Monday 22 February 2016

Picture Books For All, by Pippa Goodhart

A lot of us are lucky enough to remember the joy of sitting snug in bed as a parent read us a bedtime picture book, and also know the joy of being that adult performing the picture book text for an eager child audience.  Those of us in the book world tend to have taken that relationship between an adult reading the text to a child who is looking carefully at the pictures while they listen for granted.

But there are many adults who find reading hard.  What if the adult can’t read the text?  Can’t enjoy that bond that comes from reading and sharing a book with their children? 

In recent years there has been a lot of work done to create what are known as high/low books (higher age interest level together with a lower age reading ability) to help children and adults who struggle to read books to themselves.  But nobody had given much thought to the parents who want to read to their children but find reading picture books out loud too much of a challenge. 

Designers often play with text in picture books, working it through illustrative images, varying font size and style to make it express the text meaning, sometimes expecting the reader to jump from text at the top of a spread to text at the bottom, then up to the top of the facing page.  All those things can work well for the able reader, but they become obstacles to reading if you are somebody who finds reading hard, perhaps because you are dyslexic and never learned to read fluently at school, perhaps because English isn’t your first language. 

So Barrington Stoke have come up with a series of picture books that are designed to be read easily by children and adults alike.  What makes them easier to read?

  • Pages that are a tinted cream background rather than the stark white that can make reading hard if you’re dyslexic.
  • Text laid out left to right, top to bottom.
  • A font that is clear, reader-friendly, and consistent.
  • Writing that doesn’t introduce made-up strange words that have to be worked out.

Does any of that that mean that these are dull books?  Far from it! 

These are rather sophisticated picture books, aimed at children of, say, seven plus.  Their stories challenge in a way that you might not want a book for the usual picture book audience of 2-5 year olds to be challenged.

‘All I Said Was’, by Michael Morpurgo and Ross Collins is a short tale, showing and telling how a boy who swapped his life for that of a pigeon begins to regret that swap when he gets mobbed by crows … but when he returns home, the pigeon who is now a boy won’t swap back.  Rather as the child in Roald Dahl’s Witches is left stuck as a mouse at the end of that book, this book too leaves a bleak and seemingly hopeless ending for the boy.  Food for thought, and a bit of thrilling horror, all in twelve spreads of illustration and a short text!

‘Wolf Man’ by Michael Rosen and Chris Mould plays with fear as a scary manic-looking Wolfman runs amok through a town, scaring even the army and the chief of police … until the tension is brilliantly cut with a typical Michael Rosen joke of a kind which children will find hilarious!  This book has slash marks, and real holes, in it’s cover, presumably made by the Wolfman’s claws.  Books can be exciting!

There are more of these Picture Squirrel books out there, all combining top illustrators and writers, all of them quality books.  Hooray that one publisher has woken up to the need for excellent accessible picture books for parents and children to share.

Do look at this whole series of books and more on the Barrington Stoke website by clicking here 

Monday 15 February 2016

Rummaging and Ruminating - Jonathan Allen

Stamps! How cool is that?

I was recently contacted by a relative of the late, great Margaret Mahy, asking if I had any of the artwork for the books I had illustrated of hers that they might buy. 'The Great White man-Eating Shark' and 'The Three Legged Cat' for instance. As those books were from a good while ago, I knew I had some serious rummaging in the attic to do. So I did.

It was a nostalgic rummage at that. It always feels such a shame that most picture book artwork ends up in illustrator's attics. Some might make it onto a wall or two, but there are only so many walls in the average house and anyway, there are plenty of other things I would rather have on my wall ;-)
I came across a lot of artwork from books I had illustrated over the years. I had forgotten how much I have actually done, picture books, board books, pop-up books etc. There it all was, swaddled in bubble wrap, under a thin layer of dust. There was loads of it, not to mention the artwork for the 100 odd greetings cards I did in the eighties for Snap Graphics (defunct now I think) Hey, my stuff was popular once!

