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Posted by Camilla, November 7, 2011

Writers and Novelty Books

On Saturday morning I joined Val Brathwaite, Creative Director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books, as a speaker in a session on illustrated books at the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook Children’s Writing Conference at the Wellcome Building on the Euston Road.

Entitled ‘The Insider’s Guide to How to Get Published’, the day was attended by all sorts of children’s writers: new and experienced, previously published and unpublished, writing both illustrated books and fiction. But the one thing that they shared was a desire to get their books into print.

Of course, there is no magical formula to getting your book published but Val and I discussed what we felt made a successful picture book, changes in the children’s books market, how to best present a manuscript, and what we were looking for in a text. In the end, what lies at the heart of it all, and what all publishers are looking for, is a great story, well told, with strong international appeal.

Now I didn’t ask but I’m guessing that, of all the writers attending, none aspired to be an author of novelty books. In fact, although I find novelty books creatively exciting and they make up a large part of what I do – and I know that that they can be hugely valued by young readers – I myself barely mentioned a novelty book in the course of Val’s and my conversation. And it got me wondering why that was. After all, there are some enormously successful novelty books out there – Dear Zoo (which has sold over 4 million copies since its publication in 1982) and The Very Hungry Caterpillar (the polo mint of novelty books) amongst others. So, why are novelty books often less highly regarded, or even completely overlooked?

Well, it seems to me that there are a few reasons. The first is that novelty is often for younger children so, by necessity, it may have less emotional content and we therefore engage with it less. So, in some ways it’s fair enough, but as anyone with a toddler knows, you don’t want books with feelings – you want fun, engaging and appealing. However, novelty doesn’t have to be lacking in heart – Peepo, for example, is a charming and rich book which chimes with both adults and children.

The second reason is that novelty books often appear to be very simple and hence of less worth. But, as anyone who has ever worked on a novelty book knows, this simplicity is deceptive: it is not necessarily easy to do. Delivering the drama of a story with a lift-the-flap book or a book with holes, for example, is a complex writing and design challenge. Setting up the characters, drip-feeding the story and revealing the punchline at the right moment, all in just a few spreads, is not straightforward by any means.

Of course, the term ‘novelty’ doesn’t help. It gives the book a disposable, temporal quality, which is often undeserved. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is older than me, for goodness sake! And it has survived for so long for a reason: it’s very, very good.

Having said all that, novelty books are priced lower than picture books, even though they cost more to make. If the novelty is very complex and the print-run quite small, the author may not earn more than his or her advance. But there are some wonderful and enduringly successful novelty books that are earning their keep because they are simply brilliant books: The Jolly Postman, There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly, Where’s Spot?, the That’s Not My… titles, the Maisy books, The Bedtime Bear – it’s a long list.

So, calling all authors out there, don’t dismiss novelty as a route for your writing! It can be clever, beautiful, inspiring, critically acclaimed and possibly even lucrative. It’s a good creative discipline to learn to make the machine of a novelty book work and it can only help the rest of your writing. And, at the very least, if you do get your novelty book published, it may be that other, more ‘artistically acclaimed’ doors will open for you.

What are the novelty books that you enjoy? We want to hear from you. And if you’re a writer, we’d love to know your novelty ideas too!