What does a picture book need?

Hi readers! Here is a post just for you.

Today I have a question and this question is: 

What does a picture book need?

You see, guys, I am writing a picture book at the moment; it is mainly for young girls and it’s about a princess. But one day I asked my mum: “Does a picture book need description? Or does it not because it has pictures?” Then my mum said, “That would be a good blog post: what does a picture book need?”

So here I am now asking you what you think a picture book needs.

So please don’t hesitate to comment; we want some answers!

Review: Geek Girl, by Holly Smale

Tonight’s review – by Holly, no less! – is of Geek Girl, by Holly Smale.


Image courtesy of amazon.co.uk

What it’s about (from the publishers):

“My name is Harriet Manners, and I am a geek.”

Harriet Manners knows that a cat has 32 muscles in each ear, a “jiffy” lasts 1/100th of a second, and the average person laughs 15 times per day. She knows that bats always turn left when exiting a cave and that peanuts are one of the ingredients of dynamite. But she doesn’t know why nobody at school seems to like her.

So when Harriet is spotted by a top model agent, she grabs the chance to reinvent herself. Even if it means stealing her best friend’s dream, incurring the wrath of her arch enemy Alexa, and repeatedly humiliating herself in front of impossibly handsome model Nick. Even if it means lying to the people she loves.

Veering from one couture disaster to the next with the help of her overly enthusiastic father and her uber-geeky stalker, Toby, Harriet begins to realise that the world of fashion doesn’t seem to like her any more than the real world did. As her old life starts to fall apart, will Harriet be able to transform herself before she ruins everything?

Holly’s review:

This book is about a 15-year-old girl whose mother is dead. She is a total geek until a model agency spots her and then things change.

I am currently reading the sequel to this book and the next one will be coming out soon. Harriet, the geek girl, sort of reminds me of myself except she is a lot more clever and older than me. This book isn’t tragic, it’s actually quite funny. I think this book is brilliant. I absolutely love it. I think this book is definitely for girls.

This is the best book I’ve read in ages. I will hopefully be reviewing the other book soon!

Sam’s review:

Holly picked this book off a table in Waterstone’s while we were browsing one day and the assistant (a young man no less!) raved about it. Holly decided to give it a go and, as soon as she started reading, she couldn’t stop. I think she loved the random facts that Harriet comes out with and got really involved in the story – a true underdog triumphing against the world kind of thing. She laughs a lot reading these books and I think as she is moving now into pre-teen/teen books, we will be looking for more like this. Harriet is a likeable heroine – she’s smart, and not apologetic for being so. Even though she’s spotted by a modeling agency, she isn’t obsessed with body image, make-up, etc – she likes knowing crazy facts and figures, though she’s not so keen on the bullying that sometimes accompanies being who she is. But she’s never apologetic for that and I think she makes a great role model (not just a clothes model!) for young girls, making their wobbly way into the world of teenagers (an admittedly terrifying place).

I am from a problem area of society

Reading the course contents from my MA last week, I was rather shocked to discover that I come from a recognized problem area of society.

The focus for that week was on ‘socially committed writing’ and the materials introduced this topic by saying: ‘A feature of the later part of the twentieth-century was the increase in the number of children’s books which took a hard look at many of the problem areas of society, such as homelessness, single parent families, drug abuse and racial prejudice.’

I’ve never considered myself in this light before, though I remember very clearly growing up in the mid-80s through to the late nineties and people having very strong views about the evils of single-parent families. News stories would hint at the social disruption children like me were causing across the UK – as if we were a band of hard-hearted outlaws who left nothing but crime and unhappiness in our wake.

Still, it was rather shocking to read that single parent families can be classes as a problem area of society. I wanted more clarification on this assertion, but none was offered.

And, in fact, the only text we looked at that showed this particular family structure was Dear Nobody, by Berlie Doherty, which deals with the issues raised by another potential problem area of society – teenage pregnancy.

