Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What Does a Board Book Do?

But Not the HippopotamusOver the past few years, my extended family has grown to include the next generation of littlies - my grand-niece and -nephew and two step-granddaughters. Naturally, I always want to buy them books! But when they're under two, what do you buy? Board books, usually. Those ones made out of thick, sturdy cardboard pages that can be chewed, dribbled on and thrown around the room. Not to mention read about 200 times. I don't think my niece has ever forgiven me for Moo Baa La La La (by Sandra Boynton). She said she could hear it in her head!

But what makes a good board book? Not just indestructability. I've stood in front of the board book section in bookshops for hours, pulling out one after another and despairing at how banal they are. Maybe I'm expecting too much, but maybe also some publishers are starting to realise they can do more than just present an array of farmyard animals or dogs or numbers. It's why I love Sandra Boynton's board books, and why I have my own copy (not for lending) of But Not the Hippopotamus. It does everything a good picture book does, include a surprise funny ending. That's my kind of board book!

Lulu's LunchRecently I was sent a board book for review*, and it did have a lot of the features that make it worth reading. Lulu's Lunch is written by Camilla Reid and illustrated by Ailie Busby, which is interesting as I'd say 98% of board books are written by the illustrator. The story is very simple - what Lulu has for lunch - but the extra in this book is the stuff you can touch. I emailed my niece to ask her, "Did your kids like board books that had things to touch on them?" Her answer was yes, so I guess that adds extra points. I wasn't so sure about the spaghetti at the end (wriggly string). I gave it a couple of good tugs but it might not last the distance with a strong toddler. There are also some lift-the-flap pages to add interaction.

It's not a fabulous board book but it is interesting and provides a fair amount of interaction - that's got to be better than more TV, surely?
I suspect there's a real skill to writing board books. They could be harder even than picture books, and as I can't illustrate, it means that most publishers wouldn't be interested in anything I wrote. Have any of you had a board book published? What was your experience?
If you'd like to go in the draw for a copy of Lulu's Lunch, just leave a comment!
(*By Bloomsbury)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Different Jobs, Different Skills

Recently I found myself in a completely new situation - a hospital, to be exact. Among other things, being confined in one place with not much to do and nowhere to go forces you into a lot of quiet thinking time (when people are not poking holes in your arms or machines aren't beeping!). And also quiet observation time. You get to see and hear stories from people that you mightn't otherwise come across, let alone have time to really listen to. And you get to see people hard at work in an entirely different profession.

A remark by my doctor stuck with me for a long time. He said, "In here, everyone has to do things by the book. Whoever comes along after needs to know exactly what came before." He was referring to records kept of medications and treatments, of course. But it started me thinking about how different our jobs are. In the hospital, it's vital that everyone does things exactly the same way. In the writing world, it's the kiss of death. Editors are after something original, the fresh, different new voice. If we all wrote the same way, we'd end up with a pretty boring bunch of books out there.

But the other side is also true. In medicine, sometimes it's a sudden insight or inspiration (maybe even waking up in the middle of the night) that can shed light on what seemed unsolvable. In medical research, no doubt it can be the same. For all the plodding through experiments, a flash of inspiration can provide the breakthrough. And in writing, for all we want to create something original and different, we still have to be proficient at the rules of grammar (so readers can understand us clearly), and we still have to be professional in how we submit and present our work. That way, we are taken seriously.

The key is to know when the rules are helping, and when they are hindering. Free writing with no punctuation or grammar can break through a writing block. Flowery paper and scrolly writing in a submission letter will make you look like an amateur. A deadline can be overwhelming for one writer and stimulating for another. I know with historical fiction that the line between providing a rich background and being over the top with my factual material is a thin one indeed! What rules help you? Which ones hinder you?