Saturday 30 December 2017

Our picture books - our favourites

In schools we’re often asked to pick our personal favourite picture book out of all the books we’ve written or illustrated. This is a tricky question.

A favourite might be our newest book because that’s still our baby. Or it could be the one we feel is the best quality, whatever that means. Or maybe it’s the book that has made us the most money. Or there could be a secret, emotional attachment to a book that only we know about.

So to start the New Year, six of us at the Picture Book Den thought we’d try and answer this tricky question. We’ve only allowed ourselves one book each, argh! Here are the personal favourite picture books of Jane Clarke, Jonathan Emmett, Pippa Goodhart, Paeony Lewis, Garry Parsons, and Lucy Rowland.

Jane Clarke

My personal favourite has to be I Saw Anaconda, illustrated by Emma Dodd (Nosy Crow, 2016)

The rhyme popped into my head on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure tour in Venezuela in 2008, and will always remind me of it. One of my sons was working there as a tour guide, and he took me and his brother to find anaconda. The rhyme took 9 years (and many rejections) before a publisher (Nosy Crow) worked out what to do with it. It was wonderful to be able to dedicate it to both my sons who now have families of their own. I saw anaconda has fab illustrations and clever flaps that include a pull-out snake. My four young granddaughters (including two who are part-Venezuelan) have already chewed/ torn/ generally loved to death several copies :-)

Jonathan Emmett

My favourite self-penned picture book is The Santa Trap, illustrated by Poly Bernatene (Macmillan, 2009). It tells the story of Bradley Bartleby, an obscenely rich, villainous child who sets out to trap Santa Claus so that he can steal all of Santa's presents. One of the reasons I'm particularly fond of the book is that it's slightly autobiographical; as a child I used to build Santa traps. However, unlike Bradley, I didn't want to capture Santa and steal his presents – I just wanted to get a glimpse of him. So the traps I built were designed to wake me up the moment Santa set foot in my room.

Another reason I'm particularly fond of it is Poly's wonderful illustrations. The story was quickly taken by a publisher, but it took three years to find a suitable illustrator. A couple of illustrators agreed to do it but then changed their minds. Eventually editor Emily Ford found Poly and asked him to do a sample. He turned out to be a perfect fit and well worth the wait. Poly and I have since done another three books together.

Pippa Goodhart

I've got a new favourite book of mine, and its Chapatti Moon (Tamarind, 2017).  Why?  Well, I love the pictures that Lizzie Findlay has done of Mrs Kapoor and the animals as they chase the chapatti that's rolled away.  I love the clever design that includes a twist of the book to make you look up when the chapatti goes up into the sky.  But I'm also proud of my text that ends as she saw ...' her chapatti moon slip-sliding down the sky.  She held out her hands, and she caught it.  "I shall eat the moon!" said Mrs Kapoor.  It was just enough.  She wanted not more.  And it did taste wonderfully moony.'  Next time you eat a chapatti, consider that thought.  I suspect you'll also find that it tastes 'moony'!

Paeony Lewis

In monetary terms, there’s no way my favourite book could be No More Yawning (Chicken House/Scholastic, 2008).  Instead it’s an old favourite for making me smile the most. It’s about a little girl, Florence, and her toy monkey, Arnold, and their bedtime antics.

We British are often reticent about blowing our own horn, but I do like the feisty ‘first person’ voice of Florence and the way the story builds. Plus now that I know more about art I appreciate further the fluid watercolour illustrations by Brita Granstrom. And I like the end papers and the spot varnish on the cover (little things make me happy!).

I particularly enjoy reading No More Yawning in schools because when Florence yawns, the young children join in too. Unfortunately, it’s embarrassing when outside the classroom I overhear children laughing and saying they yawned a lot in storytime – I feel compelled to explain to others the yawning WASN'T because the story was boring (really!).

I also like that the story encourages children to make up their own stories before they go to sleep. However, all this isn’t quite enough to make No More Yawning my favourite. What helps most is that my daughter was the inspiration for the story and it brings back memories, even if many years ago those bedtimes were frequently frustrating!

