Saturday 7 October 2006

How to Hook a Children's Editor

Sarah Hughes, editorial director for children's books at Puffin, explains what she looks for in a manuscript submission at a SCBWI Professional Series evening, 25 May 2006 in London.

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Friday 6 October 2006

Great Reads from My Childhood

In the previous piece covering SCBWI’s What Makes a Children’s Book Great event, critic Julia Eccleshare said: "The great books are the ones that make readers."

Here is a list of the reads that made me a reader – and yes, I count comic books as good reading:

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott– I identified with Jo March, writing and writing, all those hopes and dreams, the pretty older sister, the tomboyishness, the suppressed girlishness, and then, the desire to nurture all those homeless children. But what did Lawrence see in Amy?

Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – I wanted to smoke a corn cob pipe and sail away on the Mississippi which would have been a tough job given that I lived in the Philippines. Years later I found my own Huckleberry best friend in Mandy Navasero, a photographer who took me on unbelievable adventures and showed me how to eat a pineapple while driving. My Tom Sawyer was from a collection of Children's Classics and beautifully illustrated by Edward F. Cortese. My favourite illustration was of three boys stark naked smoking a corn cob pipe after Tom runs away and everyone thinks him dead.

The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop. When the first Chinese brother swallowed the sea, his head swelled up to an enormous ball. Unforgettable. It’s a real shame that the politically correct brigade have deemed such a great story racist.

The Beverly Gray Mystery Stories by Claire Blank. I had a set that belonged to my grandmother who, not having attended high school or college, tried to improve herself by reading. I remember turning to a page at age four and realising that I could read! This mystery serial from the 1930s had heroine Beverly Gray struggling to become a journalist (which I’ve done), travelling the world (yup, me too), marrying an Englishman (uh huh), and struggling to get her book published (oh yeah). Every girl with ambition should read it.

The Prince and the Pauper by Samuel Clemens– For a long time, I didn’t make the connection between Samuel Clemens (author of The Prince and the Pauper) and Mark Twain (author of Tom Sawyer). But how many times have I read the chapter in which Miles Hendon discovers that his “prince of dreams of shadows” is truly the prince of England? Wonderful! This is probably the book I read the most number of times.

Green Eggs and Ham by Doctor Seuss – I do like the Cat in the Hat and all the other Seuss tales, but as a child it was Green Eggs and Ham that really made an impression. I do so like them Sam I am, I do so like Green Eggs and Ham!

Spiderman by Stan Lee – I was a devotee of the American comic book serial. Spiderman/Peter Parker seemed so vulnerable and alone, I identified with all the stuff about trying to belong. And I loved the muscular illustration. I learned to draw soles of feet by copying Spiderman cartoons.

Sergeant Rock by Robert Kanigher, illustrated by Joe Kubert – guns and German enemies and young, vulnerable soldiers being sent to the front line. I adored Sargeant Rock and spent all my spare pocket money on the DC comic book. I also wasted many hours copying Joe Kubert’s illustrations, and when Joe Kubert turned his hand to Tarzan for DC Comics, I turned my hand to Tarzan as well

Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Yeah, yeah, it was an American radio programme wasn’t it? But as a young person, I only knew it as a comic book serial and a cheap paperback series. Which I read avidly. And yes, I loved the Disney movie. And I read the Mars Series as well.

Charlie Brown by Charlie Schulz . I wished I could be there for Charlie Brown, give him a break from all the cruelty of the kids who populated his world. I loved Lucy though, who charged five cents for a psychiatric consultation, more lucrative than running a lemonade stand like the other kids. And Snoopy who had literary ambitions. And Schroeder who played Beethoven on a toy piano. And especially Linus who believed in the Great Pumpkin.

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. Ah, the surprise ending. I could read O. Henry stories over and over again. And I did.

Oliver by Charles Dickens. I first heard of Charles Dickens when my father took me to the movie in a down town cinema in Manila. Watching Oliver! the musical, made me rush to the school library and take out Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Great Expectations. That’s why I would never knock Hollywood. It introduced me to a world of reading I would never have accessed as a child in the third world.

The Book of Naughty Children by Enid Blyton. This led me to read everything else that Enid Blyton wrote. I especially loved the first two books of Noddy, when he discovers Toy Town and builds his own home/ Reading Enid Blyton now, I don’t get the same buzz she gave me in my childhood, but I will never forget. She gave me that feeling of “urgency” that Julia Eccleshare talks about, that ‘must read more’ feeling that children’s authors can only hope for in their audience.

Tintin in Tibet by Herge. Billions of blue blistering barnacles in ten thousand thundering typhoons! I read this one over and over … as well as the others. And I spent hours copying little details from the drawings – the way the waves in the sea had a foamy crest; the shape of the back of someone’s head; the peak of a mountain.

Thursday 5 October 2006

What Makes a Children’s Book Great?

Author Tony Bradman, critic Julia Eccleshare and teacher/critic Gwynneth Bailey discussed What Makes a Children’s Book Great at an event co-sponsored by SCBWI British Isles and the Society of Authors on 14 September 2006.

What makes a children’s book great has everything to do with who you are and little to do with tried and tested formulae.

Author Tony Bradman confesses that his favourite picture book choices is informed by the fact that his children were little in the 1980s – and so his favourites include many from that period: Mister Magnolia by Quentin Blake, Not Now Bernard by David McKee, Avocado Baby by John Burningham, The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont.

The Guardian children’s book critic Julia Eccleshare harks back to her three childhood favourites: Children on the Oregon Trail by A. Rutger Van Der Loeff, The Swarm in May by William Mayne and Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.

