‘How Do You Write Funny Books for Children’ – review Brighton 2013

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A session with Michael Rosen on ‘How Do You Write Funny Books for Children’ had to have  instant appeal for the aspiring children’s writer.  Someone in the queue had a pile of children’s picture books and some large art-paper pads and asked where the workshop was but she may have been doomed to disappointment.

Although not expecting a workshop, I had thought Rosen would be one of the speakers and ready to impart some of his secrets! Alas No. But then  some of his success may be due to the fact he manages to strike a chord of humour in so many guises which is impossible to explain.  He also has had the very great advantage of  having the best children’s illustrator in the country, Quentin Blake.

Fortunately after my initial disappointment Rosen proved an entertaining host, introducing three award winning and extremely talented humorous children’s writers, Philip Ardagh, Liz Pichon and Jamie Thomson.

Philip started the ball rolling telling us he is compelled to write. I loved his explanations that guides his own work, one of keeping one foot firmly grounded while the imagination takes flight, (or words to that effect)   He insists that one has to care about people and the characters one creates.

He started his famous series by deciding to write to a nephew in boarding school and these letters turned into an adventure story, mixing real history, family history and humour. He explained there is a real truth in that the narrator is an annoying uncle. Philip Ardagh became an overnight success.  Awful End (published in 2000), originally written as letters sent to his nephew Ben.

Philip’s hilarious reading of his own material to illustrate the points he had made, had everyone laughing as well as getting to the heart of the matter in terms of his method of writing.

Liz Pichon had apparently been teased by the team for her insistence on a powerpoint presentation. But well done Liz for it was very worth while. She worked in a completely different way, helped however by the fact that she had started as a children’s illustrator and moved on to writing her own books at a later stage in her career.

Liz was disarmingly encouraging with tales of her bad spelling at school, early attempts at  writing a complete book, (power pointing examples)  and later sending one to a publisher, only to have it returned because the story line was too weak.  But here she was a successful children’s writer with a unique style, using real life anecdotes and events as the basis for huge exaggerations and wickedly funny writing.

She told us she had once attended a talk by Quentin Blake who admitted he had good and back drawing days, and that he looked at the text and drew what wasn’t there.  These days a well known method for becoming a successful illustrator.

Powerpoint was safe in her hands adding to her enthusiasm and well worth the effort, giving us blown up pics of her processes and some of the content of her books.Tom Gates: Best Book Day Ever! (so far)

She has a great ‘at home website’ with funny interactive stuff, her books, sales etc.

Jamie Thomson came from a completely different angle, explaining how he got to the heart of his comedic writing. He talked about timing in things such as situational comedy and stand up. He insisted humour came from a situation and urged us to write and see where it led you.

His latest book is about a ‘Dark Lord’ that appears in a Tesco’s car park in South London as as teenage boy. The boy gets fostered by an unsuspecting couple, he goes to school where it is obvious he will soon reek havoc. This is not his latest book could not find download to copy without it disappearing at random which sometimes happens with pics copied from Amazon!

The Question and Answer sessions was far too short, but all three authors pitched in with answers that illustrated further their very different ways of working. Liz showed us in passing  a detailed plan of ideas as they had occurred to her, with additional scribblings in each box as additional material emerged. Lovely to see a concrete example of process.

There was a discussion about whether or not one needed to know the plot from start to finish. Philip favoured not knowing while Jamie the opposite. (or that could have been the other way round)  There was discussion on how each writer worked, some writing pages as a draft and then deciding to abandon them, others writing chapters that never got changed. There was one example of  seeing images in ones head before the text images, which also confirmed one of Philip’s earlier points that there is no one way of becoming a writer.

OK so Michael was an excellent chair, sometimes interjecting with questions of his own but I would still have liked a bigger input on writing from the great man himself.   With so many amazing books to his credit it would have been good to ‘pick his brains’ along with this team of talented and highly successful writers.  I emerged however with my son and grandson chatting happily and with more information about how to write funny books for children than we had known before. So a success, even if it is obvious there is much more to it than meets the eye!

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