Monday 27 May 2019

Why Are We Afraid of the Dark? by Timothy Knapman

The great writer and illustrator Tomi Ungerer died this year.  I was very fortunate to see him a few years ago at Waterstone’s in Piccadilly, launching a “treasury” of six of his books that Phaidon were publishing. He was in his mid-eighties but still as spry and as sly as ever.  

Gripping his walking stick and looking like an Old Testament prophet who had spent more than his fair share of time in the wilderness, he was full of firmly held and not-to-be-questioned opinions: principally, that anyone who wanted to write picture books should teach themselves to draw because it was imperative that they illustrate them as well.  I’m not sure I agree with him on that, but something else he said did resonate with me.  For years, he told us, he’d been trying to get his books republished but in vain (the Phaidon edition is excellent, but it’s large and expensive: more an exercise in nostalgia for those of us who read him years ago than a practical way to introduce him to younger readers).

I think I know why. I loved Tomi for his storytelling and for his visual style (the éclair-like fingers and pudgy, good-enough-to-eat limbs and faces looked almost like the work of an especially witty pâtissier) but most of all for what we would now call his “darkness”.

Zeralda’s Ogre by Tomi Ungerer

My favourite of his books – one of the few picture books I still own from my childhood – is called Zeralda’s Ogre.  Zeralda is a farmer’s daughter, a girl of pluck and resource who is also a wonderful cook.  One market day, her father falls ill so Zeralda elects to take the farm’s produce to the local town to sell it (the setting seems to be a fairy tale nowhere land in the vicinity of Ungerer’s native Alsace).  What Zeralda does not know is that the town has been living in fear of a terrible ogre who eats children.  Parents have taken to hiding their children away so that they won’t get carried off. Good news for the children, bad news for the ogre, who has had nothing to eat for a long time now.  So imagine his joy when he sees little Zeralda on her cart, heading heedlessly straight into town.  He waits until the right moment and pounces on her.  Only his senses have been dimmed by lack of food and he misses the cart, falling on the road and bashing his head.  Zeralda – not knowing he’s an ogre – takes pity on this apparently poor, injured man, bandaging his head and cooking up some of her farm produce as she nurses him back to health.

The first mouthful is a revelation to the ogre – there’s something that tastes even nicer than children! – so Zeralda cooks him a banquet of ever more wonderful dishes (for some reason, “Chocolate sauce Rasputin” and “Pompano Sarah Bernhardt” always stuck in my memory) until he gives up on the whole being-an-ogre business. The parents of the town let their children out to play safely in the streets again.  The ogre shaves off his beard and, when she is old enough, marries Zeralda.  On the last page, we see a picture of the happy family; proud parents Zeralda and her ex-ogre are surrounded by their offspring and Zeralda has a baby in her arms. One of her older children leans over his new-born sibling, apparently adoringly.  But behind his back – visible to us but not to his parents – he holds a knife and fork.

I don’t know why that image has stayed with me ever since.  I do remember thinking it was funny rather than scary.  I was a ghoulish child, I suppose.  But – more than that – it’s the subversiveness of the image, the feeling that “you’re not supposed to do that! How did he get away with it?” that was – and remains – truly thrilling.  It was a glimpse of a world beyond the safe and saccharine fare that comprised the bulk of what was on offer to children then, and is even more prevalent today.

Because - as Tomi Ungerer discovered - there is no way you could get a book like that published now. Public taste in children’s books has turned decisively against anything that might be thought to be in anyway scary or upsetting.  And that is a huge shame – and a great loss, I think, for the current generation of children.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my young readers (it may sound pretentious to say it, but writing is an act of love: it has to be or it’s not worth doing); I don’t want to give children nightmares and I don’t want to upset or traumatise them.  Of course I understand that loving parents want to keep bad and hurtful things away from them.  But it worries me that the books they are allowed to read nowadays deliberately avoid territory that used to be part of the landscape of children’s books, limiting the very important job that stories for the young are supposed to perform.

