Sunday, March 04, 2007

Coloring outside the lines: lessons learnt from meeting Joan Rankin and Deborah Fraser

The joy of illustration,” presentation by Joan Rankin, illustrator of over 40 published children's books and writer, hosted by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators's Gauteng chapter (SCBWI) went extremely well.

To start with, Joan gave us a bit of background about her career – told as an illustrated fairytale. Following that, she gave a presentation on “storyboards.”

She showcased a number of children’s book illustrators, essentially showing us the artwork of a specific book they did, then outlining what the illustrators hoped to achieve, what they did and whether the end result was what they hoped for.

A lot of the artwork shown was impressive, but the language was sometimes beyond me. The books she later circulated engaged me more, and I could see "the conversation" the artwork had with the written words. Not sure that's the lesson Joan intended, but whatever helps a writer improve can't be bad, don't you think?

Storytelling tips

I also enjoyed Joan’s demonstrated suggestion of storytelling at schools by using an overhead projector. The illustrations [on the projector] provide the visual for the class, engaging input that kids would definitely enjoy. It also provides an opportunity for a talented illustrator /storyteller to draw in new elements on the pages as the story is being narrated, further engaging the listeners.

I know how a talented writer can tank in front of the kids because she tries to show illustrations in the book to the kids while also relating a story. A couple of months ago Baby attended a session where a well-known writer did that, and all she says about that session is that it was boring.

“I couldn’t see the pictures he was pointing at,” she later said to me.


Coloring outside the lines

The most important insight I learnt from Joan’s presentation is go to beyond my own experiences as a writer and try to understand the children’s story as told by the illustrator.

To date my focus has been on getting the story and words right – it is usually the publisher’s prerogative to choose an illustrator, so why worry myself about an element of the book I had no control over? And while I love books, and children’s books, I have little knowledge or understanding of the art world or what goes into illustrating a book.

But, I realized that my children’s story, told in words, coexists on the same pages as the story that the illustrator tells and an appreciation of that reality needs to be infused into my work.

New appreciation for Deborah Fraser, gospel diva

The lesson to go beyond my known boundaries was further reinforced at a party I attended later that evening, where I also met, and was introduced to the music of Deborah Fraser, gospel diva. I was vaguely aware of Deborah’s work, having heard her music played on radio and seen her on TV. But I’m not a heavy gospel music fan……

However, the mother of a close friend of Baby, a girl with whom she plays most weekends, had a birthday this past week and hosted a party on Saturday. It turns out the pastor of her church is married to Deborah, so the family attended the party.

The DJ played a lot of Deborah’s music [when they weren’t playing Louis Armstrong!] and I liked it so much I found myself on the dance area. Even went down a time or two:-).

Deborah's music is available through most music stores nationally.

Networking with other writers

I also had a great time networking with other writers and illustrators who attended the SCWBI meet, and exchanged a few business cards with them. One of the writers offered to critique my work and exchange for evaluating hers for authenticity. I couldn’t believe my luck because that’s exactly what made me attend the event in the first place.

The writer has published four children’s books, and has more in the works, so I hope that in the near future I will introduce her, and her works here. She also has a story to tell about problems getting her books distributed in SA, as her books were published overseas. But that's her story to tell if she wants to......

Connecting with book buyers

Another writer spoke about the fact that children’s books are rarely reviewed in mainstream media, and mentioned a specific publication she tried to encourage to review children’s books, in vain.

She is right – buy-in from daily newspapers, women’s magazines, parenting magazines, among others would be good. Writers need to continually push for that; they need promote themselves and their books to mainstream journalists, so they too become part of the effort to get SA children to read.

I know that’s hard work, and can be thankless task too. I also know journalists and editors are a hard sell when you ask them to review your book or profile you as a new writer, as they are mostly looking for something that can generate headlines and debates.

One of the participants, a librarian, said writers and librarians need to connect more, so the writers can find buyers for the books they slaved over, and librarians can find the locally produced books they need to provide for the kids.

I think it would also help if writers looked at other innovative ways to find the people who make book-buying decisions – maybe through reviews in parenting magazines, women’s magazines etc. Writers also need to learn more self-promotion strategies.

Sometimes American writers I know drive me crazy because they are so focused on self-promotion; sometimes I think overlooking the fact the most important aspect of a writing career is bringing out new materials. But SA writers could learn a lesson or two from the blatant self-promotion.

It is unfortunate that even I, as a writer and mother of a child who loves books, am still not connecting to SA children’s book writers.

As I mentioned here previously on this blog, many local writers don’t seem to have web presence, so even when I hear of them, and want to check out their works, it’s not easy to do. And by the time we get to the bookshop, they have to compete with their overseas counterparts for Baby’s attention.

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