Category Archives: Picture book

The Girl Who Did Blog Tours

Today I welcome Marnie Riches, as she writes about what she writes about. 

From Middle Grade to Murder: a children’s writer’s descent into depravity

As an avid reader of middle grade fiction at the time I wanted a complete career change, writing for children seemed the obvious thing to do. I understood children because I owned two and had once been one myself. I knew quite a few words. Great. More to the point, as my children were toddlers at the time, I decided that ideally, since I could paint as well, I should be creating picture books. Perfect! So, I knocked up a 32 page dummy of a story about a selfish, lazy hippo, called Billy the Messy Hippo. It was a didactic, overly long story, where Billy got his comeuppance for being a shitehawk to the other toys.

Whoops.

Billy Bathroom

Really, I wanted to punch Billy on the nose for spilling his drinks and bullying teddy. Maybe a spell locked in the freezer would cool him down. Or maybe I could disembowel him and throw his plushie stuffing in the bin. OK. Perhaps this short format wasn’t working for me. And the illustrations took weeks and weeks to do – it just wasn’t practical. There were better illustrators out there, anyway. I laid my picture book aspirations to rest (no bludgeoning or shallow graves were required).

Next, I wrote a middle grade novel about a girl called Zeeba, who goes on the hunt for aliens, sighted above the hills in Huddersfield. She got roped into a high octane world of spies, subterfuge and gangsters. There were some menacing, corrupt policemen and a disembowelled cow.

Er, whoops.

There were more children’s novels – the first six books in the Time Hunters series for 7+, published by HarperCollins under the pseudonym Chris Blake. Lots of fighting and peril in them, of course. Plus a puzzle to be solved.

Everything I had written for children included a high concept mystery, a great deal of tension, thrills a-plenty and violence. But I felt my nasty narrative was stunted by the age-banding. Perhaps I needed to try something else…

So, having developed the sparing, highly visual style of a children’s writer, I started to pen a crime novel for grown-ups. The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die was the first novel in a gritty, gripping, often violent Euro-noir series, featuring a young criminologist called Georgina McKenzie. In writing these books (I’m currently working on book 3 – The Girl Who Walked in the Shadows), I feel like I’m home. Everything fits. My writing style is still very akin to that used by Young Adult authors – I use very little exposition. Each chapter contains a distinct, often visual scene. I try to keep my dialogue snappy and realistic. But importantly, I am now able to make people have sex, drink heavily, smoke drugs, commit criminal offences, be utterly unpleasant to one another and, yes, disembowel other people. I think I’ve found my literary calling.

Marnie Riches, The Girl Who Broke the Rules

The Girl Who Broke the Rules is the second instalment in the series. In this book, I feel I’ve really got into my stride with my characters. It’s a story, seemingly about the brutal murders of sex workers, that flits between the red light district of Amsterdam and the strip-clubs of Soho. I wanted to explore themes of parent/child relationships, sexuality and the abuse of vulnerable migrants. I hope readers will see shades of Nesbø, Larsson and Thomas Harris in there, since these three are my biggest influences.

The question remains, however, as to whether I regret trading middle grade for murder? The answer is no. Because I will still continue to write children’s novels when my adult fiction deadlines allow. For, although a warped, adult imagination lurks behind my terribly boring, respectable middle-aged exterior, there is still a part of me that laughs at fart jokes and wants to tell utterly daft, touching stories about discovering the world through a child’s eyes; making sense of their relationships with adults and peers.

In fact, I predict I might well be working on a high concept children’s thriller before the year is out and maybe, just maybe, there won’t be a single disembowelling!

(Respectable middle-aged exterior?? She’s got pink hair!)

The 5-year-old toddler

How soon do you grow out of ‘toddler’ books? By toddler books I really mean picture books, although I know that in a way this is too vague a concept. There are picture books for adults. And for teenagers and eight-year-olds. I even seem to recall a picture book for 80-year-olds not long ago.

But the reason I’m asking is that I sat next to someone at an event a while back, who was most insistent on knowing my opinion on what age the book being talked about was aimed at. I suggested up to five, maybe. It wasn’t my book, so I had to guess.

He sounded exasperated with me (I didn’t ask to be asked in the first place), and explained he had a grandchild that age and it would be far too young for him/her.

The reason I felt this needn’t be the case, was that I’m beginning to think we are too categorical in our decision on who likes what and when. What makes us adults believe we know when a child won’t want a book any more? (Unless the child actually says so.)

Yes, perhaps they have matured and are ready for older reading material. But that doesn’t automatically mean that they won’t want to read the well thumbed and much loved picture book they have had for, oh, two years. Does it? Children feel comfortable with the well known.

I still have a few early books of mine. There are only a few, because I only owned a few books. I loved them then, and have seen no reason to part with them, despite my advanced age. So why take away a toddler age book from your child once they start school and can read ‘proper’ books?

(If someone were to point out I have done this very thing, they must be wrong. And I apologise. Just in case.)

No!

This is a most beautiful picture book. There is only one word in it, which is not much even for a picture book, but it is enough. The word is ‘no.’ And if you say it as ‘No!’ it might have more impact than you think.

David McPhail, No!

