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Reading with Tennessee: what novelists can learn from picture books : 0% read

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Reading with Tennessee: what novelists can learn from picture books

Having a small child has reshaped my reading landscape. In the weeks following Tennessee’s birth, the fog of tiredness and the unrelenting physical and emotional demands of looking after a small child, made it hard to even pick up a novel. At first, I experienced the absence of my literary companions like an ache, a hunger that I knew I wouldn’t be able to satisfy for a long time.

However, I soon realised that I was still reading. Aloud, rather than in my head. And picture books rather than novels. But I was reading all the same. Sometimes for hours at a time. And that these stories were far from being pale shadows of the tomes which lay stacked on my bedside table.

Long before Tennessee could even recognise shadows flitting across her nursery wall, Hugh and I read to her. We read to her when she was still in the womb. We read to her when she was a few days old, her eyes barely open. And we read to her as she began to wake up to the world.

And as I read to her, I came to understand that although I wasn’t reading Anne Tyler or Toni Morrison or Jonathan Franzen, I was still being nourished by the power of fiction. Perhaps more so than ever before.

In fact, when I began to pay attention, I realised that I was learning some remarkable lessons about character and story, lessons which would go on to inform my own writing life.

Over the last two years of my daughter’s life, I’ve developed a huge respect and love for children’s stories, in particular the concision, simplicity and power of picture books. Now that Tennessee is a little older we share stories in a much more communicative way: she points at pictures, she repeats words – can recite whole refrains. There’s a dialogue when we read – and isn’t that, in itself, a pretty magical experience?

When, as adults, we read novels, we do so on our own, locked in our heads. When we read a picture book with a child, we share the story.

And there’s something else very special about reading picture books – as opposed to novels: their brevity (and the nature and predilections of small children), mean that we re-read them – over and over and over again. My husband, Hugh, a classically trained actor, has more or less memorised the entire Julia Donaldson canon. This  comes in handy for soothing middle of the night recitations when we don’t want to turn the light on.


Tennessee coming face to face with The Gruffalo at Alice Holt Forest.

The power of re-reading stories is that we learn and take something new from them each time we read. Many factors mould how the story is received. When it is read: first thing in the morning, late at night, in a car, inside, outside. The mood we’re in when we read it. The book that came before and the one which will follow: another joy of picture books is that, much like modern-day box-sets, we can glut on them!

The story also changes according to who reads it. Hugh likes to show off his ability to put on different voices and do accents. I like to spend time helping Tennessee notice tiny details in the pictures which connect to the words – or sometimes conflict with the words. She is beginning to look at pictures and make her own stories now, which is just magical.

And on the subject of images – I’ve begun to wonder why it is that we ever outgrow having pictures in our books. Many will argue that they don’t want images influencing their imaginative recreation of the characters. I suppose they have a point, but I do think we lose a dimension when we only have text.

Pictures deepen story, enrich it, provide a commentary, an aside, show different possibilities of interpretation and are just aesthetically so satisfying.

I’ve come to understand that the literacy involved in understanding the composition of an image is as sophisticated as following a sentence.

Enlight2-2And here’s Tennessee & The Gruffalo’s Child!

I mentioned that reading picture books with Tennessee has also influenced my writing as a novelist. Here are some of the beautiful lessons I’ve learnt through these hours of reading with my little girl:

Character: one of a kind and hugely identifiable

The characters in picture books are a perfect blend of, one the one hand, slightly eccentric, bonkers, unique, other-worldly and also deeply human and ordinary. Which is more or less how, if we are honest, we see ourselves. Creating these multi-dimensional, loveable and special characters is hugely important to our readers. To capture that magical combination is a real skill and one that will make our stories memorable and loved – and will make them last too. Characters are what we remember most about the books we love.

Plot: simple but powerful story arcs

I used my favourite picture book, Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and The Whale, to teach a workshop on plot. Let me specify that this was a workshop for adults. I was terrified that my intelligent, well-read workshop members would turn their noses up at this and ask for their money back. Shouldn’t I be using Shakespeare or Dickens or Ian McEwan to teach plot? Fortunately, my gamble paid off. By going through the key elements of plot through Julia Donaldson’s beautiful tale of adventure and courage, we came to deep understanding of what a good story is and how we can apply it to our adult fiction.

Stasis: the snail on the dock, longing for adventure.

Trigger: a whale comes along.

