The art of children’s literature
What makes a picture book a classic?
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Writers of picture books for children know that some people think what they do is easy. When Penguin Books Australia invited submissions of picture book manuscripts recently, it was swamped with more than a thousand in just two weeks. Perhaps rookies like Madonna are to blame, or perhaps, at a few hundred words, such books look too slight to need much effort. What parent of a small child, faced with another tale of a baby animal or boggle-eyed alien, hasn’t silently reckoned, Surely I could do better? Chances are they couldn’t. Lynley Dodd, who has written and illustrated numerous beloved picture books, says people are taken aback to hear that each one still takes a year to complete: “There’s a lot of sweat in making it sound like it was written at the toss of a hat.” Mem Fox rewrote the opening paragraph of Possum Magic, Australia’s most popular picture book, 23 times. Even for someone with her gifts, crafting a picture book is “like writing War and Peace in haiku”.
It’s not just that people think they could write one, it’s that they really want to. Anyone who has ever loved a picture book knows how much they matter. They make sense of the world, even as they rearrange it with flying beds and tigers at the dinner table. They feed a child’s imagination. They delight and scare and comfort. They create readers. And some, because of the worlds they bring into being, or by an alchemy of voice and story, lodge in a child’s memory so deeply that they never really leave.
Dodd sees that often – when she reads one of her books in public, the grown-ups in the audience often recite the text along with her. It’s been more than 30 years since the New Zealander first sketched Hairy Maclary, the small dog with riotous black fur who cheerfully creates havoc with his friends. Her verse still demands to be chanted:
Hairy Maclary felt bumptious and bustly,
bossy and bouncy and frisky and hustly.
He wanted to run. He wanted to race.
But the MAIN thing he wanted was something to
An only child growing up in fairytale-like isolation in a hamlet deep in the pine plantation where her father worked, Dodd learnt to play with language thanks to the nonsensical word games she and her father, who called her Arabella Slapcabbage, constantly made up. She read over and over the books in her one-room school, and still remembers the sharp thrill of learning from one what a leveret was. She treats children the same – as being curious and clever enough to want to know what “foozle”, “bumptious” and “cacophony” mean. When one reviewer criticised her use of “bellicose” as too advanced, she was incredulous. “What about a dictionary?” she says. Her verbs scarper, hurtle and skedaddle across the page, and when the right word doesn’t exist, she invents it. “It’s a diabolical liberty,” she laughs. “But I do feel a terrible responsibility writing books, given how much they meant to me.”
Now 72, Dame Lynley has written 20 books about Hairy and his friends; the most recent, Slinky Malinki, Early Bird, was published last year. She says her method has never changed: entertain children with mischief, stimulate them with lively words and illustrations, and then bring them home, usually to a dog’s warm basket. She writes to create “something that’s beautiful and rhythmic, that’s singable. If you can do that, children will love it.”
Theodor Geisel, who wrote and illustrated dozens of books as Dr Seuss, recognised that truth earlier than most. The American transformed the genre in the 1950s and ’60s with his madcap drawings and clever rhymes. Dodd describes Geisel as a “revelation” in the post-war era of earnest, moralising children’s stories, and it’s impossible to imagine children’s literature without him: as soon as my child’s class were allowed to bring their own readers, the room was filled with his books. When Geisel presented Dodd with an award in 1975, “we sat on the sofa together talking about what sort of pencils we used, and he told me he couldn’t draw elbows and knees. He was impish.” Like Dodd, he not only understood children’s appetite for the ridiculous but shared it:
I’ll load up five boats with a family of Joats
Whose feet are like cows’, but wear squirrel-skin coats
And sit down like dogs, but have voices like goats –
Excepting they can’t sing the very high notes.
If rhythm is one way into a child’s heart, telling a great yarn is another. “A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story,” declared CS Lewis. “The good ones last.” Mem Fox’s Possum Magic was rejected nine times before being published in 1983. Her poetic story of two possums’ quest to undo bush magic, while sailing in an upturned umbrella and eating lamingtons after bedtime, has gone on to sell more than five million copies. Children are a tough crowd to please but they’re doggedly loyal to tales that captivate them, like John Vernon Lord’s The Giant Jam Sandwich (1972), in which the town of Itching Down must rid itself of four million wasps, Julia Donaldson’s all-conquering The Gruffalo (1999), celebrated in movies and stage shows, or Judith Kerr’s Mog the Forgetful Cat (1970), the story of a scatterbrained tabby (“Bother that cat!”) who foils a burglar (and went on to star in another 16 books).
