Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Adapting fairy tales - the Little Mermaid by Abie Longstaff


Rewriting fairy tales is always a challenge.

I like to bring the world up to date, to help children engage with the story better. This might include tackling gender, class and diversity issues, as well as making the characters dress and behave in a more contemporary style. Whatever your aims of adaptation, you still need to make sure the story retains enough of the flavour of the original to allow children to identify familiar themes and characters.

The latest Fairytale Hairdresser book - the Little Mermaid - had an added element to tackle. The original Hans Christian Anderson story is very dark and many people are not familiar with the ending. The tale is about sacrifice for love and has strong themes of moral 'goodness'. Anderson's mermaid chooses to swap her tail for legs, even though every step she takes will be like 'treading upon sharp knives'. In the end, she fails to win the heart of her prince and is given one last option to avoid becoming foam on the sea: kill the prince. The Little Mermaid refuses, and instead she throws herself into the ocean to meet her death.

Unsurprisingly, the Disney version has a different ending. In the 1989 film, Ariel and her prince fall in love and she is made a human permanently by her father, King Trident.

Like Disney, I wanted to steer clear suicidal mermaids, but I felt uncomfortable with the film's message of 'change for the one you love' so I spent a long time thinking through what I wanted to say. Why is the mermaid unhappy the way she is? Should she become a human permanently? Should the prince become a mermaid?

In my story (spoiler alert) the little mermaid finds she misses her tail. She returns to being a mermaid and she and her prince (Marino, a diving instructor) spend half of their time in her (underwater) palace:


and half the time in his:












You can read the original Little Mermaid tale here.

The Fairytale Hairdresser and the Little Mermaid is available from Amazon here or Waterstones here and also in independent shops like this one.

Friday, 15 May 2015

How to Write a Vivid Picture Book: Living in the Moment by Natascha Biebow





Recently, a three year-old came to play at our house. When the time came to wash our hands for tea, she stepped up onto the little stool at the kitchen sink and I passed her a bar of soap. “What’s that?” she asked. “Soap,” I replied and showed her how, if you make it a little wet, you can get lots and lots of bubbles out of it. The delight in her face was a wonder. She had never seen soap in a bar before!

Wow, what else, will our modern children soon not recognize, I wondered. Already, talk of CDs

and chalkboards  



elicits a mystified gaze. 

“Did you have telephones, Mommy?” I am asked. Well, yes, I did. But we had to borrow our neighbour’s and making long-distance calls was a big deal

And I looked stuff up in the Encyclopedia Britannica


dusty volumes, also borrowed from our British neighbour in Rio and pored over the tiny type for various homework assignments. Now, we can search for anything we like with a quick click on Google. And plan on the weather (sort of) at a glance on our phones . . .




Recently, I’ve joined the Non-Fiction Archaelogy course run by Kristen Fulton, and recommended by fellow blogger, J Clare Bell. 
(c) Kristen Fulton
One of the first things I’ve re-discovered, is there are stories everywhere you look. This is also one of the aspects of being a writer that I enjoy the most.


So far, this week, I’ve discovered that:



• Goldie the golden eagle was a true Houdini, on the run from London zoo for 12 whole days in 1965, outwitting most adults who tried to capture him and causing a traffic jam in central London

• Another escape artist was Fu Manchu, the orangutan and late resident of the Omaha Zo, foiled zookeepers by picking the locks on his enclosure with a small piece of metal wiring that he kept hidden under his cheek.

• The average child wears down 720 crayons by their 10th birthday

• Harrods once sold an alligator as a Christmas gift for the Noel Coward


• There is a candy desk in the US Senate 
US Candy Desk as pictured on Wikipedia
And . . .



. . . some children have never seen soap!



One of our first tasks in the course has been to find a topic for a non-fiction picture book. It’s got me thinking about narrating a story that might have happened a long time ago so that it’s relevant to contemporary children.



Not only do writers need to research how things were in the past, they need to imagine themselves there so they can show, not tell. Also, importantly, writers of all picture books must capture the child living in the moment. Stories need to be told in ‘real-time’ and flashbacks are discouraged, because pre-school children can’t yet conceptualize time in the way that adults and older children can. This is because they are egocentric; their concept of time is limited to their immediate world and routine. It's only by having experiences involving familiar sequences and routines that they can gradually conceptualize events in the past and future, expanding their world view.



