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Monday, September 24, 2012

Picture Book writers are humans, We err!

While writing a picture book may seem like the easiest thing to do, here's why it ain't that easy-peasy, honey.  And all of us picture book authors are sure to fall for one or more (in most cases, it's all) of these common mistakes with the first few books.


It is imperative that we learn to WAIT (with patience) after we've prepared what-looks-the-wowest-final draft (maybe after the second edit? Boy, we work hard) and let the 'ready to publish' story incubate. And the plot brew. And the possibilities of different ways to treat the same theme grow. Start fingering the sleeping devil in us to rouse and do what it's supposed to do. And train our minds to tune in to its frequency to hear it say: this is the most pathetic piece of BLAH ever penned.

If you're with me this far, chances are, you'll tide over this ego-crushing jolt pretty soon. For that is when the mind starts juggling other possibilities, starts toying with ideas and playing with words and comes to realise what a terrible crap we'd produced earlier. In India, most of us never quite even reach this stage so getting past this is like an out-of-syllabus question. We are in a tearing hurry to have our book out, which is understandable, so chances are that we've already dashed it off for acceptance, and chances are again, that it has got accepted. So there. The fate of this book that we will have to live with for the rest of our lives is already sealed! Hah! And we take weeks to decide our wedding lehanga which we wear just once:)

Once we have gone through this ready-not ready-doubt-crap-reboot cycle several times (over the course of several months that could well run into a couple of years), we'll finally have a chiseled gem in our hands.

A picture book story is NOT a Tinkle / Nandan short story

In fact, a picture book story can work equally well without carrying a single word in the book. My writer friends, let's swallow our egos, sharpen our word-skills, learn the craft of brevity, do an impressive quick jig with the best story we can produce, and then gracefully leave the stage for the illustrator to do her show-stopping act. If it's any ego-massage, remember that the illustrator is working on those pages only because you thought up the idea, the plot, the story, and hey, your name will appear on the cover first, unless if happen to be that terribly enviable breed of an author-illustrator combo:)

Golden rules of writing a picture book story:

  • Cut the description crap. Anything that can be shown as part of the illustration can be blindly edited. And yes, you will do it yourself and not leave it for the editor. She has a thousand other things to do in the course of a day.
  • Get straight to the action / crisis in the protagonist's life. Children love to solve problems. Give them what they like right away.
  • We do not tell the action, just show it  (so no saying, Rinki ran to the door to answer the door bell; either show it as part of the illustration or a simple 'I'll get it' or some thing snazzier but crisp).
  • 32 pages, MAX 1000 words (I am talking about a classic picture book and not an illustrated story book). Anything above 600 is a sin. 1000 and above, the writer and the editor both deserve to fall into a wordless-quicksand never to be heard of again. Ideal is 400-500 words. An exceptionally talented author will keep it at 200. A genius will have no word at all.

Rhythm and not Rhyme

Sad but true, the two are different. Yes, rhythm in every single sentence that we write. Rhyme, the easiest way to end up looking like a rookie. Most often, we go to ridiculous extents to rhyme lines; the core and soul of the story gets lost; and our meter goes for a toss (making reading aloud a verse an extremely uncomfortable experience).

Oh, so you forgot to read aloud the words? 

No, once is not good. A hundred times? You're getting there.

But let me hear this from you again! Did you really forgot to read aloud the words to yourself before deeming it fit and final?

And you call yourself a picture book author?:)

No adults, please. Ok, let's keep it to the bare minimum, if it's any help. 

Unless you make something terribly nasty happen to the grown ups in your story (which will have the bacchaas rolling off the bed, believe you me), let's try and keep ourselves away from their zone. I know it's not always possible because an adult will always find crazy ways to sneak into a child's story, but we can try and give ourselves as little importance as we can. They pretty much have enough of us adults all day, anyway, the least we can do is give them a nice time when they're immersed in a picture book:)

I ended up making this mistake with my picture book, where an adult intervention helps solve the little crisis in two little girls' lives. Am finding it impossible to forgive myself for this sacrilege!

