Sunday, 29 April 2012

Any excuse for a book tour, by Abie Longstaff

I recently visited my parents in Hong Kong – my childhood home. I go back as often as I can (not that often on an author’s income!) and it’s so great to be immersed back into the sights, smells and sounds of my youth; just visiting the park we used to play in or the beaches we used to build sandcastles on is so evocative and really reminds me of bossing my 5 sisters around and organising all kinds of games and adventures. 

One of my sisters still lives there and now runs a school. She asked me to come in and read my books and I suddenly thought: why not ask around book shops too? This was my first ‘book tour’ and, having no idea how to organise it, I contacted my publisher. The Hong Kong section were fantastic and my contact there managed to organise events at three different book shops.

Off I went, with hand luggage of a large doll, a baby’s hairbrush, and a selection of pirate clothes and coins. I was a bit nervous of speaking to a new market, especially as while I was there the visits started to snowball – suddenly one of my book readings had turned from a simple read aloud session into a yummy mummy and daughter pamper day, with a local salon sponsoring hair styling and nail painting while I read The Fairytale Hairdresser. Then Timeout Hong Kong somehow got wind of the ‘book tour’ and asked me to write an article about my writing process and my visit to Hong Kong.

As it turned out I had no reason to be nervous as of course (massive clichĂ© coming up…) children are children. They loved hearing the stories and spotting the fairy tale characters in the illustrations. They queued up to brush Rapunzel’s hair and touch the pirate coins and pored over my sketchbooks and notes and at one of the visits I signed 200 books until my signature started to go a little too wiggly.

For me there was something very special about reading the stories in my childhood home. Many of the stories I told my younger sisters have become ideas for my picture books and it was really satisfying (and quite emotional) to bring things full circle.
So my conclusion – if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Next time I travel anywhere I am definitely going to approach local book shops in advance.


You never know what might happen!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Let's Get Physical by Kath Jewitt

Our guest blogger this month is Kath Jewitt, who has a busy career in children's books as an editor, writer and project manager. She works particularly on books with add-ons such as flaps and moving parts.

I want to make something clear before I start. I am not a technophobe, or whatever the new-fangled word is for not getting on well with technology. I am most definitely an enthusiastic purchaser of e-books and apps for my kids (ok – so I bought Angry Birds for myself). It's just that when it comes to sharing bedtime stories, I get a little picky.

I want a book – and it's not just the content I am talking about here, though of course that is somewhat crucial. It's the 'physical object', the actual 'bookiness' of the book that I am referring to – the smooth paper or card, the black words on a white page, the gradations of colour and tone in different styles of artwork, the folds, the flaps, the die-cuts, the matt laminate (a personal favourite) ... I’m sure you get the point.

I don't know if it's something to do with the fact my husband I make pop-up books for a living that I have such an overeager appreciation of the physical properties of books (I do so love a well-executed fold), but I think it's more than that. There's something about the feel of a book in your hands, its simple physical presence that makes a book so much more intimate a companion than a file on an e-reader – particularly when it comes to snuggling up in bed or on the sofa with a small child.

The word 'interactive' (defined by the Oxford Dictionary online as ‘two people or things influencing each other’) seems to have been annexed by the digital world these days, but I can't think of a more interactive activity than a child and companion sharing a brilliant book together. Reading a book is not only about the story and the images, though they are obviously at the very heart of the experience. It's also about touching, and turning, and pointing, and laughing, and turning back, and flicking forward, maybe lifting a few flaps ... it's about developing key coordination skills, not to mention a relationship with the book and your reading companion.

‘Relationship’ may sound pretentious, I know, but I'm not sure how else to describe the rapport a child can develop with a favourite book. I've lost count of the number of times I've tried to throw out a tatty old copy I thought my children had grown out of, only for them to throw a wobbler, as if I am threatening to throw out their best friend. And I’m pretty sure it is not just me who feels this way. The feeling is embodied in a conversation I had with a friend not long ago. She was bemoaning the fact that she had loaned a favourite book to an acquaintance and that said person had ... horror of horrors ... offered to give her a brand new copy to replace the by now dog-eared original. "It just wouldn't be the same – it wouldn't be MY book!" she wailed. I just can't imagine feeling that way about a pdf ...

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Twenty-five Years of Winnie Magic, by Pippa Goodhart

What is the magic that makes Winnie The Witch work so well?

