Monday 25 July 2016

What parents think of picture books - A small survey. Moira Butterfield

I decided to ask some current picture book users a few questions, so I set up a small survey using Survey Monkey, put it on Facebook and asked friends with young children their views. Now I don’t have a massive number of followers so this was a teeny-tiny survey of acquaintances and not remotely a scientific cross-section of the population. But the answers were interesting nevertheless, and made me think. I hope you find them thought-provoking, too. 

1. “What price do you think is about right for a paperback picture book?”

The answer was overwhelmingly £3 to £4.50. Picture books were seen by everybody as low-cost items, which could be seen as depressing from the creator’s end. But given that all the respondents said they read a picture book every single day to their child, this makes picture books incredible value for money! The best buy a parent can make, surely?  

2. “What is your child’s current favourite picture book?”

Various Julia Donaldson titles won hands-down, by a mile.  These are adults answering the question, of course. The answer could be their favourite book because they find it easy to read the clear rhyme and clear story of a Julia Donaldson book (see question 6). Children will work out that they are going to get a happy one-to-one sharing experience if they ask for a book their parent likes.

This is one to think about. Should would-be picture book authors actually be copying this format for commercial success? Rhymes, super-clear rhythm that you can’t go wrong reading out + a very clear story? Is any kind of experimentation that deviates from that a marketing mistake? Discussion welcomed!

3. “Where do you buy picture books?”

The answer was split pretty much 50/50 between ‘online and ‘supermarkets’, with ‘bookshop’ a distant third. Supermarkets heavily feature well-known books and online sellers direct people along the same lines, so that’d go some way to explaining the overwhelming dominance of Julia Donaldson in the UK, I think. To be honest, it’s hard to see how a new author or illustrator could make a dent if those stats hold in the wider community (I can't say that they do, of course). is that being too defeatist? 

4. “Roughly how often do you read a picture book with your child?”

The answer was mainly “every day” with a couple of complete book heroes who said “Four stories a night” and Multiple times a day”. Everybody salute these incredible parents! About half the respondents stipulated that they read every night before bedtime. Something to think about there when it comes to books with overtly scary pictures and texts. They could be limiting their market.

5. “What would make you buy a picture book?”

I gave multiple answers to choose from here. The overwhelming winner was “You like the look of the art” followed by “It’s a book you remember from your childhood” and then – a little way back - “It’s by an author you like” - followed by “It features a TV or film character your child knows.”

So there is hope for authors but it’s the look that counts in the main, along with buying the tried and tested, with this small group.

Pleasingly not one respondent chose the answer “Because it was written by a celebrity”. 

Those that commented further on the style of art they liked said they preferred lots to spot in the pictures. 

6. “Is there anything about picture books that irritates you?”

Two-thirds of the respondents didn’t add an answer, which shows, I guess, that they were happy about the picture books they read and gave them a big thumbs-up.

The answers I did get were very interesting.

“Scary pictures” was one. Now that feeds into my own view that children’s picture book award short lists can tend to favour unbelievably scary-looking visuals, without thought for the end users. I'm pleased that this year's Kate Greenaway shortlist looks much better than last year's in that respect. 

“Books that start to rhyme and don’t continue to rhyme” was another comment, along with “When it doesn’t flow.” Yup, bad rhyme and bad rhythm is the pits! But there’s another point here for authors, I think. It’s hard for people to read rhythm that isn’t absolutely clear. So while you may think your text rhythm flows (because you know how it should be read) will a reader do so? Are there places where they could trip up? Is the rhythm cast-iron enough for them to not go wrong? Testing the text out on friends, asking them to read it out loud with no guidance at all from you, could help here.

Rhyme is important, according to the person who wrote “Rhyming books are so much easier to read after a long day with the kids.” Interesting point! When you’re tired and haven’t much acting energy left, it’s easy rhymes that you want. Julia Donaldson-style - or Dr. Seuss maybe.

“Lack of actual story” was another comment. I can see that, too. Given that most respondents said they read a book at night, and I’m guessing (as above) they’re weary, they could be wanting something straightforward that doesn't require them to do lots of explaining, perhaps.

I hope you’re not depressed by the above and it gives you food for thought. It’s just the comments of a tiny selection of parents, but they're being helpfully honest about their own experience. They’re not remotely connected to the publishing industry. They're the end-users of picture books and I think their views matter. Getting work accepted by publishers relies on it being market-friendly, so it is worth thinking about the experience someone would have reading your story – perhaps in a slightly weary voice by the bedside!