There’s no doubt that the folk and fairy story collections – by the Brothers Grimm and the rest – that stand behind modern children’s literature are full of robustly bloodthirsty stuff.  At the end of the original Snow White, the Wicked Queen is made to dance herself to death in red-hot iron shoes.  Hansel and Gretel only escape being the main course at a witch’s cannibal banquet by beheading the old woman before she can murder them.  And then there are all those big bad wolves waiting to devour you if you take a wrong turning off the forest path.

One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Little Red Riding Hood

Of course, these stories were intended, in part at least, to be warnings.  When they were being told in the years before the Grimms started writing them down, the countryside was a dangerous place for children.  They needed to be taught to keep an eye out for the threats that lurked in the dark places of their world if they were going to stand any chance of making it to adulthood.  The perils of the time also accounted for the level of cruelty depicted.

It might be argued that such warnings are no longer needed.  Why ruin a child’s bedtime by telling her a story about ravening wolves if she is going to spend her early years constantly supervised by caring adults who’ll spend their lives driving her from home to school to birthday party to sleepover? And it is true that, while the world is still, for many, a dangerous place, the lives of my readers are (thank goodness) infinitely safer and more enjoyable than those of their many-times-great-grandmothers and fathers who grew up in the shadow of the wolf-infested forest.

But metaphorical wolves can be as dangerous as real ones.  I am writing this on the day of the European elections (which may explain the dark turn my thoughts have taken) and the polling station where I voted is my local primary school.  Its walls are plastered in warnings and exhortations about “school values” and the correct way children should behave towards one another.  You don’t have to study them for long to see that today’s children still have problems to confront – about learning to control their antisocial impulses and cope with those of others: about dealing with the darkness inside all of us – just as earlier generations did.  The difference is that fiction and the imagination are no longer seen as appropriate places to engage with those problems.  There should only be sweetness and light on the bookshelf, at which point the bookshelf becomes a kind of lie because life isn’t like that.

I’m not saying that the principal purpose of children’s books is to tell their young readers how to behave and I know that the time for a book such as Struwwelpeter, with its threat of amputation as a way of discouraging thumb-sucking, has come and gone. I don’t, in fact, like “cautionary tales” except when someone of a particular genius, such as Hilaire Belloc, is writing them, because then you’re not reading for instruction but for entertainment.  Art is art and doesn’t need to be useful to justify itself.  And that’s the thing about a lot of scary books – one of the reasons I think children should read them is because they’re fun!

Some of the fun is obvious, because a lot of scary books are also very funny.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise: fear and amusement are very similar – both provoke a physical response,  be it screaming or laughter.  Also, comedy is an intellectual process: it resists emotional identification and so makes scary things easier to deal with.  Just think of the comedy staple of a man tripping over a banana peel: it’s hilarious providing you remain at a cool intellectual distance from the man and his plight and don’t start to feel for him, and imagine his physical pain and his embarrassment.  As Horace Walpole said, “this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”

Call me cool and distant but I think a house is not a home unless it contains a copy of Ruthless Rhymes For Heartless Homes (“Making toast at the fireside,/Nurse fell in the grate and died;/And, what makes it ten times worse,/All the toast was burned with nurse.”).  I’m equally certain that your family will be all the happier for spending time with the family created by Charles Addams.  One of Addams’ disciples at the New Yorker magazine, the appropriately named Edward Gorey, built brilliantly on his legacy.  If you’ve never encountered Gorey’s work, I recommend The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an alphabet of luckless children and how they died: “M is for Maud who was swept out to sea/N is for Neville who died of ennui.”  And in Gorey’s wake came Lemony Snicket and his Series of Unfortunate Events (who said Americans don’t do irony? That’s three generations of it).

The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

Apart from Snicket (real name Daniel Handler, born 1970), those writers and illustrators belong to an earlier age, and it’s only because some of them are too big and canonical to ignore that modern children have a chance to read them.  On this side of the Atlantic, the great example of that is Roald Dahl.  A reclusive chocolate factory owner who carelessly tortures and punishes the children he disapproves of? A coven of witches plotting to turn children into mice so that their parents and teachers will stamp and poison them to death? Dahl had problems getting published in the 1960s and ’70s, but I think I can confidently say that no writer submitting similar material now would have any hope of having it accepted.  You only have to look at the books of the Dahl-lite David Walliams.  They’re designed and illustrated to look like Dahl, in a clear attempt to place Walliams in a line of succession, but there’s no way he would ever stray into territory as troubling as his infinitely superior precursor.

