Sunday, February 13, 2011

So you want to write a children's book?

Like every other parent in the history of the world (okay, those who think about this kind of stuff), I've considered writing a children's book. I can tell a story, you know. You should hear the one that I used to tell Mr7 about his bear Bronte back when he was two. Bronte went in search of a pink ribbon. She had to drive many, many miles to find one. It had rollercoaster thrills, laughs and even a moral. It was... meh.

The truth is that 'knocking out' a kids' book is no mean feat. As any writer will tell you, writing short is much, much harder than writing long. Every single word has to work so much harder when they're limited. Which makes children's author Karen Collum's achievements all the more admirable. With two picture books appearing on the shelves almost simultaneously (Fish Don't Need Snorkels (UK) and Samuel's Kisses, launched in Australia today, New Frontier Publishing), plus When I Look At You (UK, 2011) and a junior novel, Operation Raspberry, out in 2012, you could say that she's on a roll.

Given that she also has four children, it's surprising Karen has time to breathe. But, lucky for us, she found time to pop into the Fibro to answer a few questions for aspiring children's book authors.

Do you find that people think 'children's books are short, they must be easy'? How far from the truth is this?
Karen Collum: "Many people do assume that picture books are the easiest things in the world to write due to their brevity. In reality, I believe picture books are the pinnacle of skill, talent and creativity (then again, I'm probably biased!).

"For me, every single word in a picture book has to fight for its place in the manuscript. Does it propel the story? Does it add to the rhythm of the text? How does it sound when read aloud? Anyone can write a 500-word story, but the masters of picture books - such as Wendy Orr, Mem Fox, and Jackie French - manage to use those 500 words to weave a tapestry of story that is simply divine."

Do you work on one book at a time? How long does it take you?
KC: "I have multiple projects on the go at once, although they're usually at different stages of development. I have a notebook for recording ideas on the run: phrases, images, characters or story arcs that might be useful. The next step is to write the first draft. Sometimes that feels as easy as being a scribe; other times it's as difficult as squeezing words from the proverbial stone. I use a template during this phase, which enables me to think about the text in terms of a standard picture book format of 32 pages. I can think about where the page turns and see where the natural breaks in the text fall.

"I then put the manuscript away for as long as possible - sometimes for 12 months or more - and come back to it with fresh eyes and a sharp knife to begin the editing process. This can take anywhere from a few days to a few months as I agonise over every word. I also workshop the manuscript with some trusted critique buddies and listen to their feedback - which I don't always take on board, though I do always consider.

"The time frame varies, but for me it's a minimum of a 6-8 month process to get a picture book from the idea stage to the point where it's ready to submit."

Do you illustrate your own books? If not, how does the illustration process work?
KC: "I would love to be able to illustrate, but sadly my artistic talents are almost non-existent. As my friend and fellow picture-book author Kathryn Apel says, we non-illustrators have to paint pictures with our words. One of the best things I can do as an author is to allow room for the illustrator. The best picture books are the ones where the text and illustrations join together to create something so much greater than the sum of the individual parts.

"Once a publisher accepts my manuscript, they choose an illustrator they believe is a good match for my text. Most of the time authors don't have input to this process. It can be hard to let your precious manuscript go, but I firmly believe that the publisher wants nothing more than to see the book become a roaring success. They choose a certain illustrator for good reason.

"My experience with this process has certainly been a positive one. The illustrations for Samuel's Kisses [by Serena Geddes] are better than I could ever have imagined."

What do you think it is that makes our most beloved picture books stand the test of generations?
KC: "For me, timeless picture books are those that reflect our inner experiences and emotions. The classic that springs to mind is Where The Wild Things Are [by Maurice Sendak]. I think that it is still such a loved book because every child has felt overwhelming, powerful anger and wished they could be far away from their family.

"A modern picture book that I think will have longevity is The Princess and Her Panther by Wendy Orr and Lauren Stringer. All children are frightened by something and this book explores fear in a safe, poetic and beautiful way.

"I also think that some picture books stand the test of time due to their beautiful language. Some books are just divine to read aloud again and again, like Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson."

What was your favourite book as a child?
KC: "I read a lot as a child, but funnily enough I don't have a memory of any one particular picture book. My dad used to read us bedtime stories every night and I have wonderful memories of warmth and togetherness, even though I don't have a specific title that stands out for me. I did, however, love the Berenstain Bears books and learned to read independently with The Bike Lesson."

And I ask you the same question - what was your favourite book as a child? 


  1. 'I believe picture books are the pinnacle of skill, talent and creativity (then again, I'm probably biased!).'

