Sunday, September 28, 2008

Picture books of note

You may now be noticing a theme here. The theme of starting an idea in a blog and not really being able to close it. I have kind of tangled ideas of what I want to cover and when I pick up one, they all tend to come. I think at some point I may have to re-organise this whole thing, but it's taken me months to get around to the washing up, so don't hold your breath!

Anyway, I left off the last thread talking about what makes a picture book a picture book and I think I'll try to start this one with what in my opinion makes a picture book a great picture book.
To work in picture books meant not only altering style, but re-thinking format. I'd enjoyed the luxury of creating great vast slabs of illustration in my previous work, but it is rare that picture books are double page spread after double page spread anymore.

To clarify my thoughts on picture books, I've sort of begun a never-ending collection of the good ones. I wanted to look at some of those individual books and share my feelings as to what makes them great.

'Beegu', By Alexis Deacon.

A tale of an alien that doesn't belong.

Beegu's been out for a little while, but I have to admit I haven't yet bought it. This point is of interest in itself. Whilst it's pretty near impossible to argue against the fact that Deacon can draw, I was not initially drawn (no pun intended) to his work. There was something about the muted colours... (I know, pot calling kettle and all that...!) Or, maybe it's not the muted colours, but that he tends to use cooler colours... yes, I like that better- makes me seem less of a hypocrite! Regardless, I first picked up the book, had a quick flick through and put it back.

However, the fact is this, every time I go to a book shop or library I return to Beegu and I think the reasons are these.

1. Whether or not I initially liked the illustration, it is bold and different and that's refreshing in today's UK market. It does stand out on the shelf. Let's face it, we all judge a book by its' cover. However, I'd like this point to stand down for the others- Let's pretend I'm not as shallow as I obviously am and consider the other less cosmetic points more important for once!

2. The story has a universal theme. Everyone has felt they don't belong at some point in their lives and so it's hard not to connect with the book on some level.

3. It's sensitively told. Deacon shows what happens to Beegu, rather than tells us. This is an infinitely more powerful way to tell (a misleading word there, eh?) a story as we can make up our own mind about the situation... and when we do, we are far more likely to bond with it as we've placed a piece of ourselves into it.

4. (3 and 4 sort of connect. 4 being the reason for 3, pretty much) The word vs. picture relationship is phenomenal. Deacon allows the pictures to take centre stage and only uses text to clarify. His words are so restrained, being the bare minimum to allow the story to take place.

This makes the book stand out as (contrary to what you would believe in a picture book section)it makes Beegu one of the few books that you may actually be bothered to read before you buy; the rest being too wordy by far! This gave the book two bites of the apple for me as an accidental reading of the first couple of pages had me hooked.

This word picture relationship allows Beegu to be a 'grower.' Many of the books on sale have texts that tell the exact same story as the illustrations and no more. This always leaves one mode of communication lacking. Either the text is more poorly written than the illustrations portray the events, or the text is great but poorly rendered by the illustrator. If a book has text and illustration telling the exact same story, they must compete and the book almost always 'does itself in' this way. The parent cannot be bothered to read it or the child doesn't have the patience for the parent to read him what he already knows from the pictures. Beegu is what most picture books are not. It is the perfect balance of both, making the complete product stronger as a result and more appealing at each reading.

Every writer or illustrator can learn something about picture book storytelling from Beegu. Next time I visit a book store, I have promised myself I shall buy myself a Beegu of my very own!

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