Pitchforking Picture Books
By now we all know that Meghan Markle has published a picture book. `The Bench' comes with the following blurb on Amazon : "beautifully captures the special relationship between father and son, as seen through a mother's eyes. The book's storytelling and illustration give us snapshots of shared moments that evoke a deep sense of warmth, connection, and compassion." I haven't read it and those who have, seem to have widely differing views on its merits as revealed in official reviews. 87% of lay reviewers on Amazon have given it 5 stars, so I guess there must be something to like. But that's not really why I am mentioning it. I am mentioning it because I am irked. And I should imagine there are several thousands of other irked writers out there. Writers who have studied picture books, slaved over the crafting of those miniscule 200 to 600 words and sent their efforts out into the ether, waiting for months and months to hear that `it's not quite right for us'.
I am irked because I don't believe this happened to Ms Markle. Or the other celebrity writers before her - anyone remember Madonna's attempt? Sour grapes? Perhaps. But she is referenced as Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex on the cover of her book.
Simply put, Meghan had a leg-up. Bypassed all the gate-keepers and checks and endless waiting. Voila! A children's picture book! In no time at all! How clever.
Anyone who has had a go at writing a picture book knows that there is nothing easy about it. It is a fickle, tricky market confined to very few words, which (this may come as a surprise) many picture book publishers say should avoiding rhyming. In these days of upheaval and wonder, quaint stories involving teddy bears are unlikely to cut the mustard. Publishers are looking for picture books that represent the under-represented, while teaching children about their world in a way that is amusing to both the children and the adult readers.
I know. Because I've tried. For a very long time.
Part of the reason why a picture book is called a picture book is that the words are only half of the product. A script for a picture book has to work really hard without those pictures.
I recently read the script for one of my (waiting for a publisher to respond) picture books to a group of children in a school in Japan, via Zoom, of course. I was given the unexpected opportunity when a teaching friend contacted me to be a `mystery author'.
Feeling brave, and confident in the merits of my picture-less story, I duly read my 600 words and the children were very polite. But it wasn't quite the magic I had hoped for. Perhaps it was the missing pictures, or perhaps the story didn't quite have what was needed. That magical ingredient balanced somewhere between informing and entertaining, of making the words work when the listeners don't always know what they mean. That `something'.
And so I am irked. That I don't have a magic wand to make my book come alive and appear on the Sunday Times bestseller list... that my years of `back to the drawing board' are, erm, back to the drawing board. Yes. Irked.
Hey-ho. Back on the horse...
My youngest daughter rustled up some images to go with my story. It is the story of Impi, our border terrier, who ate the second daughter's pocket money. It starts like this:
It was HOURS until dinner time and Impi was hungry.
His tummy was a bit rumbly and his teeth needed something to do.
(He clearly had time on his hands because he wasn't slaving away at a picture book!)