So, when considering their story, it’s important for writers to look around the world through a child’s eyes, with the same freshness, verve and excitement. What we need to do is really step into the main character’s shoes and live the story in the moment, to take the time to envision and describe each scene as if we were there . . .

. . . discovering the wonder of a bar of soap’s bubbles! 




This is no mean feat if you’re living some 100 or so years after the event you are researching. But capturing these little moments of wonder is the key to writing a truly great picture book story and taking today's child reader with you.



  
Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission.  Check out my NEW small group coaching courses!

Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.  www.blueelephantstoryshaping.com

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Fifties - Didn't we have them once already? - Jonathan Allen


Well, fashions come and go in the world of children's books. I've been only vaguely aware of it throughout my time in the business, but recently it has really become much more obvious. We are in the middle (or the end, please. . .) of a 1950s obsession, and it's starting to get depressing. it's pretty universal, not just children's books, but this is a grumpy rant about Picture Books so I won't go into fabric and interior design. . . ;-)
Not that the style in question is depressing per se, just that the unoriginality of a lot of the stuff out there is depressing. It's the law of diminishing returns, people mindlessly copying people who are copying people who are copying people who are aping particular 1950's styles like that of the wonderful Miroslav Sasek -

http://www.miroslavsasek.com/index.html

– and Cliff Roberts -



and Mary Blair -



and the also wonderful Margaret Bloy Graham -



And Jim Flora -



Don't get me wrong, I love those original artists, and I love the best of the current artists that are influenced by them. There is nothing wrong with being influenced by others, even copying if it leads to your own style.

But. . . . I lose the will to live when I see a style being done to death by those who really should be trying to work out their own style and their own take on the world. Why do they do it? Is it a lack of confidence, or of self respect?
I never understood unthinking fashion following in the first place so it puts me at a disadvantage I guess. Not that I'm trying to occupy some sort of moral high ground. Well, maybe I'll claim a molehill's worth of hieght. After all, we all see ourselves as paragons of discernment, however delusional that view might be, I'm no different ;-)

Is it wholly market led? It may be that the market has pushed artists in this direction. If something is doing well, publishers will want more stuff like it of course.

Is there some correlation between our times and the fifties that leads people to this abstracted, flat, design led style? To the distance these styles keep the viewer from their subject? The fifties seems to have been a time when Modern was seen as good. Now in our more pessimistic times are we nostalgic about that idea and view of The Modern?
Are things so tough and uncertain that we want to stand a safe distance from the world, especially the world we present to our kids? I'm not any kind of psychologist so I don't know the answer to these questions, but I find the idea interesting.

What I do know is that I for one am getting bored sick of it. It's the illustration world's equivalent of all those young men with big beards, shaved sides of heads and plaid/check shirts ;-) That's getting really old too.

Talking of 'old', put the word 'grumpy' and 'man' in there too and you've defined me absolutely. . .

So as a card carrying Grumpy Old Man confronted by this Fifties obsession, I will say, as I've heard Americans say, 'Stick a fork in it and turn it over, it's done!' 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Tiger Who We All Wish Would Come To Tea With Us, by Pippa Goodhart



Last Saturday I had a treat.  I went to hear Judith Kerr talking about her work in Cambridge Union.  Judith Kerr is a hero of mine for sharing her remarkable child refugee life with us all in her 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' series of books, for her wonderful picture books, and just for being such an inspiring and nice person.  Still publishing picture books now, in her nineties, she's a role model!  But what I wanted to hear about most of all was her first, and I think, her best picture book of them all - The Tiger Who Came To Tea.






Judith and small daughter used to get ‘terribly bored’. So she made up bedtime stories. Judith felt that some of her other stories were at least as good as The Tiger One, but her daughter insisted on that Tiger One more than any other. "Talk the tiger' is what she would demand.  One can imagine how such repeated tellings honed the wording of the story to perfection.

It was only once her daughter, Tacy, and the son who came later, were both at school ‘and staying there for their dinners’ that Judith had time for her own creative work once more, and she began that with the tiger story she knew so well.  That was in 1966.