Image courtesy of www.berliedoherty.com

In this story, teenagers Chris and Helen think they are in love and their first physical encounter results in Helen falling pregnant. The book revolves around the way in which they and their families come to terms with this. Chris, the father, comes from a single-parent home and it is portrayed as a very warm, loving and stable environment. Thank you, Berlie, for showing that single parents and their offspring are not social pariahs.

So why has this type of family been singled out (pardon the pun) as a social problem? From what I remember in the 1980s (and my memory’s a little hazy in my fourth decade), we were viewed as rather a disturbed lot, prone to anger and antisocial behaviour, and were low achievers academically and vocationally, with an article in the Daily Telegraph, from relatively recently in 2008, stating: ‘Young people whose mother and father split up are also three times as likely to become aggressive or badly behaved, according to the comprehensive survey carried out by the Office for National Statistics.’ (You can read more about this here.)

The problem with statistics is that they are figures and not people. I won’t deny that they reflect elements of reality, of society, but they also risk turning people who might otherwise break the trend into discouraged accepters of an unhelpful stereotype. I was lucky – I was encouraged to be successful, to study hard, to never be a victim. I’m not blowing my own trumpet (well, I am not trying to at least) but even though my mother and I struggled to pay the bills (working two jobs each as well as studying and working), I got a place at Oxford, and neither of us has ever been unemployed and a burden to the taxpayer. Nowadays, I don’t think that single-parent families are considered as quite as dangerous to society as they used to be because the traditional family structure has changed so much in a relatively short space of time.

Turning to children’s literature, I wanted to see how it reflected what was happening in society. And not in the sort of books that (apologies for my frustration here), talk rather patronizingly to parents and children about ‘hey, it’s OK not to have your mummy/daddy living at home with you’. No, I wanted to look at books where single-parent families just were – with no excuses and no apologies.

It was quite hard to come up with loads of books where this was the case. Granted, plenty of books have orphans and half-orphans, but it seems as if a parent dying is acceptable and less likely to turn you into a social monster than divorce, for example. What I did find were the following:

  • Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech: I really loved reading this book, filled as it was with tenderness and respect for the central character, Salamanca Tree, who embarks on a journey to find her mother, who left her and her father. There is no indication here that Salamanca is nothing but an intelligent and well balanced child. Yes, she does yearn to find her mother and discover why she left, but she’s not filled with existential angst or boiling rage at life.
  • Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren: OK, this is a little farfetched, as Pippi doesn’t actually live with a parent (she sets up home on her own with her monkey and her horse after her father is presumed lost at sea, and her mother is dead). However, what Lindgren does so well is take a potshot at po-faced societal expectations that all happy children must live either with a family or in a children’s home in order to grow up into successful and obedient human beings. Pippi can defend herself, with hilarious humour, against attempts to force her into conformity. Sure, she’s a little wild but she’s also brave, generous and kind-hearted and the reader cannot stop rooting for her.
  • Madame Doubtfire, by Anne Fine: This story is tragicomic, really. It made uncomfortable reading for Holly and me but not because the children were maladapted – it was the dreadful behaviour of the adults that made us squirm. In fact, the children were much more well adjusted than the parents and our hearts broke for their pain at how the parents behaved. But at least this shows that children can remain true to themselves and brave even in the face of parental weakness.

I found other examples of children who were brave, likeable and successful but these tended to come from families where one parent had died rather than separation or divorce.

So I leave you with this question: Can you recommend good books about children from single-parent families? Is the death of a parent more acceptable than divorce or separation in children’s lit?   




World Book Day 2014!!!

A post from Holly…

Happy World Book Day everyone! As you may know, this is the day when hundreds of children in schools dress up as one of their favourite characters from a book. And it is not just children who dress up – some adults dress up too.

I am dressing up as Heidi from the story of Heidi. But my school’s World Book Day day is tomorrow, a day late. Here is a list of what other children I know will be dressing up as:

  • Lotty (from the Lotty Project)
  • The Cheshire Cat (from Alice in Wonderland)
  • Ruby (from Double Act)
  • Mickey Mouse
  • Harry Potter
  • Heidi

So Happy World Book Day to all our followers!!!

