Monday, 22 August 2016

Picture This… Thinking visually in picture book writing. Lucy Rowland

Our guest this week is Lucy Rowland, who is about to have some very exciting picture books published in 2017. Lucy is a Children's Speech and Language Therapist living and working in London.  She started writing picture books around three years ago and has her first books coming out with Bloomsbury and Macmillan early next year.  

I have always loved language. I have always loved words.  My mum tells me that, from a young age, I had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of nursery rhymes.  I grew up listening to my grandparents’ bedtime stories; poetry by A.A.Milne, Dr Seuss, and the rather strange, but wonderful, story of ‘Augustus who would not have any soup’.  



At school I studied English, French and German and went on to do a degree in Speech and Language Therapy.  So I suppose, in lots of ways, language has always been important to me.  But when I started writing picture books, around 3 years ago, it suddenly all made sense.  This is what I wanted to do!

I was incredibly lucky to find my wonderful agent, Anne Clark (of Anne Clark Literary Agency) in 2013 while I was travelling in Indonesia.  Anne has opened so many doors for me and has given me such valuable advice along the way.  I remember one of her first lessons.  While sitting in an internet café, on an island with a somewhat intermittent power supply, Anne emailed me a question about a section of my text- ‘Could this be shown in the illustrations instead?’

I realised that I needed to think much more visually.  Now, this was hard for me. I am not a visual thinker at all!  I don’t tend to have a picture in my head of what my characters look like or how their worlds appear but, in some ways, this makes things all the more exciting!

I’m very new to the picture book world, but so far, one of my favourite parts of the process is that very first time that I get to see the characters.  It honestly feels like Christmas Day to me and I get a real feeling of ‘Oh wow! So that’s what he/she looks like!’  My first picture book with the very talented illustrator, Natasha Rimmington, is called ‘Gecko’s Echo’ and will be published by Bloomsbury in January 2017. 




People sometimes ask me, is that how you imagined Gecko?  But I’m not sure I really did imagine what Gecko looked like.  I’ve watched Natasha develop her over quite a long period of time and I’m amazed when I look at Gecko now and when I look back to Natasha’s initial sketches.  Naively, I had no idea just how much work goes into creating these beautiful illustrations.  For me, the way Natasha uses light in some of her spreads is just magical and she somehow manages to capture the way Bali felt to me.   

I am also lucky enough to have been paired with the wonderful Mark Chambers for two upcoming picture books with Macmillan.  The first of these, ‘Pirate Pete and his Smelly Feet’, is out in April 2017.  I couldn’t wait to meet Pirate Pete for the first time and Mark did not disappoint! 



When Mark started working on the book it was really interesting because his ideas helped to change and shape the story even more.  I have always loved language but illustrators are visual story tellers and I’m constantly amazed at all the little details they include in their pictures.  Not only do these help to drive the story forward but they also add a depth to the characters that my words alone just cannot do.  



I’m still working on thinking visually.  It’s a lesson that I constantly remind myself of.   As I write, I try to think about how the words I choose could support the illustrations, how the language could hint at the action which might be happening in the background.  However, in the meantime, I feel incredibly lucky to have been paired with such talented illustrators who are able to show the worlds that I write, and in the most beautiful and powerful of ways.


Lucy’s twitter handle is @lucymayrowland  


Monday, 15 August 2016

WHEN DID ANIMALS START BEING SO FUNNY?

by Eoin McLaughlin




There’s nothing the internet loves more than funny animals. And by ‘funny animals’ I mean animals behaving like us humans. What could possibly be funnier? It feels like we’ve all pored over the cat who thinks he’s a pirate, the gopher with the evil look and the sneezing panda since time began. But it’s easy to forget that Youtube is only 11. The internet meme is in its infancy.  
But picture books are not. Ever since John Newbery published A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, picture books have understood, like no other medium, the comic potential of the right animal doing the wrong thing. All the way from the White Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck to The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Gorilla. More often than not, there’s a funny animal at the centre of our favourite tales. Each generation seems to find their own unique slant on the joke, whether it’s greedy pandas peddling donuts or vicious bears trying to locate their hats. The funny animal is the comic gift that keeps on giving.


