Monday 28 May 2018

Where do you get your ideas from? by Lucy Rowland

In April, Lynne Garner wrote a blog post for Picture Book Den called ‘Having Fun Making Stuff Up’.  She spoke about attending a writing retreat with the Scattered Authors Society.  During the retreat, Lynne took part in a workshop where she was encouraged to use drawing as a way to generate ideas for picture books.

As many authors and illustrators know, one of the most popular questions we get asked is….‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ and it can be quite a tricky question to answer because the truth is ideas really are everywhere! And yet, I still find it interesting to hear what people say.  Their answers often make me realise how a method that works for one author or illustrator might not be the best approach for another.  But it also shows there is no right or wrong way to find ideas.

At the London Book Fair this year, I was excited to attend a talk from our Children’s Laureate, Lauren Child.  As part of her laureateship, Lauren wants to encourage people to ‘let children dawdle and dream’.  She wants to set up a challenge on her website for people to ‘Look Down’ and notice, as they walk around, the small, forgotten or misplaced items on the floor and to consider what the story around these objects could be.  It reminded me of another post by Lynne Garner where she challenged Picture Book Den readers to make up a story based on some of the objects she’d photographed on a walk. 

I once heard author, Tracey Corderoy, speaking at a Nosy Crow ‘Picture Book Master Class’.  For Tracey, looking through illustrators’ work and finding interesting characters can spark her to wonder ‘what could this character’s story be?’   Picture book author, Lou Carter, also told me that she often writes a story around a character.  The character is very much the starting point for her.  I found this really interesting as it’s something I rarely do.  Perhaps it’s because I’m not such a visual person?  Maybe this is also why I don’t use drawing to come up with new ideas?

I often get my ideas because I like to play with words.  My first book ‘Gecko’s Echo’ (with illustrator Natasha Rimmington) came about simply because I liked the sound of these words together.  Next year, I have a second book coming out with Ben Mantle- I can’t reveal what it is called just yet but it also has a rhyming title that very much inspired the story and, again, this came about from playing with language.   Mine and Kate Hindley’s latest book, ‘The Knight who said No’ was initially about a viking (rather than a knight) and this idea came to me when I was playing around with the words ‘The vikings are striking!’

I’ve always loved rhyme and rhythm.  Sometimes I find rhythms that I particularly enjoy and I see if I can write a story around that rhythm.  For example, I love the rhythm in ‘Bad Sir Brian Botany’ by A.A.Milne:

‘Sir Brian woke one morning and he couldn’t find his battleaxe;
He walked into the village in his second pair of boots.
He had gone a hundred paces, when the street was full of faces,
And the villagers were round him with ironical salutes.’

I mean…What a fantastic rhythm!!

I was in Australia when I re-read this poem and that evening I was looking at the fruit bats in the trees.  I then asked myself that very important question that we often ask ourselves as authors and illustrators…WHAT IF?  ‘What if there was a fruit bat who didn’t like fruit?...what would happen then?’
And I wrote around the Sir Brian rhythm as a challenge to see if I could do it.

‘Once there was a fruit bat and the fruit bat’s name was Jeremy.
Jeremy had always felt he didn’t quite belong.
No he wasn’t like the others and his sisters and his brothers
Used to look at him and giggle ‘cause he always got it wrong.
And worst of all were mealtimes. Jeremy just dreaded them.
His brothers and his sisters used to think it was a hoot!
See it isn’t very easy when your dinner makes you queasy
And Jeremy refused to try a single bite of fruit.’

I use the ‘what if’ question a lot during my school visits.  What if it really did rain cats and dogs? What if you woke up and your teachers had turned into zombies? What if children ruled the world? (Cue loud cheers from the class!)  The children are generally fairly excitable by this point but I then encourage them to come up with their own ‘what if?’ ideas and their suggestions are truly brilliant! In fact, I might have to steal some of their ideas myself!

Further investigation into where people find inspiration taught me that Abie Longstaff sometimes uses the childhood games she played with her younger sisters as ideas for stories. Juliet Clare Bell uses the artwork hanging on her walls. Penny Dolan once wrote a guest blog for Picture Book Den and put it brilliantly…’Picture books are a pleasure to write once you’ve got an idea.’  One of the places she gets inspiration is from the schools themselves when she is doing school visits. 

