Thursday, 26 March 2020

Seven Top Tips for Recording and Broadcasting from a Computer

Picture Book Authors Events Online. Logo by Chris Haughton

Like many others all over the planet, my family are having to get used to staying at home at the moment. My children are both grown up and capable of keeping themselves occupied, but I know that many parents may be struggling to keep younger children engaged and entertained. In an effort to help with this, many children’s authors and illustrators are producing videos, activity sheets and other online resources for families to view and download.

Children’s author Caryl Hart has set up an Authors Events Online page on her web site which links to resources that children’s authors and illustrators have created for stay at home families and I have set up an associated Facebook page Picture Book Authors Events Online to share new videos that picture book authors and illustrators have created for stay at home families.

If you are a picture book author or illustrator and have made a video that you would like to be shared on the page, you can email me, but please check that your video is eligible under the page’s Sharing Policy first. The page only shares new videos created by traditionally published picture book authors and illustrators (see the Sharing Policy for full eligibility details). Picture book creators can also live-stream directly from the page using Facebook Live. If you would like to live-stream from the page, email me and I can send you a walkthrough for live-streaming from a desktop or laptop computer.

I have been using a webcam to engage with online audiences for several years through my weekly school Skype sessions, but I know that many authors and illustrators are getting to grips with recording and broadcasting from a desktop or laptop computer for the first time, so I thought I would share some of the things I have learnt over the years. Several of these tips can also be found in my 10 Top Tips for Great Virtual Author Visits and most of them apply to recording video on a phone or tablet.

My Seven Top Tips for Recording and Broadcasting from a Computer

1: Dress the room

Treat the room that you are recording in as a set. Do you want a blank wall behind you or something that relates to your work. I have posters of my books on the wall opposite my webcam and have stuck cutout characters from one of my picture books on the edge of the bookcase that fills the left hand side of the screen.

If you have props or banners that relate to a particular book you are featuring in the recording, you could place them in the background.

You might also consider dressing yourself!

2: Be seen in the right light

Unless you actually want your audience to see you as a sinister silhouette, make sure your face is adequately lit when you’re on camera. 

If you’re using a computer with a large screen to record, bear in mind that the screen itself is a light source. If the desktop on your computer is bright green and there’s not much light coming from your surroundings, your face may be bathed in a sickly green light. This might be perfect if you’re reading a horror story, but if you're not, then a neutral-coloured desktop (or a blank white document) will illuminate your features without a colour cast.

If you're recording during daylight, facing a window and using natural lighting while you record can be ideal. However if your window faces south, you may have a problem with glare.

My desk faces the wall in my office. The room is well lit by a window, but the window is to my left and slightly behind me so that half of my face is in shadow when I look at the camera. To light my face evenly, I have a daylight bulb mounted slightly above head height on my right hand side. The light from the daylight bulb matches that coming from the window giving the impression that my whole face is naturally lit.

3: Get your camera angle right

One of the most common shortcomings of footage recorded on a laptop computer is a poor camera angle as a result of the laptop being below the eye-line of the user. The image on the left below was taken from a laptop sitting on the desk in front of me and gives a great view of the underside of my chin and the loft-hatch in my office ceiling. The image on the right was taken with the same laptop camera but raised to my eye-line by placing the laptop on top of a couple of boxes. The eye level version gives a far more natural view of both me and my office.

Once you have your camera at the right height, check that it is angled so that your audience can see the whole of your face and not just the top or bottom of your head.

4: Look at the camera - not the screen!

One of the things that can make computer recorded presentations feel less real than face to face presentations is a lack of eye contact. This is because computer users often look down at the screen when recording. When I’m reading a picture book, I try to look straight into the camera for most of the time so that the audience will feel I am reading directly to them. If you are live-streaming you may still need to look at the screen to read viewer comments and questions, so try to remember to look back at the camera before responding to them. I’m new to live-streaming with comments and am still trying to master this skill.

