For the #247 21 Sep 2022 issue of Writer’ Forum I spoke to Roo Parkin about how research is core to success as a picture book writer.
Roo’s debut picture book Sid’s Big Fib focuses on two children desperately trying to out-brag one another. While Sid’s pretty good at showing off, Lulu’s skills are simply stellar, driving Sid to launch a lie of epic proportions.
She explained a combination of things inspired the story’s themes: children’s propensity to wind up friends or siblings by claiming their ice cream is definitely the biggest, whippiest, chocolatiest etc and, secondly, the amount of ‘braggy’ truth distortions out there on social media platforms.
Roo said she realised a story exploring where showing off and fibbing could lead would resonate as much with parents reading the book to their children as it might with the children themselves. Her challenge was to make the brags, fibs and comeuppances themselves completely child centric.
When she started drafting Sid, she read some psychology articles on children bragging to help her understand what was motivating her characters. Through this research she discovered, Dr Susan Engel observed while younger children are happy to just imagine they are the fastest kid in the world, an older child realises it’s not good enough just to think that – they have to prove it. This really helped Roo escalate her story and push it into another phase. She elaborated that Sid and Lulu start off just boasting, but Sid takes things one step further, concocts an enormous lie and then gets himself into a big knot trying to prove the lie is real. from that point onwards her story’s plot and the extent of Sid’s fibs escalate.
Roo beleives doing proper research for picture books is as important as it is for any genre. Not only should length, word choices and structure fulfil expectations, but the content should be ‘correct’. That doesn’t mean you can’t create completely fantastical worlds and characters. They are great hooks but it is important not to mislead children and for the story to still makes sense.
She told me the importance of researching the content was drummed home quite dramatically.
“Sid concocts an outlandish story about his dad’s fictional space rocket and the things he brings home from those adventures. Dad is supposed to be going deeper into space with each trip as the lie evolves, but in actual fact, I had completely rearranged the galaxy with planets and moons quite randomly distributed in a nonsensical order. After researching the correct order, I quickly sorted this out.”Roo Parkin
Another example or necessary research Roo told she required was for the part when Sid’s nemesis, Lulu, claims she can swim underwater for so long she grows flippers. she explained her art note requested she be depicted as half dolphin/half childbut when doing the art note research for her fantastic illustrator Irina Avgustinovich, she had a crisis about whether dolphins had flippers at all, or if they were actually called something else.
“I knew there was a TV series called Flipper but, really, I had no idea whether that was because the starring dolphin had them or because he could ‘flip’ in the air. A call to my young godson, whose animal knowledge is off the scale, sorted me out: ‘Yes, of course dolphins have flippers… and a fin, a fluke and a melon’. A fluke is apparently the tail, and the head bulge is the melon.”Roo Parkin
Roo also explained it’s important to get character voice right because you need to hook the reader in straight away. Children simply won’t stick with a book, even one that’s being read to them, if they don’t identify with or recognise the characters in any way.
“Libraries are an absolutely brilliant resource for writers. I spend hours in my local library analysing picture book themes, characters and their voice, story arcs and endings. I was pleased to find that while there obviously were books in existence touching on similar topics as ‘Sid’, it wasn’t an overly cluttered market.”Roo Parkin
One of her research tips to other writers is to havea good trawl through the internet to help widen your research of the genre you are writing. Ideally, you don’t want to be submitting something with the same title as another book or to a publisher who has just released something on an identical subject.
She also suggests children’s book writers should visit the fantastic children’s book exhibits available. There have recently been big, glitzy exhibitions in London on Alice in Wonderland, Paddington Bear and Beatrix Potter and her favourites are the small Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden.
You can buy a copy of, Sid’s Big Fib by Roo Parkin and Irina Avgustinovich, direct from the publisher Maverick Publishing, from your local bookshop, or you can also purchase a copy online at uk.bookshop.org, an organisation with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops.
I would like to thank Abi Reeves at Maverick for sending me a copy of Sid’s Big Fib by Roo Parkin and Irina Avgustinovich to review on my blog.
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