Monday, 17 July 2017

Can you teach people how to write a good picture book? • Pippa Goodhart

         No and yes.

         No, in that there are no clear rules that can be learnt and followed that would fit all good picture books.  If you set rules for picture book writing they might include …

Rule 1) Remember that pictures are the key feature of any picture book.  That’s why they are called picture books.  But then you’d never get a brilliant and successful book such as this –
The Book With No Pictures - Paperback - 9780141361796 - BJ Novak 
Rule 2) When writing for young children you must always supply a happy ending.  But then you’d never get an important honest books such as this –
Missing Mummy - Paperback - 9780230749511 - Rebecca Cobb 

Rule 3)  When writing for such a young audience, you must make clear exactly what is happening in the story.  And then we’d miss out on genius such as this –

I Want My Hat Back - Paperback - 9781406338539 - Jon Klassen 

So, no, you can’t neatly teach picture book writing in that didactic sort of way.  But you certainly can equip people with necessary knowledge for writing picture books, and also nurture their skills at working with pictures and the book format to convey stories suited to both target audience and market place. 
I’ve just finished teaching another run of the four week online course in picture book writing that I do via the Writers’ Workshop.  On that course, I take students back to thinking about what life was like when they were of the 2-5 year old core picture book audience age themselves. What mattered to them?  What did they find funny?  I tell them a bit about the often international market for picture books.  We think about what a story is, and how best to play it between words and pictures and page turns.  We think about writing style, how the text must read out loud pleasingly, the potential pitfalls of writing in rhyme, how dialogue can bring pictures to life, and so on. 
I asked the participants on the recent course what they thought about that course, and perhaps the most telling comment was this –
‘I learned a lot through doing (making mistakes, your comments, having another shot at it).’
It’s that having a go, actually doing, and then discussing the results, that develop writing skills far more than teaching 'rules' ever could.  It’s what I get from group of writing friends I belong to where we meet regularly, bounce ideas around, read out work and critique it, but the course provides that supportive yet critical community virtually.  I love it.
Still no guarantee that it will result in a publishing contract and book sales, though! 

            Do any of you have experiences of courses in picture book writing?  
            Can you think of any other books that clearly disobey the sorts of rules that might be thought to apply to the writing of picture books?


Lucy Rowland said...

How about Rule 4) not writing about inanimate objects as your main characters. ...but then we wouldn't have had the wonderful Day the Crayons quit or The Day the Crayons Came Home!

Pippa Goodhart said...

That's a good one, Lucy! Yes, avoid all those trees or even lamp posts I've seen used as characters that stay in one spot, but, yes, animate those crayons or a cactus, humanising them, and suddenly you've got a really lively book!

Julia Patton said...

Quite brilliant thank you

Frances Tosdevin said...

Thanks Pippa, that's a really useful article ! I'm so pleased that we can break the rules as well, though!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Thank you, Julia and Frances. Yes, Frances, what other 'rules' can we think of to break, I wonder?!

Chitra Soundar said...

I think the shorter picture books that are coming out nowadays are fun and clever. However I'm reading to my nephews and they don't have attention span for slightly longer older classics - one thing I'd say about PBs are - they are cyclical. Long, short, funny, serious - the trends come and go.

Natascha Biebow said...

Fun thoughts on how the rules are there to be broken, Pippa! In my coaching and mentoring courses at Blue Elephant Storyshaping, we have fun learning on the go because I figure it's not good learning a whole bunch of theory when it doesn't apply to where you are on your writing journey at the moment. It's far more useful when it leads to an a-ha moment because you're learning by doing. At the end, you might not be able to teach how to write a picture book, but you can teach some useful tools. And bouncing around ideas in a supportive community gives everyone a buzz and the impetus to keep creating. Who knows what rules will be broken next?

Unknown said...

Right...don't write about trees. Like The Giving Tree. :)