Monday 24 April 2017

What Makes a Classic? • Lynne Garner

You know you're a classic when you become a statue
I was recently asked what was on my bucket list. This bucket list could include anything including being an author. After pondering for some time, I finally came to the conclusion I'd like to write a picture book that was classed as a classic. The conversation continued onto what I considered to be a classic. My first step to answering this question was to consider what my classics are, and they included:  

  • Going on a Bear Hunt 
  • The Hungry Caterpillar 
  • The Tiger Who Came to Tea 
  • A Bear Called Paddington 
  • Make Way for Ducklings  
  • Where the Wild Things Are 
  • Elma The Patchwork Elephant 

I was then asked, "So what makes these classic?" I began to break down what I thought made a classic picture book and this is what I came up with:  

A good story
I suppose that's obvious but also very subjective. I think it can be said that a good story is one that resonates with a huge number of people from diverse backgrounds. Something that entertains the reader regardless of who they are. I'm not sure if there's a common thread in any of the titles I've listed as they're all different, with a different voice and feel. But they all have that certain something, whatever that is. 

To become a classic I felt it safe to assume it would have to be around for a long time. Not knowing the original publication date of my classics, I did a little research and discovered: 

  • Going on a Bear Hunt - 1989
  • The Hungry Caterpillar - 1969
  • The Tiger Who Came to Tea - 1968
  • A Bear Called Paddington - 1958
  • Make Way for Ducklings - 1941 
  • Where the Wild Things Are - 1963
  • Elma The Patchwork Elephant – 1968

So, the oldest has been around for 76 years (Make Way For Ducklings) whilst the youngest is Going on a Bear Hunt, a mere 28 years old. 

So, longevity can't be the only thing.

From the publisher’s point of view, it must be sales. They're not going to keep a book in print if it doesn't sell reasonably well on a continuous basis. So, who are buying these books and why do they continue to sell? Obviously, marketing. Thinking about it I don't think I've been in a book shop in the last few years and not seen copies of Going on a Bear Hunt, The Hungry Caterpillar and The Tiger Who Came to Tea for sale. These books also have merchandise attached to them and it's not uncommon for an entire table to be filled with the books and the merchandise. This makes purchasing them a no-brainer.

However, people are creatures of habit and if you're going to buy a book as a present then rather than take the chance you're going to purchase one you enjoyed as a child. So, the longer a book stays in print the wider audience it's going to reach.

Some books don't age well
I've tried to discover what the average shelf life for a picture book is and have been unsuccessful. However, I remember an editor telling me not to expect my how-to craft book to in print after five years. I asked why and the reply was, "They just don't age well." I believe this is true of some of the picture books I read as a child. I'd never buy them today, they contain views, beliefs, actions etc. that just no longer acceptable. So are never going to make the classic list. 

So, what does make a classic a classic? 

I wish I knew. I'd then be able to use that knowledge to write my own and tick that box on my bucket list "write a classic."

Any suggestions would be welcome.



Last but not least whilst researching this topic I rediscovered this fab post asking the question "why do some picture books stay in print?" If you've stuck with us from the start then you may have read it because it appeared on this very blog in February 2014 and was written by our very own Paeony Lewis. If you have the time simply click on the link above and have a read.

Monday 17 April 2017

The Power of ‘Again’ • Lucy Rowland

Our guest this week at the Picture Book Den is Lucy Rowland, who is both an exciting new picture book author and an experienced children's speech and language therapist. So far Lucy has picture books coming out with Bloomsbury, Macmillan and Nosy Crow.

One of the best moments for me as a writer so far was reading my first picture book to my friend’s little boy. William was just over two at the time and he was like a sponge - soaking up new words like water. We were sitting in the park and, just as I closed the book, William turned to me and said one word: ‘Again!’

Well, obviously I was over the moon. This was the first book I’d ever written and I felt it had just passed the MOST important test. However, we had places to go and lunches to eat so unfortunately, William had to make do with a piggy-back ride to the café instead.

It got me thinking though. ‘AGAIN’ - it’s such an important word. A word parents often dread as they play the same game for the 15th time or have to endure the ‘Frozen’ Sound Track on repeat. ‘AGAIN! AGAIN!’ is what the Teletubbies cry before repeating the exact same video clip that we’ve all just seen!

But children love it. They love repetition. As a Speech and Language Therapist, I talk about repetition a lot. Children have to hear a new word many times and in many different contexts before it is firmly cemented in their vocabulary. Books are therefore fantastic language-learning tools because they allow children to hear new words in a variety of different sentence structures throughout the story.

I love some of the old traditional tales that I was read as a child, like The Gingerbread Man and The Three Little Pigs. With their repetitive refrains, is it any wonder that these stories are still popular today? From the first time they hear the story, many children can join in with the wolf by the time he has reached the third little pig’s house, shouting ‘Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff…’

This kind of repetition helps children to actively participate in the telling of the story. It’s probably one of the reasons why We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is so successful. It’s certainly a huge hit in our language groups at school and works brilliantly with children who may struggle with language in other situations.

Finally, with repeated readings of books, children are offered the opportunity to hear new words over and over (and over and over)… and this is exactly what we want. Not only do children get immense enjoyment out of repetition but it is also educationally effective and, for an author or illustrator, what higher praise is there for a book than a child asking for it ‘AGAIN!’

