Monday, 31 December 2012

Celebrating our 1st year and our wonderful guest bloggers

Our first year at Picturebook Den has been very exciting thanks to the great blogs from my fellow team members, contributions from our guest bloggers and also the comments from you, our readers.

Alongside our dedicated Picturebook Den team, we invited a whole range of guest bloggers to add their take on anything relating to picture books. So if you have a  moment you might like to browse these by clicking on the links to their blogs, featuring advice and fascinating viewpoints on a variety of subjects.

There have been blogs about where ideas come from, about the process of writing a picture book, about editing and reading picture books and our favourite books.  We have heard from individual writers sharing their expertise and experience.

In this the final blog of 2012 I wanted to look back at the fascinating blogs our Guest Bloggers have written since we started, almost exactly a year ago at the very end of December 2011.

When we invited Julia Donaldson, Children's Laureate and author of The Gruffalo and so many other wonderful picture books, she talked about how she goes about dramatising picture books

Being truly international we had a guest blog from John Shelley  talking about illustrating picture books for Japan in a Yen for drawing

Other amazing illustrators also shared their approaches and thoughts on working on picture books -

- such as John Hamilton in A spontaneous reaction  

and Emmeline Pidgen in An illustrator's view

We heard about another area of picture book creation from designer and packager Tony Potter in Packagers, picture-books and pop-ups.    

and from Kath Jewitt an editor, writer and project manager  in her blog Let's get physical

Other bloggers talked about content and approach.

Hilary Robinson discussed  How to talk to children about death  in her insightful blog,

Penny Ives wrote about being a reading omnivore
Karen King told us about My too dangerous picture book

and  Wendy Meddour described how inspiration for picture books is not always soft and fluffy in   A little bit of trauma goes long way   

  Natascha Biebow  wrote about What motivates your characters an important ingredient in any picture book.


Alison Boyle discussed story themes in bee-rocracies and hierarchies

and she also wrote about Why we write

Joyce Dunbar showed how children's books are part of everything around us in Children's books and olympic ceremony
As you can see our Guest Bloggers covered a wide range of fascinating topics this year and I hope you will agree that they truly complemented the wide range of informative blogs from our own team.

In 2013 we  will be bringing you many new thoughts on all aspects of picture books and we have some great guest bloggers lined up too.

Why not leave a comment and tell us what your favourite Picture Book Den Blog was this year and if there is anything you would like to hear about in the coming months.

But for now on behalf of all of us here on PICTUREBOOK DEN 

I wish you a happy healthy and successful year ahead in 2013


Linda Strachan is the award winning author of over 60 books for all ages, from picture books to teen novels, and writing handbook Writing For Children

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Childhood Books by Abie Longstaff

I come from a large and diverse family. My parents are Australian and I grew up first in Adelaide, then in Hong Kong (at a French school) before moving to the UK. I'm one of six sisters and we are spread all over the world: Australia, Hong Kong, Zurich, France, London. Some of us are white, some are not. Some of us are hetero; some are gay. Some of us are stay-at-home mums; some are job/children jugglers; some never want children; some are career high-flyers. Some are argumentative; some are peace-makers; some like to keep out of it all.

But, amidst all the differences, all the chaos, and all the rows, we meet up every year at our family home in France. It's a big old messy house where fuses keep blowing and there's no central heating. It's where all of our childhood things are stored: old toys, photos, school reports, duvet covers and, most importantly of all for me, books.

Every time I go back home a treasure trove of books from my past is waiting for me. I can count my life's journey from the first books my mother read to me as a child, through my early readers, right up to adult books. Now, with children of my own, I love rereading the old favourites - worn out copies of fairy tales, moth-eaten classics sent by relatives in Australia, sticky-taped picture books read and reread a hundred times over.

Christmas is a lovely time of year to pore over old memories - it's cold outside and huddling by the fire reading, and dipping into chocolates is almost compulsory. So I thought I'd share some childhood highlights with you.

