Putting you in the picture

A picture book, if it hits the spot, tends to be read over and over again, often in nightly succession. This can be pretty testing for the reader. The small child being read to probably knows the whole story by heart and will not permit a single word to be skipped. It is a cardinal sin, of course, for a writer to address the adult over the child's head, but the experience has to be bearable for both participants. If you can manage to please yourself, the child and the grown-up in the middle, you've done the hat-trick.

A picture book text is unthinkable without the illustratio ns. They are not something to be added at a later stage to make the thing more attractive. The two are completely enmeshed from the outset, bouncing off one another all the way. The words are the thread which holds the narrative. But the setting, much of the characterisation, the humour and the action are there to be discovered in the pictures.

Accent on "discovered", because this is essentially a shared experience. A delightful dialogue emerges, one of the great pleasures of early childhood. Small children stop the action constantly to interject their own reactions, commenting on the characters, reinforcing their own experience of life. All readers do this, I suppose, but with a picture book it is an out-loud conversation with highly satisfying results. Like all the best entertainments, it calls out from the audience as much as they care to give.

Edward Ardizzone, who wrote his own picture books about the adventures of Little Tim and his friend Ginger which displayed only one aspect of his abundant illustrative talent, once likened a picture book to a small theatre. You open it and up goes the curtain, each spread an unfolding drama. But it is a detailed theatre, one to be entered and lingered in at leisure.

Writing a picture book text is not necessarily a matter of first corralling your favourite illustrator. But it does help if you can see the story unfolding visually in your head. It would be impossible (I imagine) for a non-draughtsman not to have some illustrative style in mind. You will be writing a script for a narrative with constantly shifting viewpoints and perspectives, close-ups, big panoramic tracking shots, small quick-fire drop-ins. The action will probably flow from left to right, reflecting the way we read and, above all, make the reader want to turn the page and find out what happens next.

In this respect, the movie analogy is probably most helpful. Watch the funny business in the old silent movies. The genius of Buster Keaton is pure picture book because the jokes are not verbal. They can be understood by anybody, whether or not they are good with words.

All this is not to say that you do not aim for a flowing, lucid, elegantly paced piece of writing. It is a good idea to analyse closely the phrases and cadences of those picture books that you have enjoyed reading aloud; the ghostly, echoing "we three" of Martin Waddell's The Park in the Dark for instance, or the spirited exchanges in John Burningham's Mr Gumpy's Outing. This book is a brilliant example of a simple traditional idea transformed by treatment. One big full-colour picture on the right hand page is offset by a smaller sepia drop-in which acts as a counterpoint. The in-house publishing skill of a designer-typographer can contribute enormously to this kind of successful narrative.

When my own character, Alfie (left), made his first appearance (I had no idea at the time that there would be more than one) he was running up the street ahead of his mum who came trundling behind with the shopping and his little sister in the buggy. This is a drama in which Alfie races into the house first and slams the door, shutting himself in. He cannot reach the door catch.

This presented the design problem of having to show both the inside and outside of the house simultaneously, so that the reader could see the frantic build-up on the doorstep of those trying to get him out and Alfie's reactions to his dilemma. I hit on the idea of using the actual form of the book, the gutter down the middle which you are always trying to pretend isn't there, as a part of the story.

It very simply became the great divide with the images on each side of the spread showing a double action sequence with which the non-reader can be ahead of the text by spotting how Alfie is going to solve the problem. This, of course, is an old split-screen movie device but it worked well in this instance.

Writing for this younger, non-reading age group it is naturally essential to leave space for the illustrator to make his or her contribution. Think of what the great Randolph Caldecott did with the nursery rhyme "Hey Diddle Diddle" in which the one line "And the dish ran away with the spoon" triggers an entire delightful elopement sequence. Or Helen Oxenbury's interpretation of Michael Rosen's retelling of "We're Going on a Bear Hunt". Allan Ahlberg and Martin Waddell, neither of whom can draw - as far as I know - are both masters of setting up this kind of visual opportunity.

A full colour picture book is not the only way to combine narrative word and image, as anyone who has studied Ahlberg's work knows. Colour-litho printing is expensive, hence a relentless pressure on publishers to secure a co-edition with a foreign publisher in order to reduce costs. It results in a knock-on pressure on authors to write something which is acceptable internationally. This can be borne in mind, but not if the outcome is a blandly colourless mid-Atlantic style.

Picture books are the most fiercely competitive part of the market and the most difficult to break into. A short text story with a gripping plot and lots of humour, suitable for a tentative young reader around seven or eight, littered with black and white line illustrations, is well worth considering. The format will be smaller but the way of thinking still applies.

When I wrote Chips and Jessie, it started as a longer text with a lot of conversation. When I got rid of the inverted commas and put some of the dialogue into speech balloons the whole thing changed. It was like exploding the conventional printed page, a marvellous opportunity for experiment. I could combine visual comment much more closely with the narrative, for instance, as when Chips and his mum are having a big argument across the page about whether or not he can bring the school hamster home for half-term.

I could introduce rebus picture letters [puzzles in which pictures represent syllables and words; for example, hear may be shown by the letter "h" followed by a picture of an ear], straight strip cartoon sequences and bits of wordless clowning, all mixed up with longer passages of text. And my hero could step forward to the footlights like Hamlet and address the reader directly.

Best of all, the two domestic pets, Albert, a laconic tomcat, and Barkis, a willing but somewhat boastful dog, could make their own observations about the vagaries of human behaviour in thought bubbles coming out of the top of their heads.

Children find comic-strip graphics very accessible and relaxing. For someone who has only recently mastered the art of reading to themselves, acres of print can be daunting. A ventilated page encourages and reassures.Parents, sometimes confusing format with content, tend to view all comic strips as trash, to be discouraged in favour of a "proper" book. This is not so in France where bande dessine is regarded as a highly sophistocated graphic form in the great tradition of Herg (Tintin) and Uderzo (Asterix). To set out a narrative in this way has limitation s, but it is not necessarily feeding a child pap. They learn to read speech balloons at speed, even with quite small typesetting, and discover a variety of literary devices, flashbacks, soliloquies and author's interjections, which they will encounter later in novels.

All illustrated fiction depends on the quality of the text. There is a great interest in picture books for older children as well as graphic novels. Seven to 12-year-olds can not only form their visual taste by poring over seductive artwork, they can use a picture book as a springboard into poetry or more advanced fiction.

It is the job of a publisher to broker happy marriages between authors and illustrators. In submitting a text which needs a visual dimension, it is not helpful to accompany it with your own drawings unless they are of a high standard. They will almost certainly be discarded. Hang on to the images in your head. Concentrate on something rather like a film script or an animation scenario. A picture book is one of the most interactive forms of communication there is, and the potential is boundless.

- Shirley Hughes has been producing picture books for more than 30 years. Alfie's Birthday Surprise, the first Alfie book in more than a decade, is published on September 4 by Bodley Head

- The Arvon Foundation runs creative writing courses at centres in Devon, Yorkshire and Scotland. The first 10 readers to send a TES masthead together with their address to David Pease at The Arvon Foundation, Lumb Bank, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire HX7 6DF will receive the new Arvon brochure in January and 20 per cent off the course of their choice.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you