Quentin Blake’s picture of Roald Dahl’s Grand High Witch doing her worst

Which is, as I keep saying, a shame.  For not only can scary books be fun, I believe that they are also a necessary part of a child’s reading.  I believe that we are ineluctably drawn to the darkness as children – at least in our imaginations – despite the fact that we know bad things await us there.  It’s partly curiosity about the unknown – and human beings have always been unfailingly curious creatures.  But it’s mostly because in the world of the imagination, in the safe space provided by books, we have a chance to practise having emotions: joy and sorrow and envy and wonder, but also fear.  

I think it’s an evolutionary advantage, hard-wired into us, perhaps even the reason we have an imagination at all.  A self-conscious creature such as a human being wouldn’t last long if her first experience of fear was the first time she was confronted by actual danger.  The shock of the strangeness and power of the emotion would disable her and render her helpless in the face of the threat.  I believe that we are naturally disposed to imagine ourselves in many different kinds of danger, so that we can give fear a trial run and learn to master it.  That’s why there’s a strange comfort in seeking out the scary, a perverse feeling that we are actually doing something that we are supposed to when we are investigating that which is always forbidding and often forbidden.

I’m not suggesting that all children’s books should be scary.  Of course books should be places of joy, of course they should be refuges, sources of relief and reassurance.  But they should also help us to live our lives and prepare us for times that are not easy.  We may have left the forest far behind but the wolves will follow us forever.

Timothy Knapman has written lots of books that aren’t in the least bit scary.  There are funny ones, such as Dinosaurs in the Supermarket and Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bogey?; sweet ones, such as Soon, Big Digger Little Digger and What’s Next?; loving ones, such as Superhero Mum, Dad and Gran; adventurous ones, such as Captain Sparklebeard.  Those made of sterner stuff are invited to seek out his Little Ogre’s Surprise Supper and Please Said Percy.  

Monday 20 May 2019

How to improve your chances of getting published. Advice from commissioning editor Laura Roberts

I was invited to write this piece by author and Picture Book Den blogger, Lucy Rowland. I’ve known Lucy for a few years now, having had the privilege of commissioning, editing and publishing several of her picture book stories and establishing a firm friendship with her in the process. That’s one of the many brilliant things about my job - the people I meet and the relationships I build with them. Another wonderful perk of what I do is discovering new talent and stories.  

I’ve worked in children’s publishing for over 13 years, mainly as en editor and for various leading publishers including Bloomsbury, Macmillan, Egmont, Oxford University Press, Little Tiger Press and Scholastic. The one thing that has remained the same throughout all that time is the excitement I get when I come across a new story or an author or illustrator with a really special quality.

That is exactly what happened when Lucy’s agent, Anne Clark, sent me the text for Little Red Reading Hood. I’ve seen many rewritings of fairytales, but this one was utterly unique. Not only because of its wonderful celebration of reading and stories, nor because it is so beautifully written in Lucy’s inimitable lyrical style, but because the story is completely full of heart. This was a rare occasion where the text was signed almost on the spot and the illustrations just clicked into place because the fantastic Ben Mantle was the only illustrator we could imagine for the job.

Not all picture books happen this way. Sometimes a story idea lands in the right place at the right time when a publisher has a specific topic in mind, and other times an idea just really captures a publisher’s interest and imagination. So there is no one specific method to ensure success in getting published, but there are ways for an author to improve their chances:

