Category Archives: Anita says…

What is the theme of your book?

The theme of a book is an ‘abstract idea’ such as friendship, loyalty or a quest for identity. It is important to understand what the theme of your book is. Often the theme does not become apparent until you have finished writing the book. Themes in children’s picture books can often be identified by three categories: daily life, family and feelings. The Baby who wouldn’t go to bed by Helen Cooper has a theme of bedtime routines, which are part of daily life.

The Baby who wouldn’t go to bed by Helen Cooper

Themes are different to morals. A good rule of thumb is to avoid preaching. Children’s stories should be explorations of life—not Sunday school lessons. The theme should be subtle and will strengthen the story, as it adds depth and meaning.

Behind a very simple structure, brief text and beautiful illustrations lay truths that are timeless. The story should leave readers with a residual feeling. There has to be something deeply felt that stays with the reader afterwards. You should be able to sum up your theme in one or two words. The theme of Not now Bernard by David McKee is busy parents, which is something all children can identify with.

Not now Bernard by David McKee

Your characters will always carry the theme but don’t confuse theme with the story’s plot. The plot is  what happens in the story and the order of the story’s events. A theme is an insight or viewpoint or concept that a story conveys. If an editor says your story is ‘slight,’ this may mean you have no significant theme.The theme of Where the Wild things are by Maurice Sendak is dealing with the feeling of anger. 

Where the Wild things are by Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak does not to blurt out his theme. He lets it emerge from the story. If you must come out and say it, do it in dialogue, not narration. Keep the theme positive. If writing about a social problem, offer constructive ways for your readers to deal with it.

Children’s non-fiction

Over the last few years there have been many changes in children’s non-fiction and how it is presented and used in the classroom. Today teachers use a more interactive model of non-fiction, which in my opinion makes learning more exciting and fun.

“The Internet changes the way we think about information. The fact that we do not know something that exists in the extant expansive commons of human knowledge can no longer intimidate us into reticence. If we do not know something, someone else does, and there are enough ways around the commons of the Internet that enable us to get to sources of the known.” Raqs Media Collective (Edge.org)

New technology has allowed multi-media texts to be used with moving images to enhance children’s learning. So, we can actually see a digestive system working or what the night sky would look like on a specific day at a specific time. The non-fiction information is often embedded into a story with diverse characters solving problems that keep the children engaged.

But, does this advancing technology mean parents are less likely to buy their children a non-fiction book, preferring them to do their research on the Internet? This is a worry for the children’s non-fiction writer and many new books have appeared on the market to make the non-fiction books more appealing.

Print books have started to become more spectacular themselves not only do they include links to downloads to compliment the printed text but the illustrations are active and visually stimulating bleeding to the edges of the page. There are puzzles and games in the books so children can discover new concepts and reinforce their learning such as in my Colour and Shape books.

atrianglesopen

There has been a rise in children’s biographical accounts told in a more creative and stimulating way than simple text and portrait picture and a move to more comic book style, such as Kate Pankhurst’s Fantastically Great Women series.

“Kate Pankhurst’s Fantastically Great Women series (Bloomsbury Children’s), including Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World and Fantastically Great Women Who Changed History, have sold a combined 92,634 copies since the start of 2018.” The Bookseller

But, what is the next step? What non-fiction books are going to survive the electronic age?

Children Using Non-Fiction Books

As you may all know, I write a column for Writers’ Forum on the types of research authors do for their books. I was also a primary school teacher for seventeen long years and have written many children’s illustrated non-fiction books and teacher resources for primary school. So children, using non-fiction books for their own research and writing is something that fascinates me.

Margaret Mallett has written extensively about children using non-fiction for researching their own writing. She has written such books as:

  • Choosing and Using Fiction and Non-Fiction 3-11: A Comprehensive Guide for Teachers and Student Teachers
  • Early Years Non-fiction: A Guide to Helping Young Researchers Use and Enjoy Information Texts
  • Young Researchers: Informational Reading and Writing in the Early and Primary Years

These books are aimed at primary school teachers with an aim of teaching children how to use non-fiction books and list suitable non-fiction books to meet the requirements of the National Curriculum and Literacy Strategy.

It is true there are new, fun interactive ways to find information via the Internet and downloads. These interactive models work and provide variation. But, in my experience, children do still enjoy looking at non-fiction books to satisfy their curiosity and thirst for knowledge. Non-fiction books need to be widely available in the classroom to support other things they are doing.

nonfiction books

Making non-fiction reading and writing exciting and relevant helps advance children’s thinking and understanding. Young children require literacy activities that are embedded in practical activities, drama, role-play and outings. These connect children’s experiences in school with wider society and provide opportunities to use and talk about texts.

clock2

Time should be made during the school day (OK! Don’t laugh – I’ve been there!) for the children to talk about specifically non-fiction books. As writers and teachers we ultimately want children to learn to be independent readers by looking at both fiction and non-fiction books. Listening to others and their interpretations of the books helps with internal reasoning and encourages a quest to find out more. The children’s hypothesis can be supported and reinforced by looking at more books.