Teacher Gwynneth Bailey, who also writes for the Times Educational Supplement and reviews books for Books for Keeps and other review sites, struggled to list her five favourite books and settled for the following eleven:

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
All Afloat on Noah’s Boat by Tony Mitton
Cockatoos by Quentin Blake
Sophie and the Sea Wolf by Helen Cresswell
Tanka Tanka Skunk by Steve Webb
The Whale’s Song by Dyan Sheldon
Unwitting Wisdom: An Anthology of Aesop’s Fables by Helen Ward
The Cockerel and the Fox by Helen Ward
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
Catkin by Antonia Barber
Owl Babies by Martin Waddell

The Story or the Telling?

Julia polled “a gang of lanky, over-schooled 15 year olds” on what they believed made a children’s book great. Their answers read like a creative writing textbook:

  • It must have a great story.

  • There must be a battle between good and evil

  • You must like the characters

  • It must be set in a place you have never been to that you would like to visit
“I agree with all this but I would not say that is all,” says Julia. “What makes children’s books great? I don’t think it’s the story. How many kids finish reading a book and say that it was the narrative drive from A to B that kept them reading. What you tend to remember (from a great book) is not the story but the emotional intelligence. It’s the storytelling.”

Reading about three owl babies waiting for their mother in Owl Babies resonates with young readers. “Children really identify with Owl Babies,” says Gwynneth., “when mum goes off, is she going to come back?”

As a ten year old reading Children on the Oregon Trail, Julia felt connected with the travails of the pioneering American family at the heart of the story. “I could identify entirely with the family,” she says. “It had an emotional intelligence that somehow made you empathetic about other people in your life as well.”

For Tony, The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe struck a similar empathetic chord. “My own dad left when I was very young and The Eagle of the Ninth, which was published the year I was born, was about a boy searching for the truth about his dad,” he says. “What makes books like these qualify (for greatness) is what makes Shakespeare great – the universality of their themes.”

It’s in the Writing

“What am I looking for in a picture book? I want the words to sing!” says Gwynneth, treating the audience to an energetic performance of the onomatopoeic Tanka Tanka Skunk by Steve Webb. Tanka the elephant and his friend Skunk drum to an infectious rhythm:

And this is caterpillar.
His name has four beats.
Sometimes great writing has little to do with words, says Tony. A Visit to the Doctor by Helen Oxenbury, a hilarious but wordless story is told only with simple drawings. And then there are great words with great pictures like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak – “Its genius is that it is great art in the service of great storytelling.”

It is the writing that puts William Mayne’s The Swarm in May on Julia’s list. Julia, who as a Smarties Prize judge has just finished ploughing through 300 books, explains: “The thing that worries me most about writing today is the over-writing – too much tell and not enough show. I think we have lost sight of the fact that you can tell a story economically. The point about an author like Mayne is the spare writing … which has an almost poetic quality. There is a quality to his writing that is electrifying – it still electrifies me.”

Writing from Childhood

“Childhood is a very fashionable thing to write about at the moment but adult writers don’t know what it is to be a child,” says Julia.

“But Philippa Pearce (Tom’s Midnight Garden) is absolutely clear about how a child sees the world. The remarkable thing about her is that she never gets outside childhood. There is a kind of helplessness in her writing, a kind of not being in control. She captures the very essence of what it feels like to be a child.”

“Eye on the ball, children first,” says Tony. “People are sniffy about Jacky (Jacqueline Wilson) but in (books like) The Illustrated Mum she can really capture the child surviving adult mayhem, the way children are very sensitive, very aware of things.”

And yet the current glut of fantasy in the children’s market seems a rejection Jacqueline Wilson style reality-in-fiction.

Says Julia of fantasy, “We cannot possibly continue at the level we have at the moment. We don’t seem to be allowed to write about children in the real world perhaps because children (today) are more policed, monitored and controlled than at any other time. You cannot have reality in fiction when children are not allowed to do anything.”

A Struggle Between Story and Utilitarian Anxieties

Julia tells of her struggle every week to select children’s books to write about in the Guardian. “Let’s not give it all to the 12-pluses,” she sighs. “Every week, I have to decide in my mind what really constitutes children fiction.”

“There has always been a tension between what adults want from them (books) and what children get from them,” says Tony. “Either the story should teach a moral lesson, or somehow be educational. If a child enjoys a book, the parent instantly disagrees – it must be trash!”

Books targeted at five to eight year olds in particular have “always been a Cinderella group obsessed with literacy”. “You get educational publishing with dreadful reading schemes and books rebranded with national curriculum goals,” he says. “The market is full of anxious parents.”

Says Julia: “Publishing is only a business. (Children’s books) may be art but publishers will only publish what works.”

Authors owe a debt to J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter), she says – “Whatever one thinks of J.K. her work has put us in an unthinkable position. She has shown that publishers can make money out of children’s books. Every author in the land should never forget their gratitude to her. Julia Donaldson (The Gruffalo) has done the same for picture books. Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials) has given children’s books intellectual credibility.”

The Art of Urgency

“I read a phenomenal amount and for me, the acid test of a great book, is whether you want to give it to someone else to read,” says Julia. “What makes a book so amazing is the feeling that you cannot stop reading it. This is an urgent book, you say. Urgent is something a book has to be.”

Julia remembers reading Anne Fine’s Mrs Doubtfire – “hilarious and truly funny” – and handing it straight across to her husband and telling him to read it.

“The great books,” she says, “are the ones that make readers.”

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