Tag Archives: picture books

Heartsong

This morning, as I lay approximately one-eighth awake wishing I didn’t have to get up and face a cold, dark day, I found myself thinking about a picture book idea. It involved a witch with an itch and a crooked wand, and it was (at least, to me) very funny. I created the story as I went, imagining the illustrations and enjoying how my witchy character grew more and more exasperated as things went on – and it was huge fun, even if I had to get up before I finished it.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

I’m not a person who wants to write picture books, particularly. Besides the classics, I haven’t even read very many picture books, and it’s something I keep meaning to remedy (the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen, in case you’re interested, is Journey by Aaron Becker, which should be checked out immediately by everyone). I think a good picture book is a thing so difficult to pull off that it’s practically impossible, and I feel it’s beyond the scope of my skills – but my mind still decided to explore an idea for one while in a hypnopompic state.

The reason for this? I love stories for children. I love them so much that I think about them even when, all told, my brain would rather be unconscious. I think about them even when I’m supposed to be grown-up and thinking about other things like bills and taxes and the economy and politics and other stuff I know nothing about. Yesterday, I was unwell – sore throat, fuzzy head, sniffles, and a serious case of the ‘OhPoorMes’ – and as well as taking plenty of fluids and as much rest as I’d let myself away with, I self-medicated with stories. I read Howl’s Moving Castle, just because there’s a scene in it where Howl the wizard has a cold and makes everyone suffer because he’s a crybaby. I feel better today, and I’m sure the paracetamol in the medicine I took made a big difference to the state of my health, but I know that reading did the rest.

Once, I met a lady who had written a book for children. She wasn’t sure what age range, particularly; she thought perhaps children from twelve and up, because there were things like war and slavery and family breakdown in her story (it was historical fiction). However, its word count was way too low for this age range, being more suited to children between five and eight. She was shocked to learn that twenty thousand words wouldn’t create a book long enough for her target audience, and even more shocked when I asked her what her favourite children’s book was. ‘I don’t read children’s books’, she told me, half-laughing at the very idea. ‘I’m more of a romance fan, myself.’ She paused, frowning slightly as she thought about it. ‘In fact, I really wanted to write this story as a romance about one of the older characters, and I’m not really sure why I wrote it this way,’ she said, looking confused.

And I thought: Why don’t you write romances, then? If that’s your heartsong, why aren’t you singing it?

I wouldn’t tackle a picture book not because I don’t enjoy them, but because I’m not immersed in that world. I’m not obsessed with picture books, with the making and creating of them; I’m not expert in the field (and if you think there’s ‘nothing to making a picture book’, then I invite you to try to make one). I love books for older children – they are what I read, what I love, what I admire. I haven’t read everything, because there is only so much money and time in the world, but I’d like to think I have a fairly broad exposure. Stories about adventure, and friendship, and challenging the odds, and fighting evil, and finding parents, and learning to live without parents, and learning what it is to be an individual, and how to trust yourself, are what my heart sings. That’s why those are the stories I write, too.

Writing involves a lot of different skills, all interconnected, but one of the most important is this: knowing what your heartsong is. Knowing how to be still and listen to yourself, and hear the whisper of the story that lies curled up inside you waiting to unfurl. It doesn’t sing with a very loud voice, sometimes, particularly if you’ve never tried to listen to it before, but it is there. If you can gently encourage it – and not drown it with thoughts like ‘I can’t write a story like this, it’s stupid/silly/inappropriate/unreadable/wrong‘ – perhaps you’ll be lucky and it will grow stronger, and clearer. Let it grow whatever way it wants – don’t try to force it to go one way, or another. Give it space and time and freedom, and allow yourself to astound yourself.

Read widely – particularly within the genre in which you’re writing, but not exclusively. Learn how stories work by reading how other people do them. Don’t write something in a particular way because you feel you ‘should’; write it whatever way it wants to be written. Become a reader before you become a writer. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t write to markets. Learn to listen carefully, particularly to yourself.

Write what you love.

Love what you write.

And let your heartsong burst forth, loud and clear.

 

 

 

Rebelling and Rulebreaking (Part 2)

So. Back to my recollections of the Rebels and Rulebreakers Conference, held this past weekend in Dublin.

In yesterday’s blog, I told you about Hervé Tullet’s masterful performance of his book ‘I Am Blop’ last Saturday, the first day of the conference. M. Tullet also gave us a peep at his forthcoming book – the most charming picture book I think I’ve ever seen – and reminded us of the importance of having a ‘hole’, or a gap, in a book which the reader needs to fill. One of the things I learned from his presentation was how important it is to bring the reader into the book, and give them the space to interact with it and bring it to life – not just the story, but sometimes also the book itself. He showed us a book that could be taken apart to make a sculpture, and a book which could be used (with the aid of a torch) to make shadow-patterns on the wall. Watching this made me wish I was a child again. Or, better, it made me feel like a child again. It takes a particular kind of magic to do that.

