Risky Business – the ingredients for a ‘great’ picture book

Last week, I attended my first event with the Children’s Book Circle –  ‘Grand Designs: What Makes a Picture Book Great’.

It was a talk by a panel of four industry experts, namely: Alexis Deacon – one of Booktrust’s ten Best New Illustrators; David Mackintosh – author and illustrator of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize short-listed Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School; Kate Burns – publisher at Orchard Books; and Deirdre McDermott – Picture Book Publisher at Walker Books.

Of course, the main question throughout the discussion, was ‘Just what makes a picture book great?’. The overall consensus was that each and every book has its own recipe for ‘great’-ness – requiring a certain democratic effort on the part of the editor, illustrator, designer, author and publisher. A pretty basic point, yes, but I thought Deirdre summed it up well when she pointed it out that, at the end of the day, it all comes down to having an ‘integrity about cutting down trees’.

Some of the initial points that came across were the need for a book that really sticks in the mind of a parent – so that they would want to rush home and share it with their child – and the fact that the ability of a book to tell a story through pictures alone is half the battle. But the best way the panel conveyed what made a picture book stand out to them was by going through their favourite books of all time…

In summary, the ones mentioned were:

Kate: Mog by Judith Kerr

MogA story about a cat who foils a robber! What Kate loved the most about this is the notion of the children sticking up for the cat throughout – the essence of family life and the great observations that go with it (such as the way the cat is conveyed licking its leg and stopping mid-lick – a perfectly realistic pose!).

David: The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl (illustrated by William Pene)

Magic FingerWho doesn’t know the story of this classic – about a girl with magic powers. Despite its long text, the creepy story and style of this particular edition of the book really stands out, with colour illustrations reproduced in black and white. In this particular version, a see-through element allows you to see a teacher being turned into a cat, as if by magic…

Deirdre: The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer

three-robbersThis is a very dark story about three robbers who scare everyone they meet, until they find a little orphan girl called Tiffany. Deirdre didn’t mention exactly why she liked this book so much, but did convey that it’s a lot to do with the images and such a classic story.

Alexis: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

SylvesterThis is a story about a donkey with a magic pebble, who finds out that it can grant wishes. An encounter with a lion makes him wish he was a rock, and you can probably guess that he finds it hard to change back… What follows is a quirky story about – well – a rock.

What Alexis loved about the book was how the author is able to write such a crazy story but make it happen in such a believable way. As he pointed out, some of the best stories are those that start quite ‘left-field’ and, just when you expect them to revert back to a sense of normality, they start to get more and more bizarre!

Personally, this last book stood out to me – simply from the way that many of the spreads just consist of simple images of a rock going through the seasons. They’re such simple images, but they really do stick in your mind in a comic way. If there’s one thing we were all chatting about after this talk, this was it! The ability of the book to empower the reader also came across, as both Sylvester the donkey and the reader know that he has become a rock, but no other characters are aware of it. It echoes of the story Rosie’s Walk where, again, knowledge is given to the reader. As Alexis put it, the more a reader is empowered, the more a reader will invest in the text, allowing a story to resonate beyond the book.

tumblr_ks8nayzJC91qand21o1_400_thumb[1]Dangerous themes

One question that stood out in everybody’s mind about Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was whether or not a story like this would ever get published today – and this set the scene for the rest of the debate. Could a quirky, slightly bizarre story about a disappearing child (or donkey – as Alexis was quick to correct) be just too risky-a-book to consider publishing nowadays? When themes that might cause upset, such as missing children or even murder, are presented, should publishers cautious of commissioning such work?

