Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures


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No place for the old? Age and fairy tales.

It’s a fairly established point of view that we can use children’s literature to challenge  enduring stereotypes. I’ve spent years working in Early Years education trying to do just that…seeking out the books where girls are empowered and boys love reading. Now in my own writing I try to ensure that my characters are positive and challenge the expected. Yet one thing I have not really considered is the concept of age in children’s stories, especially traditional fairy tales.

The recent IBBY conference entitled “Happily Ever After: The Evolution of Fairy Tales Across Time and Cultures” explored this theme in detail and threw up some surprisingly new ideas.

The key-note speaker, Professor Vanessa Joosen, kicked off the day with an exceptionally detailed study of how age is presented in classic and modern fairy tales. Despite many post-modern rewritings that aim to tackle existing stereotypes, casual ageism still remains unchallenged.

Women in classic fairy tales fare badly but old women do even worse

 Sylvia Henneberg

Through her detailed analysis, Professor Joosen demonstrated that although there has been a shift in female empowerment, this does not affect the way older women are presented to the young. The “literary crone” is still funnelled into the very limited static role of the witch or  someone seeking to regain their lost youth, for example the character Gothel in Walt Disney’s “Tangled”.  This “mirror stage” of life is described by Kathleen Woodward as the time when our real, youthful self is hidden inside our body – something that had many in the audience nodding in agreement! This midlife point is still presented as a time of crisis; the youthful female character moves away from the search for love and marriage and the conflict between age and youth is perceived. An interesting interpretation of “Hansel and Gretel” suggests that the stepmother’s desire to get rid of the children is to stop time – essentially preventing herself from ageing in comparison to the youthfulness of the children.

Yet not all old people play supporting roles in fairy tales. Outside of the western traditional tales, some glimmers of alternative viewpoints can be found. in Japanese traditional tales older characters often take the protagonists role, thus taking away the focus on beauty, marriage and children. Professor Joosen referenced “The Tongue Cut Sparrow” as a good example. Equally she argued, in some re-writing of traditional tales such as Emma Donoghue’s “Kissing the Witch”, older characters are portrayed as providing intergenerational collaboration –  bringing wisdom and standing up for the younger characters. However, even here the older characters are not permitted other strong emotions like anger.

It wasn’t all despair for the older character however and some writers are consciously challenging this most stubborn of stereotypes; try this for starters: “Snow White turns 392 by Ann Sheldon.

©Chez l’abeille  2017

 

 

 

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A “Maverick” reading scheme? Yes please!

As a child I read everything and anything I could get my hands on and I can still vividly recall the moment I realised I was actually reading in my head! It was magical; words and pictures danced together, creating a perfect moment of pure story pleasure.

What I also remember is that I was very conscious of the existence of two types of books; the ones I chose for myself and the ones I had to read. The school reading books. The utterly boring and tedious activities of characters I had no interest or desire to know any more about, thank you! My Naughty Little Sister, Paddington Bear or Olga Da Polga would trump anything that Janet and John or Peter and Jane could offer me, any day.

“Literacy begins with immersion in an environment in which the skill is used in a purposeful, active, and meaningful way.”

Don Holdaway, “The Foundations of Literacy” (1979)

How could any reading scheme be purposeful, active and meaningful, when there were so many exciting books to explore and read? As a result, even as an experienced primary teacher, I have always been a tad suspicious of any reading scheme, no matter how “real book” they try to be.

I was curious, therefore, to have a closer look at the new “Early Readers” from Maverick Children’s Books. The idea behind this series is simple: to create reading books that support the transition from being a listener to being a reader. The resulting books have also been “banded” according to the Institute of Education’s book bands for guided reading, which provides clear guidance on the level of difficulty and reading skills needed. This is a big plus for me, as I frequently use the book bands in my advisory work with schools.

