Monday, 4 February 2013

It's not only the pictures that give picture books their power... by James Catchpole of The Catchpole Agency



There are many good things about working in children’s literature. 

One of them is how frequently you find yourself having earnest, reasoned conversations about not entirely reasonable things, like whether, if anthropomorphized fruit have arms and legs, cheese and eggs should too. (A reasonable conclusion turns out to be yes, but not sausages or frozen chickens – that would be weird.) 

Another good thing is how that precious, childish, ragged edge of fantasy does – somehow – find its way from an author’s pen, via the stewardship of an agent, right to the top of one of those great glass cliffs in London (into which all but a few of the smaller publishers have now been subsumed), so that still, when you sign in at the desk in the sterile, corporate lobby and take the lift to the 14th floor, the clean-lined, pale-toned, open-plan office that greets you nevertheless bears its happily incongruous traces, in shelves upon shelves of beautiful, colourful, anarchic and fantastical books.    

But maybe the best thing about working in children’s literature is simply the range of storytelling. True, not all subjects and not all human experiences are covered here (no sex, most obviously), but the power and breadth of children’s fantasy – fantasy as real for them as reality is for us – more than compensates. And subject isn’t everything. Think of the range of ways a story can be told, and must be told, in order to enthral someone almost fully grown, and someone so small they’ve barely begun to be.

So this range and variety might be the best thing of all, I think: to be able to work on a picturebook in the morning, and a novel in the afternoon. And probably best in that order, because there’s something special about picturebooks that sharpens the tools of storytelling (and in my case, editing).

Picturebooks are how our agency began. Celia studied to be a visual artist – a sculptor – and has used that trained eye to spot talent in illustrators, and help them develop it. I hope I’ve inherited some of her instinct in that regard, to compensate for a lack of formal training in the visual. 

My training was in words, and in music, a useful diversion so I later found, because it helps hone a sense of narrative in the abstract. Composers think of narrative structure in abstraction, ABACA. Writers often conceive of structure more instinctively or superficially, but the deeper, unconscious structure of storytelling is there all the same, hidden beneath the surface flow of paragraphs and chapters.

Picturebooks, like the simplest musical forms, impose a rigorously explicit structure on narrative. Thirteen and a half spreads to do all that a story (or a piece of music, in fact) has to do: establish a home, complicate matters, leave, and then resolve and return. And somehow that little journey has to intrigue and absorb us, carry us along, move us and then finally satisfy us. 

Novels, like symphonies, may go here and there, may slow to a crawl then tear ahead to the finish, but picturebooks have no room to meander. As with poems, in the best picturebooks, every word earns its place. Picturebooks are the art and the science of storytelling distilled to their essence. 

And maybe, after all, that’s the best thing about working in children’s literature: that ideal alchemy of wild, ragged fantasy, and the formal discipline of narrative, which picturebooks in particular mix and brew so well.

 If you want to find out more about what Celia and I do, the link to our website is www.thecatchpoleagency.co.uk 
(though you may have to wait a day or two while BT chases down a cyber-gremlin that appears to have chewed through a cable, somewhere out in the ether...)

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for a beautiful post, James. I agree: picture books have a peculiar magic about them. For me they are little pieces of prose poems; like Haiku. The interaction between the text and picture creates the perfect blend of this poetry and art and the best picture books are treasured through the generations, read over and over until they seep into your childhood memories.

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    1. Yes, Abie (and James). Mem Fox says 'Writing a picture book is like writing War and Peace in haiku.' So much to get across, so few words with which to do it. Sometimes it drives you mad, but it's a wonderful madness.

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  2. I also love that picture books impose a 'rigorously explicit structure on narrative'. It's a great challenge. And I like the thought of comparing it with simple musical structures. Thanks, James.

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  3. I've been pondering your analogy of musical structure and writing - many thanks for such a thought-provoking post. As for poetry, well perhaps the reason I enjoy my new poetry evening classes is mixed up with why I adore writing picture books.

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  4. You're welcome, folks. We're simple beasts, aren't we: we respond to the same formula over and over - an establishing, a dissonance and a resolution. We just have a need to play it again and again, and maybe more so as we get older and learn life isn't so simple as that. I read the other day that only grown-ups cry at happy endings, from that sense of 'if only life were like this'. Kids cry at sad endings, but not at happy ones, because they assume them to be the norm. There's a melancholy thought...

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    1. Well put, James, and such a poignant point about endings.

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    2. I like what you say about simplicity and wanting the same things over and over (it's very safe for small children, of course). But I do disagree with the article you read about only grown-ups crying at happy endings. Two of my children have always cried at happy endings when they're really poignant -because they're really moved by it. If a build up to something is worrying, then the relief of it being really happy can absolutely make a child cry. I don't cry at happy endings because I think 'if only life were like this'. I cry at happy endings because I'm really really pleased and relieved for the characters that I love. I have a very happy outlook on life and a very happy life but I STILL cry at the loveliness of happy endings. Maybe I'm just soft -along with my lovely children! (Surely other children cry when it all turns out happily in The Secret Garden? Mine used to sob with happiness!)

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  5. There's certainly a necessary pattern and rhythm to the writing of a good picture book, and to it's final overall form, that does have much in common with music. Hmm. There's an interesting PHd thesis to be written by somebody on this! Thank you for such an interesting blog, James, and love to Celia who I remember well from distant days when I was represented by Gina Pollinger and Celia.

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  6. I've been thinking for a while about where picture book texts need to go. With interactivity being so important, music and performance will start to play a bigger part, I think, and we should perhaps think about offering to share our stories not just with illustrators but perhaps with musicians, too. In fact I've just handed over a story of my own to a couple of students and asked them to use their musical equipment and bouncy sense of joy to make of it what they will.

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  7. Thanks for your post, James - looking forward to more earnest, reasoned conversations about not entirely reasonable things :-)

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  8. A great post.

    I've had a few discussions about weird things characters would and would not do. For example how a hedgehog wouldn't eat whole nuts. Then I stopped myself, I was arguing a factual point about a talking hedgehog.

    I also enjoy working within the structure of a picture book. I know how many 'acts' (each page being an act) so I am able to plot my characters journey.

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  9. great post, I am interesting in it!

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