 I Am a Bunny by Ole Risom and Richard Scarry (1963)

This was one of my earliest books. I loved it so much that reading it to my children brings a little tear to my eye.

These H.A. Rey books were published in 1944.
Rey went on to write the hugely successful Curious George. These three originals (Where's my Baby? See the Circus and Feed the Animals) were read by my grandmother to my father, my father to me, and me to my children. The colours have started to bleed in places and there is a copious amount of sticky tape holding the flaps together.

Anatole by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone (1956). I still love this funny story of a mouse cheese-taster. This is one of the books I wish I'd written.

My parents were very progressive and we were all read Where Did I Come From by Peter Mayle (1973) at an early age. It's a wonderful book with great illustrations. I read it to my own two when they were very young.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson-Burnett (1905) I loved this book - as a child I read it over and over again. 

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson (1985) was given to me by my Grandmother when I was around 12. It sparked my Ibbotson craze - she was a master storyteller and I still reread her work today for inspiration.

Another book I really wish I'd written! Hating Alison Ashley by Robin Klein (1984). This is a truly hilarious book about fitting in and it captures school rivalries and friendships perfectly. Genius work.

What about you? When you go home, which old books do you reach for?

Thursday, 20 December 2012

In Celebration Of ... Group Post

Christmas is all about sharing, so we decided to post our first group blog and share our top ten writing tips, plus the books we'd like Father Christmas to sneak into our Christmas stockings.

Abie Longstaff - author of The Fairytale Hairdresser and new book The Mummy Shop (illustrated by Lauren Beard).

My writing tip:
Draw: Drawing really helps to pace the book and to get the page turns right. It also helps with working out what must be said in the text, and what can be left for the illustrations.  And if you can't draw, draw anyway - just draw stick figures and squiggles.

The book I want from Father Christmas:

The Secret Lives of Princesses by Philippe Lechermeier and Rebecca Dautremer. The book looks so beautiful and I'm a sucker for anything fairytale related

Jane Clarke - author of Knight Time (illustrated by Jane Massey) and other titles.

My writing tip:

Have some time off. Embrace the ups and downs of the holiday season - and use the experiences and heightened emotions to inform your work at a later date. 

The book I want from Father Christmas:
Please may I have a hardback copy of Flotsam by David Wiesner. My paperback version is worn out by constant use. Flotsam has so many levels of enchanting possibilities, it highlights how sophisticated a picture book can be.

Juliet Clare Bell - author of The Kite Princess (illustrated by Laura-Kate Chapman) and other titles.

My writing tip:
My tip is to reduce the amount of time I’ve got for writing, in the hopes of getting more written. I’m going to give myself an hour which is dedicated, sacrosanct, scheduled in at a very specific time each day and where, on pain of death, I am NOT allowed to have access to the internet. In that writing time, I will WRITE. I will timetable things so that I do the marketing/generating new work etc. at other specific times and I will no longer let myself think that reading about what other writers are doing on FaceBook is actually work.

The book I want from Father Christmas:
The book I would most like from Father Christmas is Quentin Blake’s Beyond the Page (Tate Publishing, 2012) with 240 reproductions of his work since 2000. My favourite book until now has been Quentin Blake’s Words and Pictures, an autobiography full of his inspirational illustrations, and Beyond the Page will carry on where that one left off. And do you know what? I’m actually getting it for Christmas. Yippee! 

Karen Saunders - author of Baby Badger's Wonderful Night (illustrated by Dubravka Kolanovic) and other titles.

My writing tip: 
Set yourself a really low word count or goal to meet every day, something that's very achievable. This way, you'll be encouraged to actually start writing, because it's much less intimidating to write 50 words than 500, and chances are, you'll keep going once you've hit your target. Also, turn off your internet connection so you don't get distracted and spend all of your writing time procrastinating online (or maybe this one just applies to me).

The book I want from Father Christmas:
Any of the Little Grey Rabbit story books, because they're a wonderful reminder of my childhood and were my favourite books to share with my mum. 

Linda Strachan - author of What Colour is Love? (illustrated by David Wojtowycz) and other titles. 

