Monday, 28 December 2015

Most Inspiring/Helpful Advice I've Received From An Editor or Agent - Group Post

As this is the last post of 2015 we decided to share some of the most inspiring and helpful advice we've received. We hope you find it useful and if you've received any useful advice please feel free to share in the comments. 


Keep it global - Lynne Garner

I was once advised by an editor to think globally whilst writing a story. By this my editor meant unless the setting is an important element of the story then try not to include festivals, celebrations or holidays that are only enjoyed by one country or religion. This hopefully means your publisher can sell your book to a sub-publisher without making huge changes to your story. I followed her advice whilst writing A Book For Bramble" and made the celebrations Teasel enjoyed ones that were linked to the seasons. As you can see from the attached cover her advice worked and the book was translated into other languages, resulting in increased royalty payments for me.

Don't rush - Moira Butterfield 

When I was a young editor I was very gung-ho and wanted to do everything quickly. My boss, Jenny Tyler at Usborne, told me 'more haste, less speed', and I've never forgotten it either as an editor or as an author. I do tend to rush things by nature and have to rein myself in. It's important to leave text to marinade - even if you only have a limited time schedule. Give it space. Put it away for a day or two and then go back to it. Don't send it off to anyone until you are sure it's fully formed. That means reining in your initial excitement about it and not jumping the gun.

A spread from I Saw a Shark, illustrated by Michael Emmerson, out at the end of 2015.
I kept this text to myself for ages, tinkering
with it and not giving myself any pressure. 

Focus on your strengths - Jonathan Emmett
The most valuable piece of advice I’ve been given came from my agent Caroline Walsh when I was just starting out in children’s publishing. I’d intended to be an author-illustrator and many of my early projects were both written and illustrated (and sometimes paper-engineered) by me, but there was little interest from publishers. Caroline explained that there were plenty of illustrators who could produce good picture book illustrations, but not many authors that could write good picture book texts. Caroline told me that I could write good texts, so if I wanted to make a living out of picture books, I should focus on the writing. I followed her advice and I've been making a living as a picture book author ever since!

One of my early illustrations for the my picture book story Fox's New Coat,
which was eventually published with illustrations by Penny Ives.

Be prepared to change - Jane Clarke

When PictureBook Den's Natascha was an editor at Random House, she asked me to change a character in Knight Time from Mummy to Daddy - and it's a much better book because of it- thanks, Natascha!

Fab illustrations to the finished book by Jane Massey -and a very scruffy alteration to the original text by me: 






Have fun! - Paeony Lewis

Alex Bear and Baby Pog having fun in I'll Always Love You,
by Paeony Lewis, illus by Penny Ives
Long ago I sent three stories to an agent for children's books. Although this particular agent didn't take me on, she replied with comments. One comment in particular has always stuck in my head and it was simply to have more fun in my writing. So even now, when I've finished the draft of a picture book text, I'll read it and ask myself if  I've included enough fun. I appreciate that not all picture books are 'fun', but almost all include humour, even if it's subtle. For me it was simple, great advice.





Read it aloud in a different accent - Michelle Robinson


Don't assume your rhyming text rhymes in every tongue just because it does in yours (e.g. 'again' and 'rain'), and definitely don't cheat and tell yourself a near-rhyme will do the job because it almost certainly won't. I can't remember who gave me this advice now so I don't know who to credit - but it's something I still need to remind myself to do as it's not something that comes naturally. I also kind of wish I'd avoided ending lines with nouns in 'Elephant's Pyjamas' as having to switch words to their non-rhyming American equivalents (e.g. 'jimjams' became 'jammies') made doing the U.S. edit rather tricky.




We hope sharing the above will help and inspire you. We also hope that 2016 brings you all you wish for.

With our very best regards,

Everyone at the Picture Book Den

Monday, 21 December 2015

And the moral of the story is… don’t write it for the moral. If you write a challenging picture book, do it because that specific story is the story you most want to tell right now and because you can tell it brilliantly. Oh, and (nearly) happy new year, by Juliet Clare Bell

I can't wait to read this book...


                                                (c) Jon Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith

Sometimes you read a blog post that feels like it was written just for you. This is how I feel about Brainpickings’ The Best Children’s Books of 2015, which I read earlier today –three times in a row, just to make sure all the recommended books look as enticing as they did first (and then second) time round… (and yes, they did).