In short, I was charmed. It was a marvellous, vivid and engaging presentation, and even though picture books for very young readers aren’t my particular area of interest, for the duration of M. Tullet’s talk, they were the most important thing in the world. I’m looking forward to the next time I need to buy a gift for one of the many children in my life – I know exactly what to purchase!

Image: leblog.editions-bayard.com

Image: leblog.editions-bayard.com

The next session of the day came after we returned from lunch, when we had the great privilege to witness John Boyne (he of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’) be interviewed by Robert Dunbar, a luminary in the world of children’s books in Ireland. The speakers were wonderful, the questions apt and interesting, and Mr. Boyne was an engaged and warm interviewee. A discussion ensued regarding the differences, if any, between writing for adults and writing for children, and the question of ‘is writing for children the same as writing for adults, except the central character is a child?’ was raised. Certainly, books for children have just as wide an emotional sweep and just as much significance as books for adults, and the consensus seemed to be that there wasn’t a lot of difference between the two. Mr. Dunbar noted that a lot of Mr. Boyne’s child protagonists are boys of between 8 and 9 years old – of course, this was significant, as that was an important age for the author, the age at which he first began to write and think about stories himself. Mr. Boyne spoke frankly about his ambitions as a young writer, his time as a student on the legendary Creative Writing course run by the University of East Anglia, how he copes with critics, and his need to finish one piece of work before moving on to the next. As well as taking us through his writing life – including his many novels written for adults – we were treated to a reading from Chapter One of his forthcoming novel ‘Stay Where You Are, and Then Leave’, set for publication in September or October of this year.

I was delighted to be able to purchase a copy of ‘The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket’, Mr. Boyne’s most recent children’s novel, after this talk – and even more delighted that he agreed to sign it for me.

Image: oliverjeffers.com

Image: oliverjeffers.com

The next session was a three-person panel focusing on comic books and graphic novels, an area in which I have very little knowledge. My expertise in graphic novels is pretty much limited to Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ series, so I was looking forward very much to getting An Education in this particular field. The panel – Sarah McIntyre, Alan Nolan and Rory McConville – didn’t fail to deliver. I busily scribbled down recommendations for books, graphic artists, writers, and in particular graphic novels aimed at children, all the while enjoying the panellists’ colourful personalities and the displays of their work. Several of the speakers during the course of Saturday, including these three contributors, spoke of how they began their careers as artists and/or writers by copying the work of those they admired; just as these artists copied their favourite comics, panel by panel, so writers take characters from books they love and create new stories for them. I did this as a child (funnily enough, a child of 8 or 9!), and it seems I’m in good company.

The final panel of the day was given by Alex T. Smith, an illustrator and writer whose wonderful series of ‘Claude’ books have become hugely popular and dearly loved.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

Mr. Smith took us through his creative life, sharing a moving story about his late grandfather who encouraged the young Alex to draw and write from a very early age, and who showed him the power of stories through his own example. He shared with us how his grandfather would write him stories, which would be waiting for him when he came home from school each day, and how inspirational this small act of love was on his whole life and career. With regard to ‘Claude’, we learned that one evening, Mr. Smith sat down with no particular inspiration in mind and drew a picture of a small dog with a beret and a jumper, sitting at a café table ‘as though he was just waiting for me’; that little dog, and his faithful friend, the enigmatic and debonair Sir Bobblysock, have now become the stars of six books. Mr. Smith emphasised the importance of adding humour to everything you write for children, particularly children between 5 and 8 years of age, reminding us that jokes not only help the child to enjoy the book but they also make it easier for parents, who often have to read the same story over and over. A few jokes – perhaps jokes that only a parent will understand – make the experience more fun for everyone.

Mr. Smith also reminded us that if you’re interested in producing creative work, it’s vitally important to infuse it with your own personality and influences. He said ‘If it’s weird, it’ll probably work, and chances are it’ll be new.’ Be yourself, he pointed out, and your work won’t re-tread old ground. I think that was probably the single most useful and interesting thing I heard during that brilliant day on which I learned so much, and it was the best point at which to finish my journey through the CBI Conference 2013. Stay true to yourself, stay the course, go with your gut, give it everything you’ve got and believe in your work – I took all these nuggets of wisdom away from the day, and I’m very grateful to all at CBI and all the speakers and presenters for such a fantastic conference.

As well as that, it was beyond words to spend the day with people – so many people! – all of whom share my passions and dreams, are interested in the same things I am, and who love children’s books as much as I do. Next year, though, not only will I attend both days of the conference instead of just the first, I’ll also be brave enough to say ‘hello’ to more people; hopefully, I’ll feel like less of a pretender, and more of a professional! Despite my own shyness, however, I couldn’t have wished for a more inspiring experience, and I can’t wait for the 2014 CBI Conference.

Image: dublin.cervantes.es

Image: dublin.cervantes.es

 

Rebelling and Rulebreaking (Part 1)

Well. What a weekend that was. How is everyone this morning? I hope you’re all as happy as, and slightly less exhausted than, my good self.

Today’s blog post is going to be all about this:

Image: jabberworks.co.uk (also, a site worth visiting in its own right!)

Image: jabberworks.co.uk (also, a site worth visiting in its own right!)