Four years ago, James Catchpole sold my first picture book to Dial Books. While waiting for it to come out, I have:
Married.
Moved house three times.
Realised that I love mayonnaise.
And written my first blog post (you’re reading it, hope it’s going okay!)
Amongst all that, I’ve also been reading and writing as much as I can in the hope of learning ‘The Art of Picturebooking’. And whilst, as James will tell you, I’m still very much in Key Stage 0, I have noticed an increasing number of funny animals creeping into my texts. One features an octopus learning to swim, another a bear as a detective. It seems I’m succumbing to the power of the funny animal. Whilst I’m fully embracing this as a good sign that I might be making some progress, it has made me wonder: when did animals start being funny?

There’s a small scrap of Ancient Egyptian papyrus in the British Museum, dating from the 13th Century BC. It was drawn by a scribe, for sale to ordinary Egyptians outside his local temple. What’s unusual about the papyrus, is that it depicts a cow sitting on a plow, as if she were a farmer rather than a farmyard animal. According to Daniel Antoine, one of the curators at the British Museum, Egyptian texts are full of exactly this kind of imagery. Seeing animals performing human activities was one of the Ancient Egyptians’ all-time favourite gags. It had them LOL’ing and RROTFL.
Daniel directed me towards further papyri (yes, apparently that’s the plural) where I found lions playing board games, wolves heading to the shops and cats shepherding ducks. And funny animals didn’t stop there, in medieval marginalia they seem to specialize in dark humour. [Left]

And by the 18th century, Japanese artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi seems to have already perfected the cat joke. [Left a bit, down a bit]


Whilst the funny animal isn’t regarded the world’s oldest recorded joke (that’s widely credited to be a Sumarian corker about farting) it’s very, very close. One man’s papyrus is another man’s Youtube. Funny animals have been making humans laugh for at least 5,000 years, and presumably much, much longer (before papyrus or papyri).


I guess almost all of us would count our sense of humour as one of the things most personal to ourselves, one of the things that makes us who we are and the primary reason we love the people we do. It’s quite amazing to think that we have this bond in common with our most ancient ancestors. We could have shared a good laugh with them over the picture of a cow and a plow in 5,000 BC or by showing them any number of fantastic, funny animal picture books published in 2016.
Isn’t that a nice warm feeling? Let’s bask for a moment in the amazement of inter-generational-super-connection…
Ahhhh…

But it does pose a more serious question: “Why, after all that time, are we still picking the very same animals to be funny? For five millennia ducks, dogs, frogs, cows, cats and pigs have been getting things all their own way. Sure, they’ve been a hoot, but isn’t it time to draw a line? Shut the pen? And close the barn door? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to try some new animals for a change? Don’t you think?!” It was at this point that Daniel from the British Museum stopped replying to my emails. He’s obviously part of the funny animal conspiracy. I had no idea how deep it ran.
Regardless, it’s time to make a change. All of us gathered here have the unique opportunity to end thousands of years of subjugation. That’s why, right here, right now (drum roll please) I’m launching ‘The Campaign For Getting More Weird Animals, Things Like Marmots And Poison Dart Frogs, Onto Our Papyri, By Which I Mean Children’s Books’, or ‘TCFGMWATLMAPDFFOOPBWIMCB’.
Granted, it could do with a catchier name. Perhaps we can think of a new one at the first annual meeting, taking place at The National Hystrix Sanctuary.
For the next 5,000 years, bring on the musk ox, the capybara and the skink.
To kick things off @eoinmclaughlin will be tweeting a 142 character funny animal story every day this week, featuring a very deserving, obscure animal. Just leave your favourite weird animal in the comments.

Eoin’s first book, This is NOT a Bedtime Story is coming soon from Penguin Random House (Dial Books). More to follow from Walker and Bloomsbury.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Why Are Picture Book Sooooo Short?




Every agent and publisher seems to be in agreement – do not send us anything but short picture book texts, preferably under 600 words. 


“Parents don’t want to read long bedtime stories," they argue. "They are frazzled at the end of long, busy days.”



“Children have short(er) attention spans – from babyhood they are already learning to get stuff quickly.” 


“Translating long texts is more expensive, so long texts don’t sell abroad.” (Without co-editions many picture books are financially inviable).


“Long picture books don’t sell.”


“Older children don’t want to read picture books – they
want to read ‘proper’ chapter books and early readers just as soon as they are able!”



