Notes from the London Book Fair

 

I went on the Tuesday and Thursday this year using the SCBWI members three day ticket. Fellow SCBWI’s have been asking if the Fair is worth it and I would say, yes, if you are gearing up for submission, if you want to meet/hear/talk to well known authors and publishers and if you want to find out about new releases and the publishing world in general.

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Little Tiger stand, The Children’s Hub @LBF

There are agents and editors about but unless you know them or have pre-booked the 15 minute pitch slots, it’s unlikely you’ll get time with them. Their priority is selling rights and networking, not new authors. Having said that, I did manage to get 20 minutes with an editor I’ve been having an email conversation with about one of my stories. It is always good to put names to faces.

YA & MEG ROSOFF

Meg is one of my favourite authors and I found her in the Penn Literary Salon talking about writing and her new adult screwball comedy, Jonathan Unleashed. Meg has also just won the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Prize for her YA novels and deservedly so, her characters are quirky and original, and she is superb at first person voice.

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Meg Rosoff: Winner of the 2016 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

Meg says she “writes on the edge of reality, where the strange might happen,” weaves into her stories the two big questions teens and young adults are preoccupied with. Will anybody love me? and What will I do with my life?

She says her stories reflect her “cape crusader personality”. She believes in “being good in an unconventional way,” and that life is not about finding happiness, “it’s about being useful and being loved.”

She spends a lot of her day thinking and a small part writing and then rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, until her characters resonate.

Seminar Notes: The Power of Pictures: Working with Picture Book Creators in Primary Schools.

I stumbled upon this talk and I’m so glad I did!

This is a three year Arts Council funded project, from Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), where nine author illustrators have worked alongside teachers to help them understand the creative process that goes into writing picture books. The teachers use this experience to support the children in their classes to become better readers and writers. Author/illustrators taking part included Mini Grey, Nicola Davies, Alexis Deacon and Benji Davies.

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“Good picture books are complex”

Charlotte Hacking, the CLPE programme leader, demonstrated the complexity of the picture books chosen and how they communicate subtle layers of meaning through: body language, expression, line of vision, background, context, colour, page breaks, page turns, rhythms and rhymes, the contrast between words and pictures, and so on.

With a teacher or parent’s support, picture books not only entertain children, they encourage them to use their imagination, organise their thoughts and look for deeper meaning in stories. When children engage fully with a story it can help them learn life skills; one of the most important is EMPATHY.

The CLPE aren’t the only ones thinking like this. Agents/editors are currently seeking picture books that feature a life lesson, e.g. loss, worries, standing up for yourself, finding love, etc. Take a look at the latest SCBWI Slush pile challenge; this is exactly what Helen from Bell Lomax Moreton wants.

I asked the sales reps at some of the  children’s publisher stands: “What’s selling well in picture books at the moment – in the UK and aboard?”

And guess what! Books with a life lesson, stories that make children think, stories that evoke emotion and resonate with both children and adults do, and importantly, they must be humourous.

And bonus! They export well, especially in the Far East’s growing markets.

There was a lot of talk about picture books being relevant to ALL ages. Why do we frown on 7+ year old children reading picture books and push novels on them as soon as possible? Charlotte Hacking advocates breadth of reading for all ages: magazines, digital, comics, picture books and novels, because, “breadth of reading builds reading stamina for life.” 

Seminar: The Future of Children’s Publishing

In this later session, there was a warning and an opportunity. Children’s market are still growing, buoyed in part by adults buying children’s books (seeking what they loved as a child and recognizing the great new writing in this market) and super child readers (from affluent middleclass backgrounds) who are consuming more than their weight in books. Overall though, children of 6+ years are spending less time reading due to digital platforms (YouTube and Apps) becoming more accessible and more attractive. Ensuring diversity and breadth of appeal in children’s publishing is key and creative concepts, which can cross formats are a real opportunity.

INSPIRING AUTHORS

I also attended talks by crime author Peter James, children’s writer Judith Kerr, and watched a ‘Dragons Den’ style panel event called the Write Stuff where five brave authors pitched their novels to agents.

Listening to them talk, it was obvious that successful authors pour their life experiences and passions into their books. Peter James enjoys accompanying the police on raids and his real life tales are every bit as fascinating as his fictional ones.

