It’s a well-known fact that we authors spend a lot of time alone, dreaming up and crafting our stories, discarding some and holding on to a golden few. If the idea takes off, we then spend many more hours, days – and often weeks or months – drafting, rewriting, testing, editing and polishing before finally having the courage to put the story out into the big wide world.
It’s a long (long) process – no matter how short the book. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that writing children’s books is the easy option!
The above holds true for middle grade novels (aimed at ages 8-12), for early reader chapter books – and for picture books whose word count is typically around 500 but might range from zero to 1,000. (Less is best. Less is harder! And it goes without saying that the illustrations are crucial.)
The rhyming game
Trying to squeeze a satisfying and entertaining tale into a picture book’s 26 or 28 pages (this is what’s left after the title and copyright pages etc are used up) is hard enough at the best of times as we toil away on our own. Add in rhyme and you’re into a whole new layer of complexity. Getting the story and the rhyme and the rhythm to cooperate along with the illustrations over a limited page count is one huge challenge!
‘Why on earth would anyone want to write in rhyme?’ you might ask yourself. I’d agree with you there. Except that’s how it came out when I began composing my Ferdinand Fox stories after seeing a beautiful fox trot past me in the mist one November evening. I simply couldn’t express the story in any other way!
Happily, rhyme, it seems, is still what little children love best – or most consistently at least.
Speaking as a parent, I also know that the rhyming stories I shared with my children, such as Hairy MaClary from Donaldson’s Dairy and the others from Lynley Dodd’s wonderful series were firm favourites for me and my husband!
Kids know best
Another well-known fact is that children are the most discerning and honest audience out there – and generally the younger, the more discerning! If they don’t like your story they will let you (or their parents or teachers) know in no uncertain terms 🙂
This brings me on to the flip side of all of those hours spent alone getting things just right – namely the rewards for authors of getting out and sharing our stories with young readers at school visits and other live events.
With my rhyming picture books I often see Reception year children as part of a wider primary school visit with my other titles. However, just as rewarding – and with an extra special place in my heart – are my visits to nursery schools, where I have the opportunity to introduce the magic of books and stories to such young, receptive, (and brutally honest!) minds.
The pictures above and below from my recent visit to Barnes Montessori, a stone’s throw from where I live, offer a glimpse of how meeting my readers brings such joy both to me as an author and to the children. These three to five year-olds were hooked from the get-go and highly engaged for each of the 30-40 minute sessions I offered. That’s quite a tall order from children of that age – especially the three-year-olds!
Keeping picture book listeners engaged
I always warm things up with a rhyming game and by asking children about foxes they may have seen. This sets the scene well for what’s to follow and ensures they feel relaxed and invested from the outset.
Whether as an author or parent/carer the key, of course, to engaging children with books and reading is the enthusiasm you show yourself – it’s infectious and little ones quickly pick up on it. It’s reflected not just in the energy and variety you bring to delivering the story, but also in using opportunities to involve the children with the characters and storyline as you go.
Have you seen a fox in your garden? Where did you see one? What did it look like? Was it a beautiful fox or did it look sad and hungry? What might you call your fox? How do you think Ferdinand feels in this picture? How does baby Ed feel here? Do you think he’s scared? Have you ever seen a hedgehog? Did you touch it? How did it feel? What colour is the mouse in this picture?
In Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep, as Ferdinand sleeps (and snores) through the story we are introduced through his dream bubbles to his favourite food. This provides ample opportunity to talk with the children about their favourite food – as well as hear whose mum or dad snores! There’s also a clock that chimes from one to five as the hours pass. As the story moves forward I pause at the clock chimes and count the numbers with the children. Needless to say they get lots of praise for their counting skills!
In Ferdinand Fox and the Hedgehog there’s a section at the end dedicated to fun facts about foxes and hedgehogs, such as where they live, how long they live and what they eat. We always have great fun discussing whether the children would like spiders for breakfast, caterpillar sandwiches for lunch, or worms on toast for supper! This part of the book also shows how we can all help hedgehogs find food by cutting holes in the bottom of garden fences, and help them hibernate by building up safe areas in our gardens.
As time has gone on I’ve added videos to my sessions. One is of a fox that fell asleep in an author friend’s garden and looks remarkably like Ferdinand Fox. The children all ‘ooh’ and gasp when he finally starts to wake up!
The other is a video of a hedgehog running down the side of my family home in Hertfordshire – captured by chance by my brother. As with the fox video, it has the children entranced and goes just one step further to enhancing their experience of sharing stories and books.
The pictures here mean a lot to me and encapsulate the double sided joy of being writer. From sitting alone in a quiet world where stories tumble, mature and develop as they try to get out – to seeing the delight on children’s faces as they lap up your characters and the journey you have taken them on.
Writing children’s books is a journey I wouldn’t give up for the world!
Rhyming or no rhyming 🙂
With thanks to Barnes Montessori for inviting me and for taking these lovely photos.
If you think your child’s school would like a visit, please do get in touch via my school visits page (opens in new tab).
- You can buy Ferdinand Fox and the Hedgehog on Amazon here or order from your local bookshop
- You can buy Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep on Amazon here or order from you local bookshop