I think that’s enough reasons. Though it has to be the hardback version with the lovely endpapers.

Garry Parsons

When school children ask which of my books is my favourite I almost always say it’s my latest publication but then inevitably I revert back to Krong! (The Bodley Head, 2005).

In the story, Carl is playing in his garden when a spaceship lands and out steps an alien and his alien dog. Carl tries a succession of languages to try to communicate with the Alien who only speaks 'Noobanese'. Eventually the puzzle is solved but there’s also an identity twist.

What I like about this book is that it almost certainly requires you to look back through the illustrations to spot the clues you would have missed on the first reading. Looking back and studying the illustrations was something I enjoyed as a boy, particularly in a book called What-a-Mess by Frank Muir and illustrated by Joseph Wright, where you can spot an entirely separate narrative going on alongside the main story. I also love that so much of the detail in Krong! is based on things that were pertinent or existed in my life at the time, including the two dogs, quite a lot of the furniture and that I was having lessons in Japanese.

Lucy Rowland

My favourite picture book that I have written is Little Red Reading Hood illustrated by the rather wonderful Ben Mantle.  Ben's illustrations bring this whole story to life.  They are so utterly magical and beautiful!..I mean, just look at that cover!!  But, for me, even before I saw Ben's artwork, this was a story that I loved and believed in.  It was one of those stories that wrote itself, one cold grey Sunday a few years ago. My agent believed in it instantly and so too did my editor, Laura Roberts. Little Red Reading Hood is (hopefully) a celebration of story, a celebration of reading and of the power of imagination. It is also, importantly, a celebration of libraries.  (Plus it includes one of my favourite self-penned rhymes...)

'Meanwhile at the library, what a barbarian!
Wolf had tied up Mrs Jones, the librarian!'

Little Red Reading Hood publishes with Macmillan on 25th January 2018 (Eeeek! Not long to go!) and I really hope that people enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed dreaming it up.

So those are our six favourites. Have any choices surprised you? Some books are old, some are new, and they're not necessarily our top sellers, but we love them for our own reasons.

Monday 18 December 2017

Missing Vowels Christmas Picture Book Puzzler • Jonathan Emmett

Following on from previous Christmas Quizzes in 2015 and 2016, here's another set of picture book puzzles for you to solve. This year I've taken my inspiration from the "Missing Vowels" round of BBC quiz show Only Connect. For those unfamiliar with the show, I've taken the titles of ten classic picture books, removed all of the vowels and punctuation marks and changed the spaces between the words. For example, THE GRUFFALO might be changed into THG RF FL.

How many ‘disemvowelled’ book titles can you recognise? Click on each image to reveal the answer. To make things more Christmassy – there's a festive theme to the even-numbered titles.











How did you do?

10 O for outstanding: Your knowledge of picture book titles is exemplary!
7–9 A for advanced: A good effort. You know your Child from your Chichester Clark.
4–6 I for intermediate: Not bad, but perhaps you should add a few picture book classics to your Christmas list.
1–3 U for ungraded: A disappointingly Gruffa-low score. You need to brush up on your picture book knowledge.

Jonathan Emmett's sparkling seasonal story Diamond in the Snow, illustrated by Vanessa Cabban, has just been re-published in a new edition from Walker Books.

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.

See all of Jonathan's posts for Picture Book Den.

Monday 11 December 2017

Giving It A Twist, by Pippa Goodhart

In my new picture book, Chapatti Moon, illustrated by Lizzie Finlay, I did something that writers get told not to do.  I added a design note to say, 'Could the next spread involve twisting the book to see the illustration in portrait rather than landscape/'  Why did I want that?  Because the story involved the runaway chapatti being kicked up into the sky by a donkey, and I wanted the audience's eyes to look up in the same way as Mrs Kapoor does.  So we go from - ...

I'm not the first to have used that trick in a picture book by any means, and that thought set me looking for other examples.

