Interviews

Crafting a story


by Jez Alborough
on October 17, 2017

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“It’s easy to write for children, anyone could do it!”

Some people actually believe this!

I suppose their reasoning is that you’re writing for undeveloped minds, there aren’t many pages and you don’t even have to use many words. Anyone who loves children’s books or indeed who has tried to write one knows that this is simply not true. ‘Less’ is certainly ‘more’ but how to write ‘less’ and make it ‘more’ is not an easy thing to achieve. So what actually goes into the making of a picture book? Put simply my aim is to capture some aspect of life within 32 pages of words and pictures and make it relevant, engaging and fun for children. If I manage to say something true about my chosen subject then there’s every possibility that the parent reading the book will enjoy it as well as the child.

In my book Nat the Cat’s Sunny Smile I explore the subject of feelings. In particular what happens when Nat, who is happy, meets with his friends, one of whom is grumpy while the other is sad. You can see how, even though it is a children’s story I have entered into the world of psychology and for the book to be ‘true’ then the psychology has to be authentic. What effect does a negative feeling have on a positive one? If I sugar coat this or make it unrealistic then the story won’t work; however I also have to convey the information about feelings in a way that is understandable to a child. There is a knack to this and for me it involves being in touch with a childlike place of innocence within myself; this affords me the ability to communicate with children on their terms. Without this knack it is possible to fall into the trap of ‘writing down’ to children and portraying what an adult mind thinks that their world is like. This is not the same thing at all. When I write a children’s book part of me is tuned into what the five year old me would enjoy in a story while the other adult part is providing the craft which tells me how best to tell the story. The process then is a mixture of the innocence of the child’s perspective and the experience of the adults.

Craft in storytelling is every bit as important as inspiration. If you described a day in your life in which extraordinary events took place it wouldn’t necessarily make a great story. The storyteller pulls events together in a structure which sets off the emotional journey of the story to its best advantage. In basic terms storytelling is all about the releasing of information; this has to be done at exactly the right time and in the most appropriate and entertaining way. Nat the Cat’s story is quite simple: she wakes up with a smile, loses it, then finds it again. The interest comes from the craft of telling how and why she loses it and how and why she finds it again. The heart of the story is how her smile gets passed on to her less than happy friends.

One of the best things about picture books is that they are created to be read out loud, to be shared. This means that they are very much an interactive art form, they require someone to read them out to bring them to life. The reader of the book is the last link in the chain which began with me having the original inspiration for the story. When I write a story I have quite a strong idea of how I feel my story should be read. I have a theory that if the book is written with this mind then it directs the reader in their performance of the story. The rhythm and rhyme along with the punctuation all act as signposts as to how to deliver the words. This is important because however well a story is written a poor delivery can always sabotage its chances of engaging with an audience. The more the reader puts into a performance the more the book can come alive. The book is like a sleeping beauty, the story is all there but it needs the reader to kiss it into life.

I have been creating picture books since 1984 and although I have developed my craft over the years each time I start a new book I feel like a beginner all over again. For this reason I have a great respect for picture books and I never take for granted the process that goes into making them. I recently received my first finished copy of Nat the Cat’s Sunny Smile in the post and I was humbled to feel that my one tiny idea had turned into this physical book which parents, teachers and librarians will be sharing with the children in their lives. I hope you will become one of those readers and Nat the Cat’s Sunny Smile is passed on to you. If that happens, if my story and pictures makes you smile, you will have tasted the magic of picture books.

You can listen to Jez talk about Nat the Cat and check out his latest picture book PLAY published by Walker Books. It’s out now!

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