The only time we get to totally bend this rule is when we have a grandma or a grandpa in the story! There! You have a sure shot winner of a book:)

There's a hell of a lot more that needs to be said while we are on this topic, but I'll save the rest for another post. Till then, we keep snuggling with picture books we love!

Back to Snuggle With Picture Books

Monday, September 10, 2012

What a Recorded Story Can't Do...

My kids and I were clearing up my daughter's book shelf this evening when I came across this broken CD. This one had come with a picture book a long time back and I had no recollection of it having ever gotten played back in my house. That is not to say that book never got read. On the contrary, we have spent many a glorious snuggling time with it in bed!

We found it badly bent and on the verge of splitting into two. My son was only too happy to do the needful, of course! But it struck me then that audio story books have never been popular in my household. I remember playing back the Oliver Jeffers' Lost And Found audioCD to my (then) five year old daughter, but midway through the narration, she lost interest, picked up the book (she was sitting with it next to the CD player), walked up to me, plonked herself in my lap and said, 'You read!'

I think that's the biggest reason why we never took to audiobooks - the lack of a snug, intimate warmth when you cuddle up with a book in your hand which gets shared between the two or three of us. For my kids, it could also be the comfort they get in listening to a parent's voice, one moment looking at me (I've seen my daughter do that) and the next moment, taking her eyes right back onto the page being read out.

And the joy that a child experiences repeating the words at her own pace, or reading aloud along with the adult gets lost when you have a CD playing which will ALWAYS play at the same pace, same way, same intonation and the same pauses. The CD player doesn't smile or wink back, doesn't indulge the little one by letting her linger over her favourite page (s) for as long as she would want.

And the CD never has answers to the several hundred WHY's!

Oh, it can never ever be the same.

And I am glad it's this way in my house! No one's missing that one CD less on the shelf :)

Feel like digging into loads and loads of picture books? Stop by at Snuggle With Picture Books :)

Friday, September 7, 2012

Perfect Picture Book Friday - A Lion In Paris

This one goes out especially for Susanna Hill's fabulous brainchild, Perfect Picture Book Fridays. I have a detailed review of this book on my blog Snuggle With Picture Books.

Given that it's back to school time for kids, there would be a number of them joining a new school, changing schools, joining school for the first time. This book can help deal with a number of uncertainties that could crop up in a child's mind - no sense of belonging, not fitting in, struggling to create her own space in the crowd, self doubt, and so on.

Title: A Lion In Paris
Author and illustrator: Beatrice Alemagna
Translated from the French (original) by Mariette Robbes
Publisher: Katha (in India), 2009 / Editions Autrement (Paris), 2006
Genre: Picture Book
Age group: 4-7

Theme: Being yourself; the journey of self discovery; fitting in.

Opening Sentence: He was a big lion, young, curious and lonely

Synopsis:  A lion from Savannah saunters into Paris in search of 'love, work, a future'. Pretty much what you and I do it for too when we relocate. This story is about his journey from being an apprehensive and unsure newcomer in the city to gradually earning his sense of belonging and rightful place in the crowd. 

Why I like this book: In a gentle, non preachy way, this book shows a young reader that the day you learn to be at ease with yourself, you find your place and contentment in the world, no matter how cold, unforgiving or indifferent it may have seemed until then. 

Moreover, so subtly are the sights and sounds of Paris integrated into the illustrations (and the text) that by the time a child is through with this book, she'd have picked up more about the city than the average 6th grader being 'taught' about Paris in class!

Activities: With this book in hand, you'll never run out of interesting things to do with your child. 
1) If new to Paris, step one is to acquaint yourself with the city's buildings and step two, point these out to her. Here's a great place to begin. This one's another. 
2) Get your child to read the facial expressions of the people floating around the pages and to make her wonder why it may be so. 
3) You and your child could create your own stories around your city's noticeable landmarks. 
4) Play a game of I-felt-out-of-place-when...among yourselves.