Note for tablet users: If you are recording using a tablet in landscape orientation, the camera will be on one side of the screen. So if you're looking at the screen rather than camera while recording, the video will show you looking to one side.  The solution is the same: identify the exact spot where your camera is located on the front of your tablet (by waving your fingers close to the screen while the screen shows your image) and make sure you look at this point rather than the screen when recording.

5. Prevent “noises off” and other distractions

You don’t want to be distracted while you are recording, so take your landline off the hook and switch your mobile to silent. You might also consider quitting or turning off any notification sounds for software such as email and Twitter. If there are other people in the house, let them know that you are recording so that they don’t walk in on you unexpectedly, start playing loud music or run around the house banging saucepans together and yodelling (this last one may only apply to my family).

If you are live-streaming and share a broadband connection with other people in your household, you may also want to ask them to avoid using the internet for high bandwidth activities (video calls, watching video-on-demand services such as iPlayer or Netflix or transferring large files) while you are streaming to ensure that you have sufficient bandwidth to broadcast effectively.

6: Play with perspective

Objects close to the camera lens will appear abnormally large relative to more distant objects and you can exploit this to add a bit of visual fun to your readings. I often take advantage of this ‘perspective distortion’ effect in my Skype sessions with schools. Here are some examples of how I use perspective distortion when reading some of my picture books:
  1. The Princess and the Pig: When the queen and the farmer are holding out the princess and the pig to inspect them, I hold out my hands towards the camera to make the audience feel like they are being held.
  2. Pigs Might Fly!: When Wilbur pushes the big red button that fires the rocket booster and sends the wolf blasting out the back of his jet, I pretend that the camera is the button.
  3. The Santa Trap: When Bradley is throwing a tantrum, I move my face close to the camera so that his angry rant fills the screen.
  4. Prince Ribbit: When Arabella and Lucinda kiss the tiny Prince Ribbit, I give my audience a taste of what he’s experiencing by treating them to a giant smooch. This last trick always gets a big reaction, eliciting a chorus of shrieks from a young audience.
CLICK TO ENLARGE IMAGE. Illustrations 1, 3 &4 : Poly Bernatene. Illustration 2 : Steve Cox

Perspective distortion can also be useful for displaying small objects to your audience. When I began reading my picture book The Clockwork Dragon to schools I soon realised that very few of today’s children know what clockwork is. So I now preface my readings of that book by showing my audience some simple clockwork toys. When I’m sharing the book online I use the camera to give my audience a close-up view of a clockwork toy with an exposed mechanism to give them a better understanding of how clockwork works.

7: Have things to hand

If you have material relating to the book you’re reading that might interest your audience it’s a good idea to have it close to hand. For instance, when I’m sharing The Clockwork Dragon online I often show the audience printouts of the Machine Maze activity sheet and the Kingdom of Rodney Visitors Guide which they can download from my website.

If you think you might want to show your audience other books that you’ve written or any other material relating to your work, it’s a good idea to have that to hand as well. Having done hundreds of Q&As as part of my weekly school Skype sessions, I know which questions are likely to come up and I now keep the books I can show to illustrate the answers in a magazine file beside my computer. The contents of this file include:
  1. The first book I had published, in both UK and US editions (since I Skype regularly with schools on both sides of the Atlantic).
  2. My most recent book. I show this when asked, “How many books have you had published?” so that I can give an answer along the lines of, “64 and this is my 64th book.”
  3. My favourite book that I’ve written myself.
  4. A non-fiction book that I’ve written. (Most of my books are fiction)
  5. A favourite book from my childhood. This particular book is also a book written by one of my favourite authors and a book that inspired me to become a writer.

I hope that the above tips will be of use to writers and illustrators getting to grips with online video. If you have any questions, comments or tips of your own, please post them in the comments box below.

My regular weekly school Skype sessions are on hold for the foreseeable future, but if you work in a school that’s remained open for the children of key workers and would like me to Skype with your students (for free), you can fill out the request form on this page of my website.

