Over four years ago I penned this treatise on picture books and why they, and the writing of them, deserve more respect than they are generally given. This still seems topical so I thought I would give it another airing...
I would like to say a few words today in defence of the picture book. If children’s literature is frequently dismissed or ignored by the literary community in general, the picture book is perceived as the most insubstantial of them all. Yet a picture book is not ‘easy’ or ‘simple’ even when it is easy and/or simple to read. Sometimes, as with poetry, or sculpture, it is about what has been carved away, and how. It is the iceberg above the water. Do not underestimate what lies beneath.
In less than 1,000 words, often less than 500, the picture book is complete and, in its brevity, more satisfying than you might believe possible for so few words. How many novels demand frequent re-reading the way a picture book does. That is no accident. And despite the attendant dread a tired parent might first feel at hearing the phrase ‘read it again’, there is the resulting relief when the cunning composition of the picture book almost allows the story to tell itself. The task of re-reading is gently eased, and yet the benefits to the young audience are profound.
A good picture book provides a complete experience – a dawning of meaning and understanding, a burgeoning ownership of that revelation by its young audience, and most happily an emotional satisfaction that not every novel can claim to provide. And it can do this repeatedly for the same reader, not because the reader is too stupid to remember the punch line from the first time, but because the right words and right illustrations, when combined over around 14 double page spreads, cannot help but deliver the emotional and intellectual connections that guarantee to elicit a reader response. Just as chocolate tastes good every time – not just the first time. Never underestimate the power of a good picture book…. And yet so many writers and people in the wider community do this every day.
Too many adults who relish the layers of a good novel seem unwilling to delve into the depths of a good picture book. And yet they do have layers. Layers of meaning within the text, as well as skilled wordplay and an interesting, fun and sometimes challenging use of language. And the words can never be considered in isolation from the illustrations. These are, after all, picture books. On a raw level the illustrations might be considered simply as a pictorial assistant to decoding the text for new readers. But they can be so much more. Illustrations are also layered with subtext and meaning. In my own picture book The House That Went to Sea, the text addresses the central theme of a boy failing to connect with not only the wider world but also his own grandmother. As he begins to warm to her way of life the illustration depicts the grandmother and grandson opposite each other at the dinner table, their facial similarities mirroring each other in a classic display of familial inheritance and shared characteristics. This shared bond underpins the boy’s transformation during the course of the book.
While rhythm, and sometimes rhyme, (and sometimes cumulative text) can assist the reading experience and provide a framework on which a pre-literate child becomes an independent reader they also contribute to the pleasure of the experience, demonstrating the energy and potential of language, and building life-long lovers of words. Writers of adult literature should embrace the vehicle through which readers are born.
Illustrations too assist and enrich the experience through well thought out use and control of white space, directional flow, colour, tone, contrast, placement and style, and so much more. Wordless picture books demonstrate the ability of illustrations to ‘tell’ a story with subtlety and depth. Design too supports the other elements of a good picture book and contributes to its overall effectiveness. Picture books may look simple and easy, yet they are anything but.
Perhaps in the end it is that they contain comparatively so few words and are all too often quicker to write than your average novel. As if the length of time it takes to write something is the only measure of its quality. “Oh you could write that in a day,” is the dismissive phrase employed to demonstrate the insufficiencies of a picture book text. How can it ever compete with a novel? Well, for a start, it is not designed to compete with a novel. It is a different kind of literature, and one that can certainly demonstrate a significant depth of quality and an undeniable importance in the literacy of our society.
I do not write picture book texts from some superficial part of my brain. I am assessing each word on its own merits, its meaning on its own and in context, its sound and rhythmic contribution and its ability to stand up among all the other words I am choosing. Where is the fun and the excitement in the language? How can I drag that potential reader away from some other demand on their time – something that asks less of them and so easily occupies and entertains them? How can I satisfy both adult and child as they share the experience of reading my story? Can I bring them closer together and find a way in to both their hearts and minds? My plotting is a combination of desired themes, credible journeys (whether literal or metaphorical), satisfying and meaningful resolutions and allusions to other childhood experiences of literature that will feed back on themselves as they connect meaning and story across a wider range of works for a richer understanding. Characters are of course child-centric and require that I separate myself from the adult I’ve become and return, not to the child I used to be but a child in the ‘now’ world that has changed immeasurably since my own youth. ‘Jump through hoops’ anyone? This type of writing clearly comes with its own challenges.
And through it all I am looking for the spark, the magic, which lifts the story from the sum of all its parts to something greater. It might not take weeks or months or years to write the first draft of a less than 1000 word picture book but I am drawing on years of thought, experience, learning and my own extensive knowledge of books (picture and otherwise). And for every draft that ‘works’ there are many that stumble at the first idea, the first sentence, the first draft, the second draft, and even sometimes the final draft. For every ‘hit’, there may be a crowd of ‘misses’. I have had picture books that took ten years to go from conception to birth because they required a level of understanding and experience that I needed to acquire before I could make them everything they deserved to be. We are not picture book factories churning out duplicate texts. We are trying to create something fresh that will switch on a child's love of reading.There is nothing simple about this process if you are doing it right. It is made to look effortless (and this is part of our clever plan) and so many have fallen into the trap of believing this to be the case.
And once you have created a first draft that you believe might work, well then, you’ve barely begun. Because the first draft then gets, for all its relative brevity, more attention than 1000 words of a novel might get. Every word is tested, tasted and reassessed. Does it pull its weight? Is it the best word for the job? Does it play well with its mates? Does it shine? Can it be further polished? Should it be let go. If you add the demands of rhyme, expect to spend the greater part of your time tweaking and titivating and massaging things to fit and flow and remain meaningful. And sing. And underneath all the writing should be a consciousness that there shall be illustrations if this is accepted by a publisher. Will this story work over the format of a 32 page book? Are some pages going to be too text heavy. Will the illustrations vary sufficiently from spread to spread? Is there enough leeway for the illustrator to add more layers, to add extra magic, to read between the lines? Will they see what I see when I contemplate my story?
Picture book creators feel the weight of their task keenly. Creating readers is a significant contribution to the world and every little bit helps. I do not sniff at that. And neither should you.
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