On writing picture books and creative partnerships

DOWN-ROAD-TO-JAMIES-HOUSE-for-webbcA picture book is greater than the sum of text and pictures. It may seem self-evident, but isn’t always true, and is a crucial ingredient in a picture book that really works.


Growth to something new through bonding of separate creative elements words, pictures and design – makes picture books, for me, particularly invigorating to write. In a novel you manipulate imagination and skills on your own.


In picture books there is the artist, bringing unknown dimensions and possibilities. The open-endedness of that is marvellous. Words and pictures result in two visions merged and reborn as a single entity through the mediating vision of the editor selecting the text in the first place, creating the partnership, and guiding all with an eye for the hidden rocks.


A difficult task. Books have foundered on an author’s unhappiness with an artist’s conception. But pictures that merely illustrate, however effectively, result in a disappointing book. Glorious pictures with a limp text don’t work either. In a good picture book, words and pictures reflect each other, but go further. True picture book artists bring a new insight, sometimes with a subtext and proliferating subplots never originally dreamed of by the writer.


Children respond in powerful ways to these visual worlds, succumbing to the magic of storytelling (and on to the magic of language) wanting to know more, to explore every corner of the picture, to get to the end of the story, hear it again ultimately to read it for themselves. Layers of meaning reside not only within words and pictures, but in that critical linking of the two.


In Suzi Sam George and Alice, I used a recurring phrase ‘time for George to rest’. It conveys the image of a tired cat. The artist Sally Gardner’s languid George draped around telephones, toy boxes, watering cans, even in the oven, gives instantly the intrusive SUZI-SAM-GEORGE-ALICE-for-webbc of his centre stage, egocentric laziness and the unpredictable domestic chaos created by the two kids and their cats.
And there’s a critical aspect of the editor’s role here to ensure subplots don’t obliterate the central conception of the story, part of the partnership between all parties to a picture book’s birth: editor at the centre, but the designer too working to achieve a harmonious page that does justice to the enlarged whole.
Writing a picture book is in a very real sense, only the beginning. Structure, meaning, characters,setting will be reinvented by someone who deals in visual images, not words.


For the writer there is an enormous danger in assuming that what you write will be literally ‘illustrated’, and then feeling disappointed when the artist doesn’t. Start from here, and you’re heading for a bad picture book, intrinsically limited by a strait jacket imposed on visual skills by non-visual skills. Picture books are nerve wracking for some writers. Will the artist take over? Will the story be undermined? Will the book become something they no longer recognize or like? It is not an anxiety I share, but I recognize the problem.

Obviously the author must agree to the choice of artist. The artist needs to take on the author’s text with enthusiasm, feeling that it is right for them. Here, again, the vision of the editor is at work: who is right for this one? Adrian Reynolds ­­illustrated Down the road to DOWN-ROAD-TO-JAMIES-HOUSE-for-webbcJamie’s House. I knew and loved his artwork already, but I was unprepared for the instant meshing of his ideas with mine. Adrian’s Annie is someone I recognized at once in every aspect of her shape, looks, gestures.

When I start to write I do have pictures in my head. But I also know that I need to stay open to variation and experiment, be prepared to rework areas of the text if the artist’s insight suggests something not originally envisaged. This ‘reworking’ may mean breaking the text between pages differently. Or teasing out a section of text to allow room for another picture: as in The Village in the Forest by the Sea, the-village-in-the-forest-by-the-sea-cwhere I made room for Angela Chidgey’s enthusiasm for the beauty of the Kenyan coast.

Or I may need to change something. In Down the road to Jamie’s House, Annie is suddenly terrified in an unfamiliar park. My original text talked of

Tall trees, dark trees, whispering trees, sighing.
Split! Splat! Raindrops plopping, splashing Annie’s face.
Bushes crouching, hissing in the rain.’

Adrian’s picture showed no bushes. Dark trees leaning across a tiny girl. But no bushes. The scene is profoundly menacing. I had no hesitation in jettisoning the crouching bushes (much as I liked them) and reworking the last three lines. Now there are ‘shadows hissing in the rain’.

The recognition of the rightness of an artist’s conception, like finding a picture book idea in the first place, remains an infinitely mysterious thing for me. Children ask, Where do ideas come from? I don’t know. Once, as I woke, there was an idea that took firmer and firmer shape and then shot out of my head on to paper as a new picture book text, all in the space of an hour or two. But in what corner of my head it had been nestling, and what triggered it, I have no idea.

turtle-for-webIn my most recent picture books – Turtle’s Party in the Clouds (truly vibrant pictures by Christine Jenny), and Greedy Anansi and his Three Cunning Plans, (equally richly illustrated by Alexander Jansson), I had that same instant sense of recognition in seeing 076724-FCT-for-web-cthe artists’ conceptions, and of the ‘bigger’ story their vision made of the originals.

What I do know is that possessiveness, an author’s sense of the picture book as ‘mine’, impedes fruitful development. An artist always brings something of self. As writer, you need to be open and welcome that. Together we have to create something that is read and reread (awful as a parent to have to return to a limp text!). Our picture book may offer reassurance, take off on wings of imagination, new ideas, words, sounds, a good laugh … or if it is rich enough, all of these things. We have such a wonderful heritage in picture books, constantly joined by new books which take my breath away. Using them with children, seeing how they respond, always reawakens my effort to try in partnership with the artists to reach for that quality in our books.


[Visit the picture book page]

Don’t let the bullies win


I wrote this for Young Scot newspaper.

