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The art of writing picture books – interview with Caryl Hart

The Art Of Writing Picture Books – Interview With Caryl Hart

A look at the skills needed in writing a picture book text, with input and advice from the prolific Caryl Hart. Her latest book My Small World Underwater (illustrated by Hazel Woodgate) will be published in May 2024. I am Brave was published earlier in 2024.

The special appeal of picture books

Picture books are not bought by children but by us; adults. What are we looking for when we choose a book for a child of under six? Something to amuse and entertain our children at bedtime, something that will tell small children about their world, to help them as they’re learning to read, to lead the child to new experiences, to feed their imagination, something to encourage play?

We are also looking for something that appeals to us ourselves – after all, we may be required to read this same story many times in the course of a day or even a sitting. If the language is boring, stilted, inappropriate, the adult reader will be yawning long before the child is and will probably consign the book to a charity shop.

We look for all these things, and more. Most of all, we want our child to love this book.

And what about the illustrations?

Adult buyers of picture books want illustrations that are eye-catching and that present recognisable images. (From my own experience as the author of several picture books, I notice that adults choosing tend to look at the pictures, not the words! They very often start at the back and flick through the pages as they might flick through a pack of cards.) Adults look for pleasing and exciting colours, bold font, identifiable shapes.

So, the author is indebted to the artist for bringing their text to life.

A selection of Caryl Hart's picture books that are mentioned in the article

The joy of sharing stories with children

As we are reading the book aloud, the child is often sharing the page with us, recognising words because of the illustrations, remembering sequences, quoting, discovering, pointing things out, asking questions. It’s very much a shared and highly valued activity.

The challenge of writing picture books

All this gives both the writer and illustrator a huge responsibility. The book they create may become the child’s favourite, to accompany them like their best-loved toy wherever they go. Should the creator of the picture book keep it simple, or make it challenging? Must they teach, or entertain? Are they telling a story (rarely, if it’s a book for the very young. Usually, if it’s for an older reader) or presenting an experience?

And what about the subject? Something new, rare, to wonder at? A universal theme that reflects the lives and preoccupations of most children? Something comical, magical?

The talented creator of picture book texts can do all these things.

I asked Caryl Hart, author of many picture books, to talk us through the challenges and goals of writing for young children.

The art of writing picture books: an interview with Caryl Hart

Caryl Hart with thumbs up

Caryl Hart, who has published over 70 successful and award-winning children’s books, works with a great number of different illustrators and for many different publishers. She has created a diverse range of titles for children aged 0–8. Many of her books are used in the classroom as valuable resources in topic work and play.

How important is the role of the illustrator?

Caryl Hart: Most important.

A picture book is nothing without its illustrations! Most of us choose a book based on the cover illustration alone, so it’s really important that this stands out!

The best illustrations not only complement and highlight the messaging in the text, they add layers to the story, creating additional visual narratives and giving continuity within a story and across titles in a series.

What kind of messages can good illustrators add to the text?

The illustrations provide incredibly important subliminal messaging. For instance The Safari Stomp, illustrated by Nicola Slater, is a book all about the joys of physical movement, and our protagonist has a prosthetic limb. So we are telling readers that you can be physically active regardless of your body type or shape. 

Images also create fun.

They inspire readers to explore the book’s topic more fully. For example, My Small World Dinosaurs includes home-made elements that children can make for themselves such as a lollipop stick dragonfly and a cardboard volcano. This whole series is designed to inspire small world play and the narratives that children create when immersed in their games.

A novelist will often work very much on their own. How much of a team effort goes into creation of a picture book?

I write the text, but this is just one part of the whole project. I often discuss my ideas and early drafts with my agent, and then with an editor once the story has been acquired. Then the publisher’s designer will create layouts and work with the illustrator to create images that bring out the story.

Many aspiring and newly published creators can find this a bit of a shock as there are many rounds of editing once a book has been acquired and what started out as your baby becomes something much bigger. I sometimes even have to change the text to fit a particular image that an illustrator has created! Illustrators also go through many rounds of both major and minor amends before the finished book is ready to go to print.

Cover of My Small World Dinosaurs by Caryl Hart

PAPERBACK
EBOOK

Published by: Simon & Schuster Children’s UK, May 2024. Available from Amazon.

This website contains affiliate links. If you buy items using these links, I receive a commission, at no extra cost to you.

The importance of rhyme and rhythm in books for early readers

Berlie: Fashions and publisher demands change. For instance, rhyming stories went out and are now back. Children love them, of course, because they can learn the rhymes and repeat them. What do you think rhyme adds to the story for young children, and is it necessary to write rhyming stories?

Caryl: Many of my books are in rhyme but I do also have lots of titles written in prose. Many of us love to read rhyming books and they can be easier to memorise which helps with reading confidence and developing literacy skills. Publishing rhyming books is slightly more tricky as co-editions in other languages are more difficult to translate. So the story must be strong in its own right and have international appeal.