My writing tip:
READ READ. Read as many picture books as you can. Look at how they are structured and how they differ in word count. Look at how the author approaches the story/idea in a unique way and how the story ends, which can be just as important. Be a critical reader, then go away and write!

The book I want from Father Christmas:
The book I'd like to receive is Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brand. I seem to have lost my copy. It was originally published in 1934 but I still find it an inspirational book about writing and being a writer. 

Lynne Garner - author of A Book for Bramble (illustrated by Gaby Hansen) and other titles.

My writing tip:
Set yourself a goal. Something that will stretch your writing muscle. For example Picture Book Ideas Month which takes place each November where you pledge to come up with 30 ideas over 30 days. Or perhaps try 12 x 12 which encourages you to write one new picture book story per month.

The book I want from Father Christmas:
This is really three books but they make a series. How to Write a Children's Picture Book Volume I: Structure - Volume II: Word, Sentence, Scene, Story - Volume III: Figures of Speech.  Written by Eve Heidi Bine-Stock.

Malachy Doyle - author of Too Noisy  (illustrated by Ed Vere) and other titles. 

My writing tip:
Take it to the garden, shed, bathroom - anywhere quiet - and read it out loud. Catch it by surprise.

The book I want from Father Christmas:
A Dictionary of British Folk Tales (part b), by Katherine Briggs. Martin Waddell, in my early days of writing, recommended these for inspiration, and he's right. I've got part a, but the cheapest I can find part b is £50, so ...  

Moira Butterfield 
- author of Smile Baby Smile (illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw) and other titles.

My writing tip:
Remember to play. Occasionally give yourself a treat and just play with words, writing for fun only. I’m sure professional singers must sometimes sing in their baths and professional artists must sometimes doodle. I see it as trying to keep some water in the creative well.

The book I want from Father Christmas:
I love to find vintage Children’s books and on the internet I’ve seen the cover of an interesting-looking 1970s picture book called The Very Important Man, by Joan Hickson. The deliciously retro cover looks great, with a humourless-looking man being driven in an impossibly long car that wraps round the whole book. I’ve never seen inside and I want to know what happens to the very important man. Whenever it turns up on the internet (not very often) it’s too expensive, but perhaps Santa has one in his attic.

Paeony Lewis - author of Best Friends or Not?  (illustrated by Gaby Hansen) and other titles.

My writing tip:
I enjoy the traditional clichés of Christmas. However, I suggest trying harder to avoid clichés in our writing. Think before including overused phrases, though don't be afraid of using simple words like 'said'. This also applies to tired scenarios, such as ending a story with the hero being presented with a medal by the mayor and everyone cheering (I did this with my first story - justifiably unpublished!).

The book I want from Father Christmas:
I might have been too naughty this year for a present, so I bought it earlier this week. Mirror by Jeannie Baker is a very visual picture book that opens up on the left and the right to show us the mirror images of an ordinary day in the life of two families (in Australia and Morocco). Although the lives appear different, underneath we see many similarities. Plus the final images remind us we shouldn't make clichéd assumptions. In this 'season of  goodwill' we think about others, and Mirror encourages year-round reflection.  

Pippa Goodhart - author of Just Imagine (illustrated by Nick Sharratt) and other titles 

My writing tip:  
Take a professional interest in those terrible cracker jokes.  A really good joke that lends itself to visual treatment, and a sequence of revelations, just might make a brilliant picture book!

The book I want from Father Christmas:

Children’s Picture books; The Art Of Visual Storytelling by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles.  It’s a stonking £22.50 because it is sumptuous and big, and full of wonderful examples of picture book art.

With warm and festive greetings for a wonderful holiday from Abie, Jane, Clare, Karen, Linda, Lynne, Malachy, Moira, Paeony and Pippa.

And now over to you: what would be your top writing tip, and which book would you love to receive this Christmas?

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Gift Of Giving, by Pippa Goodhart

Let me tell you a story.