To read it as a PDF of the original click the picture.





don't-let-bullieswin-BANNER cIt’s night-time; I’m stepping into a dark tent. The only light is the beam from my torch …


My feet touch something warm, soft and sticky. Swing the torchbeam down. Something’s squelching over my sandals – wet, glistening. It takes a moment to recognise the innards of a decapitated snake spewed across the groundsheet.


I remember (because this really happened) letting out a yell and backing out. Torches flash into life round me. There’s laughing. It is, apparently, a great big joke.


Later, when the mess is cleared up, and I’m in my sleeping bag, trying to get the sight out of my head, there are grotesque shapes like snakes’ heads (made by clenched fists) rearing up against the tent.


More jokes. From my ‘friends’. I don’t know whether they killed the snake, or just found the carcass.


Next night, a gigantic dead spider in my clothes. I am, I’m told, way too squeamish about insects – I need toughening up.


So it went on …


Why did all this begin? I can’t remember now. These are memories I’d forgotten. They jumped to mind again only recently, when I was developing an idea for a new novel. I imagined a school expedition from Britain going to a remote place in Africa. Then a few students disappear. What’s happened to them? That was the seed of my idea – a mystery thriller, about young people’s encounters with Africa.


I talked to a girl who’d been on a school walking expedition in Nepal a year earlier. (I’ll call her Anna, like one of the missing people in my story, though it’s not her real name). I wanted to know how the expedition was organised. But Anna’s recollections were painfully overlaid by the memory of being constantly excluded by the other girls on the trek. For some reason, they began to shut her out of group activities. They ‘forgot’ to pass on information, so she got into trouble. They wouldn’t let her join the card playing in the group tent in the evenings, or walk with them during the day. They talked so she couldn’t hear, or stopped talking when she came near. There was a lot of giggling with backs turned. On the day it was Anna’s turn to be in charge of the days’ routine (everyone took turns at it) they refused to accept her authority.


Relentless – and dangerous nastiness – because it meant no one was paying attention to things like group safety and survival in an unknown, remote place, in difficult and dangerous terrain. The adults in charge paid no attention to any of the bullying.


After I had heard Anna’s story, I began to think about how little things – jokes that get out of hand, rivalries that become too important, the ups and downs of friendships, can grow to something much more unpleasant and serious – and that’s when my novel sprang into focus. I was 14 when the snake incident happened to me. Suddenly I was angry, in a way I hadn’t been at the time, not so much at the people who’d played the stupid jokes on me, but at the friends who laughed on the sidelines – sometimes nervously, hoping they wouldn’t be the focus for ‘jokes’ themselves.


So this is what I think, and what I have explored in my novel, RIFT. Bullying is never just about the bully and the victim. It is always about the culture around it as well. Where bullying is rife, there is, at worst, encouragement of it, at best refusal to deal with it or denial that it exists. Either way, there is a nurturing of the attitudes and the power battles that can go on between people and lead to bullying. So, as in RIFT, teasing can quickly become something more, small acts of malice can become larger. An amused audience for a nasty joke effectively gives licence for a bully to pick on someone.


In RIFT three English students are bullied by five other students and a teacher. But there are 22 other students around, and five other teachers. If even one of the teachers, or a few students, stopped turning their backs and walking away, the balance of power would be instantly and radically altered.


At one point, talking about the bullies, one of the characters says, ‘You have to keep away, so they don’t see you’. But in the end, everyone in the story has to face up to the possibility that their friends might never be found. ‘Can’t walk away now, can’t say don’t want no trouble now,’ another boy says. That’s the choice everyone in the story has to make.


A bully’s freedom to bully is sustained by a culture that fails to challenge him or her; in effect it gives permission for bullying to grow.


No victim should have to stop the bullying themselves, and young people – victims and bystanders alike – can be forgiven for despairing if they believe that telling will achieve nothing, that no adult will do anything about it. That is another debate, for another time.


But as one of the African characters in RIFT says, ‘Silence is the door of consent.’ Openness counters the secrecy, action counters the inertia on which bullying thrives. It is the bystanders – youngsters and adults together – who have to act to stop it.


There is another equally apt African proverb. ‘When spiderwebs unite, they can tie up a lion.’


I suppose, in writing the story, I am asking readers, ‘If you were there, what would you do?’ Be a bystander? Or be one who links arms with others and says No?’

don't-let-bullieswin-BANNER c

Guest blogs I’ve written

View from my Desk

Written for Notes from the Slushpile

I’m often asked what I think of the ‘state of publishing’. It all depends on whose prism I’m peering through. More than ever publishing seems divided into the pessimistic and the optimistic – gloom and a mourning of lost times on the one hand, promise and widening opportunity – e-technology and the ease of linking with readers through social media – on the other.  Read more





Trust Your Subconscious

   Written for Words and Pictureswords-and-pictures-c

‘… The issue for us (writers) is not so much learning to tap into our subconscious, but keeping confidence in it; having the courage not to treat it as an unwanted intruder and try to shut it out, but give it nurturing space.’  read more

ShoutWest! Festivals

I love working with fellow authors of CWISL (Children’s Writers & Illustrators for Stories and Literacy), giving events for young readers and writers. ShoutWest! 2021, the 6th wonderful CWISL creative writing festival for young people in Hillingdon, West London, took place this year.  It’s an annual event, and this years was an exciting change as we had to go online and virtual to deliver inspite of the Coronovirus pandemic!

To see the kind of fun we have, watch this video from a previous live and in-person festival.

We also run a parallel festival ShoutSouth! at London South Bank University. For more information on CWISL take a look at our website www.cwisl.org.uk