One of my early rhyming books was translated into Japanese, but they don’t really have rhyme in Japan so it was actually translated into Haiku!

Sometimes I might set out to write a rhyming book, but mostly it’s the book that decides whether it’s going to be in rhyme or prose! Stories just come out one way or another. The Girl Who Planted Trees actually started life as a rhyming story but ended up in lyrical prose after many rounds of amends and discussion with Nosy Crow, the publisher. 

Writing in rhyme can be challenging as you have to squeeze your story into your chosen rhyming structure and it can be easy to let the rhyme dictate where the story goes, which doesn’t always produce the best narrative. But I love the structure that writing in rhyme gives me and I find creating a rhyming story rather like a jigsaw puzzle – and it’s so satisfying when it works!

What are the most significant recent trends in picture books?

After the Covid pandemic we were inundated with nature books. I think lockdown reminded people how important it is to have access to green spaces. We also saw a spike in books about emotions as our nations experienced such enormous emotional challenges.

In addition, books have become much more culturally diverse, which is wonderful to see. Over the past five years or so, there has also been an explosion of incredible fact books. There’s also a new genre of incredible narrative non-fiction on the rise. So it’s a really exciting time for the industry.

Cover of I am Brave by Caryl Hart

PAPERBACK
EBOOK

Published by: Scholastic, February 2024. Available from Amazon.

This website contains affiliate links. If you buy items using these links, I receive a commission, at no extra cost to you.

Tell us about the educational aspect and narrative non-fiction in your picture books

My Meet the World series, illustrated by Bethan Woollvin and published by Bloomsbury is proving really popular in schools and at home. They are classed as narrative non-fiction. That means they are stories that include lots of factual information. I’ve had people contacting me on social media saying their two-year-olds can name all the planets because they love Meet the Planets so much! It just goes to show how important story is in communicating information to children.

Meet the Oceans was one of Waterstones Best Books of 2021 and won Books for Topics Early Years Best Curriculum Support the same year. Meet the Weather was in Book Trust’s Great Books Guide Top 25 books for 4–5 year-olds. This feels like a huge achievement. I’m enormously grateful to illustrator Bethan Woollvin for creating such a stand-out look for this series.

My Small World Dinosaurs, illustrated by Harry Woodgate, is the first in another new series of narrative non-fiction. This series focusses on small world play. It includes loads of fun home-made elements in the illustrations designed to encourage children, families and educators to create their own small worlds. We know that children learn through play and also create narratives while they are playing. This series is an ideal way to tap into both.

Explain the notion of empathy in children’s books

Empathy encourages children to live different lives through books.

Reading books is a GREAT way to help children learn about empathy. Reading about real or imaginary characters enables children to imagine living different lives and experience others’ emotions.

I’m working with Empathy Lab to help promote empathy education in schools and at events.

Caryl Hart’s own story

Caryl Hart looks through a magnifying glass

I’ve always loved writing, but I didn’t really think it could be a job in itself until I was in my 30s. As a child I didn’t really realise that PEOPLE wrote books! I just thought they were books. I’d never met an author and thought the only people who made a living from writing were journalists.

It was when my eldest daughter was born that I re-discovered a love of children’s books. Then I started to consider the possibility of becoming an author. I put some stories together but had absolutely no knowledge of the publishing industry or how to submit a manuscript. So I didn’t get very far. I was also working part time and bringing up one, then two, young children. My time and energy were very limited!

What really kicked things off for me was that I went to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2008. Through lots of networking and some very bold moves, I secured myself an agent and a few months later had three book deals. My first book came out in 2009 and things have been moving very quickly since then!

Advice for aspiring writers

Children’s publishing is a fantastic industry to work in. I’ve met some amazing people and been very fortunate to have lots of books published. My best advice is to set your bar really high and listen to feedback from industry professionals. It’s a very competitive arena so getting noticed can be very difficult.

I’d also recommend any aspiring authors and illustrators to join the SCBWI – the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. They are a fantastic organisation and offer help and support and often organise meetings and events with agents and publishers, so they are a really great organisation to get involved with.

I’ve learned so much about myself and about the world since becoming a writer.

Find out more on Caryl Hart’s website.

My own picture books

I have had a number of picture books published over the years, the best known of which are Blue John, Classic Fairy Tales and The Three Princes.

The Seamaiden’s Odyssey, my picture book for older readers, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell, will be published in September 2024.

Cover of The Seamaiden’s Odyssey by Berlie Doherty and Tamsin Rosewell

The Seamaiden’s Odyssey will be published by UCLan on 5 September 2024. Preorder from Amazon.

PAPERBACK

Published by UCLan, 5 September 2024, ISBN 978-1916747197.

This website contains affiliate links. If you buy items using these links, I receive a commission, at no extra cost to you.

Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her new picture book The Seamaiden’s Odyssey, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell, will be published by UCLan on 5 September 2024. See the About me page for more information.

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