Monday 24 April 2023

Our Story-Telling Minds (with Mini Grey)

(…and how they get us into trouble…)

Books. They are a brilliant technology. Simple, portable, easy to mend. And they give us humans a total superpower compared to all the other animals: a superpower of collected minds, empathy and time-travel.

(Books are also dangerous and powerful: all tyrannical despots know this and set fire to them, as do angry mobs.)

Angry mob

The power that books give us is of building on everyone’s ideas that have ever been written down, and being able to grow our culture, knowledge and science. Before the books, there were the stories, and to remember stuff, we remembered through story.

By Jan Pienkowski

The Memory Palace is an example of using story for remembering. You imagine a journey around a location you know well – maybe your own house. Then to memorise a list, eg of shopping, – you imagine each item in a location along your journey, but make the image memorable. (There’s a guide here )

By Tom Gauld, from You're All Jealous of My Jetpack

Our minds are wired for story-telling. The brain is a story-addict. And why? Our instinct for story is a survival skill. In a prehistoric world full of fangs and tusks and claws, narrative kept us soft-skinned small-toothed weak-bodied humans alive. We might have been soft and feeble-bodied (compared to a sabre-toothed Smilodon) but us humans had imagination and co-operation, and this is where story comes in. To get your idea to persist and endure from person to person it needs to grip the imagination and stick in the mind and that’s what stories do – maybe through the empathy that binds us up with the central character and invests us in how the story unfolds..

Painting from the Cueva de las Manos

You can watch your storytelling mind in action using words and pictures.

Here are some objects.

And here are some captions.

Put a caption with a word, and see what your story-telling mind produces:

Now we do this and change the picture:

What did your mind make? Try again with new words and pictures:

..and then swap the picture...

What did your mind make this time?

If we put pictures in a sequence – a story happens. We can't help linking those pictures together.

Picture sequence by Blexbolex from Romance/Ballad. You can see more here

Our minds are constantly trying to build the story, to make the meaning, to understand what’s happening.

But that means we invest agency where often there isn’t. We constantly attribute meaning and purpose where maybe there isn’t. That rustle in the grass could be a tiger…but it could just be the wind. Evolutionarily, the safer strategy is to be overfearful and suspect it's the tiger - because in the unlikely event it IS the tiger, the penalty is death; whereas being overly fearful of wind doesn't have a huge penalty. But from there comes fear and superstition. I can’t help attributing luckiness to some of my socks, and I’ve heard of footballers who’ve had to have their lucky pants flown out to them when they’ve been forgotten. The supernatural and the uncanny are never far away...

From There's a Ghost in This House by Oliver Jeffers

But then also with the narrative comes the Happy Ending, which is the only satisfactory way to end your own story. Eternal life in another world seems to be a much more reasonable ending to life on Earth than non-existence. So Gods become an essential invention.

A compelling story will transport you - deliciously - into a story world. It uses our empathy to produce an emotional response - strong feelings - plus it makes things memorable.

These things that make story-telling so powerful: transportation, emotional response, improved recall – can be misused. Stories can be used to really effectively spread misinformation – and so we get to conspiracy theories and propaganda that have all the trademark story ‘stickiness’ in the human brain.

Engraving by Gustave Dore

Lately at our house we’ve been trying out ChatGPT. 

In its own description, ChatGPT is “an AI-powered chatbot developed by OpenAI, based on the GPT (Generative Pretrained Transformer) language model. It uses deep learning techniques to generate human-like responses to text inputs in a conversational manner.” 

Well, it turns out to be really rather good at inventing stories. This is what happened when my partner Tony tried to get it to write a story about me:

 Tony: Can you tell me a short story about Mini Grey in the style of Jeeves and Wooster?

ChatGPT: I'm afraid I cannot provide a short story about Mini Grey in the style of Jeeves and Wooster, as they are characters created by P.G. Wodehouse, and Mini Grey is a real-life children's author and illustrator. However, I can provide a short story in the style of Jeeves and Wooster if you would like.

Tony: Yes please!

ChatGPT: Certainly, sir/madam. Here is a short story in the style of Jeeves and Wooster:

It was a fine morning at the Drones Club, and Bertram Wooster, that well-known man-about-town, was enjoying a spot of breakfast with his good friend and fellow member, Bingo Little.

"Jeeves has been suggesting that I read more books, you know," remarked Bingo, buttering his toast with an air of nonchalance.

"Books, eh? What sort of books, old man?" inquired Bertie.

"Oh, you know, the classics and suchlike. He mentioned one by a certain Mini Grey that he thought might be of interest."

"Mini Grey? Sounds like a chap you might bump into at the club, what? But if Jeeves recommends it, I suppose it must be worth a look."

And so, Bertie procured a copy of Mini Grey's latest tome and settled down to read it in the comfort of his bachelor flat.

To his surprise, he found himself thoroughly engrossed in the tale of a plucky little girl named Traction Man, and his adventures with his trusty sidekick, Scrubbing Brush.

"Why, this is jolly good stuff, Bingo!" exclaimed Bertie, upon their next meeting at the club. "I never thought I'd be one for children's books, but this Mini Grey is a real corker."

