Paddlefoot (A story for the little ones)

Paddlefoot was feeling glum. He was tired of being the biggest dragon in the world. His enormous feet broke boulders every time he walked. When he sneezed, he blew trees right out of the soil. Worst of all, his wings were so big and heavy, that he couldn’t lift them off the ground. Which meant he couldn’t fly. Whoever heard of a dragon that couldn’t fly? It was a terrible shame.

A tiny magician heard of Paddlefoot. He came to Paddlefoot’s cave, with his wand held high.

“I am Fionn the magician,” he said, “I have heard tales of your troubles, and I wish to help you.”

How can a tiny magician like you, help a huge dragon like me?” Paddlefoot asked, puffing steam out of his nostrils like factory chimneys.

“I will cast a spell, and swap you my size. If I was the biggest magician in the world, everyone would respect me. In return you will become as small as I am. You will enjoy the world without the fear of knocking it apart.”

“I really am tired of being so big,” Paddlefoot said, “Let’s do it.”

The magician waved his magic wand and whispered a spell beneath his breath. He didn’t want anyone to hear his words, in case they stole them. After all, words are very precious; especially magic ones.

A great flash of light made Paddlefoot close his eyes tight. He felt himself shaking and bubbling and shrinking. When the shaking stopped, he heard a loud swishing noise. He opened his eyes again, and realised the swishing was just the wind, now so much louder in his tiny ears. He coughed and coughed, until he got the hang of taking tiny breaths, now that he needed much less air.

He looked down at his body. His wings were as small as daisy petals. His tail was like a blade of grass, and his legs as thin as strands of hair. He laughed and yelped, for he was now the smallest dragon in the world. No matter how hard he walked, he would no longer cause any hurt to the world.

As he was dancing on his little legs, the ground began to shake, and he was thrown from his feet. He couldn’t see what was causing it to shake, so he spread his leaf sized wings and flew into sky. At last, he was a dragon that could fly. He twirled and whirled in the wind. He had never felt so free.

But then he heard thunder. Loud and roaring, it smashed through the air. He looked around, and saw Fionn the magician in front of him; a huge giant tumbling about. His footsteps were the cause of the ground shaking, and the thunder was his laughter. Fionn blew out a great puff of air, and a gust of wind threw Paddlefoot into a cluster of trees, that were almost ripped from their roots. Fionn knelt down to a river and slurped it all up, leaving the fish jumping on the dry land.

“Stop!” cried Paddlefoot, “You’re ruining the world!”

Fionn laughed louder, and the mountains crumbled to the ground. He inhaled deeply, and swallowed all the clouds.

I said STOP!” Paddlefoot shouted.

“I’m the most powerful being in the world,” roared Fionn, and Paddlefoot had to hold onto a branch to stop himself being blown away, “You can’t tell me what to do.”

Paddlefoot knew he had made a mistake. He loved being small more than anything. But he knew that if he stayed small and Fionn stayed big, then the world would be in terrible danger. When Paddlefoot was big, he had moved gently. He had learnt to be careful as he grew, to protect the world around him.

“Where is my wand?” Fionn asked, “I must have dropped it when I was growing.”

Paddlefoot scanned the ground until he saw the wand, gleaming from the grass. Fionn bent down and tried to pick it up, but his fingers were too big and he couldn’t grasp it.

“Who needs magic when you’re as big as me anyway?” Fionn said, walking away and knocking over a hundred trees.

Paddlefoot flew down and picked up the wand. He hid it behind his back and flew up to Fionn’s ear.

Your magic is so clever,” Paddlefoot said, “Please tell me the words of the spell so I can admire your greatness.”

Fionn smiled and puffed up his chest with pride, causing such a wind, that a passing seagull was knocked into space.

“I can’t tell you the spell,” Fionn said, “You might cast it on us and reverse everything!”

“Oh no, I want to stay this small and free forever. Besides, there can be no magic without a wand. And a little dragon shall never have a wand.”

You’re right,” said Fionn, “In that case, the words were:

Tricks Trocks Hicks Hocks,

Put me into that man’s socks.