Whatever happened to the school story?

This week my MA course is asking the question: ‘Whatever happened to the school story?’

The purpose of this is to examine how popular books such as those written by Enid Blyton (Malory Towers, St Clare’s) and Elinor Brent-Dyer (Chalet School) have evolved and whether the genre has declined or changed by modern children’s authors. The books we considered were The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp,  Malarkey by Keith Gray, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling and school series by authors such as Enid Blyton.

Image courtesy of firstnews.co.uk

The heyday of school stories

Many people of my age or older will remember (fondly or not) Enid Blyton’s popular school series: Malory Towers and St Clare’s. You probably would have preferred one over the other (for me, it was Malory Towers, for Holly – St Clare’s). The structure was pretty formulaic – the main character(s) are generally good sorts, but have the odd compulsory fault or two (eg Daryl Rivers’ bad temper, and the twins Isobel’s and Pat’s initial aloofness). While at boarding school, they become chums with similar girls, have midnight feasts, play jokes on unsuspecting French teachers, and try to take a boastful or overly posh peer down a peg or two. There are occasionally mini-dramas, but nothing too appalling or unsettling. Vanity and laziness are criticized, and academic persistence and sportiness are applauded. Even though these girls are from families with some wealth, they are not overly rich, and those who come from very wealthy backgrounds are often portrayed negatively (especially if they are only children). There is a great emphasis on not getting above oneself – modesty is encouraged, though occasionally the girls become rather condemnatory and self-righteous which to modern audiences might seem either humorous or irritating.

So what happened to this particular brand of storytelling?

Even in the early part of the twentieth century, the percentage of children attending boarding schools was pretty low. The fact that these stories didn’t represent the reality of most children in the country might have had an effect on this genre becoming less popular, but it’s debatable since children nowadays still get a lot from these books, and not only are they from a different educational background, they are also very different to the children of 60+ years ago.

So let’s look at the authors. Apparently, those who might have gone or did go to boarding schools a few decades ago (at least) probably didn’t have that great a time as the gals at St Clare’s and Malory Towers. Instead they might have preferred to write about different experiences and not romanticize a situation that held little fun or comfort for them.

And perhaps it’s just the way the literary ball rolls. Trends, and all that. Books, like television programmes, have become ‘grittier’ and more concerned with portraying social conditions and societal issues such as gender, race, sexuality. This has resulted in the sort of books that we looked at this week.

Nitty gritty

I am going to show my age and reading preferences here when I state that I really don’t like school stories nowadays. I reviewed The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler last June in advance of this module (you can read it here).

image courtesy of Wikimedia.org

The book won the Carnegie Medal and is lauded for challenging gender stereotyping through its main protagonists (I can’t say too much as the very last page is a massive ‘reveal’). But while it is perhaps more playful than other books in this genre I just didn’t feel it was a satisfying read. It sort of potters along in a series of trivial events and then ends. There is one element to the plot that hints at tension but even this is not incredibly nail-biting. There is not much sense of fun and most of the action takes place outside of the school which really begs the question: should this be considered a school story at all?

The next book was Malarkey by Keith Gray.

image courtesy of scottishbooktrust.com

This book is aimed more at teenagers, I would argue, rather than Blyton’s pre-teen books. The subject matter makes this an older read; newcomer John Malarkey is accused of a theft he didn’t commit within a few hours of starting at a new school. He is framed for the crime by a violent and frightening gang and the teachers seems disinterested in hearing his side of the story. The story focuses on the unpleasant realities of blackmail and bullying and is as far from playing an innocent trick on Mademoiselle as you can get.

I just don’t think you can compare this book to post-war boarding school tales. It reads rather like an episode of Eastenders - with drama and tension and shedloads of social commentary. I came away from this drained and depressed and thinking that comprehensive schools are horrible places for any child to be in (and I went to a pretty rough one myself – things have obviously become far worse since the 1980s). There is a place for gritty realism, and perhaps a teenage audience would enjoy the frenetic pace of this book but this can’t be compared in the same light as school stories intended for children in primary schools. Unless you want to traumatise them beyond belief. I won’t be sharing this book with Holly any time soon.