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Peter James, crime writer

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Judith Kerr, 93

Judith Kerr’s novel, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, was based on her childhood experiences as a jewish refugee narrowly escaping Nazi persecution. The winner of the Write Stuff pitched a book about the fallout of a relationship after a soldier arrived home from a conflict zone, psychologically damaged and irrevocably changed. Both the author and her husband have been deployed in the Middle East and it was a story she needed to tell.

This kind of passion is catching and inspiring and sells lots of books.

Lastly, here’s my pile of children’s publisher catalogues featuring current lists and what’s debuting spring and autumn this year!

I wonder what the gaps in the market are…..

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How to evoke emotion in your readers?

Karl Iglesias in Writing for Emotional Impact, states we can experience three different types of emotion when we read books or watch movies.

Voyeuristic emotions relate to our curiosity about new information, new worlds and the relationship between characters. In this mindset we are interested onlookers but perhaps not fully emotionally engaged.

Vicarious emotions are when we identify so closely with a character, we feel what they feel. Their struggle is our struggle.

Visceral emotion is an intense physical (stomach clenching) sense of curiosity, anticipation, tension, surprise, fear, excitement, laughter, and so on (a real page turner!)

Great books evoke all these emotions.

So first ask yourself, what’s the heart of my story?

And by heart I mean emotional truth. That little nugget of familiarity, which has your reader identifying with your character and his situation, that spark of recognition that makes your character feel believable and real.

For every hurdle your character faces, ask yourself, what would I feel and what would I do in that situation (at that age and that time)? Life experience is invaluable, but research can help fill the gaps: first person letters/autobiographies/live film footage.Failing that, a keen perception, a good imagination and a way with words!

These are the three ways I build a connection between readers and my characters. 

Recognition (understanding and empathy) To identify with a character we must feel (or have felt) the same as they do. If a character is well drawn (and the author understands human nature well) readers can empathise with and share the characters situation, feelings and motives, and then experience the story directly through the characters eyes.

Fascination (interest) We are attracted to what’s different and unusual. It’s human nature to be curious. A multidimensional villain, flawed hero or quirky sidekick are great hooks, as are the magical or dangerous worlds they inhabit.

Mystery (curiosity, anticipation and tension) Children’s books are full of characters with mysterious origins, super powers and secrets to be unlocked.

Think about Harry Potter.

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What character and story elements did J.K Rowling use to help us identify with and care about Harry?

He’s an orphan. He lives in the cupboard under the stairs. The horrendous Dursley’s. The scar on his forehead. The mystery of his parent’s death. Wizards on the front lawn. Magic… and that’s only in the first two chapters!

So how exactly do we show a character’s emotional reaction on the page.

After every event (action) there is a reaction.

As a writing exercise, note all the emotional highs and lows you have in a single day and your physical, verbal and emotional reactions to them.

Use all the usual writing techniques to show, don’t tell, and mix them up a little.

Internal monologue (voice)

Dialogue

Body language/behaviour

Action

This extract is from We Were Liars by E. Lockhart16143347 – 14-year-old Cadence describes how she felt when her father walked out on her and her mother.

My father put a last suitcase in the back of the Mercedes and started the engine. Then he pulled a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down onto a flowerbed. Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound then from my eyes, my ears, my mouth, it tasted like salt and failure. The bright red shame of being unloved soaked the grass in front of our house…

This scene is three pages into the book and sets up Cadence’s state of mind. You can feel her pain.

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Even the fast moving, criminally cool, Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer), “felt a lump in his throat. Most uncharacteristic,” at the mention of his missing father and “blinked back a few rebellious tears,” at his mother’s mad ramblings. (Chapter 2)

 

 

Picture books

At Christmas, I watched 50 Best Children’s Books, presented by David Walliams and guests. Winnie the Pooh was in the top spot. Julia Walters read an extract and it struck me how emotive the writing is.

“We’ll be friends forever won’t we, Pooh?” Asked Piglet.th-7

“Even longer,” Pooh answered. “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”

I’ve read a lot of picture books lately (drafts and published) that completely omit emotional content. There’s lots of colourful action but no point to it at all. Very young children cannot articulate moods and emotions but they certainly do feel and show them. Picture books are an important aid to learning and talking about feelings. They teach empathy.

Here is a great guide to structuring picture books because it makes space for the character to feel, react and learn.