            There was once a child who went to a small village school. 
She was a happy child, but rather unsure of things.  All her friends learned to read quite quickly, but she got stuck for years in the earliest stages of learning to read.  It was only after her mother taught her to read one summer holiday when she was about eight or nine that this child really began to enjoy reading, even though she’d always loved stories that were read to her.  Reading at school went on being mostly a chore of trying to read increasingly hard ‘reading books’, but the child’s mother read her Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House In The Big Woods’ at home, and the child felt keenly that Laura was her friend, and she longed to know more about her.  One by one, further books about Laura came out, and were bought for birthdays and Christmases.

            One day when that girl was in her last year at that village school, a young man came to help in the school.  He was called Tom, and all the children loved him.  One summer day Tom ‘did something very kind’ (to quote from ‘Dogger’ – I am trying to link this to picture books, honest!).  To celebrate his birthday and finishing his exams, Tom invited a group of children from the school to his room in Trinity College’s Great Court.  He gave the children tea, and he and a friend played loud blues tunes on a piano, and everyone played party games.  But then, and best of all, Tom took the children down the road to Heffers Children’s Bookshop, and he let them each choose ANY BOOK THEY WANTED as a present!! The children couldn’t quite believe that anybody would give presents on their birthday, or that they were really allowed to choose whatever they wanted.  The teacher didn’t approve of every child’s choice, but THEY GOT THE BOOK THEY WANTED ANYWAY!    Perhaps you can guess that the girl chose ‘Little Town On The Prairie’ by Laura Ingalls Wilder so that she could read the next bit of Laura’s story.

            Well, the years passed, as years do.  The girl went on to a big scary school that she slowly got used to.  When she became sixteen she got a Saturday job in the big Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge.  She worked there every Saturday and school holiday, and then in university holidays.  Coming home from university, she would often read one of her Laura Ingalls Wilder books to make her feel really at home.  After university the girl went back to Heffers for a full time job, and this time she was put to work in the Children’s Bookshop; that very same bookshop of the magical back-to-front birthday tea party day of her childhood.  With her staff discount she bought new hardback copies of all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, but she never did throw away the old paperback ones, even when she moved house and had clear-outs years and years later.

            For five years the girl, who was now a young woman, worked in Heffers Children’s Bookshop.  She met publishers and authors and illustrators, she read lots of books, and she enjoyed getting the right books and people together.  Then she fell in love.  She married a man living in Leicester, so that’s where she moved to.  She became a mother of three lovely daughters, and she began to write her own stories.  One book got published, then more and more until the writing was enough to count as a job, and she was happy. 

Every Christmas the woman’s local Leicester bookshop had a Giving Tree where you could take a label that said something like ‘Boy, aged 3, wants a book with tractors in it’, and people would then buy a book for that child.  The books were for children who attended a family support centre.  It became an important part of Christmas; the woman and her daughters carefully choosing and buying the right book for a child they didn’t know. And each time they did that, the woman thought of how special that gift of a book from somebody who didn’t need to give her anything had been to her all those years ago, and she hoped very much that it would feel as nice as that for the child she was buying a book for.  She told her children about the young man who had once bought books for her to celebrate his birthday.

            A quarter of a century later, that girl and her husband decided to move back to the village where she had grown-up.  They built a lovely house (with lots of shelves for books), and they moved in.  A few months later the woman wrote a blog about a book (no, not a Laura Ingalls Wilder one, although she might well have done ), and then something wonderful happened.  An email arrived from somebody called Tom.  Tom had read that blog, and it had made him wonder, was the woman who had written that blog the Pippa he remembered from Grantchester School back in 1969, forty-three years ago?  She was!  And she is, and she’s me, of course. 

Believe it or not, Tom remembers the home-made gifts of cards and paper flowers stuck on a box that we made him as a thank you at the time.  So the gifts in both directions were treasured.  Tom’s unexpected book gift to me was one of the things that nudged me into the life I now lead, and it taught me how wonderfully and surprisingly generous people can be, even people who don’t have to care about you at all.  