And don’t forget to check out the many videos and livestreams recorded by picture book creators on the Picture Book Authors Events Online Facebook page.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Gareth's Story Planet Interview

When my first children's book was published (back in the last century) I didn't know any other published children's authors or illustrators who lived in my home town of Nottingham and it was several years before I met any. Things have changed and I now know several Nottingham-based children's book creators, including picture book creators Erika Meza, Frances Stickley and Lee Wildish. A recent addition to the list is Gareth Peter, whose first picture book, My Daddiesis published in May.

Gareth has set up a YouTube channel Gareth's Story Planet on which he posts videos describing his journey to becoming a published author and interviews with other picture book creators. I was honoured to be the subject of Gareth's first interview, recorded (against the cluttered backdrop of my office), earlier this year.

The interview is split into two halves, both of which can be watched below.

Part 1 in which I ramble on about how I became a children's writer, how I shamelessly exploited my children for inspiration and my love of The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak.
For the benefit of any US viewers, when I say "I'm a bit of a republican," that's a republican with a small "r" as in a person who favours a non-hereditary head of state.

Part 2 in which I talk about how The Santa Trap could have had a very different ending, the benefits of collaborating closely with an illustrator from the very start of the writing process and the importance of diversity in content as well as character representation within picture books.

Gareth has already recorded several more interviews with terrific picture book creators including authors Caryl Hart, Peter Bentley, Timothy Knapman and illustrators Garry Parsons and Dapo Adeola … 
… so make sure you subscribe to his Gareth's Story Planet Youtube channel to catch them all.

Gareth's first picture book, My Daddies, a beautifully-rhymed tale of a family's adventures in imagination, is illustrated by Gary Parsons and published by Puffin on the 14 May 2020. You can pre-order a copy with free delivery from Hive stores using the link below.

Friday, 10 January 2020

A SPOT OF BOTHER is still my most borrowed UK library book!

I've just received last year's UK library loans figures for my books, courtesy of the Public Lending Right (PLR) organisation. Although my top 5 books most borrowed books remain the same they have shuffled around a little.

A Spot of Bother, illustrated by Vanessa Cabban, is my most borrowed book for the second year running. The sequel to The Pig's Knickers was taken out of UK libraries just over ten thousand times last year.

Prince Ribbit, illustrated by Poly Bernatene, has remained at number 2, while The Silver Serpent Cupillustrated by Ed Eaves, moves up to number 3 with The Princess and the Pig and Here Be Monsters, both illustrated by Poly Bernatene, completing the top 5.

The PLR figures show that my books were borrowed from UK libraries a total of 114,123
 times last year.

PositionTitleNº of loansRelative Position
1A Spot of Bother
illustrated by Vanessa Cabban
2Prince Ribbit
illustrated by Poly Bernatene
3The Silver Serpent Cup
illustrated by Ed Eaves
4The Princess and the Pig
illustrated by Poly Bernatene
5Here Be Monsters
illustrated by Poly Bernatene

A big THANK YOU to everyone that borrowed my books, the wonderful librarians that made them available and the UK PLR scheme for helping authors like me to earn a living.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Party leaders reading picture books

I was skimming through the election news yesterday when I came across this photo of Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson reading a picture book to school children on the Guardian website.

I recognised the illustrator as Guy Parker-Rees and Guy identified the book as The Chimpanzees of Happy Town written by Giles Andreae. It's the story of Chutney the chimp who inspires his fellow chimpanzees to rise up against an oppressive mayor and transform their grey, cheerless town of Drabsville to the colourful Happy Town of the title. I can't help feeling that this book was not chosen at random!

Primary schools are popular campaign stops for party leaders eager to show that they have their finger on the pulse of the nation's school system and I suspect that picture book readings are often employed to ensure some level of engagement in what might otherwise be an awkward interaction between politician and pupils.

The Jo Swinson photo reminded me that an eagle-eyed friend had spotted the then opposition leader David Cameron reading Someone Bigger by me and Adrian Reynolds to a group of pre-schoolers in a BBC news report in 2008. This story is about a small boy whose repeated attempts to take control of a runaway kite eventually prove successful.

So, with an election looming, I thought I'd highlight the picture books other party leaders have read to school children. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about whether their choice of story is intended to convey a message.

