Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Do Picture Books Have To Tell A Story? By Pippa Goodhart

My most successful picture book so far is a book called You Choose, illustrated by Nick Sharratt.  It is a picture book that sits on the fiction shelves, and yet it doesn't tell a story.  It was because it didn't tell a story that nine publishers rejected it before Random House took it on.  But must a picture book always tell a story?

 
When a text has been rejected nine times, and when the publishers all agree on the perceived problem with the text, and your agent agrees with them, it is usually time to put that text aside, and move on.  But I believed in the idea of this book too much to do that.  Having watched three daughters and their friends looking through catalogues and happily choosing things that they knew they'd never actually get, I knew that at least those children loved the game of choosing.  And, since the point of the choosing didn't seem to be necessarily then acquiring whatever was chosen, I felt sure there was fun to be had in offering choices that were totally fictional.  So a child can choose to live in a pink fairy tale palace, or a tree house, or a mushroom, or any of the thirty-two different kinds of home on offer.  They can have Santa or a wizard or a Viking, or any number of other kinds of people (many of them ordinary) as their father.  They can choose twins, an alien, a giant, or all sorts of others as siblings or friends.  Pets, places, clothes, jobs, foods, and so on; there is a mass to choose from.  And over the eight years that You Choose has been around its sales have risen and risen, and it's even winning prizes, which is lovely.

Now Nick has again spent literally years in illustrating a new book along a similar theme.  Just Imagine came out ten days ago. 



This time, instead of choosing things, you choose to change yourself.  What if you were made of jelly or cheese or were a balloon or a ghost or a robot?  Now we're getting into really imaginative territory.

 
Nick's pictures are full to bursting with ideas.  What would you like this machine to be doing or making?



Neither of these books tells a story, but it is clear from the reactions I've had to both of them that they are fich with story potential, and that all sorts of stories - serious ones, funny ones, sad ones, exciting ones, nonsense ones - come out of them.  Not my stories, but the children's own stories.  I find that exciting.  With over a million copies of You Choose out there, being shared and chatted over, I hope that well over a million stories have brewed in children's minds from the ingredients it offers. 

What particularly excites me about Just Imagine is that the protagonist in the stories that come out of this new book will almost certainly be the children themselves. 



30 comments:

  1. That's great that someone believed in your ideas too. Never give up. But what if we've gone through, let's say, 15 or more rejections? How do we know when we should really move on?

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    1. Fifteen rejections? Pah! My record for getting published after being rejected is, I think, thirty-one ... and then the book was published by the first publisher I had sent it to, but in a different form. I'd imagined it as a big lush picture book, but adapted it to become a young reader. The picture book publishers had been right to reject is as being 'too old' for the usual picture book audience, and in that instance taking notice of what they'd said paid off. But many many many stories are dropped by me long before that. I only fight on for those I feel sure are worth it, offering something that isn't already available. Good luck!

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  2. Pippa, this is really interesting because you watched children, understood them, and created something you knew they wanted to feed their imagination. It's a very good place to start. My son loves 'You Choose'. He has special needs and cannot speak or read, but he can have hours of interaction with someone pointing to the objects in the book and choosing what he wants.I will be giving him 'Just Imagine', too, and recommend it to all parents. So we then come to the question of why publishers said no. Well, we could blog away on that one for ages, couldn't we, but thank goodness that somebody was thinking about their job hard enough to say yes.

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    1. Moira, that's wonderful to read. Both children and adults like your son were in our minds as we discussed the pictures and design for both books. We were careful not to make it babyish in content or style, so it's lovely to see that works. Thank you.

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  3. I can't believe You Choose was rejected so many times before RH took it on. It, and your new one, are so very wonderful - they take all their readers and listeners on so many journeys and start so many stories.

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  4. I've just noticed who you are! And, funnily enough, I've just been reading Alex Strick's article on your blog about the importance of including disabled children in children's books, but with the disability being incidental. Just Imagine has a number of characters who happen to have an eye patch or a wheel chair or a walking frame, but you have to search for them because they're just part of the crowds.

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    1. Hello Pippa!
      Just to say how nice to happen to visit your website and to see that you were reading my article on positive images on Zoe's wonderful Playing By the Book. And I was really delighted that Nick was keen to include quite so many positive images in Just Imagine - and was up for including not just the obvious, but also the innovative, like adapted bicycles. I think the end result is stunning - you must be thrilled. It's great that there are more inclusive books appearing - although few new really good ones for 6-10 year olds...
      Speak soon.
      PS I've just referenced 'Rescued by a Dog called Flow' on a new resource for Booktrust's website called 'What's the Story?' Will send you the link when it goes live.

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  5. These books sound great! I absolutely agree about what fun it is to choose - I do that a lot with catalogues. The trick is not to send off for anything - much cheaper that way, and you don't get disappointed either.

    Interesting about whether you need a story. I've just read ten days' worth of bedtime stories with my 6 year old grandson, and the one we both liked best did have a story, but it was a very simple one, and I don't think the pleasure of it was really in the story. It was Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs - have reviewed it here if anyone would like to take a look. http://awfullybigreviews.blogspot.co.uk/

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    1. Wouldn't it be interesting to do a study of quite what it is that does, or doesn't, appeal to children in different books. I suspect it's often something very personal (for example, who read them the story, and when), so nicely unpredictable. But aren't modern children in this country lucky to have such a rich choice, and - please please keep it that way - able to choose those books for free from their local library.