My brain, this cloudy morning, is swimming with everything I learned and saw and felt this past weekend at ‘Rebels and Rulebreakers’, the Children’s Books Ireland conference – and I was only able to attend the first day. I’d probably be bamboozled altogether if I’d been lucky enough to attend both days! But that’s a treat for next year, hopefully.

I’d been looking forward to Rebels and Rulebreakers for weeks, impatiently waiting for the days to roll around, and – quite possibly – talking about it incessantly. So, on Saturday morning, bright and early, my wonderful husband drove me all the way to Dublin, just to be sure I made it to the conference on time. Where we live, there are loads of trains and buses to the capital, but at the weekends they run on ‘country time’ – i.e. they don’t start until quite late in the morning (trains), and/or they turn up when they feel like it (buses). So, because I was lucky enough to have a lift, I was a little early. I wandered around Smithfield (a very pretty part of Dublin city, where the Jameson Whiskey Distillery is – you may have heard of that!) looking at things like the gorgeous wall art looking down over the central square, and the faux meadow, complete with grass and niftily carved wooden sheep, around which children – and several parents – were having great fun. The place was filled with tourists and sightseers, and there was such a bright and happy buzz over everything.

I was a little nervous, though. I felt like an interloper on the red carpet at the Oscars. But more of that anon.

After I’d registered, and received my snazzy name-tag, lanyard and conference tote bag, I was ready to hit the bookshop. I think I may have been the first person to wander down towards it, which is just the way I like it. I picked up some gems, including this wonderful book (which I actually managed to read, in its entirety, on Saturday, between talks and over lunch and on the way home. It’s that good):

Image: yellowbrickreads.com

Image: yellowbrickreads.com

There was just time for some chatting, and some exploration of the Lighthouse Cinema (the building in which the conference was taking place – an absolutely beautiful space) before the first talk of the morning.

The opening talk was given by Sarah Ardizzone, a translator of children’s and YA books from French to English, and it was eye-opening. I learned that translating a book from one language to another is so much more than dustily looking up words in a dictionary and placing them in an approximation of the right order on the page. Instead, it’s like delivering a baby, perhaps; you have to handle this living, squirming, new and unknown creature, a text that breathes and pulses in its own language, and capture not only the story it’s telling but also the nuances of the words – the slang (which is forever changing), the cultural moment, the complex, organic, fresh wonder of it – accurately and realistically and idiomatically in an entirely different language. Ms. Ardizzone told us how she interacts with young people from England, and also France and the Francophone world, in order to develop an ear for the music of their ‘slanguage’, their sparkling uses for words, their unique way of constructing sentences, to make sure the translation she produces will speak to the young people who read it, and sound authentic and real. She gave an insight into how translation, and the act of translation, can help to bring schoolchildren together, and she told us about a project called Translation Nation, with which she is heavily involved, which aims to bring children together in collaborative translation, working with stories and tales from all over the world.

The saddest statistic of the day, however, came from Ms. Ardizzone’s talk. She said that, in the Anglophone world, only between 1 and 3 per cent of children’s books are translated from other languages. What a world of stories children who can only read English are missing out on.

Next came a talk from the French illustrator extraordinaire, Hervé Tullet.

Image: oldcatblackboo.blogspot.com

Image: oldcatblackboo.blogspot.com

I don’t think I’ve ever been so entertained by a man making noises and pointing at shapes in a picture book ever before in my life. We’d already been introduced to M. Tullet during Ms. Ardizzone’s talk, when she’d asked him to step in and play the role of the ‘Loup’ (Wolf) in a French-language edition of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ – so, I expected him to be funny.

But I didn’t expect him to make me laugh so hard that tears rolled down my face.

He read from a selection of his work, including his masterful ‘I Am Blop’, a book that takes one simple shape (the ‘blop’ of the title) and manages to use it to teach children about size, colour, number, perspective, reflection, as well as themselves and their place in the world. I was astounded as I watched M. Tullet bring his own book to life using sounds and voice effects.

Image: timeout.com

Image: timeout.com

Unless I’d seen it performed in front of me, I’d never have believed such a simple shape could literally bring me to a new level of understanding. Funnily enough, I felt my own perception change and grow as I watched the performance, despite the fact (or perhaps because of the fact) that Blop itself does not change shape at all throughout the book. As I watched, my mind was opened and brought to a place in which I could completely understand how a child would see Blop – see it negotiating its world, fitting in (or not) with its peers, growing bigger, changing colour, changing from being the only blop on the page to being one of many – and how they would understand, instinctively, that they, the child reading or being read to, were just like Blop.  And, more importantly, if Blop can hold its own through all this change and newness and growth, so can they. What an encouraging and confidence-building little book – and all done with a shape, and minimal text!

Oh, but look. I’ve reached my upper word limit for blog posts already. I have so much more to share, but it will have to wait for another day. In the spirit of rebelling and rulebreaking, then, I’ll break my recollections into several blog posts, and I hope you’ll enjoy reliving my memories of a wonderful day along with me.

Happy new week, everyone! And remember – you are Blop.