Monday, 14 May 2018

How to Catch a Reader: Make Up Cool (Fibs) Stuff! • by Natascha Biebow

From Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Waterson
Can you tell the truth from a bunch of made-up imaginings, er . . . fibs, when someone is spinning a really good yarn? Do your stories masquerade as believable ‘truths’?

One of the most admired qualities of storytellers is their amazing ability to convince readers that their yarns could be true, and maybe really ARE true . . .

This is because the premise and their characters are believable, which makes readers want to go the story’s journey. And, in doing so, they are helping readers to figure out some important stuff about their world.

Take REALLY REALLY by Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt:

When Daisy gets a babysitter for the first time, she eats her mum's note and tells the her sitter all kinds of more and more elaborate fibs – testing, testing, but also working her way through this new experience. All the while, her fingers are safely crossed behind her back!

From Really, Really by Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt

In OLIVIA SAVES THE CIRCUS by Ian Falconer, Olivia is invited by her teacher to tell the class about her holiday. 

The story starts innocuously enough – Olivia’s mum took her and her brother to the circus. But then . . .

. . .  the circus people were off sick and only Olivia could do all the acts!

She was Olivia the Tattooed Lady, Olivia the Lion Tamer, Olivia the Tight-rope Walker, the Clown, and Olivia the Queen of the Trampoline, and Madame Olivia and her trained dogs. She was FAMOUS!

From Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer
From Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer

Olivia’s teacher is skeptical. “Are you sure, Olivia?”

“To the best of my recollection.”
From Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer

Her deadpan response is of course what makes the story humorous, however, it is also a beautifully observed picture of the lying game.

So why do children (and grown-ups) tell fibs and stories?

Young children can’t actually tell the difference between a fact and a lie until they are around two years old. This is because they don’t have the ability to get into another person’s shoes yet. The first lies they learn to tell are those where they say they deny doing something.

From the age three, young children also begin to tell white lies, such as to hide a surprise or to thank someone for a present even when they don’t really like it.

Take the classic NO ROSES FOR HARRY by Gene Zion and Margaret Blog Graham. 

Harry is a white dog with black spots. On his birthday, he is given a lovely homemade jumper from Grandma. But it has roses on it. “It was the silliest sweater he’d ever seen.”

From No Roses for Harry by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham

THE LIE: It wouldn’t do to tell Grandma. Harry wears the sweater dutifully, but he’s sure the other dogs will laugh at him. 
From No Roses for Harry by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham

Eventually, the sweater unravels and a bird makes a nest out of the wool. Harry doesn't tell anyone.
From No Roses for Harry by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham
But then: disaster! Grandma is coming to visit!
From No Roses for Harry by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham

THE SORT-OF-TRUTH: Harry feels compelled to show Grandma what’s become of the sweater (she thinks Harry has been incredibly generous). Best of all, at Christmas, Harry gets a new sweater – white with black spots. This time, he loves it!

From No Roses for Harry by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham
Being able to tell a fib or a believable story is often a way in to becoming socially acceptable, on the finely balanced scales of weighing up right and wrong. It’s also a sign that children are developing important cognitive skills such as ‘theory of mind’, the ability to recognize that others have different beliefs or feelings than they do, which develops slowly in the preschool and kindergarten years.

In Sarah McIntyre's poignant story THE NEW NEIGHBOURS

the whole tower block is convinced that the rats who have moved into the ground floor are "big, dirty, thieveing, dangerous rats" before they have even met them . . .

From The New Neighbours by Sarah McIntrye
But when they finally get to meet the pair of tiny, neat and friendly new neighbours in person, the friends are hugely embarrassed by the rats' kind invitation to come in and share CAKE. Lettuce doesn't want to admit the crazy stories they'd made up, so she fibs:

From The New Neighbours by Sarah McIntrye

So, if I’m a writer, can I fib as much as I like? Will I be believed?

In John Burningham’s JOHN PATRICK NORMAN McHENNESSY, THE BOY WHO WAS ALWAYS LATE, the lines between what is true and what is a fib are seemingly clear until the tables are turned and the grown-up teacher fibs. Or is it everything John has been saying really The Truth?

John Patrick Norman McHennessy spins all kinds of yarns to convince his teacher why he is late for school. He has met a crocodile, a lion and even a tidal wave! Of course, his teacher does not believe him.