Working with their roster of established authors (including several SCBWI friends across the whole series), the purple band books are based on existing stories or characters, with which children may already be familiar. The established pairings of author and illustrator are also replicated, which again provides a sense of familiarity and high quality. In look and feel they have the same structure as a typical picture book with each one running to thirteen double page spreads. Illustrations and text work well together, although there is a greater separation of text and image on the page than is typically found in a picture book. This enhances the sense that they are a step up from a picture book  – they are instead books with great pictures! Yet there is still much to explore in the illustrations and I particularly liked Queen Fluff’s encounter with a rat in his underpants in “A Right Royal Mess”. 

As reading books these would be suitable for reading alone or in a guided group. Maverick have created useful activity packs for some of the books which can support the teaching of reading in a group activity or at home. For example a focus on specific consonant clusters is suggested if reading “The Jelly That Wouldn’t Wobble”, and key language features that can be used in writing, such as onomatopoeia are also featured. Yet they are not too schooly and I think they would be equally welcome as a shared bedtime story.

Each story comes with a quiz at the end, which can be used to support recall of key information. If I were to suggest one thing to strengthen this section of the book, it would be a greater focus on inference. Some questions do provide a “think about” element such as “Why does nobody want to help the Grizzly? in “The Great Grizzly Race., but there is only one answer. More open-ended questions could provide greater challenge and opportunities to develop skills of being able to “answer questions and make some inferences on the basis of what is being said and done” (End of KS1 expected standard).

For me, each book works well as a complete story, bringing the sense of satisfaction that comes from active engagement in a well written picture book. For a transitional reader the overall reading experience would be supportive, yet one of moving on to something more challenging. In Don Holdaway’s words, they are definitely purposeful and meaningful.

So am I converted? I have to say I am.

©Chez l’abeille  2017

Disclaimer: I was invited to review the Maverick Early Reader books by the publisher who provided copies of three purple band books.
I have received no compensation for doing this piece and all opinions are my own.

 


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In retreat again.

I first went on a writing retreat in 2015. At that time I found it all rather overwhelming and I remember how I was utterly in awe of the other writers and illustrators I was meeting. My overwhelming memory was of being a bit lost and brimful of doubt. I was also feeling like a real imposter. It was surprising then to hear all these feelings and more  shared by everyone at this year’s SCBWI Picture Book Retreat.

During his session on writing Picture Books, Author/Illustrator David Lucas asked us to write down a personal fear; something we felt could be an emotional problem for a character. One by one we anonymously bared our souls as each slip of paper was pulled from the bag: fear of failure, feeling the grass is always greener, wanting to please others… it turns out all picture book writers and illustrators are a fairly neurotic bunch!

“A really good book is a mystical whole.”

David had a pretty good reason for putting us all in therapy for an hour or two. He wanted us to consider those emotions that are universally understood. Through mining the seams of our own psyches we were able to explore the interplay between the particular and the universal. Shared human emotions such as feeling lost, lonely or stuck  are coloured in differently by each of us and we can use these personal experiences to create that universally appealing story. Sometimes the thing that is missing from your umpteenth draft is not the strength of your idea (The Head) or your skill in constructing the story (The Hand) but the emotion or Heart. Without this emotional connection the reader simply won’t care about your character. As David said so passionately, look to your real world and your characters can come alive.

“The real world is more amazing than we know”

We were lucky to also have a session led by Adam Stower, author/illustrator of many successful picture books but most recently the rather marvellous “King Coo”. If you’ve not yet seen this book you really are missing out! (Especially if, like me, you are a secret Molesworth fan.)

Adam took us through his own creative process and shared his fabulous sketchbook archive where we got to see his later characters emerging from earlier observations and ideas.Adam Stower We also explored in some detail the relationship between words and pictures by analysing his book “Silly Doggy”; it is only from the illustrations that the reader knows that Lily’s doggy is in fact, a bear! This empowers the reader but also means the narrator doesn’t have to lie to their audience. His use of a poster to give key narrative information was a lightbulb moment for me in solving a problem with one of my texts so thanks, Adam!