Teachers should also read non-fiction books to the class and show the illustrations. Seeing the pictures and hearing the text triggers reflection and help the children by giving knowledge.

illustrated non-fiction

Using illustrated non-fiction in the classroom is a highly successful way to engage children’s interest, helping them to establish a personal foothold and provide a reference against which to check what they have found from other information sources.

Story sacks don’t have to be confined to KS1 they can be for any age and contain non-fiction books. Drama does not have to be solely linked to fiction but can be used to support what is happening in non-fiction texts too.

In my opinion, to foster a love of children’s non-fiction books we need to think about the way it is being used with the children in the classroom and also at home.

Virtual networking

Networking is a great tool to help you reach your goals. You can network in person by joining critique groups, going to book fairs, masterclasses and workshops, or by attending book launches and conferences of organisations like SCBWI, FCBG, IBBY, the Bookseller and CWIG. Or you can network virtually through online critique groups, email, YouTube, your own websiteFacebook, a Facebook Author page, Instagram, Twitter and by having a blog.

Virtual networking
One of the most important reasons why should authors have an online presence is that it is an ideal way of publicising your self. Publicity is so important, anything an author can do to help sales and increase familiarity with their name, the better. Having a website and / or blog means prospective publishers and buyers of your books are able to look up more information than they could get off a publicity leaflet.

You can have an online presence at any stage of your writing career. You can promote your articles, short stories, poetry, forthcoming novel, or your column in a magazine or newspaper.

Virtual networking can generate more contacts and interest in your writing. You can meet people you might not have had the opportunity to meet in person, without the huge travel costs. You can refer potential editors to your site so they can see a range of your work and editors who have worked with you in the past can use the site to get in touch.

The net is available 24-hours a day, every day. An online presence will market your work to the whole wide world. It is an excellent marketing forum and should become an ongoing part of your business as a writer. Your blog is a business tool.

The Internet is here to stay as a communication media, so utilise your resources.

An Evening with the Illustrator Axel Scheffler

Many years ago, in 2009, I was lucky enough to go to a talk by Axel Scheffler about his career as an illustrator of children’s picture books, run by the Society of Authors. The meeting was chaired by Ros Asquith.

Axel Scheffler

Axel is one of my favourite all time illustrators. He won his first drawing prize around the age of eight. It was for a picture of a cow. He is originally from Hamburg but, studied at Bath Academy of Art where he got a first class degree.

He told us, the greatest thing about going to art school was having the freedom to draw for three hours and the qualifications opened doors for employment. He has no time to do observational drawings anymore. He has got out of the habit and has been unable to get back into it. Looking and remembering is a skill some people can not do. Picasso and many other artists all used photos. But, Axel claims it is a skill you can train yourself to do. It makes you look more carefully at things. His style he developed himself. But, he is a perfectionist and is not happy with his work on occasions. He divulged how he finds it difficult to draw a succession of events and prefers to tell a story all in one picture.

He showed his portfolio in the mid-80’s to magazines and got regular work for a magazine called Lotus. He would draw anything and would change his drawings when asked. Sometimes he found himself drawing things he did not really understand. He also worked for a German magazine called Zeitmagazin where he did weekly illustrations and illustrated a column for a food writer.

He has also written and illustrated some Pixi Books (or Pixi Bücher) for their 40th Anniversary. He was one of 10 illustrators asked to commemorate the event. They have published over 1,500 identically sized titles, 10x10cm, which are all grouped and numbered in little series with German precision. He likes to do things that are less main stream, but he has less time nowadays. He enjoys illustrating with little pictures on a white background. He still does some work for The Oldie. He thinks as an illustrator he is more popular in Germany than in the UK.

He showed us how when you look at his illustrations over the years you can see his progression from pointy nose characters to softer styles.

The Piemakers by Helen Cresswell was the first book he ever illustrated

Daley B by Jon Blake was the first book he illustrated for Walker Books

Sam: Who Was Swallowed by a Shark by Phyllis Root was the second book he illustrated for Walker Books

In 1994, Julia Donaldson was writing songs for Playdays and Axel Scheffler was recommended as the illustrator. He worked on A Squash and a Squeeze. This was his first book with Macmillan. The next book he did with Julia was The Gruffalo, followed by Room on the Broom, Tiddler and The Stick Man, which was nominated for The Roald Dahl Funny book Prize. These books have been translated into 29 languages.

Publishers often do not have the patience to develop illustrators and authors. But, he has worked with Macmillan a long time now and they have moulded him into what they want. There are many people involved in the publication of a picture book. The final product is very influenced by the editor and art director.