With the words fresh in the air, Paddlefoot waved the magic wand with all his little might.

Back came the flash of light, the shaking and bubbling. This time Paddlefoot felt himself stretching and growing. Very quickly, he was back to his old enormous self. Fionn the magician had shrunk, and was shrieking and shaking his fist at Paddlefoot.

“You tricked me!” he cried, his face as red as lava.

Paddlefoot laughed, very carefully, the way he knew how to, so that he wouldn’t knock any birds out of the sky.

Power is safest with those who don’t crave it,” Paddlefoot said, throwing the wand on the ground.

He lifted his huge foot and stomped down on the wand, cracking it in two. A little earthquake cracked the ground just beneath Fionn and he ran away, moaning and sobbing. Fionn the magician was never again seen in that part of the world. And Paddlefoot never again wished to be smaller.

The Draw of Picture Books

The more I read picture books, the more I question why some work and others don’t. When talking about novels, people almost universally agree on what it is that keeps the reader reading; the voice, the characters, the pace, the story etc. Sometimes you’re hooked from the first line, sometimes it takes time to warm up but you keep reading because you’ve heard it’s a great book, or you love the author’s other work.

But picture books are short, they need to capture their audience in an instant. There can be no opportunity to lose them. They need to leave their mark to make sure the young audience will ask for the same book again and again. But with such short word counts, is it still the characters, the voice, and the pace that makes the reader keep reading? There is not always time for character development. The word count controls the pace, to an extent. So is it all up to the voice? Or perhaps it is a very careful balancing act to get the story across. Not forgetting the illustrations, which are often what attract us to the book in the first place.

I have heard many parents say that their child loved a particular book, and they couldn’t see why. What seems like a mundane story to an adult can be a comfort to a child. What seems like an amazing story to an adult, can lose a child’s interest on the second page, with those dreaded words “This is boring.” I have often been surprised by buying award-winning picture books, only to find my daughter wandering off half way through and coming back to me with an alternative book that gets shoved in front of the award winner. This I find intriguing. Is it always an adult who judges these books, or are they handed out to children to see their response?

I recently borrowed “The Monster Machine” by Nicola Robinson (author and illustrator) from the library. I picked it out because we were due a book about making monsters less scary, and the illustrations were fun. But to my three year old, this was no ordinary book. We read it five times that day, and then almost every day for the 2 week loan allowed by the library. I cannot tell you why she loved it so much. Something about it just gave her that special feeling that made her want more and more of it.

That, I think, is the key to a good picture book. Not just the story, or the pictures, but the feeling you get when you read it. More importantly, the feeling the child gets when they are read it. Childhood is the beginning of feelings, with new feelings arriving almost on a daily basis, with each new experience. A book than can make a child understand, re-live or experience a new feeling is, to me, a success (especially if that feeling is warm and fuzzy).

I read an interview with Julia Donaldson, who said she didn’t write to teach children what she thought adults wanted them to know, but she writes to give children a good story. Story is fundamental to picture books. Without a story that stands out, the child won’t want to hear it, and the parent won’t want to read it a hundred times. But I do believe in teaching through stories. When I first read Polly Dunbar‘s “Flyaway Katie”, I thought it was sweet. My daughter, 2 at the time, loved it, so I had to read it again and again. I no longer think it is just sweet, I now think it is marvellous. It took me awhile to realise all that is going on in that short book of so few words and pictures. Not only does the book teach colours, but also emotions, creativity, positive thinking, imagination, and sounds. All with the added bonus of fantastic illustrations. Now my youngest daughter, just turned 2, has discovered this book, and I can honestly say that I am delighted to be re-reading it all over again.

To capture such feelings in so few words is not easy. I first wrote a picture book thinking it would be simple, sure anyone can do that. 300 words? No problem. But it is not as easy as it looks. I have decided that is actually easier to write a 50,000 word novel than a 300 word picture book that leaves the reader with a warm feeling every time they read it. So I take off my hat to Polly Dunbar, and Julia Donaldson, and Martin Waddell and all those other picture book authors, who can create a world, a magnet, and a feeling in an instant.

Grassy Toes (From the Sally in the garden series).