The fist, eponymous, Winnie The Witch picture book came out twenty-five years ago this year, and on Friday the 13th of April and on Friday 13th of July Winnie will be celebrating her quarter century with birthday parties. (What? Didn’t you know that witches have birthdays every time there’s a Friday 13th?).

Over that quarter century, twelve picture books and eleven storybooks about Winnie and her cat Wilbur have been published, and more are in production. Winnie’s stories have be published in twenty-seven different languages, and sold over five million books.

For a picture book to grow into such a phenomenal, and on-going, success is the stuff of dreams. How did it happen?
Ron Heapy is the brilliant OUP editor who created the Winnie we know and love by bringing Valerie aThomas’s story and Korky Paul’s illustrative skills together.

Ron had already signed contracts to publish the Winnie The Witch story text, aiming it towards a series of early reader titles, but the illustration samples that followed had shown an uninspiring black shed in a garden. So Ron had sat on the story for a couple of years, unsure what to do with it next.

At that point, in walked Korky Paul, bringing some stories of his own to discuss with Ron. Ron described as ‘a bit like falling in love’, the moment when, at their end of their discussion, as Korky was heading for the door, Ron suddenly felt an impulse to do something to make sure that Korky would come back, and for there to be the chance for a working relationship to develop. So he handed Korky the story of Winnie The Witch, telling him that it was to be a book of desk diary size, and asking him to see what he could do with it.

Back came Korky with a wonderful picture of Winnie’s witchy mansion of a house, “full of stuff”. It was Winnie's house, even more than Winnie herself, which sold Korky to Ron as the right illustrator for her story. All of which process just goes to prove the point made in Malachy’s last post about how a story sometimes needs to wait very patiently until just the right illustrator is there to work with it. I asked Korky where his image of Winnie came from, and he says that he has no idea. ‘I sat and doodled a few witch type characters and she came almost immediately.’ He calls the process, ‘Purely instinctive. The bent hat was because I reached the edge of the paper while doodling, and just squashed the hat to fit it in’!

Was Winnie an instant success? Ron tells me that he had contracted to do a print run of 3,000 copies. Then he went to the Bologna Book Fair where Winnie artwork went up on a modest little stall. And straight away, Winnie’s magic began to work, halting delegates as they passed, so that publishers from Germany and America and more placed orders to bump that initial print run up to 16,000 by the end of the Fair.

Winnie The Witch was published in 1987. It won the Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ Award, chosen by children, the following year. Everybody wanted more stories about her. But that first book was a hard act to follow. Hence the long pause before a second story – Winnie In Winter - was finally published in 1996. Many more have followed since then. But I still think that very first story is the best of them. Why is it so good? I think that’s partly down to: 

  • The story being brilliantly simple, following a strong logic that twists at the end to surprise and satisfy with a really strong pay-off that we don't see coming (one of the hardest things to achieve in any story).
  • The characters, and their relationship together, being appealing and sympathetic.
  • The slapstick and ‘yuck’ humour being such fun, and so clearly at a fictional remove that there’s no worry to any of it.
  • There being so much more to find of subsequent viewings of those wonderful pictures.
  • The story being about the look of things, and therefore perfectly suited to picture book treatment.
  • The appeal of the idea of being able to do magic. I love those great swishes of magic that appear as splashes of colour. I wish I could splatter magic about like that! The inspiration for the magic to look that way apparently came from watching the Red Arrows!
I think that Winnie The Witch is one of the best picture books ever. Can you suggest other ‘perfect’ picture books? Or give other reasons for Winnie's success?

NB To read more about how Korky does his illustrations, do read the fascinating article that you can find on his website

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Mysterious Number Three by Paeony Lewis

What is it about the number three in storytelling? There are traditional tales such as The Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Then there are the lesser-known tales: The Three Sillies, The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs, The Three Snake Leaves, and so many more.

Even if three isn’t in the title, three still sneaks into countless fairy stories. Rumpelstiltskin gives the miller’s daughter three spinning wishes and she has three guesses at his name. Cinderella goes to three balls and there are three sisters. Jack steals three treasures from the giant at the top of the beanstalk.

How about contemporary picture books? That number three sneaks in again. There are three owls in Martin Waddell’s classic Owl Babies. Whilst in the deep dark wood a little mouse meets three animals (a fox, owl and snake) in Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo. And I've just realised I have three young bunnies in Hurry Up, Birthday.

