Philip Bell: Capturing Childhood Magic With Picture Books
A warm welcome to Philip Bell, our first guest blogger for 2011. Philip occasionally earns money professionally from writing, but he mostly writes for love. He is the author of the children’s picture book, Jack & Boo’s Bucket of Treasures, and together with his illustrator wife, Eleanor Bell, he runs an independent publishing company called Beachy Books. Check out their site at: www.beachybooks.com.
Beth asked me to write a guest blog post and I can say with hand on heart, I was flattered as it’s the first time I’ve been asked and it’ll be an honour to be published on such a great looking website by a lady who is passionate about children and children’s books.
I’ve always loved picture books. Like most children, picture books were my first introduction to the world of literature. I have wonderful electric feelings of being read a picture book on the sofa or at bedtime by my mum and grandma. My favourite picture book, or at least the one that resonates most from my childhood, is Cuthbert and the Thingamabob by Kim Chesher, illustrated by Yasuko Kimura, and a sequel, Cuthbert and the Sea Monster, now both sadly out of print. (Interestingly, there are other versions published where the name Fergus is used in place of Cuthbert?)
This story and the images in the book stayed with me until I had children of my own, when I was delighted to find out my mum had kept the luminous green, well worn, hardbacks to give to me to read to my two offspring. To my surprise, one of the books even has some of my first attempts at writing – T’s and H’s scribbled at varying size and my attempt at drawing the eponymous Cuthbert of the title in red felt tip all over the interior title page. On first discovering this, I thought the graffiti was the work of my young daughter who regularly fills paper pads with letters and drawings. It reminded me that picture books, the shape of letters on the page, the rhythm of hearing our parents read them, are an essential step in learning to read and write.
And so I rediscovered my childhood favourite, but this time as an adult, and now a writer, seeing other layers to the simple story of how Cuthbert searches for a special Thingamamob that reminds him what kind of animal he is. What chimed most as a child was the picture book images, the monstrous versions of familiar animals, although on re-reading (especially reading to my children) I noticed the author’s writing, the style, the flow and rhythm. This is normal as a child does tend to focus on the illustrations, especially at pre-school age. But words are just as important and must work together with the images, often with a subtext flowing through both. Words and pictures have to compliment one another, but can also subvert to create humour or surprise.
To write picture books you have to read them to understand how they are constructed. It’s only then you can find your own likes, dislikes and develop your own writing style. What initially put me off writing a picture book was the picture bit, something that obviously makes up a considerable part. I’d known through my research that publishers tended to only accept picture book text from writers, sent in without pictures, and if you were lucky, good enough and fitted into their existing list, they’d match an illustrator to your words. Obviously if you are a writer and illustrator, and you have a truly original style in both – greats like Quentin Blake spring to mind – then you’re laughing.
I was fortunate that my wife was handy with a pencil and taking inspiration from our own family adventures with our two children, Jack and Boo, the characters in our book, were born. We wanted our book to easily stand alongside other published picture books, so we chose a popular modern format and went for a standard 32 page interior. (Basically picture book page counts must be divisible by 4 i.e. 4 pages to each sheet of paper.) When I wrote various drafts I’d just write the text on a new page in word, to represent each picture book page. It was a long process finding the right style and what really helped was creating several “book dummies” made from plain sheets of paper folded and stapled, to get a visual feel of where things should go, how the story should flow – essential to simulating what a reader experiences as they turn the pages.
To keep things simple I chose a standard format of text on the left, with an illustration on the opposite page. I particularly like free verse and prose poetry and, as the idea was to capture a family day out, I wrote it in this style, as though writing a diary using poetry, but from the child’s point of view. While going through old photos we hit upon the idea of using them in the book as we hadn’t seen that style before. My wife’s illustrations reflect a snapshot in time, like a photo, but don’t necessarily represent the exact actions of Jack and Boo described in the text – the picture or text should bring something new to the party. Often the text talks about a moment just before or just after the snapshot, and in this way I hope children enjoying the book will imagine what happened leading up to the event, or following the event, sparking their imagination.
Jack and Boo’s Bucket of Treasures is nothing like the Cuthbert stories, but I hope I’ve captured the spirit of it in my own style. Now when I sit down to write a story, I start by rereading a childhood favourite to remember how it inspired me. When I write I then try to recreate that sense of magic, wonder and discovery I felt, knowing it’ll also stir another child, and maybe even an adult or two.
Got a favourite picture book from your childhood days? Share it with us…