Publishers often like children’s books to be short. So do parents, who invariably end up reading them before bedtime. When my girls were younger, I often improvised abridged versions of long stories, aiming to shorten them without my girls noticing.
So shorter is better, right?
Well, I don’t know. You see, I also ended up reading 2-3 stories, depending on length. And if a book is fun to read, I find I have no desire to create my own abridged version. It turns out that the reason I try to shorten books is not because I don’t want to spend the time reading. It’s because I don’t want to spend the time reading that particular book.
It’s rarely a length issue. It’s quality.
I can’t tell you that you’ll win any arguments with publishers. But I can tell you as a parent that, if your book is fun to read, length isn’t all that much of a concern.
As a last little note on this, I should point out that the books I will most often skip are those books where I find myself stumbling over words. Those are a sure sign the writer wasn’t writing out loud.
Today I present four more recommendations from the bookshelf that should be of interest to anyone developing or producing content for children –
Creating Animated Cartoons with Character by Joe Murray
I first bought this book back when it was an ebook PDF direct from Joe Murray’s site and instantly bought the book again when it got a proper print run. From the creator of Rocko’s Modern Life and Camp Lazlo, this book is another that goes through every part of the process from creation all the way to the screen. Yes, this is full of practical advice, basic steps and lists of “dos and don’ts” that any content creator needs to know but it has more than that. What makes this book different is Joe Murray’s personal point of view. This book in many ways is like the grounding voice of reason that we all need to hear sometimes and that just comes through in how it is written.
Being very much on the small independent side of things, I have actually had an easier time than most but let’s never kid ourselves that this is an easy business. It is not. It can feel heartbreaking at times. Joe Murray knows this and part of the book almost feel like a reflective part of his older self is writing a letter to his younger self – there is much we can learn from this Joe Murray.
G Is For Growing by Shalom M. Fisch and Rosemarie T. Truglio
G Is For Growing summarises thirty years of Sesame Street research. Sesame Street tests EVERYTHING and has done from day one. With testing and how they chose to use the information that came from that research, they managed to create a wonderful balance of entertainment and education that set the template for just about every educational show that followed. While this book, being written by academics seemingly for academics, doesn’t quite achieve the same level of balance, it contains a wealth of information that will be of use to anyone making children’s shows. So much can be gained by looking at the research that led to great shows like Sesame Street rather than just looking at the shows themselves and trying to reverse engineer them. G Is For Growing is like the Sesame Street source code.
Anytime Playdate by Dade Hayes
Offering a look, as the full title states, Inside the Preschool Entertainment Boom, or, How Television Became My Baby’s Best Friend, this book is a great read both from the perspective of a content creator and as a parent. A parent himself, Dade Hayes makes it his mission to find out just what goes on behind the scenes in the children’s television business – the story behind the content his young daughter seems so hooked on every day. This book explores the good, the bad and the ugly of the industry and, even though written from a very personal viewpoint, feels very open-minded, inviting the reader to come to their own conclusions about what he finds out.
And even for those of us in the industry (at least for those of us on the more European side), there is the odd surprise here and there, and not all of them good ones. For the content creators, his exploration into the development of Nick’s Ni Hao, Kai-lan is of particular interest as it, like so many other shows over the last ten years, aims to repeat the success of Dora the Explorer. A very well-written and enjoyable read.
Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years Of Life On The Street by Louise A. Gikow
This is a wonderful celebration of Sesame Street, packed full of information, stories and fantastic pictures. It is a real treasure, exploring the show from its creation all the way to today (well, 2009). Beautifully designed and laid out, it is one of those books that is just a treat to pull down from the shelf and open up on a random page.
And for those of us in children’s television, it is an inspiration. I put Sesame Street up there as the best children’s television show of all time and it still has so much to teach those of us producing content for children. While there are other books on Sesame Street of great value, such as G Is For Growing above, in my view this book is the most enjoyable.
That’s it from the bookshelf for this post. As always, aim to learn and get better at what we do. Our audience will benefit and, if they benefit, we do too.
While I stumbled through the beginnings of Fluffy Gardens with a very limited amount of knowledge, it became clear early on that I could only benefit from studying all aspects of creating content for children and, since then, I have made it my business to find out everything I can about other shows, what has worked and not worked and why, and I have sought out the research – and there is a LOT of research out there. This is a well worn road and so, even for those of us determined to find our own path, it makes sense to see what we can learn from others. Not just the odd line we pick up browsing through an industry website. Real research and understanding. Would Fluffy Gardens have been a better show had I done my homework? Absolutely. And Cosmo is going to be a far, far better show for all the experience I have gained and research I have done since diving into Fluffy Gardens for the first time.
With that in mind, I thought I would recommend a few books that I think could really help those creating, producing or directing shows, or hoping to one day make a show. To start with, here are three books I think will help you –
Animation Development From Pitch To Production by David B. Levy
As the name suggests, this book covers animation development from the idea stage all the way to the screen. It uses industry stories to illustrate each part of the process and offers a huge amount of practical advice. Like so much of the most useful advice, much of it is stuff common sense would tell us and yet, in the midst of a busy life, we need to hear again and again. Within industry quotations are many different points of view – you don’t have to agree with all of them but there is plenty to consider and thoughts that may lead to you producing better work.
