My very first job in Children’s television saw me ironing Mr Tumble’s curtains and fitting the tumble toilet seat as a runner. Skip forward a few years and I was trying my hand at scriptwriting for the same show.
It was here that I really got my teeth into writing and soon learnt how to write concisely, working within the parameters of strict programme durations. Plus, there is nothing quite like a producer’s big red pen and the words ‘CUT CUT CUT’ to help you learn how to trim the fat from your writing.
This was an important lesson for me as a writer, don’t ‘overwrite’. Let the pictures help form the world you are creating and most importantly allow space for a child’s imagination to fill in the gaps.
I have since realised how important this lesson is outside of the TV writing world too. One of my favourite jobs in CBeebies is reviewing the picture book submissions for CBeebies Bedtime Stories. It is the dream of many authors to have their book read by a celebrity reader on TV and I am often asked what I look for when picking the books.
Unsurprisingly, I am drawn to concise stories. It is so easy to overwrite and I encounter so many stories with just too many words for a picture book. Remember the role that illustration can play in your book and how that can help support your writing. There is no need to be overly descriptive. A brilliant example is Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. There is no description of location or weather or how the characters are feeling, the story begins: ‘On Monday Sam and Dave dug a hole.’ – And that really is enough! In addition to this, the dramatic irony and comedy of Sam and Dave’s near miss with buried treasure is achieved through illustration alone. Only the dog notices the diamonds that they merrily dig past and not once does the story even reference that there is a dog. This is what I mean about letting children fill in the gaps. Give your world-building space to ‘breathe’.
It is not only concise writing that I am drawn to when reviewing the book pile for CBeebies. There are a whole host of considerations, from the technical: ‘How will the camera film that awkwardly shaped illustration?’ to the tonal, ‘Will parents thank us for encouraging their child to roar like a lion at 7pm?’ A huge part of the process is looking at diversity too, along with gender stereotyping, or whether the book accurately represents the world children live in now. I will sometimes encounter books that reflect the world of the author’s childhood, peppered with out-dated references or illustration. Long gone are the days where incidental depiction of a ‘typical’ family shows Mum washing the dishes as Dad sits with his feet up, holding a brick and a hardhat (Yes, these are real examples). Books that grab my attention are timeless or appropriately current.
The wonderful thing about judging the Searchlight Awards is that I can throw the constraints of television out of the window. There is no, ‘Didn’t we film a similar book last month?’ Or ‘Is this a bit naughty for CBeebies?’
So send me your submissions! I cannot wait to dive in.
Kayleigh Keam is a Writer and Director at BBC Children’s. She writes and produces television and audio content for pre-schoolers. Kayleigh works on CBeebies Bedtime Stories where she helps celebrity readers bring the very best books on the market to the youngest viewers. When not devouring children’s books or leaping like a salmon in a netball court, Kayleigh can be found entertaining her naughty sausage dog, Mr Tube.