All reactions gratefully received below. 

Moira Butterfield

Latest picture book work:

“Everybody Feels…” series by QED

Sunday 17 July 2016

What do you want to be when you grow up? by Malachy Doyle

Just because I spend my time writing sweet and lovely picture books doesn’t mean I’m not the ambitious type.

When I was 10 I wanted to:

- Score the winning goal for Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup Final.

- Win Wimbledon, and run fast enough to win an Olympic Gold Medal for Ireland.  
- Be on Top of the Pops and have a number one hit single.

When I was 20 I wanted to:

- Change the world.

- Avoid work.

- Make babies. 

When I was 30 I wanted to:

- Get out of advertising.

- Get out of town. 

When I was 40 I wanted to:

- Run away and write. 

When I was 50 I wanted to:

- Make the perfect picture book.

- Become a smiley grandad.
- Go home to Ireland.

Now I’m 60 and a bit I want to:

- Run 5k in under 25 minutes. 

- Climb Everest. 

- Spend time with my lovely grandchildren

and Make the perfect picture book.

Some things change. Some things stay the same.  

Malachy's latest book is Sea Stories (OUP Treetops). There are others on the way from Walker Books, from Firefly Press, from Parragon, Pearson and hopefully, maybe, more.  

Monday 11 July 2016

From Syria to the UK, diversity and children's picture books by Nadine Kaadan (Guest Blogger)

Here at the Picture Book Den we're delighted that this week our guest blogger is Syrian author and illustrator, Nadine Kaadan. From a previous blog post, some of you may remember her Arab picture book on coping with the conflict in Syria. Now Nadine discusses her path into publishing, the influence of Damascus, and diversity in picture books.

Nadine Kaadan
I started writing and illustrating children’s books when I was 10 years old. I photocopied my stories, coloured them, and (tried) to sell them to whoever was interested (almost always at a 100% loss). I pretty much gave them away and just loved it. It was simply my passion, and after studying fine arts at the University of Damascus with a focus on children’s illustrations, here I am 20 years later still doing the same, as my full-time job.

My first book was published by a Jordanian publisher at the age of 21 years, and I then worked with various Arab publishers in Syria, UAE, Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. In 2011, because of the conflict at home, I travelled to London and completed a Masters in Illustration at Kingston University, and then an MA in Art and Politics at Goldsmiths College.

Looking back at the magazine I created at the age of 10, I realise that almost all of the characters in my stories had western names, although there weren’t foreign children around me. I think this was simply due to a lack of local Syrian children’s books at the time, and the fact that I was surrounded by French and English children’s stories. Growing up, I made it a point to develop more of an indigenous style inspired by local aesthetics and by my lovely city, Damascus.

I always found myself fascinated by the rosy side of the oldest capital in the world, especially the architecture and feel of the old city. By its courtyard fountains and their peaceful trickle – cool and fresh in the hot Damascus summer. By the beautiful contrast that the narrow alleyways make when walking between shadows and sun. And by the sweet scent of jasmine and rose, spreading everywhere in the summer nights. I found myself discovering and imagining thousands of tales hidden in every corner of the ancient city.

Illustration by Nadine Kaadan
The unique architecture of Damascus always features in my illustrations. An example of this is my book Answer me, Leila!, a story that starts like a Rapunzel fairy tale, but ends with a twist. When Prince Sami arrives at the high orange castle and calls for Leila to dangle her hair down from the window, she doesn’t answer him. He tries again and again, until he realizes that Leila can’t hear him because she’s hard of hearing and speaks a different language, called sign language. The book is dedicated to children with hearing difficulties.

From Answer me, Leila! by Nadine Kaadan
(Box of Tales Publishing House, 2011)

When conceiving the story, naturally I drew a local-looking princess, with long black hair, in a castle inspired by colourful Damascene tiles, and with roses and plants as reoccurring decorative motives. I portrayed Leila the deaf princess as an empowered female character (not a victim) who finds a creative solution to Sami’s struggle to reach her, by writing out words with her long hair to grab his attention and communicate with him in fun Arabic calligraphy. The motto of the tale is that there are many different ways to communicate… so let’s find them together!