The Gruffalo
Usually when he has an idea he ends up sticking with it. But with The Gruffalo cover his original just had a shadow of The Gruffalo, but the editor wanted the main protagonist on the cover so he redrew it. However, in the US they did not want the main protagonist on the cover so he had to draw another one where he hid The Gruffalo partially behind a shrub. This only appeared on the US first edition, the second edition adopted the UK design.

He explained how he had a terrible time getting the skies right because he found it difficult to get the liquid watercolours to do what he wanted. He usually starts his illustrations with liquid watercolours (like ink) drawings a lot smaller than in the book and they get blown up to the right size, which he then works with. He dips a pen into the ink and then colours them with special coloured pencils. He used to do his picture book drawings the same size but, now he does them 90%. He always starts with ink outlines and then colours on top of the inks and rubs in the colours with his fingers. At the end he reinforces the outline with the ink and adds details, such as lines for fur and leaves. Nowadays he is able to ask the publishers to make small alterations in Photoshop but, previously he was only able to change it by hand and then email the new version.

The Smartest Giant in Town
For this book he also drew a totally different front cover, but they wanted something more friendly so he had to rethink.

Rabbit’s Nap (Tales from Acorn Wood)
This is a lift the flap book and Axel loved drawing the little dressed animals

The Gruffalo Song and Other Songs
This was not the first cover design again, as he decided he did not want to metamorphosis the animals. This book is also available as a musical audio CD.

Axel’s advice to aspiring illustrators is to practice hard. He kept a sketch book from the age of about 18 before he started at art college. There is a whole playground of ideas in these sketch books that he has jotted down. Sometimes the sketch books relate to books he is working on. Axel explained how it is nice to look at old sketch books as they bring back memories. But, it is the unpredictability of the whole business that is so lovely about it.

Re-evaluate setting

Today’s blog post is a continuation of evaluating your work in progress. I have talked about re-evaluating your characters and re-evaluating your plot. Today I am concentrating on setting. A lot of work goes into the beginning of the story before the writing begins but sometimes a story can loose its way. What I am proposing is if you feel like you have lost your way stop writing and take a look at what you have written so far. 

edinburgh castle

  • Make sure your facts are accurate, such as if you are using real places you have not got your characters driving the wrong way up a one-way street.
  • Make your own sketch-map of an area it is a good working tool whether, you setting is real or imaginary.
  • Remember the information out at the time may be different form what we know now in hindsight. Pears encyclopaedias give details relevant to the year and can be collected quite cheaply from boot sales.
  • Contemporary stories with flashback in time must be accurate. Double-check everything.
  • Never take one source, do a lot of crosschecking. Where possible use library and university sites, museums and book searches where you can type in a keyword and find a lot of good reference books.
  • The best research is unobtrusive. You don’t need to put everything in to prove you know your subject. Drop things in casually to set the scene and let the reader know a little background. You can paint a picture using the information this way. You have the research in your mind but only have to use a couple of lines.
  • Use research to feed motivation and plot. It is no good your character having a glamorous job if you’re not using the job to move the story forward.
  • Describe clothes and period costume by using action. Use the description and research as part of the action. All the time something should be happening.
  • Check your setting compliments other areas of the plot. If you are trying to create an atmosphere with your research, it must work within the confines of the plot.
  • Can your setting and the research you have done into it be used to create tension, conflict or theme? Could it be used to draw comparisons?
  • If you are going back in history, do not forget to use all your senses. Think taste, smell and sound. Think like a photographer.

living room

A good exercise is to go through your novel and list the settings you use. Consider how many and are they too similar or even too unrealistic. Would your character really live here? Examine their characteristics of the room, street, or forest. This kind of in depth look can help you find the right path back onto the road of completing your novel.

Re-evaluate your plot

Last week I talked about re-evaluating your characters. Take a look here.

forest

Sometimes it is also a good idea to stop what you are writing even if you have not finished the book and re-evaluate your plot.

  • A novel needs an ending but this ending need not be cast in stone. You need to have something to work towards, something to aim for.
  • With plot, you also need to have a sub-plot. The sub-plot moves the reader along.
  • It is very tempting to have another set of characters coming in when the hero needs to learn important information, try to avoid this. Sharpen in the re-write by cutting subsidiary characters.
  • Don’t overcrowd scenes. Does the plot really require lots of people to be together in one place at one particular time? Be economical in the number of cast and scene changes. See action in your sequences. Think like a play-write or film director. You can fast forward and backwards to visualise your plot as frames. This way you can see if it isn’t running smoothly form one scene to the next.
  • Use flashback rather than having a large scene that shows the plot and use it with purpose to move the story on.
  • Imagine conversations to hone dialogue.
  • In the first draft don’t worry about getting it right, just get it out of your mind and onto the paper, then you can edit and mould it into shape. The first draft is the bones – the bar skeleton.
  • Analyse where your peaks and troughs are and always finish each chapter on a cliffhanger.
  • If you use symbolism, it must play a part in the conclusion.
  • End as soon as possible after the dramatic climax of the novel. Open with a bang but don’t go out with a phut.

skeleton