This Is Not A Book by Jean Jullien uses the fold half way down the book on portrait to brilliant advantage, turning the book into a chair -

Or a computer -

Other books use that format with different purpose.  Emily Gravett's The Rabbit Problem makes the whole book a calendar which could be hung just like a real one -

And, another of my favourite picture books, Tadpole's Promise, written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Tony Ross, uses that horizontal gutter as the divide between water and air.

The problem with that idea is that the story action happens very much at the meeting place between those two elements, and so the main point of interest is sometimes a bit lost in the fold.  

Do you know of other examples that use this book orientation to a particular purpose?  Or can you think of one that might work well in a book?

Monday 4 December 2017

Digging Deep to Find Your Character's Emotional Journey by Natascha Biebow

Writing is hard. Not only because you have to put your bum on seat and dedicate the hours, not only because you have to dream up super-original ideas with a new take on what’s already been published in a very crowded marketplace, not only because you invest in a story and then someone may not share your vision, but because you have to dig deep inside yourself to be able to seamlessly convey how it really feels to be your character.

So how do you do this? I’ve previously blogged on the importance of asking your characters difficult questions to discover their true motivation, so you can write from a place of knowing. This is an important first step. But, now how can you use this to take readers on a compelling and satisfying emotional journey?

The trick is to BE the character. If you ARE the character, you don’t need to tell the reader all the external stuff that is going on, because they will be in the character’s shoes as well. So you can show not tell.

Get into your character's Olympic running shoes! (From Sky Private Eye and
the Case of the Runaway Biscuit
by Jane Clarke & Loretta Schauer)

Stories are about change. So, if there is no conflict, there is no gripping story. In picture books, authors have to set up the problem and resolve it quickly within just 32 pages. There isn’t time or space to ‘tell’ . . . The relatively easy bit is often figuring out the plot arc, the external journey of change. For example, the story is about a runaway gingerbread biscuit, the farmer who has some cows that type, the time Arthur met The Truth, or what happened at Lily and Blue Kangaroo’s birthday party. 

The action in these plots could be interesting . . . but so what?

IF the author writes from a place of knowing and adds an internal emotional journey of change, the story will be one that has heart. 

Readers will experience the character’s thoughts, beliefs and behaviours in the face of adversity. They will become so engulfed by being in the main character’s shoes that they become the character. So, when the character is sad or uncertain, the reader cries and worries for them. When the character laughs, the reader laughs, too.

It can be helpful to break these two story arcs down in two strands, using the three-act structure. For example, in HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU, BLUE KANGAROO! by Emma Chichester Clark:

Plot arc
Best buddies, Lily and Blue Kangaroo are having a birthday party. The theme is pink. Lily dresses top to toe in pink.
Everything is pink themed! Lily is so caught up in her party, she forgets Blue Kangaroo.
Lily’s friends arrive in pink party clothes, give her pink presents, and a magician even conjures up a pink rabbit. Lily loves it!
Mum brings in the birthday cake. It is a pink kangaroo!
Blue Kangaroo tries to make himself pink. When he can’t, he hides in the bedroom. Lily finally misses her special friend. When she finds him, alone wrapped in a blue sock she understands immediately.
Emotional arc
Blue Kangaroo shares everything with Lily – even birthdays.
Blue Kangaroo isn’t sure he likes the pink ribbon Lily ties round his neck.
Blue Kangaroo is the only one who is blue. He bets Lily wishes the magician could make him pink, too.
Blue Kangaroo is NOT pink . . . Lily’s forgotten about him – he falls off the chair in the excitement of the birthday cake moment.
Lily changes into a blue outfit and declares, “I love blue and I love you!” She recognizes that she needs to include Blue Kangaroo. Her friends all admire him, but there is only one Blue Kangaroo – and he is Lily’s.

When you write from the heart, you are right there in the moment with your main character. You don’t have to tell the reader what the character is doing or feeling. The narrative shows it. Like this:

When you successfully tell a story that has a compelling emotional journey, everyone – agents, editors, librarians, booksellers, parents, grandparents and children – will say 'aw' and want to READ IT AGAIN AND AGAIN!


Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission.  
Check out my small-group coaching Cook Up a Picture Book coursesNatascha is also the author of The Crayon Man (coming in 2019!), Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.