The Extraordinary Power of Picture Books
I write a lot of different things. Novels, poems, short stories… But the hardest of all are picture books.
A picture book text is like writing a poem — every word must multitask, every phrase must sing aloud not just on the page — but unlike a poem, a picture book text must have a dramatic forward momentum. It can’t just capture a moment, or a feeling; not even several moments or several feelings. Just like a novel, everything you say must ultimately serve the story.
And there is another factor when I write picture books, which is that I don’t do the pictures. So I can’t make the subtle marriage of word and image as I go along. What I must do is allow some space for the illustrator to work on their vision of the narrative, and not be bound too tightly with mine.
Picture book texts happen in one of two ways: a long painful labour, lots of agonising contractions with not a great deal happening; or a sudden rush, like the onset of a fever, and a text completed in hours, arriving like a changeling.
You’ve probably realised that I love picture books most, of all I do. They are not valued seriously by UK culture, but I don’t care really, because I know what an extraordinary and powerful art form they are. A picture book can say anything, carry any message no matter how complex or how hard. The only limitation is the imagination of those who create it and the preconceptions of those who publish it. And once you have put your message in a picture book, anyone can understand it, and share it and hold it forever.
I know its very often said that writers shouldn’t have an agenda. They shouldn’t have a message. Maybe that’s right, but I have to admit that I do have a very definite and passionately held ‘agenda’. I want things for my picture book readers.
First I want to make them curious; certainly curious enough to read the next page, but hopefully curious enough to ask questions when they get to the end of the book. If what I’ve written is non-fiction, then I want my narrative to have delivered just enough information to get them wanting more. I want them to discover for themselves the joy of piecing the world together like a jigsaw, and the deep, visceral pleasure when you fit another little piece into the mosaic.
Next I want them to think about life, about their life and about what they might do with it.
And last, but of course not least, I want them to feel less alone. I was a lonely child and remember very clearly what that was like and I meet a lot of kids who are lonely in many ways; either they don’t fit in their school or family, or they are lonely through the bad behaviour of the adults around them. Those are the kids who I most want to reach out to, to say you won’t always be a child, small and powerless, your life is stored up inside you, ready for you to do whatever you want with it.
So although I adore the playfulness of picture books, my stories are often not playful but quite serious. In the last couple of years I’ve written picture books about microbiology (Tiny) and biodiversity (Lots), about the birth of a disabled child (Perfect), about a migrant family coming to Wales (King of the Sky) and most recently about a family bereavement (The Pond) and an unaccompanied child refugee (The Day War Came). It’s not that I don’t want to write about fluffy bunnies, its just that those stories are not the ones that come into my head and my heart (although Laura Carlin and I recently decided that the next book we do together has to be about something really silly.)
The fabulous thing is that my non-fluffy stories seem to really touch hearts. I’ve been astounded and humbled by the responses I’ve had from children and adults over the years, and that’s what keeps me doing what I do. I’ll share a couple with you, not out of self aggrandisement but just to show that picture books work in mysterious ways on almost everybody.
The first is from a school in America with a tough intake. The last kid to come into my session last came with four minders, and chose to crawl, not walk. At the end I read The Promise, a story about a child with no one and nothing. As I finished reading, the crawling boy leant gently against my legs and told me “that story is about me”.
The second is from a conference in Swansea where I read King of the Sky about the Italian diaspora in South Wales. A young man came up to me afterwards and said, “I’ve spent all my life trying to get away from the South Wales valley where I was born, and you’ve just shown me it’s my best material.”
A picture book is intimate, almost more than any other kind of artwork apart from music. It inserts itself directly into the very being of the reader, and in that moment ceases to be my work and becomes theirs.