Ideas really do come from many different places and you might find that you have certain tendencies or preferences when hunting for your own?  So….Where do you get your ideas from? 

Monday 21 May 2018

Discovering Ernest Aris, by Pippa Goodhart

I have just helped my 90 year old mother to pack up what has been the family home for more than half a century so that she could move into the house next to us.  Oh, the amount of STUFF we had to sort!

There were many books to consider, including numerous worthy Sunday School prize books awarded to virtuous grandparents and uncles and aunts.  But then one tatty little book that came to light  -

My mother told me that this little picture book was the one book that my father had kept from his young childhood.  Did he have other books, or was this the one children's book he had from his early years?  I don't know.  He was born, the child of a family most of whom worked in the local woollen mills in Bradford, in 1913.  Here he is with his prized cockerel, I imagine at an age when he had largely grown out of Jack o'the Hedge, but clearly, because it survived with him, still owned it -

So I have now carefully opened Jack o'the Hedge and read it.  It isn't very good at all as a story, at least by modern standards.  Its confusing because there both a Jack and Jackie amongst the many characters.  And there's a male elf called Tink-a-bell.  The story maunders on through a number of chapters, all rather quaint and not getting anywhere very much.  But the pictures of wild animals dressed in clothes, all living in realistic woodland are charming.

I looked up Ernest Aris, having never come across that name before, and it turns out that he was a prolific writer and illustrator of children's books.  He lived from 1882 to 1963, creating up to four hundred books in that time.  He studied art in Bradford.  Did my father's parents or other family come across him in person, I wonder?

Look at his pictures (from other books) -

Image result for ernest aris images

Image result for ernest aris images

Do they remind you anybody?  He was creating books for children at the same time as Beatrix Potter was, and, fascinatingly, came into professional contact with her.

Naughty Ernest Aris had plagiarised Jemima Puddleduck into his own Mrs Beak Duck book.  Apparently Beatrix Potter was rather taken with his artwork for that, and actually commissioned some work from him as a present for a niece, and then suggested to Warne, her publisher, that they get him to illustrate some of her stories since her sight was failing and she was busy.  This is one of Ernest's pictures for a proposed book by Beatrix Potter -

But the relationship turned sour when Aris, who had produced six pictures for Potter, was accused of plagiarism by the famous author's pulbisher, after she decided not to use his work after all

Those elves in their bright red are much more Aris than Potter!

Aris then pushed things too far by publishing a story book of his own about a rabbit called Peter, and Warnes got cross.  Seemingly Beatrix Potter herself was more amused than cross.  Aris apologised to her, and the two went their separate bookish ways with Ernest Aris then producing work under the names of Robin A Hood and Dan Crow.

Like Beatrix Potter, Ernest Aris was all for merchandising his creations.  He produced jigsaws and cigarette cards.  One of his greatest success of all was in creating little figures called coco cubs for an advertising campaign to promote Cadbury's cocoa.  There are many different figures for children to collect, and, there is something quite Beatrix Potterish about them.

Image result for cococubs images

My question is, why has the more prolific and brighter-imaged Ernest Aris work disappeared from our cultural memories whilst Beatrix Potter has proved to have the staying power to be more popular than ever over the same time period?  I think its to do with the quality of the stories.

Monday 14 May 2018

How to Catch a Reader: Make Up Cool (Fibs) Stuff! • by Natascha Biebow

From Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Waterson
Can you tell the truth from a bunch of made-up imaginings, er . . . fibs, when someone is spinning a really good yarn? Do your stories masquerade as believable ‘truths’?

One of the most admired qualities of storytellers is their amazing ability to convince readers that their yarns could be true, and maybe really ARE true . . .

This is because the premise and their characters are believable, which makes readers want to go the story’s journey. And, in doing so, they are helping readers to figure out some important stuff about their world.