Apart from the first, and second-from-last book, on their list, I’d never even heard of any of these 2015 picture books. But if I were to write a Christmas list for myself, those nine books I’d not heard of until today now would be the nine things on my list. This is a time of year for sharing so I would love to share this blog post with you and all its beautiful books, it’s such a treat.

Read it, read it now! Aren’t they beautiful?

This is going to be a short post as I mostly just want to share some beautiful picture books with you through the Brainpickings’ blog and these aren’t the most readily available books to buy in the UK so you may not have seen some of them, either…

I would like, though, to say how they’ve struck a real chord with where I am at the moment in my writing and in my life. The last few years have been at times quite personally challenging, but I feel that the changes in our lives have awakened something in me that has been lying dormant for a long time. I feel more excited about writing than I have for a long time and I’ve found that what I’m writing and what I’m thinking about and planning on writing next is quite different from what I was writing before. And it is definitely more challenging. But not because I’ve decided to write things differently. I am more engaged with what’s going on in the community, locally and globally, and that’s what I’m thinking about so it’s seeping into what I write.

I doubt that the beautiful books on the Brainpickings list have come about by authors and author-illustrators deciding that they’re ‘going to write a challenging book’. I don’t expect that Olivier Tallec randomly decided that he would like to create a picture book that has echoes of a psychology experiment from the early seventies by Philip Zimbardo, and then went ahead and wrote Louis I, King of the Sheep. I suspect that he came up with a great story that he was telling in the best way he could, and that it contains an underlying truth because he's telling it right and not trying to moralise.

                                                     

                                                                      (c) Olivier Tallac (2015)

It doesn’t take much to draw parallels between the prison guard experiment where Zimbardo told some students they’d be prison guards and others that they’d be prisoners (with shocking consequences: see footage from the experiment here) and things that are happening throughout the world at the moment. Only last week I was talking with another writer about the very same experiment in relation to something that I’m writing at the moment. But although I’ve always been fascinated by this and Milgram's experiment (see Peter Gabriel's song, We Do What We're Told, written about the experiment, with chilling footage from the experiment -I was a developmental psychologist for years before I had children and started writing for children), it’s only now –with the current media manipulation in the UK at a terrifying level- that I’ve found it sneaking into elements of a story I’m writing.

I could talk about why I’m excited about each of those books, but I won’t as you can read about them for yourselves in the lovely blogpost. What I’ll end with, though, is the idea of being true to yourself as a writer. In Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess and Kris Di Giacomo (the one book on their 2015 list that I actually have), they quote E E Cummings:



                                             (c) Mark Burgess and Kris di Giacomo (2015)


A writing friend once talked about working towards making your picture book undeniable. I think that we need to 'become who we really are' fully for that to happen. I feel like these writers have probably got there. I’m not there yet but that is what I’d like to work towards in 2016… So a toast to 2016: let it be the year where we become fully who we are (for those of us who are not quite there yet) and then write wholly as ourselves. And let’s support each other to have that courage. I think there are some incredible books waiting to be created…  and in the current climate, these books are needed more than ever. Let’s get being… and writing, truly authentically…


To a more peaceful, safe and loving 2016...


Do you feel like you have become who you really are and that you are writing wholly as youtself? Do you have tips for others who aren't there yet? And if you're not there yet, what would help you get there?

Juliet Clare Bell's latest picture book, The Unstoppable Maggie McGee (illustrated by Dave Gray) has raised over £36,000 in book sales so far (all £6 goes to charity), for Birmingham Children's Hospital's Magnolia House Appeal. www.unstoppablemaggie.co.uk. Her next book: Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury (illustrated by Jess Mikhail) is out in March, 2016. And she's very excited about the stories she's currently working on.

www.julietclarebell.co.uk

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Christmas Picture Book Quiz

Christmas in the Emmett household is a time of treasure hunts, puzzles and quizzes.  So I thought I'd bring a little picture-book-based "quizzy-fun-fun" (to use a phrase coined by my son) to this blog.

Here are ten classic picture book covers that, by the magic of Photoshop, have been turned into stained glass windows. Can you guess the title of each book? Click on each image to reveal the answer.