Mum was trying to put Jamie to sleep but he was making an awful lot of noise. Jamie was Sally’s baby brother and he didn’t like when it was nap time.

“Why don’t you go out in the garden Sally? It’s nice and quiet outside,” said Dad.

“Can I bring my blanket? I could have a picnic,” said Sally.

“Only if it’s an imaginary picnic. It’s nearly lunchtime,” said Dad.

Sally went to her bedroom. She took off her shoes and socks and put on her big sunhat. She picked up her blanket ,doll ,two teddies and her toy picnic basket. With so much in her arms she couldn’t see where she was going. She dropped them all on the ground and went to find her shopping trolley.

“Have you seen my shopping trolley? I need it to carry my things outside” Sally asked Dad.

“It’s in Jamie’s room. But you can’t go in there because Mum is trying to get Jamie to sleep,” said Dad.

Sally was about to cry but Dad had an idea.

“Why not use you doll’s pram? That’s in the hall,” said Dad.

“That’s a great idea!” said Sally.

Sally put everything she needed into the pram. She pushed it to the kitchen but it got stuck in the backdoor.

“Let me lift that down for you,” said Dad.

“Thank you,” said Sally.

It was much quieter outside. The only noises were the birds in the garden trees but Sally liked that noise. It was much nicer than the noise of Jamie crying.

The pram was easy to push on the patio but was much harder to push on the grass.

Sally took out her blanket and lay it on the ground, trying not to squash too many buttercups.

“You sit there Dolly Lucy, you here Teddy Tom and Teddy Tickles can sit next to you,” said Sally as she put her toys on the blanket.

Sally gave them each a pretend cup of tea.

“I forgot to bring any bread and butter so you’ll have you eat daisies instead,” Sally said to her toys.

Sally sat down and had some pretend milk in her cup but didn’t eat a daisy because she knew that could give her a sick tummy. Toys didn’t get sick tummies so it was okay for them.

Dad came into the garden.

“I’d love a cup of your tea” said Dad.

“You can share with Dolly Lucy. She doesn’t really like tea anyway. She prefers milk.” said Sally.

“Like you,” said Dad.

Dad sat down on the blanket and Teddy Tom fell over.

“Daddy! You knocked over Teddy Tom” said Sally.

“Sorry Teddy Tom, the blanket is a bit small for all of us” said Dad sitting Teddy Tom up again.

“Here’s your tea,” said Sally.

“Thank you. Mmm, delicious,” said Dad pretending to sip his tea.

“Do you know you have no shoes on Sally?” Dad said.

“They’re in my bedroom,” said Sally

“Silly Billy, you’re always supposed to wear shoes in the garden,” said Dad, “What if you stand on a stone?”

“I won’t. I watch where I’m going,” said Sally. “I like wearing no shoes in the garden.”

“Why?” said Dad.

“The grass feels nice under my toe-toes,” said Sally, “It’s tickley and soft and sometimes a bit bumpy and I like it.”

Dad smiled. “That’s a good reason not to wear shoes. I think I’ll try it.”

Dad took off his shoes and socks. He put his socks into his shoes because Mum always tells him his socks are smelly and there’s less smell when they are hidden in the shoes.

Dad wriggled his toes in the grass.

“That does feel nice,” said Dad, “It feels airy.”

“Grass isn’t airy. It’s grassy,” said Sally.

Sally lay down on her blanket and closed her eyes, which is what mum wanted Jamie to do inside. Sally thought it was easy to close her eyes and didn’t know why Jamie found it so hard.

“If you’re going to sleep then I’ll go back inside,” said Dad, “I’m supposed to be getting lunch ready anyway.”

“Can I have my lunch out here?” said Sally.

“Why not?” said Dad standing up. He picked up his shoes and carried them to the house.

“Yippee!” said Sally.

“Oww!” said Dad.

Sally looked up at dad. He was holding his foot in his hand.

“What happened?” said Sally.

“I stood on a stone,” said Dad.

“Silly Billy Daddy,” said Sally, “You should have been looking where you were going because you’ve no shoes on.”

Sally lay down again and waited for her picnic.