Thursday, October 27, 2011

Keith Robinson on Childrens Books

Keith Robinson recently gave a talk at a literature event, on a subject he knows much about; creating childrens books and the challenge of telling a story in 500 words/32 pages. And on how pictures have to do more than just repeat the text, but to compliment it and add meaning. Following is an extract from his talk:

Because picture books are for children, there’s a temptation to think of them as simple and therefore easy to do. But telling a good story in about 12 spreads and 500 words is a challenging business. A picture book is really a long story told short and as such it’s not simple, but it does need to be economical.

Economy of storytelling is achieved by the interplay of words and pictures. There are three crucial elements to a picture book: The text, the illustrations and crucially the connection between the two. It is this relationship that conveys much of the meaning and it’s important to understand that the words and pictures should compliment each other, presenting different narrative elements, not simply repeating each other’s content.

For example, you don’t need to write ‘It was raining so Mary put on her wellies and raincoat.’ All of that can be shown in a picture. But if underneath that picture you write, ‘Mary was excited’  then in three words you’ve conveyed a great deal about Mary’s attitude to the rain and by implication, what kind of little girly she is: adventurous, outdoorsy, not afraid of a bit of rain. Neither the words nor the pictures alone would have told you this.

But visual storytelling needn’t be limited to filling in the narrative gaps left by the text. Pictures can work in more sophisticated ways as well. There may be a subtext, conveyed entirely visually. An illustration can give the reader a different point of view from the character and can tell us something that the character doesn’t know.

For example, in Simon Bartram’s ‘Man on the Moon’ there’s a running joke that Bob (the Man on the Moon), doesn’t believe in aliens, but we can see them hidden in every picture.

The other special quality of picture books is that they’re made up of sequential images. As one picture follows the next, each page-turn becomes a ‘reveal’ – a moment of expectation or dramatic tension.

In my story, ‘Penny and the Pirates’ the buried treasure doesn’t quite turn out as expected. Here’s the spread where the treasure is discovered.

And here’s the page-turn.

HergĂ© said that once he worked out a Tintin story, the hardest part was arranging the panels so that each page ended with a cliffhanger. There’s a great video of HergĂ© explaining his process here.

The illustrations also effect the pace and rhythm of the story. This can be done by varying the size, colour palette and composition of the images, both in relationship to each other and in the context of the book as a whole. An exciting action scene might use full-bleed illustrations, with bold composition and bright colours. Quieter moments might require a more muted palette and white space around the pictures.  

Maurice Sendak’s classic ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ uses visual pacing to great effect. The book can be read on one level as the story of a little boy having a tantrum. Max’s journey to the land of the Wild Things and his ‘Wild Rumpus’ with them, can be seen as a metaphor for his growing rage. The size of the images reinforces this. They begin fairly small on one page and get bigger on each subsequent page, first filling a single spread, then growing across the double spread, until we reach the Wild Rumpus at the centre of the book, where the words have disappeared entirely and the rumpus is played out across three double page spreads, full of visual energy.

There are many ways to play with words and pictures. Here are a few more examples from my ‘Penny the Postie’ books.

The text can be part of the image. In this example, turning the text into a sound effect was more economical than describing what happened when the dragon burped.
Speech bubbles are a great way of giving a character a unique voice. Here, the hand-drawn script becomes visual shorthand for a pirate accent.

Comic strip panels can show time passing or compress a sequence of actions.

Here the reader has to turn the book through ninety degrees, which coupled with the sequential illustration, emphasises the fall.

Children’s books are often about simple things but that does not mean that they are simple. Reading sequential images and understanding the relationship between words and pictures is a complex skill that children acquire before they can read for themselves. The challenge of making a picture book is to unlock the special magic that happens when text and image work together.

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