Here's a really easy one to get you started.

1.


2.


3.


4.


5.


6.


7.


8.


9.


And here's a particularly festive one to finish up with!

10.



How did you do?

10/10 Picture book perfect! Congratulations. You're obviously a picture book devotee.
7-9/10 Pretty good. You know your Sendak from your Scheffler.
4-6/10 Not bad, but perhaps you should add a few picture book classics to your Christmas list.
1-3/10 That's an appallingly Gruffa-low score. You need to brush up on your picture book knowledge.

One last window before you go. Can you guess the message that's hidden below? Click the image to reveal the answer.




Jonathan Emmett's latest picture book is Fast and Furry Racers: The Silver Serpent Cup illustrated by Ed Eaves and published by Oxford University Press.

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

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

Friday, 11 December 2015

'Refuge', a book for Now. Guest blog by Anne Booth

We're delighted to welcome Anne Booth as our guest blogger at a moment when her new picture book, 'Refuge', couldn't be more apt.  Written in response to the current refugee crisis, this simple re-telling of the Nativity story has clear resonance for us now.  Very beautifully illustrated by Sam Usher and published by Nosy Crow, £5 from every copy sold is going to the War Child charity to help today's child refugees.  Over to Anne ...


This is a very special year for me, as I turned 50 and had my first two picture books published, and now have been invited to write a post for the Picture Book Den!

My very first book contract was with Nosy Crow Books for two picture books : ‘The Fairiest Fairy’ and ‘The Christmas Fairy’, both illustrated by the wonderful Rosalind Beardshaw. As a new writer I was amazed at how long it normally takes to produce a picture book - the contract was in 2013 and ‘The Fairiest Fairy’ was only published in 2015, with ‘The Christmas Fairy in 2016! I learnt how it is definitely worth the wait and am bursting with pride at the result - to see Betty illustrated so beautifully by Rosalind has been one of the highlights of my life.



You can read inside here: http://nosycrow.com/product/the-fairiest-fairy/  I particularly love the spread where Betty puts on her vest - it was everything I imagined and more!

So, having got my head around how long the process is to publish a picture book, you can imagine how amazed I am at how fast my latest book ‘Refuge’ has been produced. You can read about the process here and read inside to see the actual illustrations: http://nosycrow.com/blog/the-story-behind-refuge/


For those of you who know from first hand about the process - Samuel Usher’s illustrations - his palette and his tender lines - and the sheer achievement of producing such stunning work so quickly - will seem particularly miraculous. Added to that the wonderful design of the book, and the high quality of the finished product, and the generous way all those involved in the production and distribution did it for free or at vastly reduced costs, the publishing story of this picture book seems unique.



Just as the muddled Betty has more than a little of me in her, ‘Refuge’ means a lot to me personally. One of my earliest memories is toddling into the life size crib at church and throwing my arms around the donkey. Every Christmas when I was small I would run inside the crib to hug him - so it is fitting that I have written a book from the Christmas donkey’s point of view, to be enjoyed by little children and adults sharing it with them, and which hopefully will raise empathy and money for child refugees. I may have been having a wonderful year being 50, but for so many refugees it has been hell. Childhood should be full of lovely memories, like reading picture books and hugging donkeys - real or in church cribs - not of war and dangerous journeys.


I did not expect, in the year I turned 50, to have two picture books published, and illustrated by such great artists as Rosalind Beardshaw and Samuel Usher. In this, as in so many aspects of my life, I feel very, very lucky - and I feel so happy and grateful that, thanks to Nosy Crow and Samuel Usher and all involved in the process,  ‘Refuge’ - a beautiful picture book - one of the things which gives me the most joy in life - has become the means to help refugees this Christmas.



Sunday, 6 December 2015

Writers' Retreats by Abie Longstaff

Last weekend I went away to a farm in the middle of nowhere with 17 other authors.



We meet up regularly through the year via the Scattered Authors' Society (which I thoroughly recommend joining). In February we meet to talk about business (I've posted about the 2014 meet up here). In November we meet to talk about creativity.

