The Best Invented Characters in Picture Books

My favourite part of writing children’s picture books is creating and developing fun and likeable characters. The characters are what steer the story and give it purpose and a meaning to exist.  However, to date I’ve never attempted to create a new creature in its own right. For now I’ve concentrated on humans or animals. So like many before me I often wonder what the right ingredients are that make an everlasting and memorable make believe character. Is it just a single magic ingredient or a mixture of many? To investigate this I chose six original and well known picture book characters which have stood the test of time.

Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs (author / illustrator). Published: Penguin Books ed. 2012.
This edition is set out like a graphic novel and as the title states, Fungus is a Bogeyman who bizarrely is lovable for the very thing we dislike about him; his grimy, grubby lifestyle. His manners and habits are so disgusting that we can’t help but grimace out loud and revel in his yucky, sticky mess. Fungus lives in the deep, dark tunnels of Bogeydom and this book devotes a double page spread to Bogey anatomy. Bogeymen sleep in the day then like to stir up trouble and be a nuisance at night by waking babies, making as much noise as possible, frightening people and even giving them boils as Bogeymen do everything humans despise. Fungus lives in a world which seems topsy turvy to us but completely mundane to him so he soon begins to question the reason for his existence.

The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My by Tove Jansson (author / illustrator). Translated by Sophie Hannah, 2001. Published: Sort of Books, ed. 2001.

Moomin is a lovable Moomintroll who lives in the woods and helps his friend Mymble find her sister Little My and the fillyjonk. Right from the start Moomin is the one leading the searches and not afraid of adventure. Moomin is portrayed as kind, helpful and supportive to the others whilst remaining a tiny bit vulnerable. What is there not to love about Moomin?

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson (author) and Axel Scheffler (illustrator). Published: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1999.


The Gruffalo is a creature that also lives in the woods, whose distinct physical characteristics are clearly described to create a memorable image (and rhyme). The woodland creatures talk about him liking “roasted fox, owl ice cream and scrambled snake” but his description turns out to be more intimidating than his actions as he mocks the mouse and gladly follows him. The fact that the reader is aware but not the Gruffalo, that it’s the Gruffalo scaring the other creatures and not the mouse only adds to our sympathy for the Gruffalo. He’s lovable because he’s not very bright and is easily manipulated by the mouse.

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (author / illustrator). Published: Harper Collins Children’s Books, ed. 2009.

Dr. Seuss is the master of creating characters including The Grinch, the Once-ler and Wockets but The Lorax has to be my favourite by far. The Lorax lives in a tree trunk and looks like a wise but jovial and cuddly grandfather figure. He speaks for the trees and isn’t afraid to follow his principles and ethics when the Once-ler starts to destroy the Truffula trees and their Truffula fruits. So much so eventually all the creatures are driven out of their home. It’s a serious story about the importance of looking after the environment but as always with Dr Seuss, it’s told in a clever and entertaining way. The Lorax is a strong, individual character.

Larf by Ashley Spires (author / illustrator). Published: Kids Can Press; reprint ed. Jun 2015.


Larf is a vegetarian sasquatch described as a 7-ft tall manbeast who lives in the woods with his bunny friend Eric. He’s an unassuming guy who doesn’t like attention and enjoys a quiet life but deep down feels a little sad that nobody seems to want to acknowledge his existence.  Larf feels different to the humans so keeps himself to himself to avoid drawing attention to his differences. However when he meets Shurl and Patricia he starts to feel they might be able to understand him so he becomes more open to changing his life and sharing his time with them.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (author / illustrator). Published: Random House Children’s Books, Red Fox Ed. 2000.

Although the Wild Things are not the main characters I thought they deserved being included as they still play such a central role to the story. Of all the characters I’ve mentioned The Wild Things are probably the most fearsome with all their roaring and gnashing, sharp claws and rolling of eyes but as Max is able to tame them and play games with them, they quickly lose their frightening image. The Wild Things live on an island in the middle of the sea and although they are physically gigantic and unruly animals we soon understand that they are just doing what comes naturally to them.

What do all these characters have in common?

Having gathered all these creatures together in one room I started to try and decipher what I’d learnt from these characters? What do they all have in common? Although not an exhaustive list, I picked out the most important points which stood out to me and thought I’d share these observations with you.

  • NAME – something easy to pronounce but with no other meaning.
  • APPEARANCE – they cannot be a human or animal but must be recognisable as a creature with eyes, legs and arms for example.
  • SETTING – where does the character live? Somewhere hidden from the human eye.
  • RELATABLE FEELINGS / ACTIONS – ensure the reader can empathise with the character’s reactions and reasons for doing something.
  • PERSONALITY – the character needs traits that we admire, love or sympathise with.
  • SOMETHING UNIQUE – there needs to be something unique or distinct about the character to make them stand out. Either through physical or personality traits, a particular interest, passion or belief or being unconventional in their outlook.
  • GROWS – the character needs to change, grow or learn something since the start of the story.
  • EFFECT ON OTHERS – they need to have an effect on the other characters, stir up feelings, instigate behaviours etc.
  • INTERESTING EXPERIENCES – they should experience a range of feelings and events in the story which surprise or capture the reader’s imagination.
  • NEVER MEDIOCRE – the character should be clearly defined with distinct personality traits and an individual appearance. Nothing vague or wishy-washy, these characters are different, unusual, with a purpose and the reader knows it.
  • GOOD OR BAD? – Are they a good or a bad character? They can be bad, but not intimidating, good but not weak or they may grow from being a bad character to a good one but never remain in between.

