Monday 31 October 2016

Lifting The Lid, by Pippa Goodhart

I was recently lucky enough to go to Glyndebourne to see a production there of Berlioz's opera Beatrice et Benedict.  It's a silly story, based on Much Ado About Nothing, and I'd been warned that the production was monochrome and based around boxes.  I didn't have high hopes.  But the music and performers were absolutely wonderful, and those boxes were great fun.  Lids opened to reveal surprises, and of course we soon learned to watch the boxes to see what might spring out of them next, and in what way.  

It occurred to me that the fun of those box lids opening was very much the same fun that we get when opening flaps in picture books.  It's the same fun as opening a present.  Picture book stories often play with anticipation of events, letting the page turn reveal what we're waiting for ... or what we're not expecting, to dramatic effect.  But that anticipation and revelation can be multiplied when flaps are added to pages.

Think of that favourite of generations now, Rod Campbell's Dear Zoo.  Every spread in that lets us open doors of different kinds to reveal an animal.  And of course it is the small child who has the power to open that flap door or lid to make the story happen, and to name the animal revealed.  It gives children an experience in story reading before they even begin to decipher the words on a page.

Since its Halloween and I've had a suitably spooky book recently published, I'm going to show off how Little Monster and the Spooky Party enjoys that revelatory fun with flaps.  The illustrations are by the great Nick Sharratt -

In schools, children have particularly loved the game of lifting lids and opening boxes to reveal foods which might be 'yum' or 'yuck'.  I get them to have thumbs ready for a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, together with a "Mmmnn" or "Eeeer!" sound effect, and then they choose which I should open in turn.  Noise levels get quite high!  

As do the sounds of pretend shrieks and screams when we learn who else will be at that spooky party.  Would you like to join that party?  Happy Halloween!

Monday 24 October 2016

Behave or the monsters will get you! Moira Butterfield

I don’t want to worry you, but if you’re in Spain there’s a giant hairy hand under your bed, waiting to grab you if you don’t go to sleep. In Iceland there’s a child-eating giantess who will be able to hear you if you’re naughty. Meanwhile there’s a horrible shape-shifter out to grab Inuit children in the snow up north and a formless terror lurking in Portugal – so scary it can’t be described.

In the course of researching mythical characters who help children I’ve found myself waylaid by monsters that have been used by parents around the world to scare their children into behaving. It’s a cast of terrifying beasts, I can tell you, all used in the past to stop children wandering into the dangerous countryside, staying out in the dark or just being plain naughty.

There are shadow creatures, child-eaters and a number of weird characters with sacks. The one I find particularly scary-sounding is Bonhomme Sept-Heures – Mr Seven O’clock. He’s said to lurk around Quebec with his sack, waiting to grab children who haven’t gone indoors by seven. It’s his very specific name that sounds so chilling to me!

Alright! I'll come indoors! 

There’s sometimes a religious connection, too. A friend’s father had interesting experiences of Krampus, a nasty sidekick of St. Nicholas who turns up in Austria at Christmastime to punish naughty kids, while St. Nicholas rewards the good ones. As a boy my friend’s father would watch the town parade on December 6th, and while St. Nicholas threw treats, young men of the town dressed as Krampus, carrying large sticks and chains to threaten the onlooking children. The young boy’s father, meanwhile, would wait until his son was in bed and then scrape snow chains up and down the stairs to terrify him into thinking Krampus was about. Tough parenting or what? Apparently it was all connected to the fierce-sounding Catholicism of the area. It was deemed vital that children were suitably terrified of behaving badly so they wouldn’t go to Hell. 

Having asked around I only found one person under the age of 70 who remembered any of these bogeymen and women being used on them, so it seems we’ve moved on in my neck of the woods, thank goodness. But friend and multi-talented children’s illustrator Estelle Cork had imaginative parents who cooked up their own version, declaring that some local grain silos were the ‘Monster’s Home’ and Estelle had better behave or she’d be sent there. Terrified whenever she passed them on the horizon, she imagined the monsters inside in the exact shape of their silo containers, as per this sketch (she may have done this for her therapist but I didn't like to ask). 

Look away, Estelle! 

I’m glad we’ve consigned these bogeymen and women to the past,  but in some cases we’ve gone to the other extreme. A recent survey suggested that a third of parents surveyed would not read a story to their child if it had a bad character in it. I even read a recent blog where a parent urged people to self-censor picture books as they read them – giving examples of how to do it which basically rendered the books nonsense.  Of course you wouldn’t read a story that freaked your child out, but surely those parents should have more faith in their child’s intelligence. Reading a story with a baddie in it, getting his or her comeuppance, teaches good values. Reading a story together in a safe environment gives your child the opportunity to regulate their anxieties  - with your help and the help of the author who is going to make things come out right at the end. 

I’m not suggesting that parents specifically go out and look for books with villains in them. I’m suggesting that it’s OK to relax a little about content. Trust the author and trust your child. Don’t start censoring their books.

Anyway, I'd love to hear if you were scared by bogeymen/women/things when you were a child, to keep you on the straight and narrow. And if so, did it work? 

Moira Butterfield
Currently writing a book which is top-secret until 2018. If I told you I’d have to send Krampus round!

PS: If you’d like to read more about some of the weird child-catching bogeymen and women of yesteryear, here’s a great site on European monsters. Definitely don’t share it with your kids, though.

