‘Food is the sex of children’s books’
By Hazel Edwards
It might sound a little outrageous to say that ‘Food is the sex of children’s books’, but foody imagery is a way of writing which plays on the senses.
Food can be an important part of a picture book. But text also needs to leave room for the reader’s imagination, so ‘Special cake’ means different things to different audiences. Birthday cake? Icecream? Cake of soap?
Readers often know about my cake-eating hippo series, but are unaware of my other picture book titles, so I’ll include some here to share the crafting techniques and pay tribute to my illustrators.
Writing text for a picture book is the Rolls Royce of writing. I regard it as the area requiring the most skill. Quality matters. Every word counts. So there may be only a few hundred words across 32 pages, but the concepts and ideas need to be crafted. I prefer the term ‘choreographed’ to explain the balancing act of ideas.
I start with a quirky idea which has grabbed my imagination.
Like the concept in ‘Not Lost, Just Somewhere Else’ which was based on my excuse-skilled son always losing things, and then querying about the more abstract ideas of loss, like whether you could be lost if you were with yourself.
Since I think in abstract, not pictures, I don’t illustrate. As an author, I collaborate with an illustrator in a picture book and write an art brief of suggestions and reasons. But mainly I choose an illustrator with a sense of humour and let them draw on their expert skills. Or when I write a picture book for a specific child, such as one of my grandkids each birthday, I often use photographs.
Read to My Child is a Youtube site which shares picture books and ‘Who is Hiding’ which I wrote for my grandson Henry’s birthday is included here. Just Google it.
As a collaborator, I write the story first, but am willing to take out words if the artist is already covering that idea/concept in the illustrations.
Sub-text is vital. This is the ‘what is going on underneath’ the story, where the examples used indicate a bigger conflict. Sub-text is also what keeps adults reading, as a well structured children’s picture book will be universal and cross cultures and decades. The common themes are coping successfully with being different or ‘facing your fear’ which is what all the cake-eating hippo books are about. And why the big imaginary friend with all the answers is important.
Which of your picture books have food in them?
Most of them, because it’s a way of playing on the senses and especially taste and sight. I’ve never actually counted, but I’m often asked why I use animals so much. It’s a way of allowing a different viewpoint which is not a girl nor a boy.
However. ‘Stickybeak’ the mischievous duck with attitude is NOT dinner. Although there are have been great fan questions like:
‘Where was Stickybeak before he was a duck?’
My answer (after a bit of thinking) ‘Before he was a duck, he was an egg. And before he was an egg, he was an idea.’
‘Oinkabella’ is a pig, but is never eaten.
Although ‘Antarctic Dad’ (illustrated by Kevin Burgemeestre) hasn’t much food inside, at the Tasmanian launch we had fabulous ‘white’ themed food including a meringue iceberg.
Often book launches have creative food linked to the titles.
‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ has a slight link to honey and a bigger link to the buzz of reading to classical music.
‘Snail Mail’ about the literate snail who could read-eat was always popular.
And the twist in ‘Fish and Chips and Jaws’ which is about goldfish pets, is that if you live above a fish and chip shop, best not to eat your pets’ relatives.
Some of my older picture books are out of print, but can be found in libraries or have been adapted into apps like ‘Feymouse’ (Blue Quoll) about a large and clumsy cat born into a family of highly talented mice. (which is actually my favourite picture book). It does contain cheese!
Why does the hippo eat cake?
For reasons of absurdity. Creativity is putting together two things which have not been in that combination before. Real hippos eat carrots.
In my memoir ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake: Being an Author’ I share some of the ‘behind the pages’ stories of what inspired some books. And many imaginative fan letters and hippo cakes which have been made by imaginative educators, librarians and students. (Easier to make a roof than a hippo shape!) I call it ‘literary speed dating’ when a character receives fan mail and the author has to respond in character.
Picture books provoke amazing fan mail which I always answer.
Which fan mail stays in your memory?
During a Territory Tales Web Chat in Australian Literacy and Numeracy Week, Katherine South Primary School responded:
Hi Hazel; Us mob think you are a good author because you have good books that make us happy. From Gus, Dontay & Vernon
That’s food for the author.
Useful links re Picture Books
Hazel Edwards website www.hazeledwards.com
For Aspiring writers: if you wish to create your own picture book, check out hints here:
In this Youtube clip Hazel explains how ‘Look There’s a Hippopotamus in the Playground Eating Cake’ has been structured.
Lunchbox food too!
Hazel Edwards OAM has published 202 books including ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake’ series currently touring as ‘Hippo Hippo the Musical’. ‘Hijabi Girl’ co-written with Muslim librarian Ozge Alkan about a feisty 8 year old who wants to start a girls’ footy team, is her latest junior book. A cultural risk-taker, Hazel co-wrote ‘f2m: the boy within’ a YA novel about trans youth. A believer in participant-observation research, Hazel has been an Antarctic expeditioner .She mentors ‘Hazelnuts’ writers and was on the Australian Society of Authors board.
‘Not Just a Piece of Cake: Being an Author’ is her memoir based on anecdultery as a creative structure. Her books have been translated in ten languages and adapted for other mediums. ‘Difficult Personalities’ (PRH) co-written with Dr Helen Mc Grath is available in Russian, Polish, Korean, American and audio. Currently writing adult mysteries including ‘Celebrant Sleuth’.
Details about her picture books, reviews and activities are available at: