National Women’s Day seems like a good time to post something that’s been sitting at the bottom of my list for some time now. It feels like a small gripe, but it’s actually enormous. Isn’t that always the case when it comes to representation?
This gripe is second hand, in fact, and it says a lot that it’s always my daughter, now almost seven years old, who to my shame still needs to remind me to change the pronouns in story books. “Mummy, make it she!” is her routine request.
We then choose which characters – mice, birds, monsters or humans – will be switched from he to she. Last night we revisited old favourite The Great Dog Bottom Swap (Peter Bentley and Mei Matsuoka, published by Andersen) we LOVE this book, but why do animal characters always have to be male?* When Disa was born I made a vow to myself that she should never doubt her potency in the world just because of linguistic laziness. So everything thought to have personhood, real or imaginary, is not always he but also (and often) she: the spiders we watch spinning up flies are female; we ask ‘what is she doing’ about the person wearing jeans in the distance; the monkey in Animal Fair slides out of her bunk; the traveller in the dark is guided by her tiny spark.
It’s not an easy habit to cultivate! But it’s a publisher’s job to pay attention to every single word that makes it to the printing press. So how about we have a few more ‘she’s’ in our pages? Smatterings of minor characters are just as important as protagonists – so are antagonists for that matter. If we can’t get our gender balance right in books for children, no wonder there’s still so far to go in the battle for BAME representation.
Or… set me straight if you know of any books with balance!
*I’m aware that these labels are considered questionable and that there are some who’d prefer ‘they’, but I’m happy to speak from the back of the curve for now and I believe there’s still a place for this argument.
Notes from a presentation by Mélanie McGilloway, hosted by Book Island and Bishopston Library.
Why ‘wordless’? That’s how school librarian and picture book expert Mélanie McGilloway opens this stimulating and jam-packed presentation. Picture books without words are, after all, still very much picture books. Mélanie tells us that less pejorative terms for this genre include ‘silent narratives’ or catchier still, ‘visually rendered narratives’. She also expands on just how sceptical Brits are about committing to them (they do pretty well in the USA, apparently). Why is this? One suggestion is that book buyers simply want both words and pictures for their bucks. Another – and one I admit I relate to – is that adults aren’t always sure how to host the wordless picture book experience… At the end of a busy day, is it perhaps easier to chug through The Gruffalo’s lulling rhythms than to explore the multi-fold stories of a book without words?
Mélanie’s hugely informative talk was hosted by Bristol-based picture book publisher Book Island, and attended by Book Island fans, picture book lovers, authors, illustrators and primary school teachers. As an aspiring picture book author, the allure of a ‘wordless picture book’ stirs up a mixed bag of feelings. Beauty! Delight! No writing! But there was a lot to inspire here. Mélanie explained the different ways in which picture books work, and their power to engage young minds in a way in which written narrative can’t. She also gave practical pointers on ways to approach a ‘silent narrative’ with children to make the most out of interpreting a beautiful succession of images that has no fixed plot. Plenty of time and open questions are key.
Wordless picture books are used in primary schools along with post-it notes to inspire creative writing, and one teacher suggested that hiding the title helps keep young imaginations open to a wider array of story possibilities. What I particularly value is what Mélanie calls the ‘risk-taking’ that’s involved in engaging with pictures without words. In a world heavy with SATS tests and screen media, time spent exploring ‘what if’ in such an open-ended way is valuable indeed. A silent narrative is also a great way to practice foreign language skills.
But as a writer, how does this help inform my practice? Well, it turns out that more than a few silent narratives are conceived and designed by authors. Footpath Flowers, is a well-known example. For readers, illustrators and authors, picture books are all about images and the joy and creativity they inspire. If you’ve listened to my podcasts you’ll know that this is one of my pet topics. I’ll be posting more thoughts and gleanings up here at tinylittlesparks.uk very soon.
You can find out more about Book Island and see their gorgeous selection of silent – and non-silent – narratives here, and you can visit Mélanie’s website here.
As a writer who doesn’t illustrate, submitting picture book manuscripts to agents and publishers is daunting. Not only do we PB writers need our story to shine, but we bite our nails to the quick over its physical presentation. Is it double spaced? Are the page numbers required? What about a pitch at the top? Or should that be a synopsis? Of course agents and publishers all vary. So here is a topic that – along with rhyme and word count – is a workshop fave. I’m talking illustration notes.
I write picture books because I love the magic of word and image interplay, and I come up with story ideas that intend to work that magic. I pare down words and let the pictures do the talking (that word count? Lowers monthly!). When I start working on a story idea, I think conceptually, and there’s often an element of counter-narrative in my stories – elements that let the child put word and image together and do their own thinking. Rosie’s Walk is the classic example – although it’d be a very daring writer who’d present a text skinny without any pictures.
The problem? We non-drawing authors aren’t supposed to be directional in writing illustration notes. Sometimes we’re not supposed to write them at all. I’ve heard of one agent who won’t read scripts that contain them, and I recently had a review from a publisher who didn’t read my illo notes at all.
How about we use the term ‘picture story’ instead? A ‘picture story’ note wouldn’t involve hair colour or other stylistic details, just simple story facts that help tell the word and image story that we have intended. Right now, the illo notes issue is just one more mythical barrier barring outsiders from of the realm of publication. Perhaps some linguistic clarity might help us through.
What are your favourite examples of books where the pictures help tell the story? If you are a writer, illustrator, agent or publisher, what are your views on writers thinking pictorially?
As a not-yet-published picture book writer, I’ve heard many times that rhyming texts are hard to sell to non-English speaking countries. But in the UK they sell very well indeed. After all, don’t we all just love a good rhyme? Easy to read aloud for grown-ups, fun to predict for kids, and as for language development…
In Oi Frog, the rhymes don’t chunter along a la Gruffalo, but instead form the whole premise of the story. Listen in to the kids and Patricia and find out how nonsense + rhymes = a whirling good story time.
Listen in and learn how this crazy-bonkers story helps kids learn about the joy of books. Thanks to Nicola O’Byrne and Nick Bromley for this brilliant bit of story time fun, and to Dr Patricia Lucas for explaining the clever stuff.
If you missed Episode One, you can listen here, and if you like what you hear, look out for one more episode coming next week.
As well as making podcasts, I write short stories and stories for picture books. I also help out with the wonderful organisation that is the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators. Feel free to look me up on Facebook or Twitter @helen_liston or leave a comment below. Happy listening!
I’m really excited to release the first episode of Story House, a short podcast for grown-up picture book lovers. In the picture above you can see story sparks Rudy, Digby, Disa and Jack taking a look at the first of our featured books,No!by Marta Altés. In this episode of Story House we set the format for those that follow. You’ll hear the kids listening to – or taking part in – the story, after which Dr Patrica Lucas sheds light on some developmental aspects of their story experience.
Our aim is to reveal some of the hidden secrets of the picture book and child relationship: what elements tickle them and why? Why do certain joys never wear thin? What learning is going on under the surface of the story chaos?
I hope that if you are a parent or carer, librarian, teacher, writer or simply a picture book lover, you’ll find something out about picture books that you didn’t quite know before. And if you don’t, I hope you’ll simply enjoy the sweet sound of children loving stories and two big people getting all excited about it. But watch out – it’s a noisy one!
Story House wouldn’t be possible without Patrica, and here she is having fun with kids. Usually her work is harder than this. Patricia is a Reader at the University of Bristol, a lover (and teacher) of children’s literature, and all round brilliant person. You can find out more about her work here and you can listen to her talking about her favourite childhood, picture books below – worms and bottoms feature.