Monday 17 October 2016

SINGING OFF by Malachy Doyle

OK. After five years of blogging on the Den, this is me singing off. Lah de dah.

Nothing like bowing out at the top.


(Here's me on Everest, a couple of weeks ago. Well, at Base Camp, but I'm telling you...)

I may come back and do the occasional guest blog, if they'll let me, but it's time to move on. 

Thanks for tuning in to my witterings over the years. We've had over half a million page views to the Den, since we started, which is very gratifying. 

And thanks, all of you, for playing your part in the wonderful world of picture books. No better place.

Monday 10 October 2016

Feeling a bit of a fraud - Lynne Garner

For the last few months, well to be honest most of 2016 I've felt a bit of a fraud by calling myself a picture book writer. I'd not written a story for at least six months if not longer and I've had any fiction published for an absolute age. Although I've had a minimum of two non-fiction features published every month.

However that recently changed, well the writing side of things at least.

I think my main issue had been my non-fiction writing had chased my picture book writing muse away. However over the last couple of weeks he or she has started to give me ideas again. Many of these ideas have come to me whilst looking at a photograph I had taken or whilst actually taking it.

For example last month whilst visiting Wellington Arch in London something must have clicked whilst reading some of the information boards. Because as I took the photograph below a little voice said, "what about.....?" The story idea generated already has a title and a very loose plot has made it to the 'yellow sticky note' stage. This is when I know a story has enough body for me to start writing it but I still have a few blanks to fill in.

Wellington Arch - London
During the same week I took the photograph below at a local visitor attraction. It not only gave me a few ideas for some non-fiction features it's also given me a idea for a new picture book story. This doesn't have a title and hasn't even made it to the 'yellow sticky note' stage yet but it's definitely keeping at least one brain cell busy.

Reflections of clouds in a very still stream -
didn't stay still for long as Tasha (my four legged friend) went paddling 
This last image shows Tasha with her summer collection of footballs (all found during July and August). Whilst taking this photograph a tiny, tiny seed of an idea planted itself. It's still waiting just under the soil but there is definitely movement and I expect germination to take place any time now.

The Tasha Collection  - Summer 2016 
Last but not least I've sketched out a story and even come up with a few sentences for some of the spreads. I can't include a picture because although there is one I don't own the copyright. Also I think it'll give to much about. And as Michelle Robinson wrote on the Picture Book Den just a couple of weeks ago, this story is not ready for sharing.

So thankfully as I write this post I no longer feel a fraud when I say I'm a picture book writer. My muse has returned and is now providing me with lots of ideas to work with.



Monday 3 October 2016

The Balloon Analogy: When to share new work?

by Michelle Robinson

I was struggling with a new story recently. In a moment (or two... or maybe five) of pathetic insecurity, I said as much to my agent. I suppose I just needed him to say, “Keep writing. You can do this.” What he actually said was, “Send it my way, perhaps I can help.”


It was too early to share. The draft was too draughty. Showing it to my agent might have put the kibosh on it. Not that his advice wouldn't be good. It always is, even when it's not necessarily what I want to hear. But experience tells me it would have been counterproductive to share my work at such a fledgling stage. Here's why.

I was having enough trouble with the voices in my own head. My own internal critic was already throwing enough opinions around. My characters were also muscling in on the act. I didn't need to add another critical voice into the mix, no matter how astute. 

I needed to work through some issues with plot. The problems were all of my own making. The solutions also needed to come from me - otherwise what would that do to my confidence? Letting someone else solve my problems denies me the satisfaction of solving them through elbow grease and perseverance. 

I would have totally wasted his time. That early draft has since been binned, as have several subsequent ones. In fact the idea has entirely metamorphosed and what I'm now working on bears no resemblance to the draft my agent would have seen. 

The long, arduous, frustrating writing process is just that: process. My agent doesn't need to suffer with me. Besides, even when I present him with a highly polished text there will still be plenty of suffering ahead (sorry, James.) Several drafts later, I’m starting to think my new story is almost ready to share. I just need to tie a knot in it first, a la the tried and trusted...

...Robinson Balloon Analogy

Share a story or an idea too early, and it’s like making a hole in the balloon before you’ve even started blowing it up. Doubts are voiced. Different ideas are put forward. Your original thought peters out - poof - like so much hot air. 

Blow some air into the balloon first - and tie a knot. If you don’t, your story can go whizzing off out of your control. Sure, it’ll make a triumphant fart sound along the way, but ultimately it’ll fall flat. Firm it up as well as you can before sharing.

So: blow it up and tie the knot. If you want to be extra sure, cover it in papier mâché and wait for the glue to set. Now you’re ready to share. Your agent or your editor will help you decorate it just right - but it will be much less likely to go POP!

That's what I think, anyway. How about you? Does impatience make you want to shout your ideas from the rooftops, or do you prefer to keep your ideas a closely guarded secret? Perhaps sharing an early idea has led to collaborative triumph? Share, if you dare, in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

Michelle Robinson’s latest picture book, Goodnight Spaceman, is now available with a CD of Tim Peake reading it in space. Yeah baby. Michelle has a silly amount of books out in 2017 and is sure to blow up lots of balloons by way of celebration.

Find out more about Michelle and her books at