Take REALLY REALLY by Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt:

When Daisy gets a babysitter for the first time, she eats her mum's note and tells the her sitter all kinds of more and more elaborate fibs – testing, testing, but also working her way through this new experience. All the while, her fingers are safely crossed behind her back!

From Really, Really by Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt

In OLIVIA SAVES THE CIRCUS by Ian Falconer, Olivia is invited by her teacher to tell the class about her holiday. 

The story starts innocuously enough – Olivia’s mum took her and her brother to the circus. But then . . .

. . .  the circus people were off sick and only Olivia could do all the acts!

She was Olivia the Tattooed Lady, Olivia the Lion Tamer, Olivia the Tight-rope Walker, the Clown, and Olivia the Queen of the Trampoline, and Madame Olivia and her trained dogs. She was FAMOUS!

From Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer
From Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer

Olivia’s teacher is skeptical. “Are you sure, Olivia?”

“To the best of my recollection.”
From Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer

Her deadpan response is of course what makes the story humorous, however, it is also a beautifully observed picture of the lying game.

So why do children (and grown-ups) tell fibs and stories?

Young children can’t actually tell the difference between a fact and a lie until they are around two years old. This is because they don’t have the ability to get into another person’s shoes yet. The first lies they learn to tell are those where they say they deny doing something.

From the age three, young children also begin to tell white lies, such as to hide a surprise or to thank someone for a present even when they don’t really like it.

Take the classic NO ROSES FOR HARRY by Gene Zion and Margaret Blog Graham. 

Harry is a white dog with black spots. On his birthday, he is given a lovely homemade jumper from Grandma. But it has roses on it. “It was the silliest sweater he’d ever seen.”

From No Roses for Harry by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham

THE LIE: It wouldn’t do to tell Grandma. Harry wears the sweater dutifully, but he’s sure the other dogs will laugh at him. 
From No Roses for Harry by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham

Eventually, the sweater unravels and a bird makes a nest out of the wool. Harry doesn't tell anyone.
From No Roses for Harry by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham
But then: disaster! Grandma is coming to visit!
From No Roses for Harry by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham

THE SORT-OF-TRUTH: Harry feels compelled to show Grandma what’s become of the sweater (she thinks Harry has been incredibly generous). Best of all, at Christmas, Harry gets a new sweater – white with black spots. This time, he loves it!

From No Roses for Harry by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham
Being able to tell a fib or a believable story is often a way in to becoming socially acceptable, on the finely balanced scales of weighing up right and wrong. It’s also a sign that children are developing important cognitive skills such as ‘theory of mind’, the ability to recognize that others have different beliefs or feelings than they do, which develops slowly in the preschool and kindergarten years.

In Sarah McIntyre's poignant story THE NEW NEIGHBOURS

the whole tower block is convinced that the rats who have moved into the ground floor are "big, dirty, thieveing, dangerous rats" before they have even met them . . .

From The New Neighbours by Sarah McIntrye
But when they finally get to meet the pair of tiny, neat and friendly new neighbours in person, the friends are hugely embarrassed by the rats' kind invitation to come in and share CAKE. Lettuce doesn't want to admit the crazy stories they'd made up, so she fibs:

From The New Neighbours by Sarah McIntrye

So, if I’m a writer, can I fib as much as I like? Will I be believed?

In John Burningham’s JOHN PATRICK NORMAN McHENNESSY, THE BOY WHO WAS ALWAYS LATE, the lines between what is true and what is a fib are seemingly clear until the tables are turned and the grown-up teacher fibs. Or is it everything John has been saying really The Truth?

John Patrick Norman McHennessy spins all kinds of yarns to convince his teacher why he is late for school. He has met a crocodile, a lion and even a tidal wave! Of course, his teacher does not believe him.

From John Patrick Norman McHennessy by John Burningham

But when his teacher is captured by a big hairy gorilla, John replies there are no such things as big hairy gorillas. Who’s telling what truth and what is the fib?

I would venture that telling made-up ‘truths’ is something authors are wired to do. As I tell stories, I reach back into my past, I tell about encounters and observations from last week and dig deep for tales inspired by my childhood. I embroider. My stories are inspired by where I’ve been and where I want to go, and this helps me find my bearing on what is true for me today. By telling stories, I am making something ‘real’, even if it’s a big fat fib, conjuring it up in my mind’s eye.