Even if there aren’t three characters, then things happen three times. Winnie the Witch waves her wand again, and again and again . Helen Cooper’s Bear Under the Stairs is fed one day with bananas, bacon and bread. Another day it’s hazelnuts haddock and honey. And the door is always shut with a wham, bang and thump.

From No More Biscuits
So why three? Why, in writing, is it called The Rule of Three or Magic Three? Perhaps because three times is a pattern. Two can be a coincidence, but three is something more. It’s more satisfying. It’s the beginning, middle and end. It flows and has rhythm.

If a fairy casts one spell and it doesn’t succeed, then you’re setting up tension. If she casts the spell again and it succeeds, then it feels a bit of an anti-climax. But if she fails a second time, things are getting tenser. Will she succeed on the third attempt? We hold our breath… Yes! Ah ha, but what if she fails again, surely the tension will rise further? Maybe, or will it start to get boring?

Mind you, sometimes I find the rule of three can be too predictable, especially in films. You just know the hero will try once, twice and then succeed on the third attempt. Yawn. However, perhaps this predictability was helpful when stories were told around the fire, hundreds of years ago. You need a clear story structure to follow a story told orally, and it also helps you to remember it for another night. This might be why three is also popular with stand-up comedians: Three men went into a bar; an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman…

So in storytelling, three can provide a satisfying pattern. Whether it’s the three Norns in Norse mythology; the three Anglo-Saxon monsters battled by Beowulf; or the Greek Three Fates, Graces or Furies. However, it doesn’t stop there.

In art there’s a rule of thirds. Pythagoras called three the perfect number. We also have three primary colours (red, blue and yellow). In Christianity there is the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. On the third day Jesus rose from the dead. In Hinduism you have the Trinity: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva. Three is our past, present and future. Birth, life and death. Veni, vidi, vici. Symbolic three is everywhere.

In our writing, is it lucky three? Other numbers are endowed with symbolism, although three does appear to be particularly popular in Western writing. So should we use it in our picture books? Why not, if it works? We probably do it subconsciously. But if we use it too much, will the magic of three wane?

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3

Paeony Lewis is a children's author.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Persistence with a capital P, by Malachy Doyle

Three things you need to be a successful(ish) picture book writer:

1. Talent
2. Persistence
3. Luck

Talent: You've either got it or you ain't. Assuming you have it as a starting point, you can then learn, you can try things out, you can be inspired... And the harder you work, the better you get.

Luck: Stumbling upon a stupendous and original idea. Landing it on the right desk at the right time.

But it's number two, Persistence, that I want to riff on today.

Persistence means writing and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, until the story finds its form, until it REALLY TRULY WORKS. I still have the evidence in my files to show that I printed out no less than one hundred and eighty seven different versions of my first picture book story, Owen and the Mountain, before I came up with the version that nailed it, and that Bloomsbury (the 24th publisher to see the story, but don't tell them that!) took on.

Persistence means believing in a story if it's really good, despite your friends, or your agent, or any number of publishers saying it doesn't quite work. If I think something's good enough, but haven't managed to sell it, I bottom drawer it. Then every few months (or years) I pull it back out, give it a good shake, and if I still like it enough I think about whether it's worth having another go at finding it a home. I keep an eye and an ear out for new publishers, new editors, new trends, new opportunities, and if I think I have a story that seems to fit, I go for it.

And so, of my five picture books due to be published in 2012, the average length of time since I originally wrote them is TEN YEARS.

February: Collywobble (Pont), written 2010
April (?): Cillian and the Seal (An Gum - Irish language only), written 2003
May: Little Chick and the Secret of Sleep (QED), written 1998
June: The Snuggle Sandwich (Andersen), written 1995
September: Too Noisy! (Walker), written 2005.

All but the first, Collywobble, were kicking around for ages until they found their true form and a publisher who believed in them. The Snuggle Sandwich was one of the very first stories I wrote - recently I did a trawl of my back catalogue and said to my agent 'Of all the stories I've written that we never managed to sell, this is my favourite.' So I injected a bit of freshness into it, including a new punchline and title, and she went out and sold it.

A friend of mine, Liz Weir, can beat even that seventeen year wait. Liz, one of Ireland's very best storytellers, has a picture book coming out this year that she originally wrote all the way back in 1985!

So never say die, say I. Believe in yourself, believe in your stories. And if they're good enough, and you're persistent enough and flexible enough, they'll see the light of day. They really will.

Anyone else got any good examples of persistence paying off?

