Last week I went to a Children’s Picture Book talk arranged by SCBWI.
Bloomsbury’s picture book commissioning editor and designer were the professionals who gamely answered all our questions.
I won’t summarise all that was said because it’s well worth joining SCBWI and going along to their various talks and workshops. (Actually you don’t have to be a member to attend the talks but you get a discount if you are. )
One part of the evening was a real eyeopener. The question was – how do they chose each years list? The editor and designer had bought a selection of Bloomsbury’s new titles. They were asked to group the books and describe what those groupings were. What surprised me was the simplicity of the answer. There was the usual age split: 0-2 babies board books (mostly written in house), 2-3 picture books (up to 400words) and 4-6 picture books (up to 700 words (Bloomsbury like them short)) and then they divided the pile of books into two piles, quirky/humorous and loving/warm. Illustration style was segmented into commercial (loud and colourful for the supermarkets), posh (hand drawn illustrations) or quirky (stylised). That’s it.
Then someone at the back asked whether any of the stories were ever shown to children before they were published. No never, was the answer. Or parents. No.
When I write a picture book story, I think about the big events in an average preschool child’s life: starting nursery; making friends; a new baby brother or sister arriving; being scared of the dark/spiders/getting lost; fascination with gross things and where they come from; how come people are different (the neighbours or kids in China) and so on. Then I break it down into the emotional issues the child might face. So for example with starting preschool, the story could be about overcoming shyness. Only then do I get creative with how to tell that story.
Children are on a steep emotional learning curve between the ages of two and six. They find it very difficult to decipher and talk about emotions and problems. They need stories to help them understand the world and their feelings (just like older children do and adults too.)
The delivery can be quirky, fun and humorous or warm and reassuring, but that’s the wrapping, not the content.
Looking at the new releases across the big publishers, the illustrations are beautiful, there are some cracking rhymes, and a lot of fun on the page, but many are instantly forgettable because they have no message, moral or meaning. And there is also a lot of repetition as competitor publishers have the same themes on their list – cosy warm night night stories with cute bears, bunnies or mice and jolly jaunts with aliens, pirates or dinosaurs.
If that is what publishers want, then I should write my own version of these themes to get published, and I will. But I won’t stop sending the stories that are more helpful and relevant for young children and their parents. Such stories are needed and important. I hope they make it through the noise.