Picture Book-making at the Story Museum in Oxford
Guest post by Catherine Batac Walder
These last few years, the Story Museum in Oxford has hosted some events for children at the Oxford Literary Festival. In 2016, we went to an event there with author, illustrator, and current children's laureate Lauren Child, and in 2017 met Fairytale Hairdresser series author Abie Longstaff. This year, there were a few events at the museum that I wanted to go to (including one with How to Train your Dragon creator Cressida Cowell) but alas, time didn't allow it. One thing that I was keen from the start, though, was "How to Create a Picture Book," with award-winning author and illustrator Claire Alexander. The two-hour event was geared towards children 8+. My daughter just turned seven but as this was right up her alley, and after asking her if she wanted to go, I signed her up.
The event took place in the Long Room of the Story Museum, the children sat around tables at the front while we accompanying adults watched from the back. I felt like a stage mother but I was giddy about my daughter attending her first writing workshop, where else but in historic Oxford, where a lot of characters in children's books that we now love came to life. The museum itself, formerly a huge Royal Mail depot, felt so magical that it could be a part of Lyra's fictional Oxford. It snowed all day on that Saturday, but it wasn't freezing enough for the snow to settle (the first time in my 10 years of attending the festival that it ever snowed), as though encouraging the children to create their own Narnia, a world imagined by another beloved author in this very city.
Claire Alexander started the workshop by reading one of the books that she had illustrated as an example. And then she showed some of her drafts/sketches, giving tips like how she would look up pictures on the internet to base a scene on. She showed examples of a few techniques that illustrators use such as double page spreads, vignettes, and single page layouts. As someone with an interest to write for children, I found the event equally interesting and noted many useful information such as when doing a spread, you have to be sure that you don't put a text or an important character in the "gutter" (middle of the spread). She also gave examples on how to show feelings and emotions in one's illustrations, that is, to use close ups or to draw the character small in a big world in order to create feelings of loneliness or distance.
Using Robert Louis Stevenson's poem "The Land of Nod," Alexander guided the children in telling a simple story over 16 pages or eight spreads to create a mini book. Stevenson's poem worked so well for this purpose as it has 16 lines. I liked how Alexander helped the children by showing how she'd draw a particular scene and I just knew later that my daughter watched, observed, and listened to everything when she even recapped Alexander's technique at starting a drawing: "It looks like a stick figure at first, and she draws really lightly, but this time she doesn't, so we can all see the drawing," she told me. Alexander walked around the room constantly to look at the children's works-in-progress, supervised them and praised their work. The children participated in the discussions on how to illustrate scenes and some of them drew their ideas on the flipchart in front of the group.
Alexander signed books at the end of the session. She graciously doodled a cat in my daughter's sketch notebook after I told her how much the little girl loves her cat drawings. She drew Millie from Millie Shares and said she hadn't drawn Millie in a while. How special that Millie in the book is alive in my daughter's notebook, saying hello to her (in photo).
Alexander teaches writing and illustration of picture books. She won the 2013 Paterson Prize for continued excellence for Back to Front and Upside Down and is also author of Monkey and the Little One, The Best Bit of Daddy's Day, and Lucy and the Bully.
The Story Museum in Pembroke Street, Oxford, is a work in progress. Future events include "Fairytales for Grownups" and "How to write for children," in addition to exhibitions and installations that run all year-round; It's Always Tea Time, focused on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, opens tomorrow.
--Catherine Batac Walder is a writer who lives in the UK. She has contributed several posts from abroad over the years, including her post on seeing Hilary Mantel at the 2017 Oxford Literary Festival and Orhan Pamuk in 2014. Find her at: http://gaslighthouse.blogspot.com.
Images credit: Catherine Batac Walder