Since Possum Magic, Mem Fox has written more than 40 children’s books, including Where Is the Green Sheep? (2004), owned by every young family I know. She now reads to her three-year-old grandson and sees “not a whisker of change” between what he wants from a book and what her daughter enjoyed as a child. Those he asks for again and again have “a warmth”, she says. “The words don’t drop dead off the page. They come into his little mind to enliven him somehow. If there is no emotional temperature change between the beginning and the end, then I don’t know why the author has even bothered to write it. The heart has to be moved in some way, whether it’s through humour or fright, or even discomfort at some point.”
The kernel of a great picture book must be joy, of which comedy is only one flavour, and few books have fed children’s love of fear better than Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are. Published in 1963, it still towers over children’s literature with its whimsical darkness and atmospheric illustrations. That naughty Max, sent to bed without any dinner, can tame the nightmarish Wild Things with just a stare is every child’s triumph, as is his return home to a warm meal. Unlike savage older tales, such as Der Struwwelpeter with its frightful tailor who cut off the thumbs of children who wouldn’t stop sucking them, today’s picture books hint at the darkness of the world gently. But fear, enjoyed from the safety of an adult’s lap, still enthrals.
Long before they can decipher words, children learn to read the messages of pictures, their details and moods – on the pages where Max and his monsters romp among the trees, there are no words at all. For writer-illustrators like Sendak and Lynley Dodd, the dialogue between words and image, and the way in which a good story seesaws between them, is theirs to control. For others, the dance has to be a duet that, when cleverly done, feels seamless: see, for example, Cave Baby (2010), by the heavyweight team of author Julia Donaldson and illustrator Emily Gravett. The dishevelled glee of a Quentin Blake drawing, the intricacy of Graeme Base, the tender humanity of Bob Graham – even when they are not being read aloud, books can offer rich worlds to examine. Some, like Mies van Hout’s Happy (2012), with its brilliantly vivid aquatic menagerie, barely need words at all.
When New Zealander Pamela Allen moved to Sydney in 1978, and decided to write and illustrate a children’s book, she began her new career by working out what not to do. “It seemed to me that bad writing was full of words and not much context.” On a picture book’s small stage, she knew, every word must earn its place. Allen, who later returned to New Zealand, has since written 42 books, won many awards and, at 79, has just released Fat Ferdie, featuring a fanged, porcupine-like monster who discovers he prefers eating pears to children. Allen’s picture books are of the sort that keep going long after their final page, prompting questions and mimicry, and becoming part of family folklore. What child hasn’t practised their own silly faces after having been read Ruth Park’s When the Wind Changed (1981), with her daughter Deborah Niland’s fantastically grotesque illustrations? Or not made their own potions of mud and gumnuts after discovering Marcia K Vaughan and Pamela Lofts’ Wombat Stew (1986)?
Bookshop shelves don’t only contain such gems. There are too many books with thin plots, stories fluffed up with cute typography, and aimless narratives that ignore a child’s hunger for a satisfactory ending. They are the books parents “lose” down the side of the bed, or quietly slip to op shops. (“They should go in the recycling bin!” exclaims Mem Fox.) One of Australia’s inaugural Children’s Laureates, author and illustrator Alison Lester, decries “excruciating” attempts by “people who let rhyme drive the story – who write about going up a hill just because that rhymes with Bill”. Mem Fox urges writers not to do it. “The Julia Donaldsons and Lynley Dodds of this world,” she says, “are very, very rare.” Laboured takes on overdone themes – stories about, say, dinosaurs or underwear, even dinosaurs who wear underwear – or authors who deaden their tales with heavy-handed preaching make readers, big and small, sigh. Though the best picture books teach children something along the way, the trick is to do so when they are having too much fun to notice.
A great deal of that fun comes from the art of reading aloud. Tepid readers can deflate the most beautifully written tale; a good reader, lost in a story with their child, can make the blandest come alive. Pamela Allen insists that, above all else, a picture book must be written to be heard. “It’s got to be theatre and the adult reading it needs to embrace that,” she says. “Even if a small child doesn’t comprehend the language of a book, they will understand the theatre.” When I mention that her book The Pear in the Pear Tree (2000) is a family favourite, she’s surprised – it’s not one of her most successful. But it fits her theory that each family, in the ritual of reading together, makes their own classics. “My books are nothing while they’re sitting on the bookshelf – they only come alive when they’re being read,” she says. “You read it differently from the man next door; you have different little games about it from the man next door. And that little happening becomes yours.”
Of the thousand manuscripts Penguin received earlier this year, only a few will ever be published. Maybe one of those will settle in the memory of a child and take root. Not long ago my parents found several of my childhood books stored away. Worn and long out of print, their stories of cave-dwelling griffins and dancing giants are still inseparable from memories of being small and lit with wonder. I read them to my own children now, and they always ask to hear them again.