Looking at the characters within a story in this way isn’t easy and it’s obvious there are a number of factors to consider but breaking the character down like this can help to determine their motives, dreams and behaviours in greater depth in order to understand who they are.

Maybe now I should attempt the trickier part of creating a character of my own…

 

Source: Library or private copies.

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Children’s Books: An English Translation

Book Globe

Image courtesy of hywards at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How many children’s books can you think of which have been published in the UK but were originally written in another European language? Do a Google search and some will easily be found but most of us probably couldn’t instantly recall many of them.

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a BBC Radio 4 broadcast on translated books for children called “A World beyond Alice” with David Almond. Being World Book Day today I thought it was a very relevant topic particularly as the broadcast had prompted me to think about how little regard I give to where an author has come from. I could argue that it doesn’t matter. As long as the book is of high quality and can entertain and teach my children (and often myself) a thing or two about life, imagination, reading and writing, do I really need to know which country the author originates from? However, after listening to this discussion I realised that to dismiss it could mean my family and I are missing out on a whole new perspective and way of thinking about the world and to actively seek and experience these books could challenge our outlook and force us to ask questions we have not previously considered.

So why are so few well known over here? One reason may be that the number of children’s books published in the UK with foreign origins compared to the number of those that are originally written in English is minuscule. In fact the radio discussion quoted a meagre ”3% of children’s books in the UK has been translated from other languages.” Barr a few specialist publishers out there, this is largely due to the UK publishers focusing on exporting our books opposed to importing others.

We would be totally naïve and even arrogant if we thought this lack was due to only UK writers earning the prestigious awards. The talent is universal so why aren’t these books being translated? To introduce more foreign writers to the UK could be a means of bringing people together by creating a better understanding and acceptance of different cultures and teach children the value of other cultures from an early age. Foreign authors will have experienced different historical influences and culturally accepted norms which can only lead to new outlooks and expectations which they can pass on through their books. So it is they who are in a prime position to offer fresh interpretations, lead original stories in an unexpected direction and maybe even challenge our own cultural views and questions.

Although every country is comprised of unique individuals, within that same country each unique individual still shares a degree of common characteristics with the others and it is these common characteristics which define their country’s culture and makes it what it is. Then there’s love, hope, fear and friendship which are the basic needs and feelings common to all humans regardless of race, background and cultural beliefs. It is through these united desires and emotions that foreign books can appeal and create a wider understanding of universal similarities and help take down the cultural blockades we have built. Foreign books could show our children how to celebrate the similarities at the same time as opening their minds and encouraging them to understand that differences are ok too.

There are some classic examples of instantly recognisable authors from outside the UK who have proven to become an accepted part of our childhood book culture and continue to be enjoyed by many today but at the same time whilst compiling this list below I found the examples were not exactly tumbling off the bookshelves in droves!

The Emporer's New Clothes Moomin pippi longstocking Mrs Pepperpot Asterix

Hans Christian Anderson (Danish): The Emperor’s New Clothes (translated by Naomi Lewis) and Thumbelina (translated by Erick Haugaard).

Tove Jansson (Finnish): Moomin series (translated by Elizabeth Portch, Thomas Warburton and Kinglsey Hart).

Astrid Lindgren (Swedish): Pippi Longstocking (translated by Edna Hurup). A new edition has recently been translated by Tiina Nunnally and illustrated by Lauren Child.

Alf Proysen (Norwegian): Mrs Pepperpot series (translated by Marianne Helweg).

Rene Goscinny (French): Asterix (translated by Derek Hockridge & Anthea Bell).

B_UZ_VSMarcus Pfister (German): The Rainbow Fish (translated by Alison James).

The reasons why they are not being translated is certainly not so easily identifiable. The Radio 4 speakers discussed the reluctance within the UK book chains to stock translated books which evidently makes it increasingly difficult to spread the word and there’s no escaping the fact it is a more costly route but the reasons appear to stem far deeper than mere monetary concerns. It has already been mentioned that past experience has shown very few of these books live on to become timeless classics so maybe the cultural differences just don’t translate so well.

A successful translation needs to convey the spirit, the humour, the essence and the meaning of the original book. This is no mean feat and if it is written in rhyme this imposes a whole additional set of limitations to negotiate. So is it that the true message of a book is in danger of being lost in the translation? In terms of translating a picture book opposed to a full text book the translated story can often come into its own in this instance as the illustrations can serve to enhance the translation by expressing feelings and beliefs and intentions which otherwise may not translate as poignantly into words.

Inkheart TrilogyCornelia Funke the German author of the Inkheart trilogy made an interesting comment on the Radio 4 programme. It turns out that it is not just a case of the UK publishers shying away from publishing them due to marketing limitations but our European counterparts are also not actively promoting their books to us either. Apparently it is not typical in Europe to have an agent like we do in the UK and it is usually the agent who takes on the role of seeking foreign language rights.

Whatever the reasons are, there’s no doubt there is an element of risk involved in introducing more foreign books to the UK market as it would inevitably be a step outside of many people’s comfort zones and expectations of a what a children’s book should be like in the UK and until we become more accepting of a new approach it is probably not going to be pushed by publishers on either side of the water.