1)  Research the marketplace.                                                                                  
     Visit bookshops and look at online booksellers to see what is available and what people are buying. It’s always good for an author to stay in touch with what is happening in the marketplace, no matter how long they have been writing or how many books they have had published. Trends and conditions change all the time.   
2)  Be aware of your audience.                                                                             
     When coming up with an idea, consider whether booksellers would be able to sell the story based on your market research. Will children connect with it? And will adults enjoy reading it to children time-and-again?
3)  Keep abreast of current affairs.                                                                                            
     Book trends are often influenced by subjects that have become topical, so publishers are always on the lookout for story ideas that tap into current affairs.   At present, for example, environment and mental health and wellbeing are popular picture book themes.
4)  Don’t be prescriptive about the illustrations.
 It’s good for an author to have a sense of how they imagine their story may look, but unless they are        illustrating the story as well, it is best to avoid including too many illustration notes and direction as illustrators need to have creative freedom, plus publishers will have a grasp on how to make a book look right for the marketplace. Authors will always be shown work in progress illustrations, so they do get opportunity to be involved.
5)  Network.
      There’s a strong online community of authors and illustrators on Twitter and Instagram, so this is a great way to engage in publishing conversation and news. It’s also a good opportunity to make contact with agents, editors and designers and make them aware of you and your work. If you’re looking for more guidance and support then it could be beneficial to join an organisation such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
6)  Seek advice.
     Speak to as many people involved in children’s books as possible and ask the questions that you want answers to. Even ask people to look at your work - but be willing to take in feedback and suggestions for development.
7)  Consider an agent.
     Agent representation isn’t for everyone, but if you are considering it, do your research into where you would be a good fit. Don’t be afraid to make contact and send an agent your work - but make sure you have a number of texts to show them first.
8)  Don’t give up!
     As the phrase goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Even established authors receive rejections. If a story idea doesn’t get picked up by a publisher, then park it and move on to a new idea. There is every chance that this story could get another opportunity at a different time.

Of course there are illustrators who are keen to write too. Sometimes an illustrator will tell me they have a story idea and want to try their hand at writing it themselves but don’t know how to start. My advice is to tell the story the way an illustrator knows best - in visuals - and then add the words after.

This is just a part of another great aspect of my job: variety. The making of no two picture books is ever the same. Whether it’s an author and illustrator paired together, an author-illustrator creating the whole picture book, a debut or a highly experienced author or illustrator, the creative process always throws up new experiences and surprises, and as an editor I am always learning new things. I feel very privileged that I get to work with so many talented people who place trust in  me with their art.

Since becoming a mum to my own little human a couple of months ago, I’ve been taking a little time out from working in a publishing house and instead working solo as an editorial consultant. It’s been a wonderful experience to make contact with aspiring authors and see their work develop and evolve. When an author I’ve worked with has a story published, it is a very proud moment for me too!

If you want to get in touch with me for professional consultation on your own story ideas then drop me a direct message on my twitter handle @EditorJangles

Monday 13 May 2019

Picture Books That Highlight Climate Change by Chitra Soundar

When I wrote You’re Snug With Me (illustrated by Poonam Mistry), it was intended to be a book about a mother reassuring her children of life in their habitat. We had chosen polar bears as our animal mother and children.

As I researched polar bears, I could not ignore the fact that polar bears faced loss of their habitat due to climate change caused by humans. How was I going to tell the polar bear cubs (as their mother) that their ice might be melting, and cause a threat? How could I tell the children who are reading this story that everyone has a role to play in combating climate change?

I created specific questions that the cubs ask about the ice, the oceans and about being the biggest predator in their habitat. And Mama Bear tells them “They must take only what they need.”

It’s been six months since this book came out and now climate change has risen to the top of everyone’s awareness after the climate change strikes by children across the world inspired by Greta Thurnberg. 

I also watched the BBC documentary by David Attenborough on the facts of climate-change, and I wanted to explore how this topic is dealt with for younger children (and their parents).

As storytellers, there are different ways to explain to young readers the effect of climate change and the need for action. As a picture book writer, this is an important decision to make. Is the story about conserving energy, or protecting our wildlife or reducing our carbon footprint more impactful as a fable or a fictional story or as pure hard facts.

So I looked at what’s out there for young children on this topic and I found these books dealing with the effects and activism of climate change in different forms of storytelling.  There are of course many wonderfully curated lists available if you wanted to research more.

As a fable:

Stories like “The Cloudspinner” by Michael Catchpool tell us a story of excess and how if we take more than we need, we will suffer the consequence. Illustrated by Alison Jay.