The Sad BookDeirdre pointed out that, in contemporary culture, we have an almost sentimental and protective outlook in terms of what we’re prepared for our children to read, protecting them from all things dangerous or unpleasant.  Whereas picture books dealing directly with such themes as murder and death are more commonplace in other cultures, here in the UK we tend to mask dark themes with over-sentimentalised hints that something has happened – through countless pet deaths or grandparents going to sleep for long periods of time. Here, difficult subjects tend to only be boldly approached by such well-known people as Quentin Blake (e.g. The Sad Book)  – who already have strong track-records of sales. When such  books are otherwise published, as Martin Salisbury has pointed out, you could be forgiven for thinking they are done so as attempts to win awards for artistic sensitivity. After all, when we do come across them, they really do stand out.

Need for change?

So, should we stop ruling out books because of the presence of these darker themes, and adopt more of an all-encompassed approach to what we publish? Apparently yes – we shouldn’t be worried about allowing children to be afraid – it’s a way for them to learn about fear. It’s synonymous with the argument about difficult or long words in books – if a child never encounters these words, how will they learn them? Children have a natural curiosity to know more about subjects that adults don’t necessarily want to discuss. Alexis also pointed out the hypocrisy involved with refusing to publish these ‘dangerous’ books and yet allowing our children to continue to read books from the 50s and 60s, which already have such dark themes associated with them (take many of themes in Roald Dahl’s stories as an example).

But all of this did get me wondering: what about the market? At the end of the day, it’s all about sales. If publishers should take these inherent ‘risks’ with stories about murder, violence, death and disappearing, then it’s the parents who need convincing that these books are okay for their children. As it is they who purchase the books, it is these parents we need to consider at all levels of the publishing process. It’s easy to say that we need to be more courageous with our choice of titles to publish but if parents aren’t prepared to take buy  these books, then what gains are there for the publishers?

Risky business

I Want My Hat BackThen I came full-loop… Publishers need sales, and it’s part of the process to take risks at times. Harry Potter was published because someone chose to take a ‘risk’ with it. It’s a risky business full-stop – there are no fortune-tellers for what will and won’t work in the publishing industry. So is it just what we need? To prevent too many formulas from impeding on the publication of future classics along the lines of Sylvester and The Magic Pebble? As pointed out by the panel, picture books are still very young and we are still defining what they are. But as we have become more and more sure about what they ‘should’ be, the genre has also become more dependent on a myriad of set ‘formulas’ for success. This isn’t necessarily a good thing: in a crowded market there isn’t as much room for straying away from the norms, and we’ve become more and more polarised about what’s published – nothing too scary, nothing too old-fashioned, nothing too crowded or too weird. But is one book among many worth that risk? This debate really did get me thinking…

Take John Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back – a superb bestseller that has become well-known in the children’s picture book world. And what are the major themes of this book? Murder, theft, loss, revenge… And the fear that publishers show when faced with such a theme is evident: the title was turned down by many publishing houses due to the scene with a rabbit being comically murdered, before it was finally accepted in its entirety by Walker Books. But have parents bought this book? Yes – quite a few! So here we are – an example of one ‘risk’ that really paid dividends for Walker.

Is there an answer?

So, perhaps we didn’t quite get a straightforward recipe for what makes a picture book great (were we really expecting one?). But what this talk did provide for was some interesting thoughts about the ingredients that should be considered in the process – and the need for publishers to take the risk with something that doesn’t necessarily conform to the usual recipe now and then. If we forget this and move towards too many standards of formalisation for what we publish, I fear we would be taking the biggest risk of all…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In case you were wondering what the panel would pinpoint as their favourite contemporary books, they were:

David: The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

– A great example of how text can be used in a simple and clever way and supporting the consensus that ‘design should feel invisible’.

Kate: Emily Brown by Cressida Powell 

–  A bit of a cheat here, as she was recommending one from her own publishing house, but apparently it’s a story you can read time and time again.

Deirdre:The Tiny King by Taro Miura

– An example of what Deirdre meant by a book that can tell its story through pictures alone – full of fantastic, emblematic images.

Alexis: Mr Chicken Goes to Paris by Leigh Hobbs

– purely off the top of his head, but worth a look!

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