Lisa Shanahan is an internationally published writer of picture books and fiction for young people. Some of her well-loved picture books include Gordon’s Got a Snookie, and My Mum Tarzan. Her books Bear and Chook and Daddy’s Having a Horse were both shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year for Early Childhood, which their sequel, Bear and Chook by the Sea won in 2010.
What’s one key thing that really makes a picture book work?
The best picture books often have a beautiful seamlessness between the text and the illustrations, so that a reader can barely distinguish how the story finally comes to them. So much of the challenge of making picture books, for both writer and illustrator, is learning the difficult art of restraint.
How do you distinguish which ideas will capture kids’ imaginations from ideas that don’t work?
When I first started writing picture books, I sometimes found it hard to discern which ideas were the most promising. I always carry a writing journal and the things I write are just snatches – snatches of conversation, of description, of ideas. I’ve come to recognize that the best snatches arrive with a certain shimmer, a sense of peculiar ripeness. I’ve learned to pay attention to those particular moments where my own heart is seized with tenderness for another and to see that lingering pang as a reliable sign of whether an idea has something more substantial to offer to younger readers.
What’s your favourite picture book and what makes it special?
It feels impossible to choose a favourite picture book! I continue to serve a rather lengthy apprenticeship sitting in libraries and bookshops, observing how picture books work and contemplating why they move me so much. The picture book that made me laugh out loud most recently was Oi Frog! by Kes Gray and Jim Field. I’m a huge fan of Bob Graham’s work, from his early picture books like Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten to his most recent Home in the Rain. He has an unerring eye for what it’s like to be a child in the world and his books are always funny, diverse, bittersweet and generous. He writes with great poetic economy and his illustrations are simultaneously unassuming and breathtaking. He is a master of restraint and he invites constant re-reading.
Join Lisa in her course From Seed to Story: Writing Picture Books on Saturday 3 June, 10am-4pm at the NSW Writers’ Centre.