Bingo nodded sagely. "I say, Jeeves always knows best, doesn't he? Perhaps he ought to take up a spot of literary criticism in his spare time."

"Quite so, old bean. One can never have too many books to peruse, what?" And with that, the two chums raised their glasses in a toast to the joys of reading and the impeccable taste of their personal gentleman's gentleman.

 I was pretty impressed by ChatGPT's Wodehouse effort, on the whole. For a Bot that is basically predicting the next word, it's managing to create something convincingly storylike. In a content-hungry, story-hungry world it may find itself very busy.

So watch out for stories – they can lead us astray….to fear wolves, to equate the beautiful with the good, and the ugly with the evil, to expect a happy ending and to exist forever, to believe what we feel is right rather than question our assumptions.

(And don’t get me started about story-book farms….)

But there’s another picture book illusion that happens because of the stories we tell ourselves, and it goes like this:

The iceberg illusion

When you see a published picture book, you are looking at an iceberg of Hard Work, and lots of it you cannot see. With the iceberg 80% is invisible and lurking below the water’s surface. Hiding there are all the other things it has been and the work that was wrong, the many versions in drawers that didn’t work, the ideas that had to be cut or abandoned, the rethinking and sweat and struggle. Just as in a magic trick, we don’t see all the practice that went into making it look effortless. So sometimes it seems obvious to assume it was easy and effortless to make - which means that if you're struggling, that is unusual and it is because you are not somehow talented enough. But you are being sold an illusion. 

Struggler, you are not alone.

So, to finish, for strugglers everywhere, here is the Ploughman’s of Persistence.

You just have to put more work into making that thing than you ever expected.


 Mini’s latest book is The Greatest Show on Earth, published by Puffin.

Monday 17 April 2023

The Flip of a Coin – Lynne Garner

In my last post I shared how I'd collaborated with a specialist proof-reader/editor to hone some of my picture book stories. And that I planned to create a list of agents and publishers to contact. I’ve managed to create that list but not taken the next step. Which was to send my stories out to those on the list. My plan didn’t quite go as planned. I became a little, well a lot, side tracked by working on another two projects. 


Project one:
In January 2022, I wanted to learn how to turn my short stories in scripts. I was lucky enough to find a wonderful mentor. With his support I’ve rewritten one of my Moon Meadow Farm stories as a short film script. My mentor suggested I should hone my new skills and repeat the process. So, I chose one of my Brer Rabbit stories and have rewritten it in script format. This script is now in its first draft and resting.
Whilst it’s resting, I’ve been working on my other project. 


Project two:

During the pandemic I treated myself to a guitar like instrument called a Merlin M4. In my teens and early 20’s I used to play, badly, the classical guitar. But I haven’t played an instrument since. Once out of the box I quickly realised I had a steep learning curve ahead of me. It was during this learning curve an idea formed for a non-fiction book.
An hour or so before writing the first draft of this blog I completed my final draft of my music related book. I’ve found a proof-reader/editor and a beta reader and plan to send my draft to them and return to… well I’m not sure what to return to. I want to find new homes for my picture books. I also want to get my second script to the point where I feel confident enough to send it to my mentor.
Which one to do?
Decision made!
I’m going to let fate decide and flip a coin. Heads it’ll be my picture books. Tails it will be my script. 
I’ll let you know in my next blog which it was. 


Monday 10 April 2023

Hide and reveal - The irresistible joy of lift-the-flap books - Garry Parsons

 It's the Easter weekend and there's nothing more exciting for young children than searching for eggs on an Easter egg hunt. What treasures await behind leaves and in flower pots? 

Of course hiding and revealing extends to picture books with great effect. It's almost impossible for children to resist the urge to lift a flap. 

So here are a few of my family's personal favourites and books that still delight and stand the test of time.

Starting with the toddler age is Tuck Me In! from Dean Hacohen and Sherry Scharschmidt where young readers can put the animals to bed with a simple but satisfying turn of the half page flap.

Say Hello Like This! from Mary Murphy is a jolly rhyming book of animal sounds where the half page turn reveals how the animals say hello to one another, ending in a loud crescendo where the reader can join in.

In Emily Gravett's The Odd Egg a single page of multiple flaps reveals each of the character's eggs hatching, all except for Duck's.

Up Tall! and High! by Ethan Long is two stories in one - I am Tall and I Can Go High and each has a flap to lift to reveal something unexpected.

Flora and the Peacocks by Molly Idle uses flaps to reveal a dance between Flora carrying her fan and two peacocks.

The Rabbit Problem follows the growth of a rabbit population in Fibonacci's Field in the form of a calendar with extra flaps in the form of journals and notebooks.

Do you dare to turn the page in Wayne Andersen's Horrible Book? A gruesome tale with half page flaps revealing ghoulish creatures and leading to a huge fold out poster at the end of the book.

Let me know your recommendations for books with fun flaps in the comments section below or on twitter @icandrawdinos.

Garry Parsons is an illustrator of children's books such as The Dinosaur That Pooped Easter from Tom Fletcher and Dougie Pointer which also includes fun flaps to lift!