And, by the way, if anybody wants to find out more about how to become a top-notch picture book writer (or/and illustrator), you could do a lot worse than to come on the week-long Arvon course Polly Dunbar and I are tutoring at Totleigh Barton in Devon in June. Our guest reader is ex-Children's Laureate Anthony Browne. It's going to be good!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Bee-rocracies & Hierarchies - Alison Boyle

What is it like to be a bee? 

Readers of picturebooks and readers of this blog, I'm going to let you in to some of my thoughts about story themes, some of which involve bees.

A big theme with several branches can provoke responses from readers, who bring an array of experiences to the interpretation of a story. Theodor Seuss Geisel (alias Dr Seuss) dealt with gigantic themes in his books, including nuclear war, capitalism and the environment.

As any storyteller will tell you - including adults who are required to make up bedtime epics starring the children sitting next to them – it is vital to think yourself into the main character or characters.

When creating How Bees Be I asked myself:
Q: What does it feel like under the furry skin of a young bee that could also say something about the human condition? 
The big theme of How Bees Be (published by Milet, Chicago):
What happens when a character rebels against the structures of its world?
Looked at another way:
Q: What is it about the way a young bee looks at the world that's relevant to the way a child sees their life?
What's different?
And if children aren't reading themselves, what is there for older readers now, and for children if they think about this story in the future?

Illustrations carry meanings where the word limit doesn't allow for detailed descriptions (Laura Hambleton did the lovely bee pics). More fundamentally, creators – whether illustrators or writers or aural storytellers – will usually have a theme or two in mind at the story's inception.

Initially though, I wanted to write a book with a bee as its main character. One teacher considered How Bees Be

    "Perfect for a lesson I was doing with 4/5 year old children.
    It explores the different things that bees do in very
    imaginative and creative ways! I am glad I brought it,
    it is a story I will share again and again." Ms AJ Herrod (Suffolk).

This is one response that probably reflects the time I spent researching bees. But when I came to writing the story I ditched the facts that couldn't be used as a vehicle to express something about people.

Going back to that big theme, obviously discipline and structure are at the heart of bee communities and I wanted to draw parallels between the hive and the social, political and domestic rules that govern us.

In How Bees Be there is a Churchillian war cabinet scene that alludes to the careful planning needed – here by the bee-rocracy - to assure the efficient collection and processing of honey to keep society going. In a factory scene, mechanisation enables the noble workers to process the honey, and a picture indent emphasises the idea of everyone pulling together, including Royalty.

At one level the book is about a child's curiosity manifested in the character of Little Bee. Though small, the protagonist has an enormous appetite for pushing herself on. She already thinks of herself as grown-up, and has tantrums that are more akin to the teenage variety than toddler. But I wanted to go beyond Little Bee leaving the familiar zone of her bee bedroom to the world outside the hive.

On the first page Little Bee exercises her right to 'being a grown-up bee' by staying in bed. After rebelling against her older Biker Sis and a squadron of honeybees she explores the labyrinthine corridors of the hive, where she meets the Queen Bee.

The Queen leads a tour to demonstrate how grown-up bees in the honey factory keep the community fed. Little Bee displays that child-like quality of asking searching questions: 'Time for you to start work?' she asks at one point. To which the Queen replies: 'I don't see why I should. I'm a grown-up bee now.' 

Royalist sympathies or not?

On the final pages the main character achieves her desire, and there is intentional irony in her taking a step away from the freedom of childhood and accepting the mantle of responsibility. 

Of course it's a mixed bag: children do have less freedom in some ways, and adults often lose the freedom to stay in bed. On the other hand, being a grown-up in the bee world involves dancing, so it isn't necessarily a bad lot.

The big theme of
Wishing Bird (published by Puffin):
How can friends
provide reassurance

if self-esteem dips?
The big theme of The Dance of the Eagle and the Fish (published by Milet):
Is love powerful enough to transcend boundaries?

(including being inside the bodies of a bird and a fish)

Picturebooks, like all stories, reflect the places where readers and listeners join them. They can also plant the seeds of new ideas that are responded to, sometimes unconsciously, many years in the future when the book itself might have been lost, handed on, or is too tatty to read.

If you have a few spare minutes on your hands, pick up a picturebook, any picturebook. Look inside and think about its themes. You are allowed to read things into the story – that's part of what it is to be a reader (and maybe a bee, but I don't think we will ever know).