When writing a picture book, "The idea doesn’t have to be original, but the author's way of treating it does," says tutor Jane Godwin. Ahead of her upcoming workshop, we talked to Jane about how picture book writing isn't as simple as it seems.
You say that lots of people have a dream about creating picture books – what is it that draws so many aspiring writers (and non-writers!) to this form?
I think one aspect of it is that people think it will be easy! There are often not many words in a picture book, and they look deceptively simple. Other people love the illustrated form of storytelling, or they have strong and vivid memories of picture books from their own childhood, and those books made a lasting impression. Some people want to write (or do write, or tell stories) for their own young children, and the desire to be a picture-book creator stems from that. Others don’t necessarily see picture books as something for children, they are more interested in the art form itself - which is a huge and varied area of publishing, in terms of style, content and audience.
What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when attempting to write a picture book for the first time?
I think a lot of people underestimate how difficult it is to write a really good picture book. Sometimes a first attempt at a picture book results in a story that is perfectly adequate, but slight. It’s important when writing a picture book that you somehow capture the essence of yourself as a young person. It doesn’t need to be nostalgic, but it needs to feel authentic and original - there needs to be something interesting about the way the story is told; some texture and character of the telling.
Another mistake can be that a picture-book author thinks that the illustrator will simply realise the author’s vision. If there are two creators, then a picture book is a shared vision - more like making a collaborative short film than creating something solo.
In addition to many picture books, you have also written junior fiction and novels – how does your writing process change when you are writing in the picture book form?
When I write a picture book, I often think about the idea for years before I write anything much down. Then the first draft is usually way, way too long. I always overwrite! Then it’s a matter of pruning the text and at the same time doing a lot more thinking, and working out what it is exactly that I’m exploring and trying to say. And how best to say it to a young audience. In a picture book, every single word, and its placement, is important. I’m thinking about the rhythm of each sentence, the decision of where to turn the page, where to pause, where to leave a gap, and, very importantly, which parts of the story will be told in the words, and which parts will be revealed in the pictures. The pictures should never just echo what the words are telling you.
Also, when you write a picture book, you are sharing the vision with another person (well, I am, as I’m not an illustrator!). So that’s probably the most important difference. A picture book is a team effort, but a novel is more solitary.
How do you decide if a story idea is best told in a picture book, or as longer form fiction?
The idea really dictates the form to me. When an idea lands, it’s usually pretty clear which form it will suit. Sometimes a picture book is like a song, or maybe a poem - exploring some central thought or theme, often a universal idea, in a simple and hopefully profound and resonating way.
As well as writing, you are also a publisher of children’s books - as a publisher, what are you looking for when selecting picture book manuscripts?
That's the question that everyone asks! For me, the most important thing is an authentic, original voice. A voice that is unique to that author. The idea doesn’t have to be original, but the author's way of treating it does. I’m looking for a text that in some way reflects an understanding of the emotions of childhood. And I’m looking for a story that will resonate, that is about something more than what we might think initially. I want to get a sense that the author has written about something she/he really cares about, not what she/he thought was on trend in the current market etc. The best stories have a kind of inner reason to them.
About Jane Godwin
Jane Godwin is a publisher, and also the highly acclaimed author of over twenty books for children, across all styles and ages. Her work is published internationally and she has received many commendations. As a publisher, Jane has worked with many picture book creators, including Alison Lester, Graeme Base, Terry Denton, Margaret Wild, Marc Martin, Freya Blackwood and Anna Walker. Jane is dedicated to pursuing quality and enriching reading and writing experiences for young people, whether it’s as a writer, a publisher or a speaker/facilitator.
About Amy Adeney
Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.