The prospective publisher liked the story, but questioned ‘how realistic’ it was that the tiger drank from a tap. Anyone with a cat knows that they do drink from taps, certainly more than they knock on front doors! And the glory of that drinking moment is that the Tiger ‘drank all the water in the tap’. I think that's the moment in the story we all remember the most. Incidentally, I couldn’t resist a little homage to that moment in one of my Winnie the Witch stories (written under the fake name of Laura Owen). When Winnie gets a new kitten, much to Wilbur’s annoyance, in a story in ‘Winnie The Bold’, it’s a tiger cub she’s got by mistake, rather than a kitten. That tiger causes havoc, eating everything in the larder and the fridge, and then, of course, drinking all the water in the tap. I’m so glad that Judith held strong and kept that tap-drinking!

 

The other problem perceived by the publishers was with one aspect of Judith’s artwork. ‘And they were quite right,’ said Judith. She had modelled the father figure on her husband, but he looked very different in different spreads. So she tried to get him to sit for her properly so that she could get the images right, but he was too busy … so she used an out of work actor friend instead, and, she says, that you can see that Daddy is distinctly ‘different’ on different pages. I’d never noticed that, but now I've gone back to look, I do see it!

 Michael Rosen has a theory that the tiger knocking at the door, then coming in and helping itself to everything, represents the Gestapo who were doing their worst in the Germany that the Kerr family fled as the Nazis came to full power. But Judith Kerr says that’s quite wrong. The story grew the way it did because she and her daughter got bored with just each other for company whilst ‘Daddy’ was at work. They used to long for somebody to come and visit, and so that’s why the story grew out of a visitor coming to tea. Why a tiger? Simply because they had been to the zoo together, and both fallen in love with the tiger they saw there. She says they hadn’t at all contemplated how dangerous a tiger might be; just that they were so very beautiful, and they made you want to stroke that wonderful orange fur. So to have a tiger visiting, and letting you lean against its orange fur strength and warmth wasn’t a scary prospect at all. It was wonderful. I doubt any read it as a scary story. And, besides, the tiger is so very polite, he’s not at all a nasty intruder!







But that’s one of the beauties of stories, and especially those which are simply told. They leave room for you to bring your own interpretation to them. They become your story, individual to each one of us because we each ‘read’ and complete the story in our own unique way.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Martin Salisbury discusses five great picture books

We're delighted to have this guest blog from Professor Martin Salisbury, course leader for the prestigious MA course in Children's Book Illustration run by Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. An illustrator himself, Martin has written a number of important books about picture books for children and here he looks at five great picture books.

Hansi
By Ludwig Bemelmans

Published by The Viking Press,
New York, 1934
Though best known for his subsequent, hugely popular Madeline books, of which there were five, Bemelmans’ first picturebook was this clearly semi-autobiographical tale of a childhood holiday in the Tyrol. Hansi is packed by his mother onto a little train and journeys up into the mountains where he stays with Uncle Herman, Aunt Amelie and their daughter, cousin Lieserl for the Christmas holidays. Various adventures are described through words and pictures in a generously sized format with alternating colour and black and white pages.

Born in 1898, the author had experienced a troubled upbringing in what was then Austrian territory (now Italian) and was sent to the United States at the age of eighteen to work in the hotel industry, eventually opening his own restaurant. This first venture into writing and illustrating came at the suggestion of friends and was well received by reviewers. It marked the beginning of a successful career as a humorist, novelist and artist. His work was characterized by an idiosyncratic, occasionally sentimental approach to the anecdotal.


There is far more text here than would be found in a modern picturebook. It falls somewhere between an illustrated book and what we now think of as a picturebook, with several beautiful double page spread illustrations in colour. Hansi was printed in the United States. No further details are given about the printing but it is clearly produced autolithographically. Bemelmans presumably would have needed to acquaint himself with this process, producing separations for each colour directly onto the plate and in places overlaying colours to create further hues, thereby maximizing the potential of the process. He appears to have used both lithographic crayon and inks. The first edition was issued with a dust jacket. Bemelmens’ extremely limited, at times appalling, draftsmanship is somehow always surmounted by the exuberance and charm of his vision.