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  6. So interesting, Pippa. I've just reserved a library copy of your book so I can see for myself how it inspires imagination. I adore that you didn't give up and persevered. I suspect many of us have one or two manuscripts we never quite give up on because we know there's something there. It's always a delight to hear of a much-rejected book that becomes a success (though I appreciate that the majority of rejected books deserve rejection!). Plus it shows there isn't a story formula that every book must follow.

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    1. Nice to hear that the book is already on library shelves. And if anybody fancies winning a copy, I've just been told of a competition on Library Mice that gives you a chance to do just that - http://www.librarymice.com/2012/09/just-imagine.html
      Good luck!

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  7. Picturebooks are for sharing and talking about and you've provided the ingredients reader and listener to create millions of stories - that's fabulous.

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    1. Thank you, Jane! But it is Nick who is the genius who created so very many clear amusing images. You can imagine what a treat it has been to write lists of ideas (which is easy) and see them turned into Nick Sharratt pictures (which is hard). Lucky me.

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  8. My little sister used to love poring through catalogues as a child - she called them 'dream books' and kept them by her bed so she could imagine houses filled with all kinds of objects. We have a book at home about starting school which similarly isn't really a story, but a list of pictures from which you have to guess what the main character put in her school bag, or ate for lunch. My daughter loves it! I think books like 'You Choose' really stimulate a child's imaginiation and make them 'work' for the story, rather than being spoon-fed.

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    1. Oo, dream books is exactly it! There have been others, of course. The Richard Scarry books had that mass of images to pore over, and John Burningham's Would You Rather gets you making choices. And the Ahlberg's Baby's Catalogue. I can't claim to have been totally orginal.

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  9. Thanks, Pippa. You Choose has always been a huge favourite with my three children -and still for all of them at 8,6 and 4. My 8yo had a sleepover a while ago and shared a bed with her friend. When I came up to say goodnight to them, they were poring over it together! I used to use it in school with Reception aged boys who were not used to books and who weren't hugely engaged. Along with some amazing text-free German books (Ali Mitgutsch -what a a great book maker!), the children in questions became much more engaged and used much more interesting vocabulary and sentences. I've recommended You Choose to so many people (who've now also beaten me to buying Just Imagine -which I'm going to get in Waterstone's on Thursday before my launch!) and my 4yo was recently given it as a present -again- by someone as our last copy was so dog-eared and sellotaped up that it hardly worked. He was absolutely over the moon to get it as a present even though we already had a copy. It's an all-time classic and I'm so relieved it was finally picked up. Picture books absolutely don't have to have a story written into them -children can make their own stories from catalogues and books like You Choose and like Ali Mitgutsch books. They're brilliant for the imagination. Thank you!

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    1. (that's question not questions, of course. I was getting carried away by my enthusiasm for your book!)

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    2. To have a book so loved that it's falling to pieces is the best compliment of all (as well as being good for sales, of course!) - thanks, Clare!

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  10. Lik Abie, my neighbor and I would do the same with the Sears catalogue (US), and we didn't just choose items, but hair styles and best smiles! I'm happy to say one of our libraries has a copy of You Choose (yes, I placed it on hold!), but in reading the comments I am convinced it is a gift I need to have handy! As I am about to launch on the 'river of rejection' myself, it's nice to know there are those who might throw out a few words of encouragement to keep me afloat! Thanks!

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    1. Good luck with your book, Julie! I've always found great friendship and advice within the world of children's writers that has helped me through all kinds of hard times. Just remember that those publishers are looking through stories sent to them as if they were items in a catalogue, and different editors will make different choices.

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    2. One of my favorite childhood memories is every year when the Sears and J.C. Penney Christmas catalogs came! I'm glad these books have created a similar experience for today's kids.

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  11. Thank you Pippa. I must admit I had never heard of these books until today. They sound delightful and perfect for my girls who love to go through children's clothing catalogs. I just hope I can get a hold of them through the library loan system.

    On a different note, did you agent believe in your book? Was the sale to Random House on your own or via your agent?

    Thanks!

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    1. The short answer is 'no'. My agent didn't really 'get' the game that I was playing with 'You Choose' ... and it was at that point that I decided to try and sell my own work, and stopped working through an agent. But that certainly doesn't mean that it isn't a good idea to work via an agent! Just be sure that you and your agent are on the same wavelength.

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  12. What a way to spark children's imaginations! I am chagrined to say I hadn't heard of "You Choose," but I am even more surprised that the editors and agents didn't "get it." Well, I'm off to "get it" for my kiddos, who I know will love it! :-)

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  13. Interesting. I have a poem that isn't really a story, but it's full of action and fun. I think I won't give up on it, but will work hard at bringing out the action and joy through the illustrations.

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    1. That's exactly the trick, Brenda - seeing it all visually as well as aurally. My list of twelve questions as the text for You Choose wasn't anything special (in fact at one point I suggested that we made it a book with no text at all, just pictures), but the illustrative potential in those questions was where the riches lay.

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  14. I love You Choose and I'm sure I'll love Just Imagine just as much. You forgot to mention that adults enjoy these books too!

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