Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Creating Picture Books. Masterclass with Meredith Costain

Guest blogger: Penny Morrison blogs on some of the things covered in Meredith's workshop....
I gathered with 19 other overtired and over-excited writers in The Hughenden's restaurant. We were going to learn the craft from Meredith Costain! Woo hoo! Would Meredith be able to manage such an unruly group? Would she need to resort to snapping stainless steel tongs to keep us under control?

What makes a successful picture book?
-          It needs to resonate emotionally – have heart
-          It might tell an important story, leaving the reader to find meaning in it
-          And beg to be read over and over again
Range and Scope
-          Is huge!
-          Baby/toddler books – board books, concept books, simple stories
-          Beginner readers, older readers
o   E.g. Fox by Margaret Wild.
This is about betrayal, trust and loyalty. Meredith can’t read this one without crying.
-          Non-Fiction
o   E.g. My Life in the Wild – Otter by Meredith Costain.
Although this is non-fiction, it has a plot. It also has facts at the end.
-          Themes and Styles
o   E.g. Mummy Laid an Egg by Babette Cole
Guess what it’s about ... are you guessing? ... sex! (yes, really)
-          Different treatments of the same topic
-          And more, more, more
We got into groups to chat about picture books which we think work well. Many books were mentioned which I haven’t seen. A few which I will look out for are:
-          The Wolf by Margaret Barbalet and Jane Tanner (about facing fear)
-          The Red Tree by Shaun Tan
-          The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

A picture book needs One Strong Idea
-          No subplot (but it may have subtext)
o   e.g. Totty’s Potty by Meredith Costain and Marjory Gardner
Meredith chose just one aspect of potty training (and it had to be a teddy bear because the illustrations could NOT show a child on the potty)

Themes for younger readers often reflect a child’s world - here are some of the list Meredith mentioned....
-          Family and friends
-          Animals
-          Colours and shapes
-          Stages of development – independence, toilet training
-          Monsters
-          Overcoming something – shyness, bullies, fear

Getting Ideas
-          They might *POP* into your head
-          Might come from hearing children’s conversation
-          Or watching children’s behaviour
1.   Your own childhood memories
2.   Start with a concept and brainstorm
We had some fun with brainstorming concepts in our groups.

Characters in picture books
o   Musical Harriet by Meredith Costain and Craig Smith
This story incubated for 3 months after Meredith heard about a yr 3 girl who wanted to play the trombone, but needed longer arms. She separately heard a musician talking about needing a ‘serious black dress’. By the time Meredith sat down to write the story, she knew the character so well that Harriet wrote the book for her.

Create a Memorable Character
-          Name
o   E.g. character destroyed countries by scratching them off his desk map - Adam Carter
-          Human? Animal?
-          Age
-          3 physical characteristics
-          3 strengths
-          3 weaknesses
-          Something he/she really wants
Our groups had so much fun that Meredith needed to bring out those stainless steel tongs to get our attention again – snap snap. But we invented characters – Whingeing Wendy, Benton Armstrong, Lexie the Horse, Vian Tian  and Alfie the blue big-voiced big-eared boy.

-          Beginning, middle and SATISFYING end.
-          Most importantly, it must have a problem. Otherwise, it will be an unsatisfying series of events

Story Plan
-          Character
-          What does your character really want?
-          A problem: What stops them from getting what they really want?
-          2 attempts
-          Solution
-          How does the resolution affect the character?
Our groups planned out stories for our characters. Meredith was so impressed with us (despite needing to SNAP SNAP SNAP those tongs) that she now expects 5 book launches at the next conference. 

-          Match style with the mood, content and audience
-          Use playful language – alliteration, assonance, imagery
o   Doodledum dancing by Meredith Costain
Poems ‘Our New Puppy’ and ‘Dinosaur Swamp Stomp’. At the next conference, I’d like a 3 hour workshop from Meredith just about language in picture books. (Please Susanne, pleeeeeeease)
-          Use the 5 senses
-          Use strong verbs rather than adverbs and adjectives
At this point Meredith whispered in author/actress Deb Abela’s ear. Deb then left the room and we watched as she crept back in. Far be it from any of us to say that Deb walked shyly, nervously or quietly. Again Deb left and this time she huffed back into the room. Or maybe she stomped, or elephanted. She most certainly did not walk angrily, loudly or with any adverb which might be tempting you.
-          Rhyme – there are reasons for and against

Finally, Meredith showed us examples of the process with some of her picture books – Bedtails and Musical Harriet. Beginning with scribbled ideas, early drafts, discarded phrases, lists of possible names, through to final text and illustrator’s sketches.

There was no need for tong snapping – we were fascinated to see Meredith’s approach and her thought process. To me, this was the highlight of the masterclass – seeing how Meredith works and getting to know her. 

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  1. Creating Picture Books with Meredith Costain was a great Masterclass. I learnt and laughed lots! Well done Penny you have summed up the session really well.

  2. I am so grateful for this blog. Missed out on attending this time and I've been stalking the blog for the past couple of weeks.It's been a wonderful resource!