The Moon Jumpers
By Janice May Udry
Pictures by Maurice Sendek

Published by Harper & Row Inc.,
New York, 1959
This copy, 1st UK edition
(The Bodley Head, 1979)
One of Sendak’s less well-known titles, this is a book that finds the great master in lyrical, sensual mode. Udry’s richly evocative text tells of a sultry, moonlit summer night, from the perspective of a group of children, out playing before bedtime. Sendak’s images give an almost pagan, ritualistic layer to the book as he uses heavily opaque paint to create formalized shapes of trees, buildings and children in intense moonlight. Using an almost pointillist technique, the artist eschews representational interest in architecture or flora in order to create a primitive, Rousseauesque atmosphere. The children seem to float and dance ritualistically across the pages in an operatic performance, brought to a close only by the call from the house: Mother calls from the door, “Children, oh children.” But we’re not children, we’re the Moon Jumpers!
“It’s time,” she says.



Humbert
By John Burningham



Published by Jonathan Cape, London, 1965

One of the greatest picturebook innovators of his generation, Burningham has consistently pushed at the boundaries of the medium with works such as Grandpa and Come Away from the Water Shirley. His precocious, Greenaway Medal-winning debut, Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with no Feathers, which was published in 1963, just over three years after receiving his diploma from the Central School of Art in London, gave notice of a unique talent that was emerging at a key time for illustration and in particular the picturebook. The development of new methods of lithographic printing and the vision of important figures in UK publishing such as Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape and Mabel George at Oxford University Press helped initiate a ‘great leap forward’ in expressive picturebook art.

Humbert was Burningham’s fourth picturebook in these early post art school years. The book tells of a humble working horse in London whose owner trundles him daily through the city, collecting scrap onto his cart. One day, the Lord Mayor’s parade comes by and Humbert leaps into action to save the day as the mayor’s grand coach breaks down. More than anything though, the book is a visual celebration of London, a tour through the deep browns of dirty Victorian buildings and the heavy, smog laden nights, lit by a yellow moon.

Doctor De Soto
By William Steig


Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
New York, 1982
Steig died in 2003 at the age of 95 after an illustrious career as a humourist, writer and illustrator. He did not begin making picturebooks until into he was into his sixties after working for many years as a cartoonist. Having managed to sell his cartoons at a very early age and become the family breadwinner, he went on to produce over 1600 drawings and 117 covers for the New Yorker magazine alone, characterized by his a highly distinctive, sardonic sense of humour. Of his children’s books, it is Shrek! that has become the most widely known in recent years, thanks to the success of the Hollywood film. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (Simon & Schuster, 1969), the Caldecott Medal winning story of Sylvester’s the donkey’s discovery of a magic pebble that can make wishes come true has also become a Twentieth Century classic. It also caused some controversy due to the casting of pigs as police, a derogatory association that was particularly prevalent in the hippy era. Although Steig insisted no offence had been intended, the book was banned in some places.


As with all of Steig’s books, Doctor De Soto is firmly underpinned by a profound and meaningful narrative yet delivered with an easy lightness of touch, and great humour. A fox is suffering from acute toothache and begs the dentists, who happen to be mice, to remove the painful tooth. Despite their stated policy of ‘Cats and other dangerous animals not accepted for treatment’, the mice take pity on him and perform an extraction. Throughout the story, the fox is faced with the dilemma of whether or not to eat the mice after his dental surgery is complete. Steig’s text is hilariously matter of fact: “On his way home, he wondered if it would be shabby of him to eat the De Sotos when the job was done.”

The Monster from Half-way to Nowhere
By Max Velthuÿs

Published by Nord-Sud Verlag, Mönchaltorf,
Switzerland, 1973

This copy: 1st UK edition, A&C Black, London, 1974
Born in The Hague in 1923, Max Velthuÿs studied painting and graphic design at the Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten (Academy of the Visual Arts), before working for some time as a graphic ‘all-rounder, designing for advertising, TV and film. He came relatively late to picturebook making but found great success with the Frog books, beginning with Frog in Love, which was championed by the legendary Klaus Flugge at Andersen Press. Flugge went on to publish numerous subsequent tiles in the series. Velthuÿs’s Frog books are characterized by a graphic economy and an ability to address complex existential themes in an elegant understated manner, always stressing the innate nobility of human kindness.