Alongside Adam we also had the benefit of Zoe Tucker’s long experience as an art director. Zoe treated us to examples of fabulously illustrated submissions and correspondence from several well-known picture book illustrators. Social media is fast becoming a key way for art directors to spot new talent. Her top tip was to be an avid user of tools like Instagram, as a way for illustrators to create an instant portfolio but also for writers as a jumping off point for possible stories.

There were many interesting discussions during the weekend, but often we returned to the knotty issue of word counts. Amongst my critique group we have recently been discussing requests from editors to cut out at least 150 words from an already skeletal text and the perceived target word count seems to tumble with every conversation. Peter Marley, Commissioning Editor of children’s picture books at Oxford University Press gave us an encouraging range of  500 – 700 words in his discussion about structure – yet he still urged removal of unnecessary text. Maybe what’s important is not the word count but making every word count!

“Picture Books are like a building – words can be scaffolding which are gradually removed”

Peter outlined his template for seeing quite quickly if a story is going to essentially “work”. He  broke down the traditional 12 spread layout even further to illustrate how the first three spreads will set up the problem and typically send our hero off on a quest to solve it. The mid-section will give the hero space to solve the problem with the twist or “kink in the road” somewhere around spreads ten or eleven, before their safe return home. I was particularly interested in this “circular structure” which in traditional fairy tales is often described as the “There and back again” model; think of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” where Gerda goes on her mission to rescue Kai and bring him home. Both are changed by this journey and the reader’s satisfaction lies in what David Lucas described as the “multiple possibilities” they have as a result of their experiences.

Dummy book

During the weekend every speaker emphasised the importance of making dummy books, so for book making newbies here’s my personal favourite; The “snip and fold quick book” method which I often use to layout my own stories. When making a dummy Peter also suggested including the cover and imprint pages – in fact mock-up the whole book so you can read it through in exactly the way your future readers will experience it.

This time, for me, the weekend passed by far too quickly in a heady mix of writing, drawing and good company. Time out to reflect and review is always time well spent and this retreat certainly provided for my head, my hands and my heart.

 

©Chez l’abeille  2017

 


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Sometimes you win…

I don’t really consider myself as someone who wins things. True there was the under 11s photographic competition highly recommended back in 1971, a Puffin Book Club prize for something completely forgotten and some near misses with school raffles, but being the actual winner? Nah. Not something that happens that often.

By January 2017 I’d also been languishing in what felt like complete avoidance from all the agents and publishers I’d submitted to. Rejection is one thing but nothing? I’d not heard a peep from any of them and was seriously doubting myself and my capabilities as a writer. So when a flurry of excitement about a picture book challenge appeared online I was at first rather reluctant to join in.

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators regularly hosts a Slush-Pile Challenge. Unpublished and un-agented writers (i.e. ME!) can submit a piece of work which might get selected to be read by a real life proper agent who knows what’s what. The brief set by Jodie Hodges of United Agents was fairly straightforward. She was after a picture book text that featured a human child at its heart (so, no animal protagonists). A story that young children and their parents could read together that would make them laugh or cuddle, or both. Surely I would be able to find something suitable?

Having written nothing new for several months I looked back into my archive. Picture book challenges don’t come along every month so I felt I had to submit, but which one? The tortoise one? Not human enough. The space one? Not ready enough.  I did have one though which seemed to fit the bill.

Where's that tiger“Where’s That Tiger?” started life in 2015 as an exercise at the Arvon picture Book retreat. During a workshop on rhyming structures I’d scribbled some frankly painful couplets, but the kernel of an idea was there. Almost a year later I was at a SCBWI masterclass with Ellie Brough, which brought it back to mind so I’d worked on it again. I don’t usually write in rhyme but it was finished and in reasonable shape. One click later it had gone.