It's a lovely escape from normal life. We spend the three days playing - finding what inspires us or motivates us. We run our own workshops and this year we had:

Jen Alexander unlocking our subconscious to find images that would help us write
Liz Kessler describing the journey of a book that was heavily influenced by music
Jackie Marchant sharing her techniques for world-building
A group of authors being frank about the commercial pressures of writing
Lucy Coats leading us through a meditation
Steve Gladwin encouraging character building through drama
June Crebbin exploring poetry

In between the workshops we had cosy chats by the fire



long walks


 and plenty of cake.


This year I led a workshop on 'shaping' - it's not quite plotting (because I'm not a detailed plotter) it's more about seeing the arc or structure of a story. I use a picture book approach - setting out 12 spreads for all my books, even longer fiction ones. I find that being forced to select the 12 most important aspects (in terms of emotional plot or action plot) makes me prioritise.

I use a grid spread like this
There is a link to the PDF of this here in case you want to use it

and I plot out a common book structure on it - so you might have:

Spread 1          Set up – introduce characters
Spread 2          What is the problem?
                        (think in terms of the practical problem and its emotional effect)
Spread 3-10     The problem grows
                        Magic 3?
                        Increase to climax
Spread 11        Solution
Spread 12        Satisfying ending
                        Bedtime/party
                        Can have a twist
 
I find this method helps me see the shape and flow of the book; where the high and low points are, where the character development happens.

Sometimes I find it useful to plot out someone else's book to see their structure. Here is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen plotted out (messily) in 12 spreads:


  
I found everyone's workshops so inspiring. I love hearing how other authors write; how they come up with ideas, how they move on when they feel blocked. I tend to be quite a practical person - my approach is logical with plans and grids and lists - so it's wonderful to let go and listen to music or bird song and let the ideas come from somewhere deep down, in another part of my brain. Sometimes the necessary commercial aspect of our job means we forget to refill our creative well and I always come back from the retreat refreshed and full of joy for the career I've chosen.

We end with an evening where we each read aloud from our work and it's fascinating to hear the range of texts, from picture book to novel, and genre, from zombies to romance.  

I always work better in winter when the weather is cold so, after the retreat, I'm inside, snuggled up, ready to go.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Why Reading Picture Books Matters - by Natascha Biebow

The brains of three to five year-olds do something really important when they read a picture book:




Their neurons do a kind of brain gym that develops their ability to experience things from other people’s perspectives – or empathise.

This is because, at this age, children are acquiring a theory-of-mind – an understanding that other people have thoughts, beliefs, and desires that may be different from their own.
 
Dr. Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, says, “Around the same ages, children also begin to understand what characters in stories are feeling and thinking.”




Theory-of-mind tests include testing if a child is able to understand that someone may prefer broccoli over a cookie


and how that is unique from their own desire for the cookie.

In 2010, Mar and his colleagues found that:



Mar and his colleagues also found that parents who were able to recognize children’s authors and book titles predicted their child’s performance on theory-of-mind tests. Parental recognition of adult book titles or authors had no effect on their child’s performance — the result was very specific to children’s books.


“There are aspects of joint-reading between parents and children that seem to be important to the process,” Mar said. 

This may be because when they read books together with their children, adults discuss how the characters are feeling, perhaps more so than at other times in daily life.



Researchers have also shown that children who watch a lot of TV, as opposed to reading storybooks, have a weaker understanding of other people's beliefs and desires, a lesser ability to be compassionate and reduced cognitive development.  




SO reading picture books and stories provides a means to muscle up children’s empathy network. Studies have also shown this is true for teens and adults, too.  

If we don’t use it, we could lose it . . .


In these troubled times, a world with empathy is the world I want for my children. 





Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission.  Check out my small-group coaching Cook Up a Picture Book courses!

Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.  www.blueelephantstoryshaping.com

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Tweak or Give Up? - Some dodgy advice from yer uncle Jon - by Jonathan Allen




Finally sending an idea out to an agent or a publisher is always an act of faith. Faith in your own ability and in your own judgement. The trouble is that when ideas get turned down it can make this faith seem completely misguided. . . That depends on your mental resilience of course. I always say, somewhat flippantly, that there are two ways people react to rejection, one is to conclude that they are total rubbish and have rubbish ideas, and the other is to take the attitude that 'the fools don't appreciate my genius'!
The latter is probably better for your sanity, but rather too close to delusion perhaps, and the former is just defeatist.
Having faith in your own judgement is a big part of being a writer, (and any other kind of creator or maker) and that faith is a fragile thing so you have to look after it ;-)
Easier said than done, I know.
Rejection is part and parcel of being a writer, it's not pleasant, but its a fact of life and has to be accepted as such otherwise no one would ever send their precious ideas out into the world at all.