The Monster from Half-way to Nowhere was one of the artist’s earlier picturebooks but already displays this lightness of touch and quietly philosophical approach. The page designs are masterful in their use of space and distribution of weight and colour. A fire-breathing monster arrives in a village to the consternation of the inhabitants, whose firemen immediately douse him with water. They try to put him to work as a military weapon but his natural good nature prevents him from wishing harm on anyone. Eventually he harnesses his fire to the newly built power station, providing electricity to the village.

Max Velthuÿs received the Hans Christian Andersen award for his contribution to children’s literature in 2004, a year before his death.




A discussion on further great picture books can be found in Martin Salisbury's 100 Great Picture Books, published by Laurence King in April 2015.

We wonder what you think of the intriguing selections? What books would be in your personal top three?

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Patience, patience… by Jane Clarke


Like many children's authors, I've been visiting a lot of schools recently. In a couple of schools, we've even had the time to make books. It's made me realise that when I'm writing a picture book text, I have a lot in common with the kids. 

It's exciting when your head is fizzing with ideas that might make a book! 




Inspired? Fantastic! But now you need to make it into a story and write it down….

It's hard to get your thoughts down on paper so that someone else can read and understand them. 


The danger is that some of the fizz evaporates somewhere along the way between mind maps, story plans, and writing, so it really helps when people are enthusiastic about your ideas.


 Thanks to all the fantastic, enthusiastic and dedicated teachers I worked with.


It's hard to be patient and polish up your work.


Oh yes. But it's worth taking time so that the finished book is as good as it can be. 



Congratulations to all the children who made wonderful books.


Making a book is a l-ooo-ooo-ooo-ng process. When asked to guess how long one of my picture book texts takes to write, edit, be illustrated and appear in the shops, children will often guess 'a week.' When I tell them it takes at least two and a half years, and sometimes up to five years, they think that's an eternity.

Sometimes if feels like an eternity, too! But the fizz when you get a new idea you just have to put down on paper somehow makes it all worthwhile, especially if that idea turns into a book!




Jane's impatiently awaiting the publication of 4 toddler board books, 3 picture books and 2 more books in her Dr KittyCat series and has recently been lured onto Twitter
@JaneClarkeWrite




Monday, 20 April 2015

Do you want to earn more money writing? Moira Butterfield


I expect the answer to that title is yes. Nicola Morgan recently wrote a great blog about it, with practical and positive suggestions, and I’ve put a link to that blog at the bottom of this one. One of her suggestions is the possibility of writing more by taking on paid fee work. That’s what I do and have done for many years. For picture book authors there are opportunities to do this in board books and early-years educational books. Some of you will be old hands at doing this but for those who like the idea but haven’t tried it, or are new to writing as a career, here are some points I thought might be helpful.

It’s a craft, like journalism 

Writing paid fee work is not the same as writing your own stuff with royalties promised down the line. It’s a different discipline. It’s more akin to journalism because you are commissioned by an editor to provide what they want, and your work can be altered.

It has serious deadlines

Fee work has set schedules, often very tight. They aren’t to be messed with. You can’t decide to add on time because you needed to do this or that away from work, and you can’t plead writer’s block. I was once an editor who commissioned fee work, and if someone let me down schedule-wise I never commissioned them again because I had to carry the can for it. If I ever missed a print date the sales team and the production team would kick my boss who would kick me twice as hard because it would cost my company money. If you can’t, hand on heart, write under pressure to meet a date, you shouldn’t take on fee work.

Having said that, suggested fee work schedules can be ridiculous. Say no to those. They bring only stress and bitterness. (Ask if there is more time before you say no, though, just in case). 

Fees – don’t roll over and do it for nothing
Fees are tight and getting tighter, and some publishers try to take the mickey. There’s no pot of gold. For an insight into the money side, and into working with fee-paying editors, read the excellent ‘tell it like it is’ blog by Anne Rooney - Again I've added a link at the bottom of this blog. 