Quest: the snail wants to see the world – she hitches a ride on the whale’s tail.

Obstacle: the whale is beached because of inconsiderate speed boats pushing him too close to the shore.

Critical choice: the snail slithers very slowly across the sand to a local school where she writes a message on a blackboard with her silvery trail: Save The Whale.

Climax: the school children, their teacher and the villagers rally to save the whale – pouring water on him until the tide comes back in.

Reversal: the whale is saved and swims off again – with his buddy, the snail, of course.

Resolution: the snail comes back to her dock and inspires the other snails to climb onto the whale’s tail and they all set off for an adventure together.

Setting: Magically real worlds

The worlds I’ve created in What Milo Saw and The Return of Norah Wells, and in my third novel coming out next year, Before I Was Yours, are all very ordinary: Slipford, Holdingwell and Fleetbridge could be any small town near you. But there’s a magic in those places too. Unexpected occurrences. Quirky inhabitants. Houses that might as well be characters for the role they play in the story. They feel familiar and other, much like the best characters. Picture books are amazing at doing this. Just think about how ordinary and how magical the deep, dark wood is in The Gruffalo. Or that green room in Goodnight Moon or any of Oliver Jeffer’s worlds. 

Language: Perfect sentences

No word is wasted in picture books. Picture book writers are even greater perfectionists than poets. Every comma and full stop, every line break, ever syllable, needs to earn its place. Picture books are a masterclass in economy, in only using the words that really matter. We novelists could certainly hone that skill!

Genre: The blurring of poetry and prose

Some of my favourite novels are genre-benders. Novels that don’t fit into neat categories. I love how Jon McGregor blends poetry and prose in novels like If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. Picture book writers do this instinctively. Before I had Tennessee I wondered why everyone raved so much about Julia Donaldson. I get it now. She’s the children’s Shakespeare. Her stories are as tightly plotted as her language is lyrical. Indeed, it’s her use of rhyme and rhythm and alliteration and onomatopoeia and vivid imagery which makes children fall in love with her. The reason Tennessee can recite whole chunks of The Room on The Broom is because the language is so memorably enchanting. 

Ideas: making sense of our world

Whether we’re grown-ups or children, stories help us to make sense of and navigate the world. As Tennessee wakes up to the range of emotions and experiences within her, to relationships, to family, to the taste of success and failure, to hope and disappointment, the stories she reads give her a window as well as a frame work to make sense of these new and bewildering experiences. Her stories might be about dragons or cats or little boys chasing stars or princes and frogs, but they are no less real or human for it.

I love writing contemporary fiction, strongly rooted in the real world, in tune with the issues of our age: I believe that fiction, more than any other form, helps us to understand our lives and the lives of those we live alongside. Picture books are teaching me how to do that better too.

Emotion: humour & pathos

Children are brilliant barometers for whether a writer has struck the right emotional note. They’ll laugh out loud at a prince wearing a potty on his head instead of his crown (The Prince and the Potty) or at Samuel Sprat’s deafening meow (Tabby McTat’s) – but they’ll also feel deep sadness when a character they’ve grown to love and empathise with suffers. One of the most moving experiences in my reading with Tennessee was her reaction, at a very young age, to Stick Man being lonely and lost and covered and covered in frost – and far, far away from his family tree. She would point at the family tree mournfully, her face downcast and say, in the most touching voice: ‘Stick Man home…Stick Man home…’

Good fiction makes us feel.

Experience: hope

I’ve only once come across a picture book which left me feeling devoid of hope. I bought it for Hugh and Tennessee because it was all about trees – and Hugh loves trees – but when we came to the end, we just felt empty and numb. We returned it. Not because we have a pollyannaish view of life or because we want Tennessee to grow up sheltered from the darker sides of life. Indeed, picture books are often brutally honest about the shadows of the world. But they leave us with hope. Because that’s how we learn to survive, how we learn to live better lives, how we make the best out of the cards dealt to us. Picture books teach us that hope is not easy. That hope is, in fact, damn hard. It’s a decision. It’s a conscious choice to see the world as full of possibility rather than finality. I hope that, no matter how challenging and tragic my stories are, I will always give my characters the gift of hope.


Tennessee reading with Vi, one of our two white cats. If you look closely you’ll see that it’s a cookery book – Ben and Jerries no less. We believe in helping her develop a varied reading palate.