Lucy has several picture books coming out this year, including The Birthday Invitation. Written by Lucy Rowland and illustrated by Laura Hughes, it will be published by Bloomsbury on 4th May 2017.

Monday 10 April 2017

Omitting the F Word: Parental Censorship of Picture Books • Jonathan Emmett

I sometimes describe writing a picture book as like writing a script, because picture books are often read aloud to a child by an adult. I want the reader to give a good performance, so I think it’s essential that a picture book text reads well aloud. However a good script is only the beginning of a good performance; a good picture-book performer will add a great deal themselves, creating character voices and sound effects and adjusting the timing and delivery of lines to make them funnier, more suspenseful or more dramatic.

It wasn’t until I read a Slate article entitled I Censor the Books I Read to My Child. I’m Not Ashamed! that it occurred to me that a performer might actually subtract something from the script as well. And, as an author/script-writer, I am troubled by this.

The article’s author, YiLing Chen-Josephson, runs The Picture Book Club, a subscription service through which she handpicks books for young children (and their parents). I’m guessing that one of the books she does NOT recommend to her subscribers is Maurice Sendak’s miniature picture book classic Pierre, which she describes reading to her own son in the article.

If you’re not familiar with Pierre then – SPOILER ALERT! – let me tell you that it’s a cautionary tale about a small boy, Pierre, who professes not to care about anything whatsoever. When a polite, but hungry, lion calls at Pierre’s home and asks Pierre if he may eat him, Pierre says, “I don’t care!” So the lion takes the boy at his word and swallows him whole. Fortunately Pierre’s parents are able to extract their son before any lasting harm is done and  – having experienced the trauma of being eaten alive – Pierre now cares about what happens to him. To quote Sendak’s final line “The moral of Pierre is: CARE!”

Maurice Sendak’s Pierre is a cautionary tale of a small boy who is hugely indifferent to everything.

Since “parental censorship” is in the title of this post, you've probably guessed that Chen-Josephson took it upon herself to censor Sendak’s classic. Having read the plot outline above, you might assume that she cut out or re-edited the scene where the small boy is EATEN ALIVE by the hungry lion. But, no, the object of Chen-Josephson's disapproval was Pierre’s absolute indifference. Here’s how she puts it in her own words:
You’ve read enough to recognize what’s at stake here: The child in this book doesn’t care. Are you ready to introduce your own darling boy to the phrase “I don’t care” and, with it, to ennui, to disaffection, to insubordination?
So now, whenever Chen-Josephson reads the book to her son, she rescripts Pierre’s dialogue so that instead of saying, “I don’t care!” he says “I … care!”.

It seems to me that Chen-Josephson has entirely failed to grasp the point of a cautionary tale, which is to show how negative characteristics can have unfortunate consequences for their owners. By turning Pierre into a caring child, the message her son is likely to draw from the story is that bad things can happen to nice children, rather than the message Sendak intended, which was that bad things can happen to children who are dismissive and indifferent.

After explaining how she improved on Sendak’s storytelling, Chen-Josephson goes on to relate how several of her friends censor the picture books they read to their children. She gives three examples of how parents respond when they come across the F word in picture books. NO! Not that F word – I mean "FAT"!
One father I heard from avoided the word fat at all costs, turning even The Very Hungry Caterpillar from a “big fat” insect to a “great big” one. Another parent said she left the word alone when it was used to describe an animal but would replace it when it was used about a person. Another specifically sought out books where fat was used descriptively and without judgment since she didn’t want her child to think that the word should carry negative connotations.
Some parents baulk at Eric Carle's use of F word in The Very Hungry Caterpillar

I suspect that all three parents described above would censor my use of the F word in my picture book story The Santa Trap. Über-brat Bradley reveals his plan to trap Santa with the words, “I’m going to catch the fat fool and take every present he’s got.”

One of Poly Bernatene’s illustrations of brattish Bradley in The Santa Trap.

It’s quite clear that the word “fat” is intended to have a negative connotation in this context. However CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING! Like PierreThe Santa Trap is a cautionary tale. The story makes it clear that Bradley is an irredeemably awful child whose monstrous behaviour leads to his eventual downfall, while Santa, the object of Bradley’s abuse, is the unflappably benign and ultimately triumphant hero of the tale. I think that most children that hear this story will recognise that using the word "fat" to insult someone should be bracketed with the other unacceptable behaviours that Bradley engages in such as stealing tigers from the local zoo. And if a child does not recognise this, then the adult reading the story can use Bradley's example as an opportunity to discuss why this is an unacceptable way to behave.

I think the same principle can be applied to most stories that contain the sort of parental-anxiety-inducing content that parents like Chen-Josephson might wish to censor. And I’d argue that the parent-child picture book reading experience is an ideal setting for a child to encounter such content. Sooner or later, a child will encounter an uncaring character or hear the word “fat” being used inappropriately, on a TV screen or in the real world. Surely it’s better for them to come across these things in a picture book, with a parent on hand to discuss and explain them with, than on their own?

So, if you’re reading a picture book to a child and you’re tempted to censor something, why not try using it as an opportunity for discussion instead? You're probably doing your child a favour and the  author might thank you for it too!

Jonathan Emmett's latest picture book is Prince Ribbit, illustrated by Poly Bernatene and published by Macmillan Children's BooksWARNING: This book contains graphic images of interspecies osculation which some parents may find objectionable.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blog. You can also follow Jonathan on Facebook and Twitter @scribblestreet.