Spread 1: Intro character/world

Spread 2: Establish problem (worry/dilemma/misunderstanding/first experience)

Spread 3-8: Action

Spread 9: Crisis moment (show immediate emotional reaction- Shock/laughter/confusion)

Spread 10: Examine feelings

Spread 11: Solve problem (new understanding put into practise)

Spread 12: Emotional resolution (answers the stories emotional problem)

Courtesy of Hodder/Hachette (with a little elaboration)

Character emotions vs. reader emotions

There is one final point I want to make about evoking emotion.

Authors don’t always want their readers emotional experience to mirror the characters. An unreliable narrator or an inexperienced, over confident or haphazard character can make the reader feel wonderfully superior and knowing. Humour also works this way. A clumsy character might trip over and fall into things with hilarious consequences. We will be laughing, but the character won’t be. It’s a very effective devise, if done well. It makes the reader feel clever, and flattery, as they say, gets you everywhere.

 

 

Being creative with words. The picture book writers tool kit.

A picture book writer’s tool kit is awesome, it’s why I write picture books. Playing with these techniques is great fun.

Remember, picture books are meant to be read out loud. So go to town – bold and wacky is good.

But remember the audience. Keep the concept and structure simple. And short!

Rhyme

There is some negativity in the industry about rhyme because of the difficulties of translation. The bigger publishers are more accepting of rhyming stories but the story has to be original and the rhyme perfectly structured and metered.

An appreciation and understanding of the techniques of rhyming poetry is essential if you are going to attempt a whole story in rhyme. If you don’t know what I mean by meter, foot and stressed/unstressed syllables, don’t attempt rhyme. There are so many easier techniques to use that are just as effective.

One option is to write the story predominantly in prose but have a short chorus in rhyme. See, The Ginger Bread Man.

Assonance is a form of rhyme called ‘vowel rhyme.’ It is the repetition of similar vowel sounds in a sentence. E.g. Each Peach Pear Plum (also alliteration here, see below)

Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant two or more times in quick succession. E.g. pitter-patter, Chicken Licken.

Rhythm

Every sentence we speak has syllables that are stressed and unstressed. Rhythm is a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables within a line of verse or prose. Rhythm and rhyme are natural partners but rhythm works fine on its own. The king of rhythm without rhyme is Michael Rosen. Check out, We are going on a Bear Hunt, and Little Rabbit Foo Foo. The Bear Hunt has a chanting feel to it. An ear for music/poetry really helps here.

We're going on a Bear hunt

Repetition

Often used alongside rhyme and rhythm (as a chorus or refrain) but also appears in narrative texts to give structure and emphasis. Breaking a repetitive pattern as the story climaxes, flags to the reader/listener something exciting is about to happen. Children learn through repetition. They find familiarity reassuring and comforting.

Onomatopoeia

Sound effects! Comics and cartoons use them to great effect and so can picture books. Children love to copy sounds. Many picture books and early readers have characters names that are onomatopoeic, e.g. Plop in The Owl Who was Afraid Of The Dark by Jill Tomlinson

For inspiration, check out this website www.writtensound.com

 Alliteration

This can be a lot of fun to write. But don’t over do it when naming characters or thinking up titles. Big Bad Bunny and Horton Hears a Who? are great examples but beware of Sammy Squirrel, Richard Rabbit, they have been done, done, done! Julia Donaldson wears the alliteration crown (as well as the rhyme, rhythm and repetition one!)

 Anthropomorphism or Personification

Is the attributing of human qualities to an animal or object. Okay there are lots of animals in picture books but not so many objects. A recent hit is, The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. Each crayon writes a letter to Duncan, each has a distinct voice.

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 Hyperbole

Exaggeration is everywhere in picture books – language, art and character. Roald Dahl’s characters are a perfect example. Also check out Levi Pinfold’s Black Dog. The illustration of the black dog literally spills off the page. He’s big!

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I love overblown concepts, for example, The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers. You want to read about him don’t you!

To name or not to name your character

Children love to name their pets and toys, even if that name is very simple. Hands up how many of you own a toy called Bear or Rabbit. It is not necessary to write it in the story The child can see perfectly well it’s a Bear from the picture. So whether you go with Boy, Mr. Tiger or something more imaginative such as The Almost Fearless Hamilton Squidlegger by Timothy Basil Ering (a frog), the most important thing is that your character has character and attitude, after all, most three year olds have plenty.

