If you could re-live your fifth birthday, what would be top of your present list? I may be wrong, but it probably wouldn’t be a book about democracy. This is my problem, in a nutshell. I have recently been commissioned to write a series of picture books for a children’s publisher, who wants stories for small children on some of the most worthy (and therefore potentially tedious) themes you would care to name — including democracy, civic pride, law, tolerance and respect. So how can I turn my stories into the kind of present you’d want to rip open as a five-year-old?
My new project is hardly the best springboard for the imagination — in fact, my creativity has been threatening a massive belly flop since I signed the contract. But I am a stubborn individual, and like to take on a challenge. This is certainly an awesome one. How can I enthuse the average school starter with a passion for the rule of law, or an insatiable curiosity for the inner workings of democracy? Even harder — how can I wrap those abstract concepts up in a story, without the little blighters noticing, and rejecting them like the unpalatable greens on their plates? If my own three picky children were anything to go by at that tender age, this commission is not going to be remotely easy.
Countless writers have spent their lives teasing out the beautiful from the ordinary, so I try to console myself with that thought. I am in fine company… but this is not a poetic project. Or is it? As I start to look at my subject matter, I begin to wonder about that. I am going to have to find a ‘poetic’ way of approaching these turgid themes — I will have to find a kernel of interest in the mundane that can take root in my imagination and grow into something exciting. So I take a deep breath and launch myself on my first topic: Democracy. Yawn.
I stare at my blank page for a while, then fetch the dog. Time for a walk, I think — it usually does the trick. For some reason, everything and everyone I meet is the biggest distraction. I stop to talk to everyone in the park; it seems that I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts. Perhaps my failure to engage with the whole idea of democracy is some kind of delayed reaction to Brexit … But I force myself to concentrate on the matter in hand. I need to come up with a starting point for my story. As soon as I try to do this, the walk becomes a lot less relaxing.
My dog Hattie is never one to come when she’s called so it is no surprise that I have to work quite hard to get her back on the lead. It doesn’t help that someone else is calling out a rhyming name somewhere nearby in the park — ‘Matty’, it sounds like. It’s funny how that name just wouldn’t suit my small, crazy cockapoo. One consonant makes all the difference. Then the idea comes to me, just when I’ve stopped looking for it. Pet names. School pets. This is something I can work with — it is simple, rooted in a child’s everyday experience, but with potential for complications that will need to be resolved. I remember when my daughter’s Year 3 class got a pet hamster and voted to call it Nigel (an inspired choice.) There has got to be some picture book mileage in this.
Once the seed of an idea is sown, it begins to grow. With poetry, form is only a constraint for the bad poet. Working within the apparent limitations of meter, rhythm or rhyme can and should be a creative inspiration, even a liberation. The same is true for the writer of a picture book; there are strict limitations of word count and language level — and for my project, there is also a requirement to include some subject specific vocabulary. But these very limitations sharpen the mind and trigger the imagination. As I start to plan and write, it feels to me like my story is out there, just beyond reach. My task is to work towards finding its perfect expression.
So my first story begins to take shape. I can see that my first, stumbling drafts are far from adequate. I draft, then re-draft. Then re-draft. I feel like a sculptor chipping away at a block of marble. With every new draft, with every single word change, I get a little closer to the story I want to write. For small children, rhythm and repetition are important — I try to work these elements into my writing in a natural and non-intrusive way. The story needs to be simple, yet challenging, so I play around with the language to find the right balance between attention-grabbing style and thought-provoking content. I pare the words back, aiming for a simplicity that will speak volumes. Ice skating comes to mind; if a figure skater makes a routine look difficult, they will not win the competition. The same has to be true for a successful picture book text. You may have gone through blood, sweat and tears to write your story, but the end product must read as if it was no trouble at all to write.
As I hone my drafts, I am picturing what I write, playing with the tension that needs to exist in a picture book between illustrations and text. Some things need to be said with words, others can be implied or shown with pictures. The artwork brief is an integral part of the writing process, and grows organically alongside the text. I have not yet met my illustrator, but my editor has sent me her wonderful portfolio. I love what I see, and know we will be able to work well together. She will have ideas that are sparked by my brief — she may want to discuss and change some of that brief.
But just like a sculptor, I have to know when it is time to stop working. When does useful pruning become hapless tinkering? One chip of the scalpel too many, and I will hack the nose off my masterpiece and have to start the whole thing again. Fortunately, the time comes when I sense I must part company with my story. It may well not be finished, but I have finished with it. The French poet and essayist Valery famously said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. This is similar to the way I now feel. That is not to say that my picture book story bears any resemblance to a poem. Be honest, when did you last read a poem that dealt with the democratic naming of a hamster? But do I know that my story can now stand on its own two feet, without any more help from me. And – hopefully – I have found some delight in the dullest of places.