We tell stories about things we need to be true.  

We tell stories about things we wish were true.

We tell stories to avoid punishment or consequences.

Lying requires the child to hide the truth, plan up a story about it, tell someone about it, and remember it! So, we began practising our storytelling ‘lying’ skills right from when we're preschoolers.

Of course, as children get older they also develop their moral compass, so they can distinguish between right and wrong, what is made-up and what is true. They are encouraged to tell the truth.

Like in THE TRUTH ACCORDING TO ARTHUR, where Arthur tells all kinds of alternative versions of what really happened when he borrowed his brother’s big bike, accidentally wrecked it and scratched Mum’s car. 

An alien did it! . .  . A super cool princess borrowed the bike!

From The Truth According to Arthur by Tim Hopgood and David Tazzyman

The bike was really a robot! . . .

From The Truth According to Arthur by Tim Hopgood and David Tazzyman

Arthur tries bending, stretching, disguising it, hiding, and ignoring The Truth . . . But eventually, when Mum asks what has happened, Arthur looks The Truth straight in the eye and confesses. It’s not nearly as interesting as the stories he was telling, but Mum is pleased he told The Truth.

A fun game I like to play is to imagine what the world will be like in the future. Will it be one where we can fly everywhere rather than use a car on a road? Wouldn’t it be spectacular if I could just go and see my mum in Brazil for a cup of tea and then be back in London in time for dinner? Will robots deliver our post?

If I can’t tell a story or a weensy-fib-imagined truth, I can’t invent the future. If I can’t imagine what we might invent to fill the gaps in our world, to solve our current problems, then I might be powerless to change anything. Stories help young readers feel empowered to imagine and to make stuff up.

When a story resonates, the reader will nod and say, “Yes, that’s true! Now listen to what happened when . . ." and tell his or her version of this ‘truth’. And so we are all linked by a circle of fibs, a circle of stories. (But we should really tell The Truth.)

Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor

Natascha is 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. She runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. Check out her Cook Up a Picture Book courses!

Monday 7 May 2018

DARWINISM FOR BEGINNERS: Picture books that introduce children to evolution • Jonathan Emmett

Until recently, the UK school curriculum did not require children to be taught about evolution until they reached secondary school. In September 2014, after years of lobbying by scientists and other groups, evolution was introduced into the final year (age 10-11) of the primary curriculum. While this is a step in the right direction, research has shown that children are more likely to accept evolution’s rational explanation of creation if they’re introduced to it towards the beginning of their primary education rather than at the end, by which time less-rational explanations (both religious and non-religious) may have taken root.

For the last few years I've been using my poem My Cousin is a Cucumber (from Skyboy and other Stupendous Science Stories) to explain to Year 3 and 4 classes that all life on Earth is believed to have a single common ancestor. Most seven-year-olds are fascinated to learn that they are descended from an "itsy-bitsy blob of life" and amused to discover that they are the distant cousins of both cockatoos and cucumbers. An awareness of evolution is fundamental to a child’s proper understanding of the natural world and, if presented in an appropriate and engaging way, there is no good reason for evolution not to be introduced to children as young as five or six.

Picture books can be a very effective way to introduce evolution to children from an early age. How the Borks Became, my new picture book with Elys Dolan, was written specifically to explain natural selection, the process by which evolution takes place. It was developed in consultation with Boston University’s Child Cognition Lab who have been researching how to teach evolution effectively to young children. As a result of their research, the team developed their own natural selection picture book, How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses, which is aimed at a slightly older age group to How the Borks Became and explains the process in a more detailed way. You can find out more about the team’s research and their book at

How the Borks Became follows the evolution of a fictional species, the llama-like Borks, who live on “a far distant planet, quite like our own Earth”. The books shows how three environmental factors - climate, predation and availability of food – result in Borks evolving from smooth-furred, short-necked, blue creatures into shaggy, long-necked, yellow ones.

How the Borks Became shows how natural selection transforms the Borks from smooth-furred, short-necked, blue creatures into shaggy, long-necked, yellow ones.