It should be pointed out that this book is based around the US system of getting shows off the ground. Things work very differently over this side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of value in knowing why things work that way in the US.
Mind In The Making by Ellen Galinsky
This is not a book on moulding shows. It is a book on moulding better people. Recommended by David Kleeman on Josh Selig’s Kidscreen blog, I found this book to be incredibly valuable. As I have said on this site before, a show needs something special to justify its existence. What can your show give children that will be of real value to them? This book will provides many suggestions. It takes you through seven essential life skills and shows how we can better nurture those skills in children. It is a reminder of the importance of we do, of what we can offer children that will contribute positively in their lives. This book is for the people who are serious about giving children something good.
I recommend building a show with your contribution at its very core, not shoehorned in at the end. This book can help suggest ways to do that. Not the easiest read in the world – I find academics seem to write like, well, academics. But informative and valuable.
Children And Television Fifty Years Of Research by Norma Pecora, John P. Murray and Ellen Ann Wartella
There is over fifty years of research into children and television. You might think you will do fine without knowing any of the results but why would you want to? This book is a gold mine of information. What works, what doesn’t work, what content affects children in what ways, how educational television affects children as they grow older, the effects of violence on your audience, how children process ads and so much more. This book summarises all of the results and, in doing so, provides a guiding voice for what to do, and what not to do, if you have the well being of your audience in mind and want to engage them positively.
This book is like the anatomy of what we do. With drawing, for example, you can copy a drawing of a person and it might look okay, but not great. But if you have a working knowledge of human anatomy and structure, your drawing will be so much more solid because you aren’t just copying lines – you have a real understanding of what you are doing. Many people making shows just copy the surface of what they see on TV (I was guilty of this myself at one point). But the great shows often had years of research to get where they were at. You won’t get the same results copying the surface. You need to know how they reached all their decisions.
This book is the starting point. From here, you can look up the studies and dig deeper and deeper and I guarantee you that it will make your work better.
So there you have it, three books to start with. If they sound interesting to you, seek them out. Read, take notes and make your work excellent.
We talk a lot about co-viewing but the reality is that television is often (mostly?) watched by children alone, while parents make lunch, tidy up, smoke a fine cigar while enjoying a glass of cognac or whatever.
For very young children, however, a book must be read by an adult.
An adult is present at all times to provide context, discuss ideas, explain what is real or not real, censor if needed (I tend to replace the word ‘stupid’ with ‘silly’ – I just don’t like stupid) and give children the messages they want to give them. And specific books can be pulled out at specific times – they don’t just air on their own in an order decided by someone else. It becomes parent and child time. Family time. Picture books, by their very nature, seem to help me be a better parent and hopefully that will in turn help my children grow up to be better adults.
I always imagined Fluffy Gardens as a series of books. Even when I was pushing it as a series, I always imagined it as books.
Well, I love children’s books and simply thought that the stories would work really well as books. I love the direct interaction between a parent and child that comes with storytelling.
I had figured out that, even if they weren’t books, I wanted the same feel of that parent/child interaction. It’s why I wanted one narrator to do the character voices, just like a dad would. And I had realised that, while it is said that television is a visual medium, very young children listen more than they watch. So, for me, getting the story to work in just the audio was a must.
So the one thing I needed to capture the feel of a show destined for television, was a book. And so we made one. Just printed up a few copies. I only have one copy myself. I’m not sure where the others went. But I thought I’d show it here, just so you can see part of the pitch materials we used for the show.
Here’s the cover –
Note the different logo. Also, you’ll see that the lines around the background elements are black. That would change for the show itself where we went for coloured lines.
And here is Paolo’s house…
If you’re familiar with Paolo’s house, you might notice that, while it has the same colour scheme as the final design, it’s simpler, more crude (there are stories to tell about the houses – another time). The font is the dreaded Comic Sans for some reason. I know that will make some people vomit. When you get back from the toilet, I’ll save you a second trip by letting you know we never used it again.
A cup of hot tea? On the arm of a chair?! That’s not safe! No, it’s not. That made it in to the pilot episode but broadcaster Deirdre Brennan, of ABC Australia at the time, pointed out that it shouldn’t make it to air. She was right and it didn’t.
My favourite book title –
We had a few funny Paolo book titles but I don’t think I ever managed to top that one.
And basically the book goes on from there. It’s slightly shorter than the final version and possibly the better for it. For me, Fluffy Gardens as a series of books seems a no-brainer. They’re written as storybooks. They’re written to be listened to. But then, if that had gone to books rather than television, I would have missed out on all the amazing and funny moments the animators added in themselves. Or the magic that Michael Maloney added. Or Jonathan Atkinson with the music. Animation can add so much.
Still… there’s nothing like that real parent/child interaction in reading a book, is there?