Remember if the name is unique, it’s memorable and ownable – alas this kind of light bulb moment doesn’t happen everyday.

Catchy titles

Titles encapsulating the story’s main character or the theme are great – but if standout is an issue, think about these alternative approaches.

Instructions: How to Wash a Woolley Mammoth by Michelle Robinson, How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers,

An invitation: You Choose by Pippa Goodhart, Guess How Much I love You by Sam McBratney

A question: Where’s Spot? By Eric Hill, Have you seen my dragon? By Steve Light

Orders: Calm Down, Boris! By Sam Lloyd, Oi! Get off our Train by John Burningham, Eat your Peas by Kes Grey

Opposite to expectations: Goldilocks and the three Dinosaurs by Mo Williams

Provocative statements: Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Dogs Don’t do Ballet by Anna Kemp, This is not my Hat by Jon Klassen

Unusual names and concepts: The Tin Forest by Helen Ward, The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson

Ridiculous and funny: This book just ate my dog! by Richard Byrne Shh! We have a Plan by Chris Haughton. Do not let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Williams

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Tense

There are no rules about tense, go with your instinct. Try them out and see how it changes the story.

Present tense feels immediate, faster paced, the story is happening now. I use this for action-packed or wacky stories.

Past tense is more traditional, we are being told a tale so it feels slower paced and cosy. Perfect for reassuring bedtime stories and traditional narratives.

Future tense. Huh? I hear you say. Actually it’s rather fun. Haven’t you ever said, what if…

Who’s telling the story anyway?

The 3rd person

The narrative voice is the traditional form of story telling. Most picture books are told this way and the narrator tends to stay in the main characters head.

To refresh an old fairytale considering changing the POV character e.g. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! By A Wolf. By John Scieszka

Omniscient 3rd Person

Head jumping can be confusing, especially for little ones. But if executed carefully with a simple concept, it could work. Knowing what someone else is thinking can be amusing, reassuring or surprising e.g. Big Pumpkin by Erica Silverman

The 1st person

I or we can be told in rhyme, narrative, letter or diary form. There’s lots of scope for originality in the first person and it’s all about voice. The Day the Crayons Quit is composed of seven letters written by the seven crayons. Each Peach Bear Plum, I spy Tom Thumb, is a rhyme in first person. The storyteller invites the listener to spy with them. We’re going on a Bear Hunt is an adventure told by a family.

A young child’s perspective on the world can be charming for adults and an instant hit with children. Hoorah. they think, a book that talks my language! E.g. Good morning toes, Good morning feet, tangled up between my sheets (Hello Toes, Hello Feet by Ann Whitford Paul.)

2nd Person

Using the You POV is a lot less common but why not consider it as an option, it involves the reader directly in the story and children love to participate. Lots of authors use this technique for titles e.g. How to Train Your Dragon, but the main story is written in 3rd person. I can only think of You Choose, as an example of a current second person rhyme. The simple rhyme repeats the invitation ‘you choose’ on every spread. I also remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure,” books from my childhood. In these books, the reader made decisions throughout the book about how the story should progress, so it was written with the reader as the viewpoint character.

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Time and place

Don’t just think about the here and now. There’s a whole world (or universe) out there to set your story in. Real or imagined. Past, present or future. Mix it up a little.

Phew. Have I missed anything out?

Oh, yes! Lots of sticky notes, coloured pens and pencils, a decent eraser, a plain sheet artist’s notebook and a dictaphone or someone else to read it back to you, even a child if you have one handy.

Ann Whitford Paul has written a very helpful book entitled, Writing Picture Books. Her explanation of meter and poetry techniques is particularly useful for the rhythmically challenged.

Next post: Evoking emotion in characters and readers (adult and children)

It’s darn tricky I can tell you.

Publication News – The Elephant Carnival in The Mumsnet Books of Animal Stories

Last February my story the Elephant Carnival was chosen along with nine other animal stories to feature in this year’s Mumsnet/Walker Books, Book of Animal Stories. And here it is – the front cover. It’s available in bookshops from the 1st October!

Children’s Picture Book Market Segmentation

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.

Hmmm….

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.