The use of a fantasy alien ecosystem gives the book licence to represent the process of natural selection in a speeded-up, caricatured form over just four generations of Borks. A page at the end of the book explains that evolution on Earth happens at a far slower rate with much smaller changes and that it might take an Earth animal millions of years to change as much as the Borks in the story.

When a greedy predator gobbles up all of the blue-furred borks, only the better-camouflaged yellow-furred Borks are left to parent the next generation.

Here are five more picture books that do a great job of introducing the fundamentally important topic of evolution to children at primary school age.

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story 

written by Lisa Westberg Peters

illustrated by Lauren Stringer

Suitable for age 5 and above.

This is a US picture book, but can easily be bought on import. Westberg Peter’s simple, poetic text charts the evolution of humans from our beginnings as simple single-cell organisms to the present day, highlighting significant stages along the way. Stringer’s illustrations intercut pictures of creatures in their natural habitats with images of a family mapping out an evolutionary diagram on a sandy beach. These sand drawings are cleverly employed to illustrate important developments in internal anatomy, such as the appearance of backbones and lungs. A glossary page and timeline at the back of the book give additional details and a sense of perspective to the book’s four billion year narrative.

A spread from Our Family Tree, showing the development of fins and a backbone.

The Story of Life

written by Catherine Barr

and Steve Williams

illustrated by Amy Husband

Suitable for age 6 and above.

This book covers an even longer timeline than Our Family Tree and charts the evolution of all life on Earth with the time period displayed in the corner of each page. Amy Husband’s lively illustrations display the diversity of Earth’s plant and animal life at various stages in its early history, before narrowing the focus to show the last 12 million years of human evolution from the the first apes to modern man on the last four spreads. The book finishes with an environmental message about the need to look after the planet that is our only home.

This spread from The Story of Life illustrates the diversity of life on prehistoric Earth.

What Mr Darwin Saw

by Mick Manning

and Brita Granström

Suitable for age 7 and above.

Although the concept of evolution predated Charles Darwin, it was not widely accepted until Darwin discovered the principle of natural selection. Mick Manning and Brita Granström’s biographical picture book spans the life of this revolutionary scientist, but focusses chiefly on the five years the young Darwin spent as a captain’s companion and naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. The book uses scenes from the voyage and excerpts from Darwin’s diary to show how his encounters with the plants and animals of South America, and the Galapagos Islands in particular, informed his subsequent work.

What Mr Darwin Saw illustrates how Darwin’s experiences during the voyage of the HMS Beagle informed his later work.

The Misadventures of Charles Darwin

written by Isabel Thomas

illustrated by Pete Williamson

Suitable for age 9 and above.

This book, part of Oxford University Press’s Treetops in Fact series, presents an entertaining biography of Darwin’s life, from “stinky schoolboy” to aged “celebrity scientist”. It also does a great job of explaining Darwin’s theories clearly and succinctly and examines some of their implications for science and culture. Isabel Thomas’s engaging and accessible text is liberally peppered with archive photographs and Pete Williamson’s illustrations and ‘Mythbuster’ panels throughout the book help to correct common misconceptions about Darwin’s life and work.

This spread from The Misadventures of Charles Darwin looks at how Darwin’s theories were initially received.

All About Evolution:

From Darwin to DNA

by Robert Winston

(Previously published as Evolution Revolution)

Suitable for age 10 and above.

This book, written by scientist and broadcaster Robert Winston is crammed with detailed information on every aspect on evolution, from its historical development as an idea to its possible implications for the future of mankind. One minor criticism is that some spreads feel a little too crowded, making it difficult to take in the content, but this is easily forgiven given the breadth and quality of information the book contains. Although this book is probably more suited to secondary school readers, it contents will be of interest to more advanced and inquisitive readers in their final years of primary school as well.

This spread from All About Evolution shows how scientists think complex structures like the human eye evolved via a series of incremental changes.

How the Borks Became An Adventure in Evolution by Jonathan Emmett and Elys Dolan is published by Otter-Barry Books. Find out more about the book and download some activity sheets here.

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.