come back from the retreat refreshed and full of joy for the career I've chosen.

We end with an evening where we each read aloud from our work and it's fascinating to hear the range of texts, from picture book to novel, and genre, from zombies to romance.  

I always work better in winter when the weather is cold so, after the retreat, I'm inside, snuggled up, ready to go.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Why Reading Picture Books Matters - by Natascha Biebow

The brains of three to five year-olds do something really important when they read a picture book:

Their neurons do a kind of brain gym that develops their ability to experience things from other people’s perspectives – or empathise.

This is because, at this age, children are acquiring a theory-of-mind – an understanding that other people have thoughts, beliefs, and desires that may be different from their own.
Dr. Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, says, “Around the same ages, children also begin to understand what characters in stories are feeling and thinking.”

Theory-of-mind tests include testing if a child is able to understand that someone may prefer broccoli over a cookie:

and how that is unique from their own desire for the cookie.

In 2010, Mar and his colleagues found that:

Mar and his colleagues also found that parents who were able to recognize children’s authors and book titles predicted their child’s performance on theory-of-mind tests. Parental recognition of adult book titles or authors had no effect on their child’s performance — the result was very specific to children’s books.

“There are aspects of joint-reading between parents and children that seem to be important to the process,” Mar said. 

This may be because when they read books together with their children, adults discuss how the characters are feeling, perhaps more so than at other times in daily life.

Researchers have also shown that children who watch a lot of TV, as opposed to reading storybooks, have a weaker understanding of other people's beliefs and desires, a lesser ability to be compassionate and reduced cognitive development.  

SO reading picture books and stories provides a means to muscle up children’s empathy network. Studies have also shown this is true for teens and adults, too.  

If we don’t use it, we could lose it . . .

In these troubled times, a world with empathy is the world I want for my children. 

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 small-group coaching Cook Up a Picture Book 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.