            So the points I want to make are –

1) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are not picture books in the usual, large format, more-picture-than-text, sense.  But Garth Williams’ line drawings show vividly the places, the people and the things from late C19th pioneering America; showing more about what the text is telling.  Words and pictures very much work together to make the whole, just as any good picture book does.  It’s lovely to see line drawings coming back into chapter books and novels recently.  Please, publishers, give us more illustration in chapter books, and make them of the best illustrative quality.  Children study those illustrations over and over, and such dedication from an audience deserves the best.

2) Heffers Children’s Bookshop (now newly located at the back of the main shop, and a treat to visit) is currently running a Giving Tree for children at the East Anglian Children’s Hospice.  Many other bookshops run similar local schemes, giving us all the chance to cast a bit of Tom magic this Christmas, hopefully surprising children with a book they want as a present from somebody who doesn’t have to give them a present; making it the truest kind of gift of all.

3) Thank you, thank you, to Tom Deveson.


Monday, 10 December 2012

Stealing and Murder in Picture Books? by Paeony Lewis

Illus by Warwick Goble, 1923
I suspect you said, “No way!” But what of picture-book versions of Jack and the Beanstalk? When I was a child I felt sorry for the dead giant. That sympathy remained until I discovered the history behind the story.

This got me thinking about popular fairytales and I thought it would be intriguing to take a look at what we’re saying to children when we share modern versions of classic fairytales (whether as picture books or illustrated story books). So here's a peep at the history behind  Jack and the Beanstalk and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

The History of Jack and the Bean-Stalk, 1807
At the start of the eighteenth century, Benjamin Tabart recorded his version of an oral story that had been told around the fireside for perhaps hundreds of years. In The History of Jack and the Bean-Stalk, a poor boy climbs the beanstalk to recover what by rights should belong to him because the giant swindled and murdered his father (a good fairy confirms it is his destiny to avenge his father - this may have been added by Tabart to appease sensibilities).

Illus by John Batten, from Jacob's
Jack and the Beanstalk, English Fairy Tales
Over fifty years later, Joseph Jacobs retold another version of this story, as told to him by his Australian nursemaid when he was a young boy. Jack and the Beanstalk was one of many stories Jacobs included in the popular English Fairy Tales. In this version there is no good fairy and there is no overt moral justification for the robbery of the bag of gold, the hen that lays golden eggs, or the golden harp. Jack is seen as a hero who outwits an evil giant that can smell the blood of Englishmen and wants to eat them. Thus a poor boy outwits the giant and then lives happily ever after (despite chopping down the beanstalk and thereby killing the giant, although we're only told he 'broke his crown').

Illus by Arthur Rackham
Ho hum, when I was a child, this was the version I objected to. A poor boy swaps his cow for three beans, climbs the magic beanstalk, robs the giant three times, and when he’s about to be caught (and eaten!) by the giant, Jack escapes by murdering the giant, and then lives happily on his ill-gotten gains.

Tales by the fire
However, if viewed within its original historical context, even the second version becomes more acceptable. Long ago, when told around the fire, the giant is not merely a very large, bone-crunching, blood-sniffing monster. The scary giant who lives up in the clouds in an out-of-reach castle represents somebody who is a ‘giant’ in terms of status and wealth. He’s at the top of the class system – the top of the beanstalk. Perhaps he’s a lord or a prince who has utter control of the lives of the poor who live off his land. Thus, the Jack in the story represents the canny peasants overcoming the tyrant lord and redistributing his gigantic wealth. By not naming the lord and therefore hiding his identity beneath the mask of the ‘giant’, no storytelling peasant could be punished for inciting rebellion. It was a way for the powerless poor to share and vocalise their dreams of overcoming the all-powerful feudal lord.

Nowadays, perhaps the ‘giant’ is a selfish dictator or huge money-obsessed corporation. However, I doubt a child would see it that way and therefore I still have a niggle about promoting robbery and murder, although I now understand why the story was first shared around the fire. Or am I in danger of being too politically correct?

