Monday, 4 February 2013

#readitmummiesanddaddies2013 - Writing for children's books - Strong Words, Softly Spoken

Words are gifts when freely shared

For this week's #readitmummiesanddaddies2013 theme I thought we'd take a look at writing for children's books and some of our favourite CBs that are intoxicating more because of their use of the language than their use of flashy illustrations (that's not to say that each and every one of the books we've picked in our list isn't also visually beautiful, but it's the way they were written that meant they became books of the week). 

First, one of the earliest books we read to Charlotte - and one that so many parents (and children) will be able to recite by heart...

"We're going on a Bear Hunt" by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury (Walker Books)

The genius of this book is how interactive it is for young children. Before they can even begin to form words properly, before they can understand what words mean - they can get a lot out of a book that has such deliciously addictive alliterative sounds in it. Squishing, squelching, swishing, stumbling. Lots of 'S' words that trip off the tongue and for babies and toddlers, the chance to bounce in their seats and attempt to match what mummy or daddy are saying. 

It evolves with the child too. As they get older, they love the feeling of tension that ramps up as the book reaches its brilliant climax. If you're like me, you read the last 3 pages of the book in an absolute mad rush (it's funnier if you trip over your words at the end too, as I often do in a mad dash to get them all out and jump under the duvet to safety!)

The power of language is self-evident in this and it's really not hard at all to see why it's such a well-loved classic. 

Moving on and another book that appeals to a child's built-in subversive streak...

"Pants" by Giles Andreae and Nick Sharratt
Whether you like it or not, your little darlings will undoubtedly go through a phase where they find pants funny. Pants, bottom burps, belches and of course poo and wee. Here, the power of "Pants" is put to brilliant effect in a book that causes kids to giggle uncontrollably as it's all about something slightly 'naughty' (in fact, in a whole brace of books but really we only liked "Pants" and "More Pants", "Socks" was a bit of a miss!) 

It helps that Pants is rhyming, and rhymes can help a child memorise and identify a story extremely quickly. Again before Charlotte could read, she could recite this story word for word, start to finish (also helped by the fact that this was read almost nightly for quite a while when she was tiny). Rhyme is very well established as a method of engaging a child with a book, and "Pants" is such a good fit (pardon the pun) that you can even sing along with Lenny Henry if you've bagged the version with the bonus music CD. 

Last but by no means least there's the power of words to help children understand concepts and subjects that are seen as the realm of the grown up, and often steered well clear of in children's books. 

"Rabbityness" by Jo Empson
How does one begin a discussion about death with a child, when a pet or a loved one dies? Many books have tried to deal with the subject fairly directly. The beauty of Jo Empson's book is in the way it  helps a child think past death itself, and through to the fairly abstract concept of dealing with grief and celebrating a person's (or a rabbit's) life and their influence on others around them. It's done in a way that doesn't insult the intelligence of a child, doesn't ask them to buy into an esoteric and idealogical view to 'soften the blow'. Rabbit dies, but it's what Rabbit leaves behind that triggers the further discussion. 

I remember reading this to Charlotte for the first time and watching the rollercoaster of emotions the book invoked, but the look of sheer joy when she realised that all Rabbit's friends would inherit its "Rabbityness" as a legacy. Utterly, utterly beautiful.

Writing for children's books is definitely no easy option. Many celebrities seem to think that this may be a great inroad into mass adulation by a whole new generation of fans, that it's an easy gig. But it isn't. Not if you want your books to become classics like these, and the sort of books that parents and children are happy to read for years and years to come.