In The Promise, Nicola Davies tells us the story of an old woman who asks for a simple promise – the promise to change not just her own life  but the world.  Illustrated by Laura Carlin

As an inspiring tale of activism

Winston of Churchill (by Jean Davies Okimoto and Jeremiah Trammell) is a funny book about polar bears in Churchill, Canada and Winston who rallies the tourists to save the melting ice. It not only uses a real life example, but also shows us that no matter how small, we all must contribute to saving the planet.

Alison Jay who illustrated The Promise, takes us on a wordless journey in Bee & Me, showing young people how they can help in protecting our natural world.

As a life story

One Plastic Bag (written by Isatou Ceesay, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon) and Wangari’s Tree of Peace (by Jeannette Winter) both tell us stories of pioneers who tried to change their corner of the world, thus inspiring children and adults everywhere.

As non-fiction

The Earth Book by Todd Parr shows us how we can all do our best to help this planet.

Water Wow! (A Visual Exploration)  written by Paula Ayer, Antonia Banyard and illustrated by Belle Wuthrich show us the importance of water and how climate change affects the availability of this important resource.

If you were to write a picture book about climate change – how would you go about it? Which specific topic will you tackle? Which method of storytelling will you adopt? Tell us in the comments.

Chitra Soundar is the author of over 40 books for children. Her picture book You’re Snug With Me (illustrated by Poonam Mistry), deals with the anxieties of polar bear cubs whilst also underlining the role of humans in saving our planet. Find out more about her here

Monday 6 May 2019

Horror In Picture Books, by Pippa Goodhart

I have a new early reader picture book published this month, and it’s a ‘sort of’ retelling of a well-known tale. I say ‘sort of’ because it’s actually very very different from that well-known tale. Why? Because the original story is horrific! Working on adapting that story has set me thinking about which sorts of horror are, and aren’t, allowed in picture books.
            The story I was asked to write a simple version of was Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Little Mermaid’ story. Children love mermaids, especially little ones. They love Disney’s ‘Ariel’ story, based on Andersen’s tale. But the original story is very much about sex and temptation and damnation, and it is full of violence. The young woman Little Mermaid falls in love with a drowning prince whose life she saves. She wants to join the prince on land. So she goes to the Sea Witch who makes her a horrible offer. She will chop out the Little Mermaid’s tongue in exchange for giving her a pair of legs, and those legs and feet will always feel as if they are walking on sharp knives, and bleed. If the little mermaid can get the prince to marry her, she will attain a human soul, and go to Heaven when she dies. If not she will die and become sea foam. But the prince marries another. The Little Mermaid is dying, but her sisters save her with a new deal from the Sea Witch. The Little Mermaid will become a sea sprite instead of foam, and if she does good deeds for three hundred years she will then rise to The Kingdom of God. 
            Is that a pleasant story for young children to practice their reading skills on? No! So my story is about a child mermaid who wants to play with children on the beach. She chooses to have legs as her birthday wish, has a happy time with new friends, but decides she wants to go home to her own family, just in time before midnight when the legs would become permanent. 

            Which other classic stories have we changed to suit our modern sensibilities when rewriting those stories for very young children? No modern picture book version of the Cinderella story includes her sisters having their eyes pecked out by doves as happens in the Grimm brothers’ version of it. You won’t find picture books of the story of Noah’s Flood that include the people and animals drowning as God saves just those in the Ark.

            And yet we don’t always shy away from real horror of kinds much closer to home for young children. Think of award-winning powerful simple picture book ‘The Journey’ by Francesca Sanna. 

In that book we see the father going out into danger and not coming back. We see the mother in tears as she hurries with her children in search of safety. That safety isn’t sure for them even by the end of the book. It’s a book that is emotionally honest about war and killing and homelessness; what it is to be a refugee. But we don’t see the perpetrators of that death and destruction. 
Is the dividing line between what can, and can’t, be depicted in stories for young children the line between showing the violence and showing the aftermath of that violence? Should we judge differently between ‘real’ and clearly fictional horror in stories when deciding which horrors should, and shouldn’t, be included? Discuss….!