From Robert Southey's The Story of the Three Bears
(note the old woman's legs!)
Another fairytale favourite that has changed over time, albeit in a different way, is Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In the first half of the eighteenth century, The Story of the Three Bears was recorded by two different sources (Robert Southey and Eleanor Mure), and back then there was no golden-haired, cute girl. Instead, the bears were friends or brothers and the intruder was an itinerant, rude old woman who comes to a disagreeable end in Mure's story. Plus a further version existed in which the unwanted visitor was a fox (vixen). All were cautionary and threatening tales about respecting the property of others.

Illus by Margaret Evans Price, 1927
Then in 1850 a little girl replaces the silver-haired old woman in the Victorian A Treasury of Pleasure Books, and shortly afterwards the bears morph into a family of father, mother and baby bear. Though it’s not until 1918 that the name Goldilocks appears in Flora Steel’s English Fairy Tales. So over time, the ominous oral tale has developed into what many see as a gentle warning to children of the perils of wandering off and the dangers lurking behind cosy facades.

Once again, as a child I was uncomfortable about Goldilocks and felt the bears had been mistreated (I must have had a strong sense of right and wrong!). Regardless of Goldilocks being a cute wee moppet, I was more in tune with the original interpretation. I don’t think I’m alone as there have been contemporary retellings that cast the bears in a positive light. In particular, one picture book, Beware of the Bears, makes me smile (a naughty smile), as in this book the vengeful bears mistakenly trash Goldilocks home!

So what do you all think about the 'messages' in classic fairytales? Should we leave them as they are, despite social changes? Contemporary stepmothers might have a few thoughts! Or is it a case of being too politically correct, with Victorian sensibilities? And the villains do have all the best lines: Fe fi fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman...
Paeony Lewis is a children's author and writing tutor.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Turning Real Life into Picture Book by Malachy Doyle

I spent the months of September and October walking the Via de la Plata, an ancient pilgrimage route that runs all the way up the west of Spain, from Seville to Santiago de Compostela.  It was a tough 1000 kilometre (650 mile) walk and, as I’ve never done long-distance walking before, a major challenge.  I damaged my foot in the last hundred, and wasn’t at all sure I’d make it to the end, but through grit and determination, and with the encouragement and assistance of my kind brother Raphael, I got there.  (Though I’m still feeling the after-effects a month later in my leg.)

It was an amazing experience in all sorts of ways, but the most important was doing it with my brother.  We’re both rapidly approaching the big 60 (he’s closer than I am), and we haven’t spent anything like that much time together since we were about ten.  But we walked (and sang) together for fifty three days, and it was joyous.

We both kept a diary of our Camino and, being a picture book writer, I’m now reworking mine in the form I know and love best.

Because, as I’m always telling children when they ask where I get my ideas from, that’s what you do - you take a dose of real life - preferably something that really matters to you - you add a sprinkling of imagination, you stir it and stir it and bob’s your uncle (or in this case Big Bear’s your brother…)

Here's us in Seville on the very first morning.

And here’s an early draft of day one.

‘Wake up, Little Bear.
It’s time we were going!’

And at six o’clock,
while the world was still sleeping,
they opened the door and were off. 

‘It’s dark,’ whispered Little Bear,
as they left the lights of the town behind them.

Big Bear pointed to the full moon.
‘It’s all right,’ he said.  ‘She’ll keep us safe.’

They followed the yellow arrows, 
north, always northwards,
till they spotted an early-morning café.

Big Bear had hot chocolate.
Little Bear had lemonade fizz.

‘Eight hundred and thirty six, eight hundred and thirty seven…’ said Little Bear, counting as he went.  ‘How many more steps until we get there, Big Bear?’ 
‘Oh, about half a million,’ said Big Bear, with a shrug.

‘HALF A MILLION STEPS!’ Little Bear was shocked.
And it’ll be even more for me, he thought.  Mine are shorter than his.

But when you’re walking together down a long dirt road, you fall into step.
You can’t help but fall into step.