The path of my career has been one of being busy and successful, then being equally successful but doing rather less, in a more focussed way. In that mode I have been working for the same publisher almost exclusively for the last ten years. The character I invented (Baby Owl) and the concept I came up with ( I'm Not Cute! I'm Not Scared! etc you get the idea ) has had a good life but is now run it's course commercially, apart from board book reprints and such perhaps. So now I find myself no longer busy, and having time and inclination to stick my head out of my cave, having a look round at the Picture Book World in it's current incarnation, and sadly, not liking what I see very much.

For a start, getting a new idea in front of an editor is almost impossible. I'm not talking about for me per se, as I can jump the queue to some extent by citing my track record, (in theory anyway) but for any hopeful writer or illustrator.

A lot of publishers and agents don't even bother with standard rejection letters, they just don't reply to unsuccessful submissions, as if this is a perfectly normal and acceptable way to treat people.

Well it isn't. It's rude and disrespectful. Don't give me that "Due to number of submissions" stuff.
Don't, one the one hand, ask for submissions and then react as if everyone is wasting your precious time with their crappy submissions. OK, it takes time and is tedious to send a standard rejection email? (2 minutes??) But it is an acknowledgement of somebody's effort and as such the right thing to do. imho and all that. rant rant rant. . .

The other thing I realised as I surveyed the Picture Book world from my aforementioned cave was that after a great many years of thinking up, working out, roughing out and submitting ideas, is that there is an underlying process of attrition going on. A slow wearing away of your inner strength and confidence. Success is great, you get paid to do what you love, you get feedback and affirmation and all that stuff. But there is a constant pressure there, your next idea has to be good enough to get published, or if not that idea, the next one etc etc. Somewhere, deep down it wears you away slowly. Obviously, rejection doesn't help. After a few rejections you start to lose your confidence in your ability to tell what is or isn't a good picture book idea, and if it means that you are going to be financially challenged if you don't get something accepted soonish it all gets unhelpfully stressful. Low level anxiety is not the best head space in which to be effortlessly creative that's for sure.

The other other thing I realised was that my style is very much out of fashion. I have, over the years smugly told myself that because my style has never been in fashion as such, it can't go out of fashion. Wrong. . .
This is all my current perception, and I realise it may be a distorted view based on partial evidence, but nevertheless I believe there is some truth in it. There is, as I mentioned in a blog post a few months ago, an obsession in current picture books with 1950's style design orientated artwork. Retro style done by artists whose parents were probably not even born then. There is some lovely work out there, but I mourn the lack of emotional connection in the work. At worst it is a pale pastiche of an empty clichéd style I'm afraid. A sort of fake nostalgia. It is very much about composition and very stylised representations of people and animals etc. Nothing approaching an individual character. As my work is all about individual character, facial expressions and emotional connection with that character, I don't fit in at all with the zeitgeist.
That's ok, I wish all illustrators all the luck in the world, I just have to accept my time is not now, thats all.

I thought the unthinkable the other week. I thought "What would it feel like not to put myself through this any more?" This was a sacreligious concept, and one that stopped my in my tracks for a while. Writing and illustrating has been my life for the best part of 35 years, I can't just 'not do it any more'!
But the overriding feeling I got was one of huge relief. I had to listen to that.
But if I stopped writing and illustrating, how would I live? Well, I get royalties, I get the max PLR every year (hah!). I am mortgage free and the kids have left home. I even have a pension that I hadn't really thought about for years, I could spark that up, after all I am imminently 59 years old, (!) I can chug along at a low but acceptable level. I have other interests, I always have had, and I can earn a small amount from those. It's not a wildly unfeasible proposition.

And besides, if I take the pressure off myself, I am free to mess around with picture book ideas from a position of wanting to rather than feeling I need to. It may be a creatively liberating experience, who knows?
Anyway, whatever I decide to do, I send best wishes to you all and the best of luck,
Jonathan x

Monday 8 February 2016

Inspiration for picture books with added features - by Moira Butterfield

Some picture books have extra features. Board books, of course, have many incarnations, but I’m going to concentrate on classic picture book pages here and provide some references that may perhaps help to inspire you to ideas of your own.