May 2nd 2017: Hope dashed. Part of the challenge is also to be one of the randomly selected manuscripts. My story wasn’t one of the 25 that went to Jodie. I tried hard to be philosophical about this and console myself with feeling positive I’d entered in the first place.

May 11th 2017: Hope rises again. More stories are going forward! Mine is one of them…I was just a teensy bit excited.

June 3rd 2017: “I’m delighted to inform you that you’ve won”.  And breathe. I sat in bed and read Jodie’s comments over and over again.

“This entry had a fabulous, commercial, appealing central concept, a really strong rhyming voice, a great page turn moment from spreads 6 to 7 and the clever added bonus of the narrative slowly taking the protagonist and reader to bed. I always like a text to end with a twist, a cuddle or in bed!’”

An actual literary agent had said that? About my story? I was elated.

There followed a really hard 24 hours of radio silence in which I had to ignore my critique group who were busy chatting about their “sorry you didn’t win” emails and wondering who had, then a flurry of congratulations and finally the prize itself: a meeting with Jodie to discuss my work. In advance she had asked if I wanted to share a couple of additional texts so I had sent her the tortoise one and the space one as a follow up. She was able to meet with me quite quickly so I arranged time off work and underlined it in my diary in triplicate. With stars.

On the day  of the meeting I was, as ever, ridiculously early which turned out to be a good thing as finding United Agents was a bit tricky. I wandered up and down the street for a while looking rather out of place amongst the Soho hipsters but eventually I located the secret doorbell and was settled into Jodie’s book lined office with a nice cup of tea, feeling like a real fraud! Jodie was a great host however and we spent nearly two hours discussing writing and the whims of the publishing world. One of the things I struggle with is finding a killer title and she helpfully talked through the titles of her successful books and how they take the reader straight to the heart of the story itself. The rise of illustrated non-fiction was also something we explored in relation to some of my ideas. She was very encouraging about my own stories and offered great insights on how they can be developed to increase their commercial appeal. I came away from the meeting with a head full of ideas and a real sense of positivity and encouragement to keep writing.

So I’ve wiped the slate clean and decided to move on from all those unanswered submissions. You’ve got to stay in it to win it.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


The Streets of London: Pullens Yards

It started with a tweet by a publisher I follow. A mention of Pullens Yards, an open studios and a postcode intrigued me; I like to think I know many of the studios around my area but this was new to me. I had a few hours to spare before an afternoon of volunteering at a local theatre and as I had to pass through SE17 on the way I thought, “why not?”

I already knew that behind the Walworth Road in SE London there are many Victorian streets, full of original housing stock, but discovering some beautiful Victorian artisan workshops was a complete surprise.

Pullens Centre Sign

Pullens Centre Sign

The yards sit within the Pullens Estate. This was built between 1870 and 1901 by local builders, James Pullen and Son. Included in the estate design were four yards, of which three remain, Iliffe Yard, Clements Yard and Peacock Yard. The Yards were purpose-built workspaces, designed originally as a work/live spaces, something that is still seen today in several locations around Southwark.

It was a great day to visit – the sun was out and London was basking in a kind of post-election lethargy. As it was quite quiet when I arrived many of the artists were happy to chat. I spent some time in the studio of David Cowley, who seeks to capture his responses to music and literature in his paintings. His work was fascinating and I could have spent all morning chatting with him about art and synaesthesia, but there were three yards to get round so I had to move on.

The yards are a celebration of everything you know about Victorian building. From the wrought iron gates and the cobbled roadway, to the worn out staircases and arched doorways they are the epitome of the attention to detail that the builder brought to a project. Today they continue to house a wide range of artists, from Royal Academicians to lute makers, photographers, jewellers, potters…the list is endless.

I was keen to visit Tiny Owl Publishers who are based in Peacock Yard. This publishing house focuses on books which aim to bridge cultural experiences, creating the most beautiful books about love, friendship or freedoms. I had a lovely conversation with co-founder Karim, who took time to show me their latest publications and the themes they focus on. If you are a fan of picture books that really say something then have a look at their titles. You won’t be disappointed.