    I really believe this too and I don't write them (though my mum does, so I might also be biased!). Just think about it -- I get 90,000 words to tell a story in and you get 500. That means each of your words has to be 180 times as important as one of mine (gee, I hope that's right -- my maths is really quite bad...).

    Oh, and my favourite book was Ping. I was obsessed with the bit where he gets a smack on the bottom.

  2. I loved Ping too!

    I don't think I could pick a favourite, I loved so many and still read some of the best ones.
    The Faraway Tree books were high on the list though.

  3. I have just bought the book about Ping..just because I loved it as a child. I also loved The Cat in the Hat and all Dr Seuss books and Noddy when really little. Then I moved on to Milly Molly Mandy, Heidi and What Katy Did. I loved all the boarding school girl type books and animal stories too. I really enjoyed rediscovering them all when I had kids later on.

  4. The first picture book I can remember being given is "Too Much Noise" by Ann McGovern ... still available on Amazon 35 years on. I've pulled it out to read to both my children & the kids in my class. They love the repetition & the onomatopoeia. As a parent & teacher I love so many books & the masters are Mem Fox, Pamela Allen & Julia Donaldson. I'll have to pull my draft children's book out & review with fresh eyes. It's been a year or so ...

  5. Great interview. I'm always astounded at how busy and organised you are on twitter, Karen. Puts me to shame!

    As a young child I liked things like My Naughty Little Sister and The Family from One End Street. I have two close friends who are successful children's book authors/illustrators and I'm in awe at just how much work goes into them. Lots of people think they can do it, but I think it takes something really special.

    Thanks for the look into your life.

  6. Always so interesting in the Fibro.
    This comes very firmly into my "When I grow up I wanna be a ..." So very tricky when every word has to earn it's place.
    I don't remember a favourite as a kid. But now, my absolute favourite is Possum Magic. Who wouldn't want bespectacled, bike-riding Grandma Poss as their grandma?

  7. Hmm... I loved to read and had a host of odd books that I devoured. I remember Play School had a hard cover brown book that I loved looking at. It's the first book I remember reading all the time.

    As I grew it was always Road Dahl. x

  8. Dr Suess - hands down. "Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You".

    I loved The Very Hungry Caterpillar too. Mostly because I like food.

    This, to me, is the pinacle - writing a children's book. I've started one, it's for older children though. It's called Ants on Horses - look out for it in about 14 years.

  9. Great post! Am fascinated by the process of writing/illustrating children's books. Takes tremendous skill. Congratulations Karen!
    I think I'm being patient if I can rest a manuscript for two months but 12! Now that's patience!
    My favourites as a child were Dr Suess and Enid Blyton, in particular The Magic Faraway series...ah the memories.

  10. A timely interview for me, Al. I've been considering knocking out those brocolli books again. Thanks for pulling me up short!

    My fave book as a child (not a little one, a big one) was The Adventures of Mr Pink-Whistle. In fact, I think it is still my all time fave book to this day!!! x

  11. Great interview,

    For me the faraway tree books were also a favorite.

    Although not a picture book, Charlottes Web.

  12. The wishing chair and the folk of the faraway tree books were also a favorite.
    Anything Enid Blyton was devoured.
    I've read a few reviews of Samuel's kisses now , it sounds very special ...I'll have to buy it for my Samuel.

  13. Karen, thank you so much for this look in to your world. I read recently that a children's book can take two years thru the publishing process!

    My fave book as a kid was The Digging-est Dog. I bought it for a friend's son, and I still have my own copy from my childhood that I read to my boys. :)

  14. Some of my favorite books are the ones where the words and the illustrations work together to "create something so much greater." All of Margaret Wise Brown's books come to mind. And Bear Snores On is a favorite here, too.

  15. As someone in the midst of creating not one, but two children's books, this was a nice, timely read.
    As a child, I loved Enid Blyton, from her Faraway Tree to the Famous Five to Mallory Towers.
    I loved The Loaded Dog, Snugglepot & Cuddlepie & Blinky Bill, as well as The Magic Pudding and The Wind in the Willows.
    I'm a teacher, and last year I spent a lot of time in the library. What fun it was to read beautiful picture books to children - from preschoolers right up to year sixes, who would beg me to 'read another one'.

  16. Most definitely a major talent - held up high alongside people who write songs in my book. How do they get them to rhyme so easily ansd still make sense??!

  17. I still have ideas. I still have dreams. I even have a 'how to' book. And yet those darn books are not even started... I must get onto that (although the 180x importance of each word has me shaking in my boots!)

  18. Great interview!

    I have SO many favourite kids' books - old and new. Way too many to even start listing!


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