The Making of a Picture Book Part Five: Synergy

This is the last in this week’s blog series on how to write a picture book. Whether you are a published picture book author, an aspiring picture book author or a simply-curious, I hope that you have found one or two morsels of useful advice over the course of this series. I am no picture book expert – four written and only two of those accepted for publication – but I am passionate about the subject and eager to learn more. A good picture book is an object of beauty, a carousel of colour, a smorgasbord of delights and an excellent birthday present for a hard-to-buy-for niece.

Elmer the Elephant by David McKee

If you are still catching up, here are links to the previous articles: The Making of a Picture Book Part One: Plot, Part Two: Character, Part Three: Language and Part Four: Illustration. And today in Part Five we will be celebrating Synergy.

Synergy. Hmm. Don’t worry, I’m not going to assault you with strategic staircases, idea cascades, low-hanging fruit or similar management-speak monstrosities, but I do think that synergy is a meaningful word for describing the development of a picture book. Synergy is when the combined creative energies of several people enable a whole to be more than the sum of its parts.

In Wednesday’s post I made the idiotic assertion that that the success of WE’RE GOING ON A BEARHUNT was ‘all thanks to Michael Rosen’. No one picked me up on it, you’re all far too kind, but the statement was untrue. The original conception of the book may have been down to him, but the success of the book was due also to the fantastic illustrator Helen Oxenbury and to many other people, foremost of which would have been the Australia-born editor of the book Wendy Boase. Wendy was co-founder of Walker Books and remained editorial director until her death in 1999. She is a legend in her own right and is the Boase in the prestigious Branford-Boase award. This prize, which goes to a debut author and his/her editor, is in itself a celebration of synergy, an acknowledgement that the creation of great children’s books is a team sport.

Also involved in the creation of WE’RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT were goodness knows how many designers, printers, publicists and assistants – not to mention something called a ‘repro house’ which designer Beccy Garrill describes in her fascinating comment on yesterday’s post. So if all the four-year olds in my social circle now chant ‘Swishy, swashy’ whenever they walk through long grass, it’s the fault not just of Michael Rosen but of a whole gang of literary and artistic wizards.

Here’s another example of synergy. Rona Selby editorial director extraordinaire at Andersen Press emailed me to say, ‘We like GOGGLE-EYED GOATS and we’d like to publish it, but the final spread needs more work – the story needs one final twist.’ Rona has edited enough picture books in her time to have acquired an unerring instinct for such things. If she says it needs a final twist, it does.

‘I need one final twist,’ I wailed that evening, weeping bitterly into my mushroom stroganoff. ‘I need one final twist and I don’t know where to find it.’
‘What about this?’ replied my wife Charlie. ‘Al Haji Amadu returns home from Mopti market and he turns to count the goggle-eyed goats, only to find that [censored by the Spoiler Police].’
‘Marry me,’ I said.

I consult Charlie now in all matters relating to final twists – and similes, which she is also very good at.

Synergy is like a good cheese or a good wine. It matures over time – that’s why authors become attached to a particular publishing house or form a long-lasting partnership with a particular illustrator. Daniel Kirk asked lots of librarians (not sure of the collective noun – a hush?) to name their favourite author/illustrator partnership. Here are their collected responses:

Allard / Marshall, Brown / Hurd, Clements / Selznick, Cronin / Bliss, Cronin / Lewin, Dahl / Blake, Estes / Slobodkin, Hest / Barton, Lester / Munsinger, Lewis / Kirk, London / Remkiewicz, Minarik / Sendak, Numeroff / Bond, O’Conner / Glasser, Palatini / Cole, Palatini / Egierlski, Palatine / Fine, Rylant / Stevenson, Scieszka / Smith, Slate / Wolff, Stewart / Small, Wick / Marzallo, Wilson/ Chapman, Yolen / Teague Yorinks / Egielski

I would want to add to that list two of my personal favourites: Willans/Searle and Willis/Ross. Do add your own favourites in the comments section below, but stick to author/illustrator partnerships. Save Starsky / Hutch for the Digital Spy forums.

Talking of Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross, you may remember that in Monday’s Plot article I was fumbling around trying to think of picture books which could be classed as ‘Tragic’ – characters that are undone by their own fatal flaw and end up meeting a sticky end. Well, it seems that Willis and Ross have thoroughly cornered the market for such stories – this book Sticky Ends came out just last week! Being of a morbid turn of mind, I can’t wait to get hold of a copy and read it to my daughter.

Sticky Ends by Jeane Willis and Tony Ross

Well, it’s time I brought this post – and this series – to its own sticky end. Writing things down really helps me to clarify my thoughts about a subject, so now I want nothing more than to rush off and write a picture book. I hope you feel inspired as well! Incidentally, if I were to do a sixth article in this series (which I’m not) I would write about Patience. I submitted THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS in July 2004. It will be published in March 2012. Always keep the faith.

Published by

Stephen Davies

Children's author: picture books, chapter books and YA novels

8 thoughts on “The Making of a Picture Book Part Five: Synergy”

  1. My two favourite picture book authors & illustrators (combined!) are
    – William Bee – wonderful retro designs, black humour and brilliant twists
    – Oliver Jeffers – beautiful pictures, and touching, amusing stories.
    Definitely check these out for something different 🙂

    1. Thanks for your recommendations, Anne. I’ve been looking at their books on Amazon and they look great. We will definitely buy a couple when we’re next home. I particularly like the look of WHATEVER by William Bee. Haha, since that post on Monday there seem to be tragic picture books wherever I look!

  2. Whatever is indeed tragic! There’s definitely a feeling of Hilaire Belloc about it. Children can cope with a lot more drama than we expect them to be able to handle.

  3. Very kind of you to take the time to help guide (and inspire) people considering creating a picture book. If I’m ever published I’ll be sure to credit you!

  4. Stephen, thanks so much for all your insights…some components I just stumbled on and to see you identify them is a confidence builder as well as motivation for my next endeavor…your examples were excellent! Continued success! Karen

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