Hmmm, is this all really true? Are we (literally) selling our children short? By publishing only shorter picture books are publishers making them the norm and therefore creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?


Let me preface what comes next by saying that I love picture books and believe there is a place for lots of different kinds of books. After all, as a child and an adult, we read different books at different times of the day and different times of our lives. This is the wonderful thing about different sorts of stories. 


Consider for a moment what a longer picture book can offer:



A deliciously more involved story for slightly older children (and adults who are still children) who are able to sit still longer, savour more intriguing vocabulary, enjoy rhythmical language and delight in more sophisticated visual literacy.


I decided to do a little bit of research. If you look, there are some very successful
longer picture books such as:

 







Notice how the writing in these books is not just long for the sake of long. No, they have been well-written, well-edited and are tightly structured. The writing is artful writing, not waffle. But it may just be about 1000 words long. It doesn’t feel like it takes an age to read, though. As a reader, you savour the experience, the journey into a different world, the emotional connection with the characters and their situations. Arguably, the types of stories they can tell resonate a little deeper perhaps?

By contrast, reading a super-quick, reads-almost-like-a-joke quirky contemporary picture book feels just like that – almost breahtless sometimes, a super-quick ‘done it’ moment in time. Of course, lots of these books are fun and make important contributions to the wealth of children's literature available. But I wonder: shouldn't picture books also satisfy older readers who are in a different place on their literary journey?  


Also, note that many of these examples are classics. They still sell. They can’t be dinosaurs yet. Short attention-spanned children and over-tired adults must be reading them still!

Some editors are clearly acquiring these longer picture books that grow with young readers.



Who, I wonder, will be bold enough to break the cycle and recognize that there is a place for these sorts of picture books (and not just non-fiction ones), that we oughtn't to be selling our young readers short, that longer picture books are needed too?
 

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 courses!

Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. 




Monday, 1 August 2016

Beautiful Books, by Pippa Goodhart


There have always been beautiful books, right back to the days of hand written illuminated manuscripts.  Illustration - picture books - are perhaps the most obvious source of beauty in books.  But the binding of a book can also be a lovely thing to see and touch and smell.  It's a treat to see gilded page edges, silken book mark ribbons, imaginative endpapers and handsome bindings being used to make current children's books particularly beautiful.

You may wonder why there are no pictures in this blog.  That's because I'm not going to talk about modern examples of beautifully produced picture books.  I'd love you to tell of examples you admire in the comments.  But I want to share with you a treasure I have just discovered that takes me right back to what first tuned me in to how beautiful books could be.

In our village was a big house where a man called Sandy Cockerell and his wife Mary.  He was a bookbinder.  My brother Dick was keen on printing.  Dick had his own little Adana printing press with which he printed things such as book plates for me to label my books with.  Because of his interest in printing and books, he was invited to visit the Cockerells, and, lucky me, I was invited to go with him.  He was probably about eleven and I was about nine.

We were left at the Cockerell's by our Mum, and we had the most magical time, being shown how to make marbled paper by the best paper marbler in the world.  I was mightily impressed with his eyebrows, and with the fresh bread and honey that his wife gave us, but, best of all, we were allowed to try marbling for ourselves.  For months afterwards I tried to get the same effect with poster paints on water, using combs and sticks to drag patterns, and it did sort of work.  I also stitched crude bookbinding, making book covers with roughly embroidered pictures and bits of card board and tape and leather and all sorts.  I thought I'd like to be a bookbinder one day ... but ended up making up the stories and ordering the words that go inside them instead.

Anyway, here is the treasure that I found on Youtube ...

Art of the Marbler   Filmed in 1970, probably just a couple of years after my visit, here is Cockerell paper being made.  You need to make a cup of something, sit back, and enjoy the slow pace of the film that eventually shows you a sort of magical book beauty in action.

Monday, 25 July 2016

What parents think of picture books - A small survey. Moira Butterfield


I decided to ask some current picture book users a few questions, so I set up a small survey using Survey Monkey, put it on Facebook and asked friends with young children their views. Now I don’t have a massive number of followers so this was a teeny-tiny survey of acquaintances and not remotely a scientific cross-section of the population. But the answers were interesting nevertheless, and made me think. I hope you find them thought-provoking, too. 