Welcome back, old favourite

The nearest modern book that approaches the heyday of the school story is JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – and the rest of the series, come to that. It reverts to placing the action mostly in the school setting, rather than using school as a catalyst for events that unfurl away from its boundaries. The children are looked after by surrogate parents (wizards and witches) and have a fairly typical school experience (barring battles with Voldemort and his cronies). Not a lot of attention is paid to lessons as no one picks up a school story to read pupils’ reactions to particle physics (or in Harry Potter, a detailed description of the Dark Arts), but instead adventures, allegiances and rivalries form in the corridors of this magical kingdom and a sense of community and peer support permeates the pages (with a few exceptions of course). The cleverness of these books is that the early ones can be read and enjoyed by primary-school pupils while the later books are suitable for teens and adults. Rarely has a children’s book had such universal appeal.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.org

So, where does this fascination for the world of Hogwarts come from? Our course materials point out that adult readers might enjoy the books so much because they hark back to their childhood days spent reading, you guessed it, series like Malory Towers. These books don’t give two figs about realism and grittiness and social issues, although the snobbery about Muggles by wizardry families could be seen as having a parallel in social snobbery between the classes.

Critics who have examined the books have accused Rowling of failing to deal with modern concerns such as gender and sexual equality, demanding to know why there are no positive representations of homosexual relationships within the books and why she chose a male hero over a female equivalent. This, they say, is gender stereotyping: does she not believe a female could have overcome the wicked Voldemort? I posed this question to Holly whose eyes nearly rolled back into the recesses of her head. The name that immediately came from her mouth was ‘Hermione’. I suggested that if Rowling wanted to empower females she could have made Hermione the hero, and was she sexist for not doing so? ‘No,’ was the very firm reply. Without Hermione, Harry could not have achieved as much as he did. She was a great character. I pointed out that she needed rescuing by Harry and Ron from an ogre in the first book and she replied, ‘Well, like, wouldn’t you need help defeating an ogre if you were by yourself? Duh!’ (She’s getting into teen-speak at the moment.)

It is a valid question why Rowling didn’t use a girl instead of a boy for the  hero. It would have made a huge difference, as JK Rowling admitted in a webchat a little while back:

Denise— London: If Harry Potter was a girl, do you think his adventures would have been different?
J. K.  Rowling replies -> Yes, I do think they would be different. I imagined Harry as a boy from the start, so I’ve never thought about ‘Harriet Potter’, but I’m sure lots of things in the books would change, Ron for a start, he’d have to be Ronalda.

(courtesy of http://harrypotter.bloomsbury.com/author/interviews/individual2)

No one can say why Rowling chose a boy to play the heroic role in her series – and it sounds like the author herself just always ‘knew’ that he would be so. One could argue that perhaps she was affected by tradition, where the boy was the hero, or perhaps she wanted to write in the opposite gender to herself to avoid over-identification with the main character. I know writers who make this active decision.

It depends how you rate a book. As adults we adopt different criteria to children: Is the book worthy? Does it challenge stereotypes? Does it help children understand and accept diversity?

Children I think read for different reasons. They want to be challenged, entertained, kept on the edge of their seats. Plot is everything for a young child, and characterization can afford to be sparse. They want to know what happened next. And often characterization can be driven through a protagonist’s actions and speech. A page detailing the inner monologue of a pre-teen is not going to fascinate a pre-teen.

I think adults mediating the world of children’s literature need to tread carefully. It is important to enable children to become aware of issues, but we must also keep space for books that exist to delight, to entertain, to engage. Moral posturing will do nothing to raise awareness or create socially committed children. As seen in the massive success of Harry Potter, you don’t need the nitty gritty of realism to speak to millions of children.

What are your favourite school stories? Do you like books that have a moral message or that actively seek to portray diversity in modern society?