Just Read

They say if you want to write well, read well. Read often. Read everything. Read good writing and not so good writing. Read. Read. Read.

Getting transported into a good book is one of my favourite feelings. I have lost count of the times my husband has walked in on me sobbing, clutching a book with total heartbreak, or longing, or love for one of the characters. He even walked in once when, whilst reading One Day for the first time, I hurled the book across the room because I couldn’t believe that David Nicholls could do what he did with such callousness.

Likewise I have often stirred the household from peaceful slumber with raucous laughter in the middle of the night as, by the nightlight glow “I’m just going to finish this chapter” has rolled into 3 more hours of bleary eyed joy, most recently when I was following the story of Don Tillman in The Rosie Project trilogy.

Some nights, sleep has refused to claim me as I’ve been left in nail-biting panic after reading the latest crime-thriller by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen. Every creak in the house, every pipe gurgling has transported me back into his world and left me unable to reason my way back out.

And that’s before I even get to one of my all time favourite authors – Susan Hill. More terrifying than any horror film I’ve ever seen is the fear she instils in me as I read another of her ghost stories. It’s just words. Words. How can words make me feel with such intensity that I can’t sleep, or stop laughing, or cry inconsolably? Just words.

And then there is my favourite crafting of story – The Picture Book. In less than 1000 words a good picture book author can tell the perfect story with drama, tension, relatable characters, satisfying conclusions and heart. Most importantly, heart. Often they can achieve this with hardly any words at all because of course the joy of a picture book is that perfect pairing of minds between an author and an illustrator.

Both bringing their own talents to the page and, when done well, bringing out the best in one another’s work. It is a common misconception that a picture book is a story with pictures which show the reader what the writer has written.

How condescending that would be when the audience of young children, and the adults who are reading the story to them, are capable of absorbing so much more. Let me give an example…

Erik sat on the bench eating his sandwich. [Image: boy sitting on a bench, eating a sandwich]

Now we have a picture to match the words. It’s not that this is wrong but it’s not exactly inspiring is it? Children are naturally curious. So let’s give them something to be curious about…

Erik sat on the bench eating his sandwich. [Image: boy sat on a bench, eating a sandwich. Crumbs from the sandwich are on the floor and an octopus like arm is reaching out from under the bench to pick them up. The boy is unaware.]

Which image would have you turning the page?

There are some amazing picture books which utilise this picture-word relationship. Rosie’s Walk, for example, tells the story in writing of a hen walking around a farmyard. It would make for a fairly uninspiring audio book I can assure you. At no point does the text mention that there is a hungry fox following Rosie the hen around the farm, but we know he’s there because we can see him.

The author-illustrator goes one step further because not only can we see the fox which is never mentioned, we are left questioning whether or not Rosie can also see him.

Is it coincidence that the fox falls into several traps along the way? Or did the seemingly unaware hen know exactly what she was doing walking around the farm and leading him into danger?

Pat Hutchins captures perfectly in Rosie’s Walk the symbiotic relationship between pictures and words – and perhaps as he is both author and illustrator this journey is one step easier – he could see the bigger picture, as it were.

As an author writing picture books I am still learning the craft of ‘leaving space’ for the images. When I write I picture the words on the page and can imagine the characters and how the images might look. Yet, were I lucky enough to get to the collaboration with an illustrator stage, I am sure they would have different ideas of how the text should be brought to life.

After all, I am sure when Julia Donaldson wrote The Gruffalo she had an image of the Gruffalo in mind as she crafted the story. Indeed she tells us certain key details in the text – “purple prickles all over his back” – but it is Axel Scheffler’s Gruffalo that is the image we know and love.

When I first started writing picture books I found myself drifting between not enough written narrative and too much. Now I always have the mantra “leave space for the pictures” in my head. And if in doubt I just read what I’ve written aloud. Why have I included that detail? Is it information which would be better told through an image?

The same goes with the emotional journey I want to take the reader on. If I want to make them laugh then I could use words or I could leave it unsaid for the image to evoke as a page is turned and something funny is revealed. More often than not a combination of the two, and best of all when the two work hand in hand, is what brings the story to life; text and illustrations combining to create magic on the page.

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