I don’t believe I have come across David McPhail before, but I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to read his one word, and to see his marvellous illustrations.

We see a young boy writing a letter and then taking it to the postbox. On the way there he witnesses many atrocities towards ordinary, innocent people, in a way that is sufficiently unreal, that I assume it’s not all happening on his way to post the letter, but rather that they are acts he has seen at some point.

But he’s had enough, so when he meets a bully, he utters the one, magic word. Try it yourself; sometimes it has a surprising effect.

There is something so beautiful about the simplicity of the pictures and the single use of the word ‘no’ that makes this a really special book. It’s a book I’d feel the urge to read to many young children, if only I had access to them.

If you do, please consider No!

Grandmother’s old book

H A Rey, How do you get there?

I forget whether Daughter was given this book by her Grandmother, or if she simply ‘borrowed’ it. We used to read it when visiting, many years ago, and it has that charm associated with really old things you encounter in someone else’s house and like because it’s theirs.

H A Rey, How do you get there?

It was lying around after the move and I was thinking (hoping) we could get rid of the book. That’s when Daughter’s eagle eye spied it and said ‘you are not getting rid of that, are you?’ So it seems we are not. Although, when re-reading it shortly after, she did realise it’s actually not a very pc sort of book. It features Eskimos and ‘black men who live in Africa’ and not in the most flattering way.

But the book is staying. Apparently.

Katie and the Starry Night

Here is Katie, back in the art gallery, back causing mayhem, in James Mayhew’s Katie and the Starry Night. Which, as any old person will know, is about Vincent van Gogh, and you probably know all the words to the song as well.

Katie’s Grandma feels sleepy, so ‘rests’ on a bench while Katie looks at a painting with lots of stars in. And she helps herself to one of them. After which mayhem breaks loose, as the stars float away, out of the picture, with Katie in hot pursuit.

James Mayhew, Katie and the Starry Night

In order to catch them she needs the help of various people from some other of Vincent’s paintings, as well as implements such as chairs and ladders and fishing nets. Luckily the people in the paintings are helpful and up for anything, so those stars are eventually caught and returned to where they belong.

In turn, Katie and every reader now knows these works of art rather intimately.

I know I say this every time, but I felt especially close to this story. I used to be very fond of van Gogh. In fact, during my year as a student in Brighton, there was a van Gogh in my bedroom, and for a while I was awfully worried it was the genuine deal.

Creatures Great and Small

It said in the paper that colouring in is good for the soul. For adults. Not that it isn’t good for children, but they already know this. It’s us old ones who need reminding of the good things in life, yet again.

And colouring in is it.

Many of us would like to be able to draw beautifully, or even just draw passably, but find we can’t. So the ‘cheating’ you do as you colour in what someone else has already drawn, can feel quite good.

In this book it’s Lucy Engelman who has done most of the hard work, and all you need to do is bring paint or pencils, plus your ragged soul. The book has been filled with drawings of animals of every kind. You want frogs? You can have lots of different ones, and they needn’t even be painted green.

Lucy Engelman, Creatures Great and Small

The book is also ready for framing or gifting, in that each page is perforated to be torn out. On the back of each page there are facts about the frogs, or whatever other creature it is you have chosen.

Go on, grab those felt tips. You know you want to.

Tents

Not sure if we lasted the whole night or if we gave up after a couple of hours. Such is my memory of the time my cousins and I put the tent up in our summer garden and planned to spend the night. Cold, damp and smelly I can remember. But it’s the planning and doing that’s the fun. Doesn’t matter if it’s totally successful.

I just read in a magazine that nature is the new religion for Swedes, and I can well believe it. I like to be near the sea as well as the next witch, but draw the line at forests. Some people actually like them.

Mick Manning and Brita Granström, Wild Adventures

Brita Granström was probably drawing on her Swedish nature memories when drawing her latest book, Wild Adventures, with her husband Mick Manning. ‘Look, make, explore – in nature’s playground’ is what they call it. And it’s definitely got enough ideas to last several school holidays, always assuming your parents either play with you, or let you be indpendent, playing in nature on your own, the way it used to be.

It’s all about putting up tents and other shelters, and finding and using everything out there. Personally I’m keener on nettle soup than I am on frogs’ skulls. Mick and Brita tell the reader about sounds and smells and tracks and what you can eat and how you cook out in the wild, and anything else you could conceivably want to do.

I’m very relieved we had no such book when Offspring were small, or there would have been no peace.

In Sarah Garland’s latest book about Eddie and his family they actually go camping. Eddie’s Tent and How to go Camping also has rules and instructions for how to holiday in nature, enjoying it while not destroying it.

Sarah Garland, Eddie's Tent and How to go Camping

It’s a lovely book, but I’m glad I’m not Eddie’s poor mother, who simply has to go on with the mothering she always does, but in harder conditions. Tom plays at cooking and making fires, but a mother’s work is always the same, except when it’s worse.

Eddie and the girls love it, however, and they make friends and they have fun and they learn to fish, and to eat fish. It’s all pretty wonderful, once they have braved the motorway jams to get there. It’s the stuff dreams are made of. As long as you are not a mother.

I’m sure mine realised early on that I wouldn’t last long in that tent. I suspect it was the same old tent she had used when she was young too.