Monday 22 February 2021

How to Read a Picture Book? by Chitra Soundar

How to Read a Picture Book?

Am I asking the obvious question? Of course, I’m going to read the picture book from the beginning to the end. What else is there?

If you want to become a picture book writer, then there is another way to read a picture book! 

Let me introduce you to my way of reading a picture book.

1. Explore the title – find the word play. Can you guess what the story might be? Is the character popping off the cover and the title of the story? Can you sense a series simmering underneath?

2. Explore the covers – front to back, outer to inner. See what’s featured on the front cover. Have they given away the surprise? Are they trailing crumbs in the back cover too? 

3. Read the enticing blurb at the back. Does it tell you what kind of story you’re going to be reading? Does it reflect the humour or sadness or drama you’re about to encounter?

4. Examine the end-papers – this is where the illustrator usually hides some gems. See how this adds to the story. Does the end-paper set the scene, give the reader more details, create a welcoming presence in the beginning and a fun exit on the other side? As a writer, you don't have control over this. But if your text has opportunities for the illustrator to play, they will definitely try to fill this with fun. Sometimes you can even suggest it.

From You're Snug with Me, written by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Poonam Mistry.

5. Read the copyright page – first note when the picture book was published. How old is it will tell you a lot more about the conventions and trends of the time. Older picture books tend to be longer. They all also seemed to cover different age-groups. UK picture books are often servicing the preschool age – 3 to 5 years old just until children are starting to read on their own. Note down the name of the publisher, the illustrator and the writer. Are they one and the same person? What does the cataloguing data tell you about the book? How many reprints have this book gone through? 

From Pattan's Pumpkin, written by Chitra Soundar and Illustrated by Frané Lessac.

6. Read the dedication – what can you tell about the origin and inspiration for the story? (Psst! One day you’ll be asked to write a dedication – so do read them to see how they are written.)

7. Now let’s read the story, one spread at a time. Here are what you must study and discover from at least 2-3 readings of this book.

a. First, how many spreads does this book have? How many scenes is this story told in?

b. In each spread, spend time on what’s told in words vs what’s on the page. See if the illustrations are adding more than the text. Is there a sub-text? Does the illustration contradict the text? 

c. Look for the story arc – where does it become worse? Which spread? Was the art in this spread, across two pages? How did that work for the story?

d. Look for page-turns. Where does the author/ illustrator/designer/editor decide where the break before the page-turn was? Is there a pattern? Do they add to the element of surprise when you stop at a page-turn? Are they treating each page-turn to be a cliff-hanger?

e. Is there a repetition or refrain that’s running through the book? If so how is it structured? How often does it repeat? Is it the same words or does it change per repetition? 

From You're Safe with Me, written by Chitra Soundar and Illustrated by Poonam Mistry.

f. Which spread does the story end in? Is there a tag? Ie, after the story has resolved, do you turn a page to find a joke, a gag or an aaaah moment? Does the refrain repeat either at the end of the story or in the tag?

Now go back and read the story again. This time, read it aloud like a child would want you to read it. With voices and noises. Make all the sounds. Does the text guide you and inform you of when you must raise your voice and when you should whisper? Do you feel the cadence of the text? Does the refrain or repetition help? 

Monday 15 February 2021

Meet the Monsters (with Mini Grey)

This week I wanted to look at those creatures that perennially inhabit children’s picture books. It’s time to meet the monsters. So off we go…

The One Under Your Bed

One of the first monsters you encounter is the one that lives down the end of your bed. And the one under your bed, and the one in your cupboard. They come out in the dark. You can sometimes feel their breath on the back of your neck as you go up the stairs. They stalk your nightmares. 

So you need stories to help you go to bed alone in the dark, stories that shine a light on those night-monsters, and show how unscary they are really.

Emily Brown is one of my utterly favourite picture book heroines.

In Emily Brown and the Thing, a noisy needy Thing is keeping Emily awake.
Emily, in her no nonsense way, settles the Thing's fears, and show it that is is OK to be a Thing, and that you can even be a Nice Thing.
Chris Wormell is a master of monsters. Here's Molly and the Night Monster.

Molly hears a noise on the landing and her imagination starts to wonder what may be creeping up towards her bedroom....
...the creatures get more terrifying - this is the moment that the doorknob turns. Molly catches the monster with her bedsheet. But what she catches is no monster, but a mummy. (The nice sort.)
Anything might be living in the dark crannies under the stairs.
And it might need feeding - which is what William does, in Helen Cooper's The Bear Under the Stairs.

The Thrill of Being Frightened

From roller coasters to horror films – being frightened is so exciting. We are drawn to the magnetic thrill of monsters. My childhood favourites were the stop-motion monsters of Ray Harryhausen: the metal giant Talos, the hideous Cyclops, the sword-fighting Skeletons. We enjoy being frightened – monsters are terrifying entertainment – which is part of what picture book monsters are there for too.

