It’s my stop on the blog tour for How Messy! by Clare Helen Welsh and Olivier Tallec and I’m super excited to be sharing a guest post from Clare on how to write a picture book series.
Clare is an absolute pro at writing addictive picture book series. How Messy! is the third adventure of best-friends Dot and Duck, and you’ll know from my previous review of How Rude! And How Selfish! and interview with Clare just how much my family loves this series.
Dot and Duck are best friends, but Dot hates mess and Duck hates tidy. At the beach, Dot carefully lays out her towel and picnic… and Duck digs a big hole covering everything with sand! SO messy! But can they find the perfect balance being tidy and messy, or does the ocean have other plans…
Every time there is a new book in this series I say it is my favourite yet – and it’s true! This series gets better and better with every book (it’s incredible really!). Dot and Duck felt like old friends as we read How Messy! Perhaps this is my favourite one of all because our house is often a bit messy! We could all relate to the scene with Dot stepping on toys that have been left on the floor (in fact I can see toys on the floor as I’m writing this post!). Clare and Olivier capture real-life situations, frustrations and emotions so perfectly it feels effortless and makes the series a joy to read.
Every book in the series has a twist and I adored the twist in How Messy! – I laughed out loud – and by the final spread I had that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you know a picture book has left a mark (note: mark – not mess!). So how does Clare make her picture book series so captivating? Let’s find out…
With no more ado, it’s over to Clare to talk about how she fell into writing picture book series and her top tips for creating a successful picture book series…
These days, when I start a new story, I usually put some thought into its commercial appeal – and whether it would work as a series or not – before I begin. Some books are definitely standalone, but others have potential to be more than one book. Whilst picture books are almost always acquired on the strength of a single text, I’ve come to realise that thinking about the series potential at the point of writing, can help to ensure a text is as BIG as it can be. It can also help to sell a first text if a publisher can see how a series could be developed if the first book was successful.
However, most of my series came about by accident!
The Dot and Duck series (with Olivier Tallec and Quarto Kids), the narrative non-fiction animal series (with Jenny Lovlie and Nosy Crow) and the Lenny the Lemur series (with Nicola O’Byrne and Macmillan) were all written before I knew the value in a strong overarching series concept. I didn’t set out to write a series…
Thankfully, though, I have been in the capable hands of an editorial team who are one step ahead.
When the first Dot and Duck story was taken to its acquisition meeting in 2017, the then editor at Quarto, Matt Morgan, asked for future titles and brief synopses to share when he pitched the idea to his colleagues. To do this, I had to boil down the first story to its core – two characters who loved each other dearly but who appeared to be more different than alike. I found myself asking if was there enough in this idea for it to be replicated and if so, how?
I drew on my experiences as a teacher, as a parent, a sibling, a daughter, a wife.
I thought about the kind of dramas and interactions that could cause maximum confrontation and chaos– a tea party, playing a game, a holiday.
I also found myself thinking about the kinds of qualities we want children to take away from books – politeness, kindness, thoughtfulness…
…and before I knew it, I had around six ideas for further Dot and Duck adventures, all from mining my personal life!
The original story that went to acquisitions was called ‘A little bit selfish,’ later tweaked to be called ‘How Selfish,’ and my follow up ideas included: How Messy, How Noisy, How Rude, How Bossy. Once the rest of the team were on board, they decided it would be better to lead with How Rude as the first book, and so I had to write it!
Having a clear idea of the hooks and features of the series helped me write the subsequent stories.
Things that had to be the same were: the narrative voice, the repetition, the tone, the humour, the characters and the potential for Olivier’s illustration to add to the story. We talked about whether the characters should always play the same roles (the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ character.) The overall feeling was that the series could become repetitive if Duck was always annoying and Dot, always disgruntled. Plus, it’s nice to model the good and bad in all of us. There was also a concern that the series might be too repetitive if the resolution was always a ‘sorry.’ And so, I began thinking of resolutions early on in the process, to make sure I had an effective solution before I got too far down the line.
I found the parameters of what had to stay the same and what had to be different helpful – a bit like a formula! My brain always fires out lots of ideas, so the parameters helped to focus me. But I needed to work hard to make sure the subsequent books were strong enough in their own right. Luckily, I knew there was plenty of shiny potential in two very different characters wanting to be friends. The world would be boring it we were all the same, after all!
In short, my top tips for writing a series would be to work out what is going to remain constant and what you are going to change across the books, so the series strikes the balance between being familiar but not repetitive.
Maybe each book will have the same main character, but a different setting, like in Lenny’s stories.
- Maybe each book will have the same main characters, but a different conflict and theme, like in Dot and Dot adventures.
- Maybe your book will feature different characters but will have a similar tone/ subject matter each time, like in these books with Jenny Lovlie and Nosy Crow.
I was lucky in that I accidentally came up with ideas that worked well over a series – it could have been tricky to replicate what I had created in book one over a series. This is why I now write myself a possible list of titles and blurbs from the outset if I think a project might develop this way. Sometimes this informs my first text and being able to suggest to a publisher that a project has series potential can be a good thing, as long as you know it’s not a given. In most cases, subsequent books are confirmed based on the sales of the first.
Now my problem isn’t coming up with ideas for further books in a particular series …but having the time to write them all and hoping that publishers want to buy them!
Big thanks to Rachael at Picture Book Perfect for allowing me to share a little about my experience of writing series. And thank you to all the readers who have bought my books and supported me doing what I love!
Thank you so much Clare! I’m hoping from this post that we can expect to see lots more Dot and Duck books in the future!
How Messy! is published by Happy Yak, 3 May 2022
Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the tour!
I am very grateful to the publisher for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book. This voluntary feature contains my honest opinion.