So us writers and illustrators work hard on our ideas, tweaking and revising to make them into something a publisher can look at and see how they would work as books. The difficult bit is knowing when an idea has reached that point, knowing when to stop tweaking the idea and submit it. Knowing when to jump. . . Is it underworked or overworked? Too loose or too prescriptive?

You hope you have worked hard enough and got the idea as 'right' as you can get it because once something has been turned down, you can't really tweak it and send it in to the same person again to see if they like it with your added 'improvements'. They won't have the time or patience for that.
There are no doubt exceptions to this, but generally, if a publisher or agent is interested in an idea they will make some allowances, and will often suggest ways to make it work better if such is needed. If they aren't interested, they won't be willing to spend their precious time analysing it and telling you why it doesn't appeal.


So, do you tweak your idea and send it to someone else?
The trouble is, it is impossible to know why an idea gets rejected. There may be two people in a meeting who are mad about it, but three who weren't keen. There may be two really good ideas on the table and only one slot in the Spring list, so someone has to lose out. Or it may be because your idea is rubbish and nobody in their right mind would touch it with a barge pole. . . It's unknowable, so really it's not useful to speculate too much. Also, to complicate things still further, your 'improvements' might not enhance the idea at all, and the next person to see it may have preferred the first or untweaked version had they seen it. . . Or not. . . You could drive yourself nuts with this stuff.

So really, you have to put the effort in and have faith. Get an idea to the point where you like it and you think it 'works', then let it go knowing you have done your best. If it doesn't find a publisher, move on. You will keep having ideas.


Some might be rubbish ideas, as writers can easily be too close to an idea to fully judge its value, and of course the last thing you'll have wanted is to have spent your precious time and energy in the ultimately futile pursuit of a rubbish idea. But on the other hand, often the only way you can get an idea to the point where you can make some kind of judgement of its worth, is by putting the time and energy in and seeing how it turns out. 'Wasted' time is a given. It's part of the deal.

Only you can decide if your continued faith in an oft rejected idea is misplaced. You may get a flash of inspiration and find the perfect way of making your idea work, or you might find that you have just added more wasted time to time previously wasted. Are you being laudably persistent or are you flogging a long dead horse? I've been in both situations so I can't really offer useful advice on how to tell the difference other than by the result, or lack of it.

Basically I think we are all winging it and hoping for the best, argubly from an increasingly informed perspective as time goes on, but don't quote me on that. ;-)

Good luck btw. . .


Saturday, 21 November 2015

Looking at the illustration of eyes in children's picture books - Paeony Lewis

Four talented professional illustrators have helped enormously with this blog post on the illustration of eyes. Huge thanks to Jonathan Allen, Penny Ives, Bridget Marzo and John Shelley. Without you, my musings would have been paltry!


From Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Imagine if those monsters looked directly at you…
Eyes may take up only a tiny part of an illustration, but they say so much and it’s vital to get them right. Have you noticed how Max's monsters in  the classic Where the Wild Things Are never look directly at the reader? How scary it would be for a child if they did look at us!




Eyes can have such huge impact, regardless of how minimal the illustration.  In This Is Not My Hat, part of the story is told through tiny changes in the eyes of the big fish. From the story text we know the little fish steals the hat of the big fish and thinks he won't notice. However, although we're not told anything in the text, through just the eyes of the big fish we see him wake up and discover his hat is gone and obviously he wants it back.  It’s stylish and very effective. 

Four excerpts from the pages of This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (Walker Books, 2012)

With just a few strokes of the pen or brush, really subtle emotions can be seen in eyes. In No More Yawning! (I'll admit it's by me!), the illustrator, Brita Granstrom, portrays an emotional scene between mother and daughter with the barest of marks. I won't say what's happening - can you guess the emotions? The answer is at the very bottom of this blog post.