To work out if a fee is fair, get out your calculator and punch in the hours you think you will need. Multiply this by your hourly rate (you don’t need to tell the publisher what that is, by the way. It’s your business, no theirs.) 

You sign away rights
You will be asked to sign away rights in flat fee work. There’s some excellent material about this on the UK NUJ website, also with a useful guide to fees being paid in the UK. If there are similar sites in other countries, and you know of them, please do let us know about them in the comments section.


You don’t get the last say
Your editor may ask for changes. The sales team may ask for changes. You can point out why you think they’re wrong but in the end they get to do what they want. If you hate what they’ve done, you do have the option of making sure your name does not appear on the work. 

You may wish to use a pseudonym for fee work, and a different name for your own work. I'm hoping to do this myself in the near future for fiction-writing. 

There is often hassle

There is often hassle because fee-based projects sometimes evolve in-house as you’re writing. You need to be professional on these occasions, however unreasonable demands may be. It’s sometimes very tempting to shout ‘stuff it’ but never ever do. It’s always better to have dignity on a professional situation.

Here’s a little taste of things that have happened to me in just the last couple of months. It’s normal for fee work.

* Page counts were changed more than once. It’s ok. I can handle it.
Foreign publishers buying rights from my UK publisher demanded changes at a late stage (this has happened twice in the last 2 months). In both cases it turned out not to be too onerous, just annoying.
An incorrect brief was sent to me by an editor, and so a big bookplan had to be redone. It’s ok. We all make mistakes, and I hadn’t begun writing.
* One editor was unpleasant to work with. Some people need to be avoided and you tend to find out the hard way, but that's the same in most professions I guess.

You have to stay calm and did what you can to move the job on, within reason.  If you take on fee work, be prepare to handle a bit of messing about (no need to roll over, but best not to throw hissy fits, however deserved). 


You may work with lots of editors, some great and some not.
When people ask me ‘who’s your publisher’ the answer is ‘many’. Some are great – polite, focused and creative – and I’d do anything for them. Some are not. You’re likely to come across more of both types if you work with more than one company.


Publishing parties, book tours and festival appearances organized by your publisher. Forget it.
Doesn’t happen. You’ll even have to check they got your name right on Amazon, and the date your book is published. However, you can do your own school tours and earn money on the back of the books you’ve done, royalties or not. See Nicola Morgan’s blog for advice on that. And you can get PLR for library-borrowing in the UK, which over time can really make a difference to the fee. Other countries have their own schemes for this.

A non-picture book I wrote this year. A lot of fun to do. 


Time to do your own writing? Er….
Doing fee work sucks up your time and your creative energy. So if you take on lots, don’t expect to have much time left for your own projects. You need to find a balance, and I haven’t, which is why I’m manically writing this blog at the last minute. I’ve just counted up the books I wrote from April 2014 to April 2015 and even I am shocked and a bit too embarrassed to write the number. Some are history books, some are sets of board books for under-5s. There’s part of a poetry book, a practical nature guide, a body book and a book on the weather... That doesn’t include the editing work I’ve done on other people’s projects, and the development work I’ve done. It’s no wonder I’m struggling to finish the novel I’ve been trying to write.  Just bear this in mind before you plunge into fee work.

I regularly write educational history. 

You get to have a lot of fun
I get some fantastic projects offered to me that I really enjoy. This last year I’ve discovered the incredible worlds of the Stone Age and the Bronze Age – and now I’m really hooked on them. I’ve been offered a poetry commission for the very first time. I got to write a guide to Barcelona. I’m currently writing a series on children around the world, and loving it (though the schedule is nuts). 

I contributed to this new poetry
anthology, published by Collins 


…and I’ve had a picture book accepted, so I can still hold my head up (just) on this marvellous blogsite.  Now all I need to do is find a way to stay awake through the night to get that novel done….

Would love to hear your views/experiences on taking fee work, and ask me any questions you want. It's not for everyone, that's for sure. 

Here is Nicola Morgan's extremely helpful blog on earning more money:


Here is Anne Rooney's blog on working with editors and costing a project:

http://www.stroppyauthor.com/2015_02_01_archive.html

Moira Butterfield

@moiraworld