How to Become a Picture Book Idea Catcher by CHITRA SOUNDAR

Over the last few weeks, PBDenners have been talking about different topics that relate to the picture book world. From end papers to book launches, talking consent or children who are at a loss for words, there is a treasure trove of topics you can dip into. 

This week I want go back to basics. Perhaps because I’m between projects and my mind is subconsciously searching for the next idea for a picture book. 

I recently watched a clip in which Neil Gaiman answers an audience question about where you get your ideas from. 

I loved his answer for so many reasons. First, this is a question everyone asks when they meet a writer – be it a school visit or at a cocktail party. Secondly, he thinks it through in real time, talking as he thinks and while the answer is never clear cut, he lays out a few fundamentals that are useful for all writers too. Go watch it. 

With the pandemic raging across the world, and most of us stuck inside our homes, gathering ideas has become more of an indoor activity – at least for me. 

So, when ideas flutter by, identify them, acknowledge them and file them for later. Ideas do grow and find other ideas to relate to. It’s like when you consciously look for red cars, all you can see on the road are red cars. When you see a glimmer of an idea, things that be compatible to that idea will attract your attention. You will notice things that you would have otherwise ignored. 

But if you’re new to this idea-catching skill, you might need some help in the beginning until your own subconscious can take over. 

Here are six tips to help you become a picture book idea-catcher.

1. Read loads of picture books. 

This is totally obvious and yet most new writers I meet haven’t read that many books or haven’t books relating to the idea or type of story, they are working on. Read more contemporary picture books – perhaps published in the last 10 years or so.

2. Read baby development books.

If you haven’t been near a baby / child/ toddler / pre-schooler in the last few years, chances are you need reminding on their behaviours. What can they do at which months / years and what they cannot do at certain ages. Not just physically, but emotionally and cognitively. Many of these books will tell you about the children’s fears, behaviours and about what they find interesting. 

3. Look for words that children would love to say.

Look for words that children might want to repeat. Or even phrases. Find funny sounding words. I’m not saying it will lead to a story directly. But it will definitely inspire ideas. 

4. Write five What-if Statements every day.

In your journal / writing notebook / laptop wherever you’re comfortable, imagine five age-appropriate what-if imaginings. 

What if a turkey were to sing… and such…

This is a brainstorming activity and is very useful for exhausting what's on the shallow top layer of your brain and slowly dig into the ideas that lie beneath the surface.

Ever so often one of those sentences might spark a story – open a new document or turn a page and start writing. 

5. Read fairy tales and folk tales. 

Firstly just for the joy of enduring stories. But secondly to see how some of those fairy tales might work out today. Or are there parallels in some stories to real life?

6. Read an encyclopaedia 

A visual one if you have it. But when you read it, read it like a child. What would a child find fascinating and now can you see a story in any of those fascinating topics? 

Becoming an idea-catcher is a lifelong vocation. Start now and see how your little idea notebooks fill up. And every few months or so, go back and read your ideas notebook and see which ideas have found each other and will work great in the same story.

Good luck with your idea-catching!

Chitra Soundar is an internationally published, award-winning author of over 40 books for children. She is also an oral storyteller with a loud voice. She also writes trade fiction, non-fiction, poetry and theatre. Find out more at Follow her on twitter  @csoundar

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