As a child, the highlight of my year was when Jason and the Argonauts was on TV and I could watch the giant Talos come creaking to life.

It was hide-behind-the-sofa time when these things dug their way out of the soil.

Sara Fanelli's mythological picture book monsters aren't so scary.

A Hydra brought to you by the power of Fanelli's magical collage.

Awesome Monsters

Travellers Tales from medieval times were full of the fantastic beasts that roamed the Earth. The world was an unexplored place, vast and dangerous, with plenty of room for mermaids, sea serpents and krakens. These monsters were probably based on a glimpse of something real - a giant squid, a manatee, an oarfish. Monsters were responsible for the unexplained - earthquakes, tsunamis, inexplicable fossils.

The discovery of dinosaurs in the 19th Century raised the fascinating possibility that once monsters really did stalk the earth. 

The dinosaur imaginings of Crystal Palace

 And when we can see further into the distant past of life on Earth we find creatures that are way crazier than humans could ever imagine -  like the extraordinary animals of the Cambrian Explosion. (Here's a Cambrian Top Predator.) 

The more we discover about the creatures that really DO stalk the earth, the less odd the hippogriff and the kraken seems to be. 

Here's a deep sea beauty.

Sometimes picture book monsters are Force of Nature monsters  - enormous and awesome and maybe not actually trying to kill us.

Chris Wormell's Sea Monster lurks in the deep sea gloom and mostly watches, but subtly helps save our boy from drowning.

Outwitting the Monster

This is the story of the small person who outwits and triumphs over the Monster – from David and Goliath to the Billy Goats Gruff.

The monster is usually a bit stupid and fixated with getting something to eat.

In Joel Stewart's book, a Big Blue Beastie is determined to gobble up Dexter.

But Dexter's imagination is brimming with way better ideas for things to do than eating small boys.

The Monster Next Door

This is the one who’s a misfit, the one who’s not like anyone else, the one that everyone avoids. This monster may be in the wrong place, even in the wrong universe.

Shaun Tan's Lost Thing is searching for a place where it can belong.  
In The Song From Somewhere Else (AF Harrold and Levi Pinfold), Frank reluctantly befriends the oversized boy that everyone at school thinks is weird. What seems to be a monster in his cellar is something entirely different.
Kathryn Cave and Chris Riddell's Something Else lives alone at the top of a steep hill.

He doesn't fit in with everybody else, who avoid him, and label him as Something Else. We've all felt like Something Else. Especially at school.

Monster As A Way of Life

But you can revel in being a monster. Being a monster can be your job, a proud way of life. 

Sarah McIntyre and Giles Andreae's Morris the Mankiest Monster wouldn't want to be anything else.
You can see how much Sarah McIntyre has enjoyed making Morris's tongue-spots and mould and mushroom clumps.

In When a Monster is Born (Nick Sharratt, Sean Taylor) it's nice and simple. There are just two possibilities. Either it'll be an Under-You-Bed Monster, or it'll be a Faraway-In-The-Forests Monster.

Parallel Monster Universes

Monsters can shine a light on our world, by inhabiting a parallel opposite world – the Upside Down, where beauty and ugliness and cleanness and filthiness and day and night are reversed.

In Jitterbug Jam (Barbara Jean Hicks, Alexis Deacon) a young monster is terrified by the idea of a boy being under his bed.

In Monster World, daytime is scary, and a time for sleeping, and the worst thing is to see "that awful colour the sky is when you wake up in the middle of the day and can't see, it's so bright out." 

Fungus the Bogeyman (Raymond Briggs) is a respectable proud bogey, doing a hard night's work scaring people. BogeyPeople just aren't comfortable unless everything is damp and slimy, and are horrified by the dry bright conditions that the 'DryCleaners' (AKA surface dwelling humans) live in.  


Here's a favourite page from the Fungus Plop-Up Book where we can just enjoy the sheer disgustingness of Bogey home squalor. And there's working toilet paper and a PLOP UP TOILET - oh joy!

You Unleash a Monster that Gets Out of Control

When you are small and there’s little you have power over – you can dream of being able to whallop your enemies, unleashing your inner monster. We all know Where The Wild Things Are and the power of rumpus, the joy of destruction.

Having an enormous powerful pet/friend, when you’re small and powerless, is a useful thing. When you feel small you can have a monster as your powerful avatar. Maybe the monster fulfils a need, maybe it arrived because it was needed. But maybe the monster has more power than you can handle.

The Iron Man (pictures by Chris Mould)

From A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness, Jim Kay) - a Yew Tree is summoned, and grieving Conor gets to unleash destruction.

That's the trouble but also the thrill with monsters: you make a monster, or summon a monster - and it will probably get out of control.

You Are The Monster

You discover you are the monster. You look in the mirror and find out that how you look on the outside doesn't reflect how you feel on the inside. Or you bravely go outside and everyone screams and runs away.