Excerpt from No More Yawning! by Paeony Lewis,
illustrated by Brita Granstrom (Chicken House, 2008) 

In this image from  No More Yawning! Brita's watercolour illustration reflected the words of the story. However, sometimes this isn't the case. I often smile when there's the need in a story for the text to say one thing and the eyes of a character tell us something else. The interplay of words and illustrations can be such fun. In the example below the eyes show us that the zebra's words are said with resignation. Given a choice the zebra wouldn't do it again, but he wants the moose to be happy (rather like a parent and child!).

From Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (Andersen Press, 2013)


So why have I been looking at the eyes of characters in picture books? Although I'm an author and definitely not a professional illustrator, for a few years I’ve been studying art and in class next week I'll be sketching and painting two characters from one of my stories. It was this that got me thinking about eyes.

I knew I didn’t want realistic eyes for my characters. Instead, should I use small dots or big dots? Should they be round, oval, square or just lines? Or how about big eyes with pupils as these can be really expressive?

Excerpt from Pom Pom gets the Grumps by Sophy Henn (Puffin, 2015).
These pandas have very expressive eyes.
Owl and Squirrel have big eyes in
A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton
(Walker Books, 2010)

At first I thought I’d use big eyes as they seem popular. Human babies have big cute eyes. This appealing trait is reflected in manga and anime, the Powerpuff Girls and Bratz dolls, Teletubbies, Muppets, Elsa and Anna in Frozen, Mickey Mouse... Etc, etc.! Nobody ever said: “Oh, what lovely small eyes you have.” Instead, we might use eye makeup to make our eyes look bigger and more attractive.

However, if having big expressive eyes were a prerequisite for picture books then that doesn’t explain why beady-eyed mice, bears and elephants are also popular characters, or why many illustrators use small dots for eyes. So maybe I should consider dot eyes too. Ho hum, I think I’ll talk to some professional illustrators. They’ll know much, much more than me! To begin, here's a lovely introduction by Penny Ives...

Penny Ives








Two little black ink dots and there we are: a pair of eyes.

But move the dots closer together, up or down or round by the ears and everything changes.

Enlarge them to the size of saucers or miss one out and we have a spaced out pussy or my cat Fozzie who sadly is minus one eye these days.


Simple cat eyes   © Penny Ives, 2015


























To achieve the right look for both the cat in the red suit and Miss Austen, and all eyes in the right place, I used the method outlined below.


The Red Suit  © Penny Ives
Miss Austen and the Penguin  © Penny Ives, 2015














First draw a circle.
Put two dots on small pieces of tracing paper.
Move them around over your circle.
Voila!
A face with eyes!
Or you can use Photoshop of course!

But it's amazing what two ink dots can do.


Jonathan Allen








The eyes are the window to the soul, etc, etc. As far as drawing eyes goes, I subscribe to the 'circle with a dot in it' approach. What I call ‘Beano’ eyes, after the comic of that name. I don’t go for the single dot approach because for me it is too limiting and emotionally distant. I have no argument with artists like Quentin Blake and Margaret Chamberlain who use the dot method, but it doesn’t suit me. It’s ‘Beano’ eyes for me every time.

I prefer the way the 'circle with a dot in it' method delivers a range of subtle emotions and describes personality. My drawings are all about facial expression. Take that away and you don’t have much really. The eyes are the point of engagement for the viewer.

For an incredibly crude and simple representation of the ‘human’ eye it is amazingly versatile in what it can express, (along with eyebrows and the mouth). The shape of the eye, the size of the dot and its position are the crucial things. Even subtle variations of these can change the emotion an expression carries. This subtlety means that you can move away from the generic Happy or Sad expressions and into expressions that say things like “I know you think that’s funny, but actually it upset me but I’m trying not to show it.” Or “I’m not supposed to be here but I’ll act innocent and see if I can get away with it.”
Here’s a very quick illustration of the same face with just the eyes changed to ‘illustrate’ my point. Sort of.

Dog eyes © Jonathan Allen, 2015

John Shelley









I sometimes use sweeping point-of-view changes in picture books,  sometimes changing from panoramic views to close-ups. This makes the drawing of eyes a bit awkward, dots work well at distance but for me are a bit too sparse for a close-up. At what point do you change a dot eye to a more fully formed one for the same character, and is there an interim stage? 

