Reading for Picture Book Writers with Gus Gordon

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

I'm of the belief that if you want to write well, you need to read - a lot. If you're keen to hone your individual writing talents, a priceless way to improve is to spend time reading the genre you're passionate about.

In this new series of posts, I'll be featuring some of our finest Australian authors, who will suggest titles in the genre they know, love and write in. I hope these book suggestions help you hone your own understanding of your writing and how effectively you are producing.

Picture Books

Picture books are absolutely, positively for anyone. They defy age readership, and bring delight to people of all walks of life, from babies through to Granny and Grandpa. Their language is a two-step between image and text that resonates with all people--with the pictures bringing nuance and meaning to the storyline, and the storyline gently guiding the visual elements that speak in ways words never can.

If you are keen to write Picture Books, author/illustrator Gus Gordon has some fabulous recommendations on books in this genre--books that work really, very well (and coincidentally are some of my all-time favourite picture books). Gus has illustrated some wonderful books including Big Pet Day by Lisa Shanahan, My Life and Other Stuff I Made Up by Tristan Bancks, My Aussie Dad by Yvonne Morrison and I Am Cow Hear Me Moo by Jill Esbaum. He is also the author and illustrator of such gems as Wendy, A Day with Noodles, and the superb Herman and Rosie. You can learn more about Gus at

Gus's Recommendations

One can’t really talk about the writing of picture books without talking about the illustrations and the same can be said the other way around. The two, at least in a good picture book, work closely together to tell the story by explaining, hinting, revealing and most importantly, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps. I am especially fascinated with the layers of narrative hidden, on purpose or otherwise, within the writing or illustrations. Often the writer has unknowingly woven strands of extra detail into the story. Subtle layers that illuminate character, provide back-story, plug holes and help create a contextual authenticity that makes a good picture book so satisfying. The great picture books seem to do all these things and more. It’s a kind of magic. ‘How did they do that?’

As an illustrator who writes, I am constantly trying to figure out ways to connect my pictures using words that contribute something I can’t show the reader in the illustrations. I get excited by the possibilities words offer me. It’s all too easy to forget sometimes how much I can reveal in the pictures. ‘How close or how far removed should the words and pictures be?’ It’s a tricky thing to balance. Balance seems to be the best word to describe the relationship between the words and pictures.

I’ve always been a huge fan of the picture book genre and now have a rather large collection of books from around the world. I go through periods of being immersed in them (it helps to have three small kids!) and ignoring them while I work on my own books. Here are some of my favourites that I keep coming back to:

Olivia written and illustrated by Ian Falconer
For me, this book ticks all the boxes. The words and pictures are in perfect harmony. Ian Falconer is brilliant at the ‘set-up’; creating unexpected surprises with each reveal. He makes it all seem so simple. Plus Olivia is such a strong, fun character.

Spork written by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
This is a terrific anthropomorphical story about Spork who is a cross between a fork and spoon (his father being a fork and his mother a spoon). Spork doesn’t know where he fits in and sets about discovering who he is. It’s a great idea, perfectly executed with stunning illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault.

Lost and Found written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
For me the story has to start well; with a bang or a promise to the reader that ‘this book is going to be great!’ Lost and Found begins ‘Once there was a boy and one day he found a penguin at his door.’ This line asks so many questions – we have to find out what happens. And as it happens, it’s a lovely, moving story with beautiful illustrations.

Adelaide, The Flying Kangaroo written and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer
Talking about killer opening lines, Tomi Ungerer’s book Adelaide begins: ‘Adelaide’s parents were surprised when they saw that their daughter Adelaide had wings.’ I love how he’s just jumped in with an appealing (illogical) premise from the very opening – bang! I’m a big Tomi Ungerer fan and this book about a kangaroo with wings is hard to beat. He is a master of making the ridiculous plausible and I always feel like I’ve had an adventure when I’ve read his work. And what could be better than that!

Mr Chicken Goes to Paris written and illustrated by Leigh Hobbs
Speaking of nonsensical plots, Mr Chicken Goes to Paris is one for the ages. Mr Chicken is an eight foot tall, canary yellow, top hat wearing, featherless chicken who one day decides to visit his friend, Yvette, in Paris. Leigh Hobbs is particularly clever at inventing odd characters and writing entertaining stories to suit them. Thankfully we as the reader, are more than happy to be lead along. Our kids love this book. It’s the funniest picture book I know. Leigh is so very good at wooing the reader with understated construct and then startling them with a sensational reveal. He says one thing then shows another. This is very difficult to do well (for me at least!)

There are a ton of picture books I could mention that have been influential with regard to the way I tell stories. It would take too long to write about them all, as much as I would like to but here are some others that have helped me along the way:

Amos & Boris written and illustrated by William Steig

Hector Penguin written by Louise Fatio, illustrated by Roger Duvoisin

That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown written by Cressida Cowell, illustrated by Neal Layton

The Mighty Lalouche written by Matthew Olshan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

The Incredible Book Eating Boy written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

Dogs Don’t do Ballet written by Anna Kemp, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie written and illustrated by Joel Stewart

The Migrant written by Maxine Trottier, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Bartholomew and the Bug written and illustrated by Neal Layton

Marshall Armstrong is New to our School written and illustrated by David Mackintosh
The Lion and the Bird written and illustrated by Marianne Dubuc

Harry the Dirty Dog written by Gene Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham

See Writing for Middle Grade Fiction with Jen Storer

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