From John Patrick Norman McHennessy by John Burningham

But when his teacher is captured by a big hairy gorilla, John replies there are no such things as big hairy gorillas. Who’s telling what truth and what is the fib?

I would venture that telling made-up ‘truths’ is something authors are wired to do. As I tell stories, I reach back into my past, I tell about encounters and observations from last week and dig deep for tales inspired by my childhood. I embroider. My stories are inspired by where I’ve been and where I want to go, and this helps me find my bearing on what is true for me today. By telling stories, I am making something ‘real’, even if it’s a big fat fib, conjuring it up in my mind’s eye.

We tell stories about things we need to be true.  

We tell stories about things we wish were true.

We tell stories to avoid punishment or consequences.

Lying requires the child to hide the truth, plan up a story about it, tell someone about it, and remember it! So, we began practising our storytelling ‘lying’ skills right from when we're preschoolers.

Of course, as children get older they also develop their moral compass, so they can distinguish between right and wrong, what is made-up and what is true. They are encouraged to tell the truth.

Like in THE TRUTH ACCORDING TO ARTHUR, where Arthur tells all kinds of alternative versions of what really happened when he borrowed his brother’s big bike, accidentally wrecked it and scratched Mum’s car. 

An alien did it! . .  . A super cool princess borrowed the bike!

From The Truth According to Arthur by Tim Hopgood and David Tazzyman

The bike was really a robot! . . .

From The Truth According to Arthur by Tim Hopgood and David Tazzyman

Arthur tries bending, stretching, disguising it, hiding, and ignoring The Truth . . . But eventually, when Mum asks what has happened, Arthur looks The Truth straight in the eye and confesses. It’s not nearly as interesting as the stories he was telling, but Mum is pleased he told The Truth.

A fun game I like to play is to imagine what the world will be like in the future. Will it be one where we can fly everywhere rather than use a car on a road? Wouldn’t it be spectacular if I could just go and see my mum in Brazil for a cup of tea and then be back in London in time for dinner? Will robots deliver our post?

If I can’t tell a story or a weensy-fib-imagined truth, I can’t invent the future. If I can’t imagine what we might invent to fill the gaps in our world, to solve our current problems, then I might be powerless to change anything. Stories help young readers feel empowered to imagine and to make stuff up.

When a story resonates, the reader will nod and say, “Yes, that’s true! Now listen to what happened when . . ." and tell his or her version of this ‘truth’. And so we are all linked by a circle of fibs, a circle of stories. (But we should really tell The Truth.)

Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor

Natascha is the author of The Crayon Man (coming in 2019), Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. She runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. Check out her Cook Up a Picture Book courses!

Monday, 7 May 2018

DARWINISM FOR BEGINNERS: Picture books that introduce children to evolution • Jonathan Emmett

Until recently, the UK school curriculum did not require children to be taught about evolution until they reached secondary school. In September 2014, after years of lobbying by scientists and other groups, evolution was introduced into the final year (age 10-11) of the primary curriculum. While this is a step in the right direction, research has shown that children are more likely to accept evolution’s rational explanation of creation if they’re introduced to it towards the beginning of their primary education rather than at the end, by which time less-rational explanations (both religious and non-religious) may have taken root.

For the last few years I've been using my poem My Cousin is a Cucumber (from Skyboy and other Stupendous Science Stories) to explain to Year 3 and 4 classes that all life on Earth is believed to have a single common ancestor. Most seven-year-olds are fascinated to learn that they are descended from an "itsy-bitsy blob of life" and amused to discover that they are the distant cousins of both cockatoos and cucumbers. An awareness of evolution is fundamental to a child’s proper understanding of the natural world and, if presented in an appropriate and engaging way, there is no good reason for evolution not to be introduced to children as young as five or six.

Picture books can be a very effective way to introduce evolution to children from an early age. How the Borks Became, my new picture book with Elys Dolan, was written specifically to explain natural selection, the process by which evolution takes place. It was developed in consultation with Boston University’s Child Cognition Lab who have been researching how to teach evolution effectively to young children. As a result of their research, the team developed their own natural selection picture book, How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses, which is aimed at a slightly older age group to How the Borks Became and explains the process in a more detailed way. You can find out more about the team’s research and their book at

How the Borks Became follows the evolution of a fictional species, the llama-like Borks, who live on “a far distant planet, quite like our own Earth”. The books shows how three environmental factors - climate, predation and availability of food – result in Borks evolving from smooth-furred, short-necked, blue creatures into shaggy, long-necked, yellow ones.