Dot eyes used in advertising
on ski train in Japan, by John Shelley
For many years I drew fully formed eyes with whites, pupils, irises, etc., whenever possible, only using dot eyes for figures at a distance. For middle-ground figures this would be a black dot pupil, with a grey line defining a rounded upper eyelid giving space for the whites of eyes, though for close-ups I’d paint the iris, pupil and lids. I was happy with this, though sometimes the white of eyes became too prominent in the mid-ground and I remember Klaus Flugge (publisher) told me how much he hated 'Disney eyes'. I had to be careful my figures didn’t always carry a permanent expression of surprise, and always avoided 'goggle-eyes' as you often see in American animation. When I started doing a lot of advertising in Japan my figures in my more graphic ‘commercial’ style became much simpler and I almost always just used dots for eyes. 

Above and below:
I've just finished painting my latest book (Japanese publisher, 2016):
Yozora o Miyage-yo (Let's Look at the Night Sky), illustrated by John Shelley.

A combination of dots and dots within eye whites were used in this book.

Nowadays I use a combination of developed eyes or dots, it depends on the detail in the project. I draw fully formed eyes for non-fiction historical work like Stone Giant or Will’s Words, but for character-based picture-book fiction I’m turning more to just using dot eyes, though I still show eye whites for closer and mid-ground figures, the definition being shown just with paint rather than drawn eyelids. However I still have that problem of what to do for close-ups. I think if I were to do a book with small figures throughout, I’d probably just use dots. Howerver, the more panning and close-ups there are involved, the more uncomfortable I am with just using dots.



Doddles from sketch book, © John Shelley

The other thing is the positioning of eyes on a face. In Japan I learned quickly about 'Hello Kitty' - it’s the baby-face effect where facial features are lower on the head and the eyes are slightly apart. This appeals to our innate attraction to baby faces. It’s everywhere in Japan and is pretty well a formula now. Use sparingly! I like to doodle in sketchbooks using different proportions and positions of  the facial features. It’s so much fun to push the proportions to see what you come up with - they may not be ‘attractive’ figures, but they're definitely full of character.



Bridget Marzo








Of all subjects to do with illustration the question of eyes is closest to my heart.

For me it’s not so much about the ‘how’ - the styles - fashions for representing eyes which range from the realistic to the round or dot eye.

Much more important is the ‘why’ - the intention of the characters in the story or the purpose of the book.

For stories it’s the direction of the gaze, where the characters are looking, that matters. It can even be a device to prompt a story. Sometimes I’ll doodle two characters and play with eye direction. Giving a direction to a gaze by placing a dot in one corner or another of a eye socket is a key way to create a relationship between characters or reveal their view of the world. Actors know this. Follow a gaze and see how a character connects, or not, to others or to what they are doing. This is how Tiz and Ott first came to life, as I explored the way they reacted, or not, to each other.



When I run character drawing workshops for children and adults I’ll suggest a ‘quick draw’ recipe which includes drawing simple circles for eye sockets. The fun comes at the end when we add the dots for pupils in a specific direction. The characters come alive and it is as if you can read their thoughts. Are the characters making contact with each other or not? Is a character avoiding eye contact for some reason? Perhaps they are feeling shy, exasperated or guilty. Or are the characters literally 'seeing eye to eye'? 

Give the eyes a direction and it may lead your characters in a direction through a story.

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Again, huge thanks to  Jonathan AllenPenny IvesBridget Marzo and John Shelley. Please click their names to find out more.

Now I must decide how to illustrate the eyes of my two characters. It's time to experiment!


From No More Yawning!
by Paeony Lewis, illus by Brita Granstrom
Finally (really!), at the beginning I suggested you guess the emotions of Mum and her daughter, Florence, as painted by Brita Granstrom. I wonder what you thought?!

In fact, at this stage in the story it's late and Mum is very tired and Florence won't/can't fall asleep. Florence is still feeling a little sad and pensive because Mum shouted at her on the previous page. Mum is now feeling lovingly guilty and is trying to reassure Florence by telling how she got to sleep when she was a little girl. I adore the way Florence's monkey reflects Florence.




If  you have any thoughts on the illustration of eyes then it'll be great to read your comments.
Paeony Lewis