From Answer me, Leila! by Nadine Kaadan
(Box of Tales Publishing House, 2011)
Living in the UK for the past four years has been a wonderful learning experience, but I was surprised by the lack of topical diversity in the children’s book market. I didn’t feel that it was sufficiently reflected in a country that upholds and celebrates diversity and multiculturalism so well. This year I was part of a panel discussion at the London Book Fair under the title What works in translating children’s literature, and I argued that even when there is an attempt by UK publishers to publish more inclusive and diverse books, they still fall into the danger of the single story. For example, looking at UK children’s books that feature Arab or Middle Eastern culture, I feel that there is an exaggerated focus on ‘cultural differences’ (in the name of cultural richness). Too many of these books strike me as quite orientalist, and seem to depict overly stereotypical clich├ęs about Arab culture, such as the typical camels in the desert and fasting in Ramadan. Although these elements are very much a part of our culture, and the stories are absolutely worthy of publication, the problem is that they only present one aspect of who we are.

I truly believe that stories should be chosen to be published or translated in the UK because they are strong, regardless of whether they are about themes of cultural diversity, or not. For example I would like to see books in the UK from the Arab world that address stories of single working mothers, or of talented artists, or of teenagers going through identity struggles. Stories such as these would better represent the diverse and more realistic representation of my region, and would indeed show more of what we have in common, and not just the differences.

The Jasmine Sneeze by Nadine Kaadan
(Lantana Publishing, 2015)

I was privileged to be able to publish a story here in the UK, The Jasmine Sneeze, by Lantana Publishing, and my first one in English. The Jasmine Sneeze is about Haroun, the cat, who likes nothing better than to spend his days sleeping in the sunlit courtyards of Damascus. But one thing always ruins his sleep: jasmine! Haroun can’t stand the sweet-scented flowers. Their pollen sends him into fits of sneezes! Haroun hatches a plan to fix the problem. But little does he know that in doing so he deeply angers the Jasmine Spirit who plans her revenge in her own crafty way.

From The Jasmine Sneeze by Nadine Kaadan
I chose jasmine for my story simply because Damascus is known as the City of Jasmine – the flowers are a much-loved feature of the city’s courtyards and alleyways and give the city its distinct odor, especially on cool summer nights. As part of their morning ritual, Damascenes will wake and collect fallen jasmine flowers and place the petals on their water fountains so that the smell can be carried all over the house.

Many people in my city like to believe that the jasmine plant reacts to and reflects what is happening in their homes and lives, in good times and bad. They often associate the drooping jasmine stems with grieving and loss, and when a member of their family passes, they believe that the jasmine mourns after him or her. The idea for this story came to me when I thought back on how often my mother used to tell me about her grandmother’s jasmine tree. My mother speaks of how, a day before her grandmother passed away, the jasmine in their courtyard suddenly became harsh and wild, as though in warning that something sad was about to happen. When my mother’s grandmother passed, the jasmine died the day after. This story stayed in mind and when I was young I always wondered: who lives inside the jasmine tree?

Who lives in the jasmine tree?
From The Jasmine Sneeze by Nadine Kaadan (Lantana Publishing, 2015)
I hope my story is a small beginning to more Syrian stories in the UK, especially during a time of devastating war, prejudice and misrepresentation of the Syrian people. Diversity and variety in picture books benefits everyone.

Nadine Kaadan
For more on Nadine and The Jasmine Sneeze (UK) and her 15 Arab picture books, please visit

Monday 4 July 2016


by Michelle Robinson

Happy July 4th, America. Independence is a sore point here in Britain right now. Amid all the gloom, I suppose there's still a place for the flippant, the fun and the frivolous. I hope this post brings a smile to your face, if only a teeny tiny one.

Some words just don't cross over the pond. For writers it's a pain in the bum (or the butt, depending on which side of the Atlantic you're sitting). Wherever you're writing, you may wish to go right ahead and avoid some of these nuisance words:-

Sneaker - What is this, America? Sounds like a stealthy fart to me. If we’re talking running shoes, it’s a trainer or even a dap.

Butt - My daughter has started using this word because she watches imported cartoons. It doesn't work in a British accent. We have bums and bottoms.

Cookie - Here in the UK this can only refer to a pale biscuit with chocolate chips in it. Any other ‘cookie’ is just a different kind of biscuit. What you call a biscuit, America, is in fact a scone - and a scone is absolutely not a biscuit. I'm glad we got that one clear.

Color - We spell it colour. Just because you’re bigger than us doesn’t mean you can take away our Us. Ditto favorite/favourite. Stop being so annouying.