Back in the 1970s the workshops and surrounding flats were heading for demolition. Thanks to the far-sighted campaigners who saved them in the face of bailiffs and police, the area was saved and is now a sought after place to live. As we see the shape of the Walworth Road and the Elephant and Castle changing on an almost daily basis, I hope these small-scale spaces remain as a creative hub, continuing to bring a little beauty to our lives.

Peacock Yard

Peacock Yard

The Yards host an Open Studios event twice a year in the Summer and at Christmas. Details can be found via their website http://www.pullensyards.co.uk/

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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What a character!

“Actions, looks, words and steps form the alphabet by which you may spell character.” Johann Kasper Lavater

Much of my day job is spent tuning into young children and trying to understand their motivations and desires. Following a curious infant, hell bent on discovering where a forbidden object has gone certainly helps you see their investigative ingenuity in full force. A few weeks ago I heard a child development expert describe a typical two year old. “Their job,” she said, “is to find out how everything in the world works.”

This observation came back to me in a different guise as I listened to Natascha Biebow at a recent SCBWI masterclass on developing characters. “Observe the world around you,” she said, “and think about what motivates children to do what they are doing”. The world of children is mostly determined by what is happening to them “in the moment” and if we watch we can often find great starting points for writing a really satisfying story.

Just WHO is your character? Continue reading


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“To ignite their interest”: 10 tips for visiting authors in the early years.

What could be better than this?

“Children must be given access to a wide range of reading materials (books, poems, and other written materials) to ignite their interest.”

The statutory framework for the early years foundation stage

Not much! For young children their interest in the world around them often starts with the books we share and read with them. To meet someone who actually writes or illustrates books can be a truly inspirational experience. However, for many adults, authors included, being asked to engage a group of three, four or five year olds for any length of time can be the most daunting experience they could think of.

Having worked with under fives for many years, as a teacher and early years consultant, I have experienced those tumbleweed moments when small children simply vote with their feet! Here then are my top tips for planning and delivering a successful author visit to any early years classroom.

Part one: Telling stories.

#1. Location, location, location. Nursery age children in particular are most comfortable in a space they are used to being in. Take them out of their familiar surroundings and other exciting new things will soon eclipse your attempts to command attention! Try to meet the children in their own classrooms to minimise other attention grabbing goings-on.

#2. Attention spans. There are many rules of thumb for determining children’s attention spans. Most typically it is the child’s age plus 1, or the child’s age x 4. Whichever way you consider it, young children do not have long attention spans so if you are reading your story to them don’t expect to be doing it for more than around 15 minutes for a nursery group or 20 minutes for a reception group. After that they will probably start to fidget.They are also remarkably capable of simply  wandering off, no matter how exciting you think you are being!

#3. Bring your character to life. Young children are immensely skilled at willingly suspending their disbelief and they love a puppet or character to engage with. Where they can be shy of unknown adults, a puppet gives them someone non-threatening to talk and listen to. Puppets can also gain their initial interest and help them understand the themes or emotions within a story. If you can illustrate, then drawing your characters will also be a great starting point. Children see being confident at drawing as a highly prized skill.

#4. Keep it interactive. Songs, rhymes, chants, actions, sound effects, using other languages…all these engage young children and keep them involved in the story. There are many song tunes which children will know from an early age to which you can put your own words – try teaching new lyrics to twinkle, twinkle little star and see how easy it is!

#5. Question time! Ask any early years child a question and the responses can range from a detailed description of their new shoes to the more varied random thoughts that enter their heads; “How old are you?” and “Do you have a mum?” would be fairly standard fare. Instead, try asking them open-ended questions about their views on your characters’ behaviour or experiences. Older children may have prepared questions to ask you –  try throwing questions back to them to so it is a more interactive experience.

You’ve made it alive this far! Continue reading