Friday, 15 May 2015

Ten children's picture book story types that we'd really love to see more of - A ReadItDaddy Editorial

"Zephyr Takes Flight" by Steve Light. More like this please!

Remember that fun time we talked about the children's story types and tropes that need a long summer holiday?

We thought it would be fun to flip the coin. You see we don't want to give you the idea that we're all sad and grumpy about children's stories, quite the opposite - and it was great to hear from folk who read our last article and (quite politely) disagreed with us on some of the story types listed. So with that, we promised to do a list of ten children's picture book story types that we'd dearly love to see more of.

In no particular order...

1) "Mighty girl" stories that work for both girls AND boys.

We love stories that feature mighty girls, but creating a female hero that works for both boys and girls is a neat trick if you can pull it off. It's an even neater trick if you can make the hero of your story (whether male or female) appealing to both girls and boys without having to wade in with wellies on to create "strong female characters" or "boys who are in touch with their sensitive and emotional side". Some children's stories have woven sheer magic with characters who aren't specifically designed to push the point at all. Take Luke Pearson's utterly awesome "Hilda" - She's a girl, she's mighty, she has the most incredible adventures but boys and girls can enjoy her stories equally (and 47 year old grown ups also rather like them too!) See also the utterly brilliant "Zephyr Takes Flight" by Steve Light, which is another book with a female central character that we often mention whenever discussions of awesome female-led books crops up on Twitter. We also couldn't let this point pass without mentioning "Pirates of Pangaea" - a fabulous comic strip that runs in The Phoenix Comic, adored by girls and boys alike and with an utterly brilliant girl protagonist right in the thick of the action.

2) World Stories

Thankfully these are slowly becoming more and more commonplace as western tastes wake up to the fact that some of the most incredible myths and legends, traditional folk tales and children's stories from across the globe will work equally well for our imaginative and story-hungry kids. We have seen something of a renaissance in recent years with fabulous tales being translated and respun by glorious publishers like Tara Books and Gecko press. There's always room for more though, so keep 'em coming!

3) Ghost stories (for slightly older kids, obviously!)

Slightly controversial this one but I'd love to see a return of the amazing Pickwick and Puffin ghost anthologies I grew up with in the 1970s (most of which were written in the 1960s and were very well thumbed in our school library). 'Dark' books are by no means 'new'. Just look at some of the covers of these, books that often cropped up in our school book choice newsletters from various publishers...

These were brilliant and creepy. Perhaps in an age where children have become desensitised to dark stuff, they'd feel a little twee now but with recent brilliance by the likes of Jonathan Stroud (The Lockwood and Co Books), there's room for a few more supernatural books on our shelves.

4) Science Fiction for kids

Similar to the plea for more ghost tales, I'd love to see more sci fi for kids (particularly young kids). We're fairly well served for brilliant comics (again a huge nod to The Phoenix for producing some of the best sci fi heroes in recent kid comic history) but we very rarely see children's picture books that swap dragons, wizards and princesses for spaceships, robots and space heroes. Would particularly love to see kids books brave enough to set out their table with a futuristic (non dystopian) setting too!

5) Diversity and 'realistic' kids

This is again a thankfully rising trend in children's stories. Diverse and inclusive books, with characters from all walks of life, every creed, every colour and every ability, represented in children's books. Our children can learn from stories where diversity and inclusivity become the norm rather than the exception, and can more readily identify with stories featuring kids they're likely to encounter during their own lives. All children deserve to be represented in stories that are meant for them and brilliant organisations like The Letterbox Library are leading the charge ensuring that kids can always find themselves in a story when they find their nose in a book.

6) A dose of the surreal.

Sometimes it feels like children's stories play it relatively safe. Are kids now immune to nonsense? Are books that are a little on the 'surreal' side a bit too 'out there' for modern kids who increasingly find it difficult to suspend their disbelief when jumping into a new story? We miss surreal kids books, and harking again back to my childhood when crazy characters like Barbapapa and Ludvig were some of the milder examples of children's characters who were really off the wall and fresh-feeling, there's a trick missing and a distinct trend to avoid slightly trippy and weird characters and stories. We love them though, and we particularly adore nonsense poetry!

7) Books that break the rules.

Having fallen down several deep holes when working on my own stories and book ideas, I can safely say that the dizzying rules and requirements for children's books can feel a little offputting. Books driven by ancillary requirements for page counts, formats and layouts to adhere to fairly rigid frameworks can surely only ever feel 'samey' so we love it when it's obvious that certain books have broken those rules. Longer stories for children that may need more than one bedtime reading to polish them off, but don't go over the top length wise. Stories that use a double page spread to great effect, disposing of the usual text and picture mix for something that still maintains a story flow but feels like it's kicked free of the page. After all, if "The Book with No Pictures" by B.J Novak can prove the point that books for young children can break a lot of rules but are still riotously entertaining, there must be room for many more books along similar lines that take the rule book and tear it up with their teeth.

8) Reader interaction.

This is a tough one to describe, but you may well understand what we mean without a deep description or a ton of examples. Those books that wrap you up in the story to such an extent that you truly feel like you're part of the cast. We're not merely referring to 'name' books here (though there are some utterly fantastic examples of these now available - see "The Girl / The Boy who lost her / his name" for instance) but books that involve the reader as much more than a mouthpiece are something we'd really love to see more of. Imagine children's stories that are designed for more than just cuddling up at bedtime to read, but stories that send readers on a (real world) quest, encourage 'acting out' of scenes and characters. For example, we love the fact that "We're going on a Bear Hunt" works wonderfully as a performance piece as you act out all the different parts of the book where you need to clamber across the squelchy squirchy mud or whistle through the swishy swashy grass. Now do you know what we're getting at?

9) Books that don't 'punish' introversion or cast it in a bad light

This is something that I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about. Children's stories are often geared around turning a shy retiring wallflower into a crazed chaotic effervescent bundle of energy, but is introversion really that bad? As a self-confessed introvert there are always going to be times when I'd love to conquer my shyness and Charlotte must feel the same (believe me, we've been through the mill quite a few times when Charlotte's shyness stops her doing things we know she'd really love to). Only one or two books have successfully dealt with this hugely sensitive subject in a way that struck a chord, and actually put across the message that "Hey, it's OK to be shy, quiet, reflective" - We would so dearly love to see more and really welcome stories where the shy kid doesn't need to become like a reject from an X-Factor tryout to somehow win the day.

10) Books about books and bookish folk

We never tire of reading children's stories that not only celebrate the joy of reading (it goes without saying that there are many, many books that extol the virtues of learning to read and the worlds you'll discover) but there's a vast untapped market for books about books and bookish folk. It struck me when we were reading and were thoroughly engrossed in Martin Salisbury's utterly wonderful "100 Great Children's Picture Books" that we really don't see enough books like that and we very very rarely see books designed for children that could act as a taster for more wonderful book and story discoveries. Similarly, now that children's authors and artists are so hugely celebrated and well recognised by kids, how about a range of books where children could read about and find out more about their book heroes. A "Desert Island Books" range? Biographies of authors and artists designed for a young audience? Idea!

So there you have it, more book and story types that whet our whistle and there are probably squillions more you could add - if you've got any really good ones, please do drop a comment in the section below, we'd love to hear about them!