1. “What price do you think is about right for a paperback picture book?”

The answer was overwhelmingly £3 to £4.50. Picture books were seen by everybody as low-cost items, which could be seen as depressing from the creator’s end. But given that all the respondents said they read a picture book every single day to their child, this makes picture books incredible value for money! The best buy a parent can make, surely?  

2. “What is your child’s current favourite picture book?”

Various Julia Donaldson titles won hands-down, by a mile.  These are adults answering the question, of course. The answer could be their favourite book because they find it easy to read the clear rhyme and clear story of a Julia Donaldson book (see question 6). Children will work out that they are going to get a happy one-to-one sharing experience if they ask for a book their parent likes.

This is one to think about. Should would-be picture book authors actually be copying this format for commercial success? Rhymes, super-clear rhythm that you can’t go wrong reading out + a very clear story? Is any kind of experimentation that deviates from that a marketing mistake? Discussion welcomed!

3. “Where do you buy picture books?”

The answer was split pretty much 50/50 between ‘online and ‘supermarkets’, with ‘bookshop’ a distant third. Supermarkets heavily feature well-known books and online sellers direct people along the same lines, so that’d go some way to explaining the overwhelming dominance of Julia Donaldson in the UK, I think. To be honest, it’s hard to see how a new author or illustrator could make a dent if those stats hold in the wider community (I can't say that they do, of course). is that being too defeatist? 

4. “Roughly how often do you read a picture book with your child?”

The answer was mainly “every day” with a couple of complete book heroes who said “Four stories a night” and Multiple times a day”. Everybody salute these incredible parents! About half the respondents stipulated that they read every night before bedtime. Something to think about there when it comes to books with overtly scary pictures and texts. They could be limiting their market.

5. “What would make you buy a picture book?”

I gave multiple answers to choose from here. The overwhelming winner was “You like the look of the art” followed by “It’s a book you remember from your childhood” and then – a little way back - “It’s by an author you like” - followed by “It features a TV or film character your child knows.”

So there is hope for authors but it’s the look that counts in the main, along with buying the tried and tested, with this small group.

Pleasingly not one respondent chose the answer “Because it was written by a celebrity”. 

Those that commented further on the style of art they liked said they preferred lots to spot in the pictures. 

6. “Is there anything about picture books that irritates you?”

Two-thirds of the respondents didn’t add an answer, which shows, I guess, that they were happy about the picture books they read and gave them a big thumbs-up.

The answers I did get were very interesting.

“Scary pictures” was one. Now that feeds into my own view that children’s picture book award short lists can tend to favour unbelievably scary-looking visuals, without thought for the end users. I'm pleased that this year's Kate Greenaway shortlist looks much better than last year's in that respect. 

“Books that start to rhyme and don’t continue to rhyme” was another comment, along with “When it doesn’t flow.” Yup, bad rhyme and bad rhythm is the pits! But there’s another point here for authors, I think. It’s hard for people to read rhythm that isn’t absolutely clear. So while you may think your text rhythm flows (because you know how it should be read) will a reader do so? Are there places where they could trip up? Is the rhythm cast-iron enough for them to not go wrong? Testing the text out on friends, asking them to read it out loud with no guidance at all from you, could help here.

Rhyme is important, according to the person who wrote “Rhyming books are so much easier to read after a long day with the kids.” Interesting point! When you’re tired and haven’t much acting energy left, it’s easy rhymes that you want. Julia Donaldson-style - or Dr. Seuss maybe.

“Lack of actual story” was another comment. I can see that, too. Given that most respondents said they read a book at night, and I’m guessing (as above) they’re weary, they could be wanting something straightforward that doesn't require them to do lots of explaining, perhaps.

I hope you’re not depressed by the above and it gives you food for thought. It’s just the comments of a tiny selection of parents, but they're being helpfully honest about their own experience. They’re not remotely connected to the publishing industry. They're the end-users of picture books and I think their views matter. Getting work accepted by publishers relies on it being market-friendly, so it is worth thinking about the experience someone would have reading your story – perhaps in a slightly weary voice by the bedside!

All reactions gratefully received below. 

Moira Butterfield
@moiraworld

Latest picture book work:

“Everybody Feels…” series by QED