Writing Humorous Picture Books

I thought this an excellent addition to the notes on my blog about writing picture books. Thank you Rebecca and Laurie for sharing. Love that hat.

Laurie J. Edwards ~ Author, Artist, Dreamer...

Rebecca witch 1Today I have the great pleasure of hosting my friend Rebecca Colby, an awesome picture book writer, whose book, It’s Raining Bats & Frogs, released this month. She’s agreed to give share some secrets for writing funny picture books. And as a special bonus, if you read through the post, you’ll find a clue for her Scavenger Hunt. Be sure to collect all of the clues to be eligible for a prize.

And here’s Rebecca…

Show Them the Funny: Writing Humorous Picture Books

Everywhere I look on editor and agent submission wish lists these days, I read the following: WANTED: Funny, Quirky Picture Books. Why? Because everyone enjoys a laugh—kids and adults alike. Laughing makes people feel good, and as a result, funny sells.

But if you’re not the kind of person who automatically sees the funny side of life, you may find writing humorous picture books…

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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.

thedaythecrayons quit

 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!

theblackdog

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

thisbookjustatemydog

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.

How to evaluate a picture book idea.

As you can see from previous posts I have been stalking picture book authors and publishers trying to find out how to break into this tricky market. The most important thing I have learned is: the idea is king.

So what makes a good idea?

Hmm.

There is no simple answer to this.

A combination of things.

And I have lots of ideas. So which are the best ones? Which should I spend time developing?

Hmm.

So here are a list of questions – a sort of check list I’ve developed – to help evaluate picture book ideas.

Hope this helps. It’s helped me.

1) Are the characters original and appealing?

How could you build in: idiosyncrasies, a distinct voice, actions, and memorable appearance. Turn norms/cliches on their head e.g. a misunderstood (friendly) crocodile. Make them stand out from the crowd.

2) Is there a clear theme?

Often this is a childhood emotion or experience, something that universally resonates with children and their parents.

3) How will the characters/concept appeal to young children?

What are they going to take away from the story at the end? Why will they read it again?

4) THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT: Search on Amazon and see if someone else has come up with the idea already!

5a) What is the problem/hook? This should be in the first or second spread.

5b) What is the climax of the problem? (point of change)

5c) What is the resolution? The main character must resolve the problem themselves.

THIS IS THE STRUCTURE OF YOUR STORY

6) How will the reader/listener participate in the story?

E.g. page turns, flaps, pullouts, touch, suspense, anticipation, irony, rhyme, singing, repetition, actions, spot what’s missing, find something, counting, humour.

7) Series potential or stand-alone?

THINK ABOUT ALL THE PEOPLE THIS CONCEPT IS GOING TO HAVE TO APPEAL TO: 

8) How will the story appeal to and inspire an illustrator

9) Why will it appeal to parents?

10) Will it appeal to teachers?

11) Will it appeal to digital publishers?

12) What are the unique selling points (USPs) for the:

Publisher’s Commissioning Team, Marketing Team, Sales Team

Retailers

Now write a ten-word elevator pitch

13) Sit in the children’s department of a big book store and imagine your book concept on the shelf. Does it stand up to the competition?

14) Are there any publishers that are a good style/tonal fit for your story. Study their books!

NEXT POST: DEVELOPING A PICTURE BOOK IDEA