How the Borks Became shows how natural selection transforms the Borks from smooth-furred, short-necked, blue creatures into shaggy, long-necked, yellow ones.

The use of a fantasy alien ecosystem gives the book licence to represent the process of natural selection in a speeded-up, caricatured form over just four generations of Borks. A page at the end of the book explains that evolution on Earth happens at a far slower rate with much smaller changes and that it might take an Earth animal millions of years to change as much as the Borks in the story.

When a greedy predator gobbles up all of the blue-furred borks, only the better-camouflaged yellow-furred Borks are left to parent the next generation.

Here are five more picture books that do a great job of introducing the fundamentally important topic of evolution to children at primary school age.

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story 

written by Lisa Westberg Peters

illustrated by Lauren Stringer

Suitable for age 5 and above.

This is a US picture book, but can easily be bought on import. Westberg Peter’s simple, poetic text charts the evolution of humans from our beginnings as simple mono-cellular organisms to the present day, highlighting significant stages along the way. Stringer’s illustrations intercut pictures of creatures in their natural habitats with images of a family mapping out an evolutionary diagram on a sandy beach. These sand drawings are cleverly employed to illustrate important developments in internal anatomy, such as the appearance of backbones and lungs. A glossary page and timeline at the back of the book give additional details and a sense of perspective to the book’s four billion year narrative.

A spread from Our Family Tree, showing the development of fins and a backbone.

The Story of Life

written by Catherine Barr

and Steve Williams

illustrated by Amy Husband

Suitable for age 6 and above.

This book covers an even longer timeline than Our Family Tree and charts the evolution of all life on Earth with the time period displayed in the corner of each page. Amy Husband’s lively illustrations display the diversity of Earth’s plant and animal life at various stages in its early history, before narrowing the focus to show the last 12 million years of human evolution from the the first apes to modern man on the last four spreads. The book finishes with an environmental message about the need to look after the planet that is our only home.

This spread from The Story of Life illustrates the diversity of life on prehistoric Earth.

What Mr Darwin Saw

by Mick Manning

and Brita Granström

Suitable for age 7 and above.

Although the concept of evolution predated Charles Darwin, it was not widely accepted until Darwin discovered the principle of natural selection. Mick Manning and Brita Granström’s biographical picture book spans the life of this revolutionary scientist, but focusses chiefly on the five years the young Darwin spent as a captain’s companion and naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. The book uses scenes from the voyage and excerpts from Darwin’s diary to show how his encounters with the plants and animals of South America, and the Galapagos Islands in particular, informed his subsequent work.

What Mr Darwin Saw illustrates how Darwin’s experiences during the voyage of the HMS Beagle informed his later work.

The Misadventures of Charles Darwin

written by Isabel Thomas

illustrated by Pete Williamson

Suitable for age 9 and above.

This book, part of Oxford University Press’s Treetops in Fact series, presents an entertaining biography of Darwin’s life, from “stinky schoolboy” to aged “celebrity scientist”. It also does a great job of explaining Darwin’s theories clearly and succinctly and examines some of their implications for science and culture. Isabel Thomas’s engaging and accessible text is liberally peppered with archive photographs and Pete Williamson’s illustrations and ‘Mythbuster’ panels throughout the book help to correct common misconceptions about Darwin’s life and work.

This spread from The Misadventures of Charles Darwin looks at how Darwin’s theories were initially received.

All About Evolution:

From Darwin to DNA

by Robert Winston

(Previously published as Evolution Revolution)

Suitable for age 10 and above.

This book, written by scientist and broadcaster Robert Winston is crammed with detailed information on every aspect on evolution, from its historical development as an idea to its possible implications for the future of mankind. One minor criticism is that some spreads feel a little too crowded, making it difficult to take in the content, but this is easily forgiven given the breadth and quality of information the book contains. Although this book is probably more suited to secondary school readers, it contents will be of interest to more advanced and inquisitive readers in their final years of primary school as well.

This spread from All About Evolution shows how scientists think complex structures like the human eye evolved via a series of incremental changes.

How the Borks Became An Adventure in Evolution by Jonathan Emmett and Elys Dolan is published by Otter-Barry Books. Find out more about the book and download some activity sheets here.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blog. You can also follow Jonathan on Facebook and Twitter @scribblestreet.

See all of Jonathan's posts for Picture Book Den.