Monday 26 September 2016

Picture Books: Theatres of the Imagination By Timothy Knapman

Unlike many people in my line of work, I didn’t grow up wanting to write for children.  Don’t get me wrong – I love my job and I love my readers – but I started writing picture books only after years of doing other kinds of writing.  I mention this partly because there are times when I feel like the woman in the song – who wanted to go to Birmingham but they’ve taken her on to Crewe – and partly because some of the things I learned on the long and winding path to where I am now have proved very useful to me and might be a help to others.

The theatre (especially the musical theatre) was my first love and I often think of picture books as little toy theatres.  Open one up, and it’s like the performance is about to start.  There’s a sense of anticipation: you’ll have to concentrate, but you know you’re going to have fun – and anything can happen.  Remember Max in his bedroom as the forest grows in Where The Wild Things Are (my favourite picture book of all time)? It always looks to me like something that’s happening on a stage.

The forest grows in Max’s bedroom in Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
Tintin – another great love of my childhood that has endured to this day – is different.  A bit more sophisticated perhaps, for slightly older readers and certainly faster.  Think of the mixture of angles, points of view – the wide shots and close-ups – on a page of a Tintin book, the fast cutting, the snappy dialogue: that’s not theatre, it’s cinema. 

A page from King Ottakar’s Sceptre by Hergé
Though in some ways, it’s true, writing a picture book can be like writing a movie.  As with a movie, the writer is the first person on a project.  He or she has often had the original idea and works up the script alone, or with the help of an editor, but it’s the people who join the project later – the illustrator especially – whose work is most immediately apparent to the public.  They are the movie stars, they are the ones who attract the audience, who give the story its face.  Julia Donaldson apart, most people would be hard pressed to name a picture book writer; it’s the illustrator’s style that most often makes them take a book down from the shelf.  Who wrote Casablanca? I know, because I’m a writer.  It was Julius and Philip Epstein, with Howard Koch.  All dead now and none of them exactly household names even when they were alive because people remember Bogart and Bergman instead and that’s as it should be.  It means they were enraptured by the story; it means the writers did their job well.

Two thirds of the writers of Casablanca
Because in all forms of drama – and I’m including picture books in that category – story is king.  Of course you should have an eye-catching premise, interesting locations and vividly-drawn and entertaining characters.  But if they aren’t all serving a story that grips your audience from the beginning to the end, you will be punished in the theatre with coughing, programme rustling and that strange squeaky noise you get when restless bottoms shift in tip-up seats.  Picture book stories are shorter than most plays – the works of Samuel Beckett excepted – but children are even harder to please than theatre audiences, and not wont to mince their words when they’re bored.

So take note: the secret of a good story is telling your audience the right things in the right order at the right speed.  Tell them too much or too little and they’re lost.  Tell them things before or after they need to know them, and they’re confused.  Tell them too slowly, and they’re bored; too quickly and they’re dazed.

How do you know if you’ve told your story successfully? I hope you get better with practice, but – again, as in the theatre – your last collaborator is the audience.  We have previews so we can try a show out in front of an audience, and if there are things the audience doesn’t like or can’t understand, we change them.  So try your story out – with children of the right age, ideally – and listen to the advice and feedback from your editor.  It’s their job to let you know if the story you’re telling is coming across or not. 

But how do you come up with a good story in the first place? I get my ideas in all kinds of ways.  My first book, Mungo and the Picture Book Pirates (illustrated, like its successors, by Adam Stower), was inspired by my reading a bedtime story for some kids, and them asking me to read it “Again!” each time I finished.  After five or six readings, I found myself wondering how much more tired than me the characters in the story must be.  After all, I’d just been sitting in a chair, saying words; they’d been living the story – battling pirates and fighting sharks and all sorts.  So what would happen if a boy read his favourite book so many times that its hero became exhausted and went on holiday for a bit?

Mungo and the Picture Book Pirates by Timothy Knapman and Adam Stower
If that seems odd, I got the idea for my book Dinosaurs in the Supermarket when I was watching a gory Stephen King horror movie called The Mist.  That’s about a bunch of monsters that come out of a mysterious mist to devour some small town Americans in a supermarket.  It’s not, perhaps, a situation that many people would associate with entertainment for small children but I loved the way it mixed the extraordinary with the everyday – and that is a staple of picture books.  So my monsters visit the supermarket too, but with mischief, not massacres, on their minds.

Spot the difference? Dinosaurs in the Supermarket by Timothy Knapman and Sarah Warburton, and The Mist movie poster
There’s another way in which picture books are like the theatre: they’re written to be read aloud, to be performed That doesn’t mean you should go overboard with oratorical flourishes and Shakespearean fireworks.  Most mums and dads reading your books to their kids won’t be buddng Oliviers.  But, providing it’s doesn’t get in the way of the clear telling of the story, a rich verbal texture can be great fun so treat yourself to the occasional tongue-twister sentence, or poetic image.

And there are other theatrical tricks you can borrow which will enliven your tale.  The premise of Dinosaurs in the Supermarket is that a boy is the only person who can see a mischievous gang of dinosaurs that’s making a mess in a supermarket.  Every time the grown-ups turn round to look, the dinosaurs hide.  But Sarah Warburton, the brilliant illustrator, leaves lots of little clues in the pictures so that the children reading the book can see what the grown-ups in the story cannot. 

The result? The readers end up pointing to these clues and crying out “It’s behind you!” They’re reading a book, but they might as well be at the panto.

Dinosaurs in the Supermarket by Timothy Knapman and Sarah Warburton
How many Stephen King inspired dinosaurs can you spot?
I hope this is a new way of thinking about picture books, and I hope it helps next time you start to write.  Of course, writing picture books can also be like many other kinds of writing - writing jokes, writing songs, writing poems…

But that – as they used to say on Jackanory – is a story for another time.

Timothy Knapman's latest books are SIR DANCEALOT (illustrated by Keith Robinson) and TIME NOW TO DREAM (illustrated by Helen Oxenbury)
Find out more about Timothy at or follow him on twitter @TimothyKnapman and on Facebook 


Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks for a great post, Timothy. 'Where the Wild Things Are' seems to have inspired a whole generation of picture book authors. It's my favourite picture book too, and my son is named Max after the book's hero.

Michelle Robinson said...

What a fantastic post, Knappers. Nodding along at all of it. There is absolutely a tendency to underestimate the skill of the writer. People assume it's as simple as stringing a few words together, how hard can it be? As any good writer knows, conjuring up and delivering a first rate story is very hard work indeed. Speaking of which, I'd better get back to working on my current second rate one...

Guy Parker-Rees said...

Great post, Tim.
I have long thought of myself as the modest Humphrey Bogart of the picture book.

Unknown said...

Nice post, Tim. "The secret of a good story is telling your audience the right things in the right order at the right speed." I will be using that.

David McMullin said...

So many great insights here. As a musical theatre performer myself, I have always felt that embodying characters and living stories from the inside has greatly enhanced my story telling.

Unknown said...

Cool, flinty and charismatic - yep, you're the HB all right!

Unknown said...

I'm delighted to hear it!