Here are examples what I mean by ‘extra features’.

Gatefolds – A gatefold is a page that has been made double the size and then folded back over on itself to make an extra-big flap. It can be diecut, which means that parts of the paper are cut away to create shapes.

Gatefolds can be both left and right, up at the top of a page or down at the bottom. My new picture book – I Saw A Shark – was written specifically to use a righthand gatefold on every spread. The story relies on the finding of a hidden surprise on every spread by extending the picture using a gatefold.

Diecutting – Ordinary pages can be diecut, which is the term for paper having shapes cut out of it. Pages might have holes in them so the reader can see through to other pages, or the paper edge can be cut to a new shape.

The classic example of a picture book with holes in it is Peepo, created by Janet and Alan Ahlberg in 1981 and reprinted ever since. The text prompts the reader to look through a hole in each page. Here’s a youtube version of Alan Ahlberg reading it and if you haven’t come across it before it before, you can see how it works from the video.  

Dos and don'ts - The trick to writing a story for a picture book with added features is to incorporate the features into the telling, so that playing with them is an integral part of the story. Peep-through holes and gatefolds lend themselves to elements of surprise in a story.

Revelling too much in the cleverness of the features and not providing a strong enough story is the trap to be wary of. I think illustrators in particular sometimes get carried away with the excitement of manipulating paper and think it’s enough to carry the whole book.

The right publisher - I was lucky with I Saw a Shark to find a publisher who specifically wanted to produce books with extra play value. If you have a story idea that relies on extra features you need to find the right publisher - one who has this type of book on their list and is prepared to invest in the extra paper costs and manufacturing costs involved.

Inspiration - If you’d like to venture down this route I suggest doing some research online and in your local bookshop, to find some examples that might inspire you. There are some interesting books around at the moment (especially in the USA) and luckily for us they tend to have presentation reels on youtube. I’ve added a few here to help you get started. I haven’t road-tested them with children, mind you, but they all have interesting features that might inspire you to something.

I say go for it if you have a good idea, and anyway it seems a valid creative exercise to sit down for an hour or two and play around with thoughts using some of these examples. It may lead you down unusual paths.

So...Here are some links to get you thinking. Have fun!

Beautiful Oops – by US musician Barney Satlzberg. There’s every kind of added feature in here to show you the art of the possible. 

There are No Cats in this Book – and others in the same series by Viviane Schwartz. Lots of fun. Uses extra features in a really entertaining way.

Flora the Flamingo – and others in the series by US artist Molly Idle.  There are no words, but it may inspire you because it so cleverly shows how paper can be used to change a scene (in this case flaps).

Moira Butterfield 

New picture books: 
I Saw a Shark - illustrated by Michael Emmerson - Published by Milly and Flynn 
Everybody Feels series - illustrated by Holly Sterling - Published by QED 

Monday 1 February 2016

What's in a Name? by Natascha Biebow

I’ve been thinking about character names . . . Namely, if you can come up with a really unusual name for your character, people will remember it. They will remember that character’s personality traits, their unique story and maybe even use it in their everyday life. But you don’t want your character’s name to be too unusual so that it trips people up when they are reading the book aloud. Instead, the name should sound friendly, a little bit unusual and universal.

I took a look at my bookshelf:

There are names that alliterate:

Names chosen to go with a concept

Names that say ‘what they are on tin’:

Names that are fairly unusual:

And names that are quite ordinary, but that have become associated with extraordinary happenings and memorable personalities:

And then, there are the names that are really quite usual and sound just like that person:

 And fanciful names made up to make a rhyme:

And names – like DUCK, BEAR, MOUSE, PIGEON – that are really quite comfortingly familiar and instantly recognizable in the kind of story that is really everyone’s story:

Of all these names, these are my favourite ones:

They make me laugh and you can see who these characters are right away.

Which NAME you choose, depends entirely on the story you want to tell . . . 
What will it be? What are your favourites?

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.