Herbs - Please pronounce the 'h'. As in heathens.

Truck - It’s a lorry. That ‘street car’ of yours is a tram. The big red one is a fire engine.

Elevator - It’s a lift. It’s easier for kids to say and they don’t get it confused with escalators (‘moving stairways’ to you).

A-LU-min-um - It’s a-lu-MINI-um, actually. We’ll forgive you on this one because even the guy who named it couldn't make up his mind. 

Drugstore - Sounds practically illegal to us Brits. We call it the chemist’s or the pharmacy.

Freeway - Steady on, this sounds dangerously close to freewheeling. It’s the motorway, where one drives one’s motor, mater.

Rotary - You don’t have many of these bad boys over there. Over here, it’s a roundabout. Don’t ever visit Swindon.

Pants - What is wrong with you people? They’re TROUSERS. Only Superman wears pants on the outside. Also, if something is 'pants', it's bad. 

Underwear - PANTS. Or if you're a girl, you might call your pants knickers. Wallace and Gromit call them undercrackers and they should know. Underpants sounds a bit snooty.

Sweater - Why would you use this word when you could treat your mouth to ‘jumper’? Say it with me, America. ‘Jumper.’ Now go and Google Sultans of Ping.

Galoshes - You can’t wang a galosh. They’re WELLIES.

Robe - It’s a dressing gown. Only Her Majesty wears a robe.

Diaper - Nothing useful rhymes with this. For picture book purposes can we all just agree that nappy is so much easier to work with?

Bathing suit - What century is this? Come on, prissy pants, it’s a cozzie.

Gum - This is glue. Please don’t go confusing us over this, especially our kids. No one wants to chew on a pritt stick.

Math - Did you forget to + the 's’?

Vacation - This is a holiday, actually. Our holidays are for life, not just for Christmas.

Goof off - This sounds like a euphemism. Please can we muck about instead? 

Recess - Sounds vaguely dental. Play time or break.

Parking lot - It’s a car park. (Where cars go to play, presumably.)

Cross walk - We call this a zebra crossing because we’re just so adorable. At least we used to be. *Brexit sigh*

Crossing guard - We have lollipop men and lollipop ladies. We like them, very much.

Gas - We use this to heat our homes and for cooking. We put petrol or fuel in our cars.

Sidewalk - Pavement is the word you’re looking for.

Dumpster - We call this a skip. I have no idea why. I concede: your word is better.

Apartment - Posh word for a flat.

Diner - We say ‘cafe’ to help us sound more European. I guess we'll be ditching 'cafe' soon.

French toast - It’s eggy bread, thank goodness, or we may not be allowed to make it post-Brexit.

French fries - These are CHIPS. Maybe we'll agree that the skinny ones are fries.

Potato chips - Crisps, because they’re crisp and it has fewer syllables.

Jelly - Last time I checked this was actually called jam.

Jello - Hello? This is jelly.

Mom - MUM. Apart from in the Midlands.

Restroom - Stop being coy. It’s the loo, the lavvy, the toilet or the bog

Faucet - Again, not great for pre-school rhyming. Let’s stick with tap.

Closet - We say wardrobe. Give it a try.

Trash can - Bin. Surely ours is a better word?

Mail - Post. As in, er… Royal Mail. I’ll have a word with them about that.

Soccer - Don’t even get us started on this one. Not now. It’s football. Your version of football is just plain silly.

Flashlight - Torch.

Band-aid - A charity supergroup headed up by Sting. We call those sticky bandage things plasters.

Fall - Autumn is so much more ...autumnal.

Eggplant - Aubergine.

Zucchini - Courgette.

Cilantro - Coriander. I’m glad I don’t write cook books.

Stand in line - This is queuing. We are the international champions.

Lady bug - Ladybird. Julia Donaldson wrote a whole book based on rhyming it with ‘heard’ and I bet no one asked her to rewrite that.

Any others I ought to have included? Do please add them in the comments below. If you're outside Britain, please also feel free to tell us you still love at least 48.1% of us and that somehow it's all going to be okay. 

Meanwhile, my book ‘The Forgetful Knight’ publishes in the US on July 7th, illustrated by Fred Blunt who lives in Swindon and negotiates roundabouts on a daily basis. In America, they’re hailing our book as ‘Monty Python for kids’. That crazy British humoUr, eh?

Find out more about Michelle Robinson and her books, including advice on writing picture books here.