Karl Newson: What are picture books (to me)

January 2023

Picture books are funny things, aren’t they? They do amazing jobs, from sending someone off to the land of sleep, to giving that same someone a championing fist bump on their first day of school. A picture book can make you laugh out loud at the mention of ‘poo’, or jump, with a perfectly timed ‘BOO!’. They are educational, empowering, embracing, inviting, mischievous, hilarious, lyrical, charming, spooky, silly, sad, and sometimes just plain bonkers, and on, and on…and More! So much more. And I love them all.

So, what is a picture book? A 32 page book, featuring text and illustration, aimed at readers aged 3-6?. Or. A clockwork machine of pages, full of word cogs and illustration timings, each reliant on the other to work, to deliver an idea that once appeared on a blank piece of paper from entirely nowhere? Or. A device by which we teach our littlests the lessons for life? Or. A bridge to bedtime? A distraction? An escape from the world? Whatever it is, it’s much more than just a book.

To me, a picture book is a memory of reading to my children (both of whom are now almost as old as I am in my head). That’s the thing that drives me still – the idea that I’m writing for them, when they were small. These days if they are suffering some teenage angst I’ll find myself writing to them in the form of a picture book text, and sometimes those stories get pitched and sometimes those stories get bought by a publisher and turned into a book. I’ll Be Therewas written for them. So was The World at Your Feet. Of course, I dedicate those books to my children, but they don’t care for them much now, as you can imagine, being teenagers! If I’m writing something I hope will be funny, I still test it on them. I hope I’ll always be writing for them in this way. They are my connection to the world of children’s books, and through my stories I’ve been able to make the world of children’s books my connection back to them, when they were asking me to read the same story for the third time in a row and laughing in all the same places. Picture books really are wonderful.

My stories aren’t always intended to send a little message out, sometimes they’re just silly, or just because. I don’t ever aim to write something educational – it’s just not my thing – my stories are more from the heart, than from a place of wisdom or expert knowledge or experience. I know other writers check the school curriculum and write a text especially for a certain term or topic, in order to take it to schools and plug that gap they’ve found, and that’s great, but it’s not what picture books are about, for me. That said, if I happen to write something that turns out to be educational by the end, and does prove to be a hit at schools, then I’ll be pleased as punch! But I wouldn’t make it my ‘thing’. I’m a night owl writer. A chancer. A pantser. A rule breaker. A don’t put me in a box, kind of writer. I don’t write because I think I’ve got something only I can say, I write because it’s fun.

My goal as a children’s book writer is to write stories that feel and read differently to each other, so that if my name wasn’t on the cover, you wouldn’t be able to read it and know it was written by me. Some writers have a particular style, essentially writing the same karaoke backing track over and over but changing the lyrics to the song of their story, and you can tell straight away who wrote it. I’ve always wanted to avoid falling into that trap (except where sequels are involved and I have no choice but to do the same thing again). I like that I can write in prose or rhyme, and that my rhyming texts vary in structure wildly. It keeps the writing fresh and above all, stops me from getting bored! I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a signature style, or to write in that karaoke sort of way, I just like to play a different tune each time. 

And yes, sometimes I do write for Me. Again, it just creeps in. I don’t aim for it. My story A Bear is a Bear (except when he’s not) came about because I came to a place in my life where I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. I was in the early days of a breakup and I felt lost, and it occurred to me that I could try something new, despite me being me (a bear, apparently!) I could break out of my stereotypical ‘bearness’ and try out being something else, but in the end, I knew who I was – still me. (This is getting deeper than I’d planned! Again, I’m no psychiatrist, it’s just how the texts arrive!) While we’re here… I Am a Tiger came about because I was feeling particularly good one day – I still felt small and useless, but I knew I could be big and brave and daring on the inside and go out into the world and say GRRRRR! The mouse in that story put into words how I was feeling: pushing aside the doubts and worries and chasing my dreams.

I’m writing a text right now that’s so silly and unusual that I’m already thinking about using a pseudonym for it (if I ever finish it. If I ever pitch it. And if I get good feedback from my agent on it!). (There’s a lot of ‘if’s there! But) The thing that most excites me about the text right now is the idea that I might get to finally use a pseudonym! The text has already left me wanting more from it, but I’ll keep on working on it purely because of this Writer Bingo card pseudonym possibility, and when that idea wanes, I’ll hopefully be further on with the text and will like it a bit more… enough at least to finish it. If. 

Picture books are a means for me to write, I guess. Underneath my love for the genre and my heartfelt memories. I love writing, and I get such a buzz out of new ideas and then writing ‘The end’ at the end of a story when it’s done. I’m forever chasing that rollercoaster ride. Getting off and getting on again. 

I asked the question on Twitter ‘What is a picture book?’ and got some wonderful replies. I’ve not included names here, because I think it’s more interesting to read the responses knowing only their position:

My agent said: I would say “a script for a tired, bad actor who’s desperate for their dinner and a glass of wine”, but everyone else has said much more sensible things.

The Managing Director of one of the biggest publishers in the UK said: They are theatre!

One of my picture book editors said: A connection. Between text and artwork, between child and character, between child and adult reader etc.

A teacher said: An adventure without leaving your room.

A bookseller said: Proof that not all grown-ups are adults

A children’s book author said:

– a friend

– a comfort

– a port in a storm

– a glimmer of hope

– a ray of sunshine

– a belief

(they added this..!)

 That’s 1% of overall royalties for each one used, please

Another picture book author said:

A dance…

Between words and pictures

Between writer and reader

Between reader and listener

A 12 spread dance of 400 words or less

A varied response to a simple question! Ultimately, I think we all have our own connections to picture books and there is no one way to say “This is what a picture book is!” 

So, What are picture books to You? Who are You writing for?

These are things to consider, to help us unpack this writing adventure we’re on…

Want to learn more from Karl?

Author Karl Newson is 2023 Picture Book Writer-in-Residence for the Hub, WriteMentor’s community learning platform that connects like-minded storytellers and provides all the tools they need for writing success.

Find out how you can access member-exclusive content delivered by industry experts like Karl.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: