Making the leap from illustrating picture books to writing young fiction

a guest post by Ali Pye

My children loved their picture books but there came a time when they wanted to try a wordier read but were not yet ready for middle grade, so we started to browse the young fiction shelves of bookshops rather than the picture book rails. Now I have my own book, ‘The Adventures of Harry Stevenson’ on those shelves.

Harry Stevenson is an unassuming guinea pig who doesn’t set out to have adventures, he just falls into them accidentally. That’s what happened with Harry’s literary exploits, too – he was supposed to have a quiet life in a picture book but found himself unexpectedly propelled into young fiction, squeaking with panic (ok, that last bit referred to me rather than Harry.)

I’ve mostly illustrated rather than written books before, and only picture books at that. So having pitched Harry as a picture book to Simon & Schuster, I felt quite daunted when he caught the attention of the young fiction team instead. 12,000 words sounds like a lot of writing when you’ve wrestled with 500.

It turns out that young fiction is the perfect step up from picture books – for both readers and author/illustrators. Here’s why.

Firstly: the feel of the book. Young Fiction books are often heavily illustrated, so both the reader and creator are on familiar ground. ‘The Adventures of Harry Stevenson’ features 50 illustrations (in black and neon orange) so it’s fun, colourful and accessible, which is hopefully reassuring to the reader. There’s a lot to see and talk about, just like in a picture book. For me, the experience of imagining texts visually was a big advantage: I could focus the writing on scenes that would work well as images.

Next: the plot of young fiction books frequently revolves around comedy, which again is familiar to both parties. Young readers will enjoy a simple, comic tale before they move on to more complex stories. They’ve already encountered ‘uh-oh!’ and page-turn moments in picture books; these devices are further developed in young fiction. I think illustrators have an eye for comedy: as an illustrator you’re always watching life and you home in on moments that appear comedic or surreal. Slapstick (or sly) comedy is fun to illustrate in picture books, and it was very enjoyable to conjure up some comic escapades for Harry.

Thirdly: language. I was surprised at the range of styles of writing used in young fiction books. I looked through a pile of contemporary books to get a feel for the genre and saw that some authors use short sentences and simple vocabulary, while others go for more complex language. But generally speaking the books are pitched at a level that enables the reader to enrich their vocabulary, without being too sophisticated and scary. This is useful for the novice writer, too. At times I got it wrong, but Lucy Rogers at S&S has helped me learn by pointing out where the vocabulary has been too advanced.

And finally, characterisation. Picture books revolve around fairly simple, loveable, comic or mildly scary characters. In a young fiction book, the reader will find those familiar character types but has the opportunity to engage with them more deeply as their empathy and understanding develops. I found it quite hard to write in Harry’s voice and Lucy frequently reminded me to see the world from his viewpoint. It’s basic stuff but once you’ve cracked it, things can flow: get inside your character’s head! Again – this is a step up from picture books without being too complex.

I do hope that ‘The Adventures of Harry Stevenson’ is enjoyed by readers, and will enthuse them to read more.

This post is a guest post by author and illustrator Ali Pye and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. 

With thanks to Ali Pye. The Adventures of Harry Stevenson by Ali Pye is published on 13th June by Simon and Schuster.  

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