Here's an article I wrote for this week's Pass It On Newsletter . Sharing it here for anyone who doesn't subscribe.
Thinking about writing a historical picture book? Here are five quick tips to get you started.
1. Choose an event (or an angle) which kids will be interested in. Children do love hearing about history, but not every famous event will have kid-appeal. You may be fascinated by the election of 1914 or the invention of a special liniment for the treatment of cold sores but will children be? When researching the life of Mary MacKillop, I was fascinated about her struggles with Bishop Shiels and other church clergy, but I wasn’t sure how much of that story would interest children.
2. Don’t try to cover every aspect of an event or a person’s life. A picture book text is short, and whilst historical picture books do vary in length depending on the target age group, you don’t have the word length to cover the entire story of the Vietnam War, or a famous person’s entire life story. Choose a key event, or key period of their life. For Mary MacKillop’s story I decided to focus on her establishing her first school, because I felt that was a wonderful introduction to her life’s work. The presence of her mother, sisters and brother in the story hint at her past, and a back of book timeline expands on this, but the story itself only covers less than a year of her life.
3. Do your research – lots of it. Yes, a historical picture book is short, which means a lot of your research won’t be used for the final story. But reading about the event or the person in detail, referring to original documents and getting an understanding of the time and place your story is set all shape the final story. Understanding Mary’s childhood and the economic and social conditions of her time helped me better grasp the obstacles she had to overcome to establish her first school.
4. Create characters. Even though you might be writing about real people and events you need to make the characters come to life, because young readers need to care about the people they are reading about. Just as in any other story, dialogue, gestures and action all build a sense of the person. When I learnt that Mary MacKillop would often have boiled sweets in her pocket to offer the children, I knew this had to happen in my story. It is a simple gesture that shows her caring side.
5. Be true to the times in which your story is set. This can be quite challenging. It is important to find a balance between historical accuracy and being child friendly. In a picture book, illustrations help to show the time period, but the text too can show how things are, rather than telling. The text of Meet Mary MacKillop doesn’t name the year the story is set (1866) but the text on the opening page has Mary lean out a stagecoach window, setting it firmly in the past. The dialogue is a little more formal than might be expected in a contemporary story, though I tried hard not to make it too stilted.
Writing historical picture books can be challenging. But if there’s an event or a story you are passionate about, the effort can be rewarding.
Sally Murphy is the author of verse novels, poetry and fiction for children including, not surprisingly, two historical picture books. Do Not Forget Australia (illustrated by Sonia Kretschmar) was published by Walker Books in 2012 and Meet Mary MacKillop (illustrated by Sonia Martinez) has just been released by Random House Australia.
You can visit Sally online at www.sallymurphy.net