Here's the monster from Chris Wormell's The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit. Because this is a picture of the monster, not the real thing, even though this looks pretty hideous, we're not actually "getting the ugliness at full strength."

This poor monster is so ugly that nature abhores him. Sunshine turns to chill when the monster comes near and all living things shun him. The monster sculpts the animals who invariably run away from him; one stone rabbit is strong enough to bear the monster's gaze without breaking. The monster passes the rest of his days in the company of the little rabbit. And is happy. After the monster is dead nature starts to grow back around his cave.

I love this book but it is so troubling. It's like a what-if thought experiment. Chris Wormell has created a universe where ugliness is a terrible thing. The monster is a monster on the outside but not the inside  Can anyone see beyond his monstrous coating to the delicious filling within? Not in this book. As monsters go, the monster could be considered a quite handsome monster - his misfortune is to be living in a book where he is the only monster.

And what about when you’re beautiful on the outside and monstrously poisonous within? 

One book I was constantly reading as a monster-obsessed child was this Dictionary of Monsters and Mysterious Beasts (bit of a scary cover):

Under 'S' is the Squonk.

The Squonk lives in the hemlock forests of Pennsylvania. It is consumed with grief caused by the ugliness of its own skin, which 'is said to be ill-fitting and covered with warts and moles,' so it can be tracked down by the weeping noises. 

"One man thought he had captured the Squonk after he lured it into a sack" but on his way home the sack became gradually lighter. "When he opened the sack all he could find were tears and bubbles."

Is the monster all about our ideas of beauty and ugliness and how, especially in fairy stories, beautiful is good and ugly is bad? There has been historic story-injustice to those perceived as monsters. Poor Medusa was hard done by. Happening to be born ugly is very bad luck if you live in a fairy tale. 

But the fairytale monster is often an enchanted disguise: a prince who has been transformed into a beast. I have to confess I've always preferred the princes when they're in the Beast state, not when they've got their coronets and pale blue tights on.

An enchanted prince from The Singing Ringing Tree, slightly disturbing film from the 1960s. (He's the one on the right.)

Your Inner Monster

We all know that monster from Not Now Bernard.

The monster is disconcerted to discover that Bernard's parents haven't noticd he's not Bernard. Personally I think Bernard got eaten right at the beginning and it's all about how little attention grown ups pay to what's going on around them, but you may have other ideas. Is the monster Bernard? Is it Bernard's Inner Monster? 

We come to another side of the monster coin: the monster feelings that can take charge; feelings that surge and rage through you, or overwhelm you, like being buffeted about in a storm. You can let the monsters be in charge, you can be engulfed by them. Or you can try and find a way to live with your inner monsters.

In Debi Gliori's Night Shift, depression is personified as a dragon who has arrived, unwanted. "Perhaps it drifted in at night, like fog." It grows and grows, with hollowness and dread. 

The Night Shift is learning the Night Skills to persevere until one day something has shifted, learning the beauty in stripiness, and that your dragon can be a harsh teacher.

Eva Eland's When Sadness Comes to Call was this year's winner of the Klaus Flugge Prize.

When Sadness comes to call you can feel overwhelmed. 

But when Sadness comes to call there are things you can do. You can "listen to it. Ask where it comes from and what it needs." You can do things together, you can make sadness welcome. 

With these picture book monsters we meet our inner monsters – so that they don’t have to be in control. We can get to know them, have them beside us rather than being inside them. 

Making Friends with Your Inner Monsters

In the film Spirited Away, No-Face is a spirit with a colossal hunger, who feeds on emotions but also just about everything else it can devour - like it is trying to fill an infinite inner emptiness.

But it turns out what No-Face really needs, is to be put to work. Sometimes what your monster was needing was something useful to do. No-Face finds a home where he learns to knit and sew, and the spirit is calm.

We can make friends with the inner monsters - beause they're not necessarily the baddies. In fact those raging emotions are there to force us to act. That furious anger helps you stand up to bullies, or whatever happens to be wrong, and fight for justice. The hurt and upsetness help you to feel empathy and aid those in pain. The sadness helps you feel the preciousness of what is lost and what is. The anxiety - is part of being prepared to face uncertainty and danger. Our monsters are an evolutionary part of being human. Like pain, they evolved to take care of us in a precarious world.

So, whether you wake up with the Monkey of Dread sitting on your chest...

...or your particular flavour of Dread is a multi-eyed tentacle beast... may be time to stop trying to keep it out or chop all its tentacles off...

...but invite it in.
Lastly, if you'd like a collection of metaphorical monsters, here's a selection for you:

I’ve only managed to examine a tip of the monster iceberg! Do you have a pet monster picture book? Do let me know in the comments here, or on Twitter at: @Bonzetta1 or at @PictureBookDen.

 Mini's latest book-involvement is The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, with AF Harrold.