Here's Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn reading We're Going on a Bear Hunt. This modern classic, adptated from a US folk song by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, is about a family that sets out on a long and arduous quest to capture a bear, only to beat a hasty retreat when they finally encounter it.

Here's Conservative Leader Boris Johnson reading Shhh! by Sally Grindley and Peter Utton. This is another quest tale, only this time the journey is through a giant's castle. Having been dared to wake the sleeping giant, readers are encouraged to flee the castle and shut the book.

Scottish National Party Leader Nicola Sturgeon is shown here with a selection of picture books on World Book Day. I'm assuming she read at least one to the children, but unfortunately I don't know which.

I wasn't able to find any photos of any of the other UK party leaders reading picture books, so if you know of any, let me know and I might add them to this post!

It's not just UK politicians that rely on picture books to bridge the generation gap when visiting schools. US President George W. Bush is supposed to have rejected proffered books in favour of his tried and trusted read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Bush was widely mocked for claiming that Carle's story was his favourite childhood book – because it was not published until he was 23!

President Obama also preferred to stick to a tried and trusted favourite. In his case it was Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. You can watch him giving a spirited rendition of the book at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll in the video below.

In these PR savvy days I assume that, if a politician does not have a tried and trusted favourite, a PR person will vet picture books before politicians are filmed reading them.

If not, I dare the next school Boris Johnson visits to give him Smriti Prasadam-Halls and Robert Starling's Brexit-inspired picture book The Little Island to share with the infants.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

HOW THE BORKS BECAME • New Paperback Edition

How the Borks Became, An Adventure in Evolution, written by me and illustrated by Elys Dolan, has just been published in paperback by Otter-Barry Books.

The book shows young children how evolution by natural selection works by following the evolution of successive generations of Borks, a fictional alien species who live on the faraway Planet Charleebob.

The Borks evolve from smooth-furred, short-necked, blue into shaggy, long-necked, yellow creatures.

"You see, Borks haven’t always looked as they do.
Their fur was once short and its colour was blue,"

The arrival of a huge flying predator - the Ravenous Snarfle – results in an evolutionary change.

"They were roaming this plain on a bright sunny day.
when a Ravenous Snarfle came flying their way."

Since the original hardback edition was published last year, the book has won the Best Early Years Book category of the STEAM Children's Book Prize which celebrates children’s books that highlight the importance of science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. And the Italian edition Perché noi Boffi Siamo Cosi?translated by Lucia Feoli and published by Editoriale Scienza, was shortlisted for the prestigious Andersen Prize.

The book has also picked up many glowing reviews, including the two below from Booktrust and Teach Primary magazine.

"This fantastically funny tale combines humour, rhyming text
and wonderfully vibrant illustrations to present evolution
and natural selection in an accessible way."


"Zany characters and joyous text combine into a thoughtful, lucid explanation of Darwin’s theory, so whether you’re a Y6 teacher starting this topic, or want to introduce younger children to the idea, there’s no better starting place."

Here's a trailer I made for the book.

You can download and print out these activity sheets for the book by clicking on their images.

Spot the Difference


And you can buy the new paperback edition at your local 'Borkshop" or by using one of the sales links below.

Buy at amazon US

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

HOW THE BORKS BECAME • STEAM Children's Book Prize and Lancashire Science Festival

I'm thrilled to announce that How the Borks Became, An Adventure in Evolution by me and Elys Dolan has won the "Best Early Years Book" category of the inaugural STEAM Children's Book Prize

The prize was set up by UCLan Publishing in partnership with the British Interplanetary Society to celebrate children’s books that highlight the importance of science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. The prize is unusual in that both non-fiction and fiction books are eligible for each age category. The combined fact and fiction nature of the prize is a good fit with How the Borks Became as it uses fictional creatures to illustrate the non-fiction principle of evolution.

I went up to the UCLan campus in Preston last Saturday to pick up the award at the Lancashire Science Festival.

My wife Rachel and I decided to make a weekend of it and took the opportunity to visit Antony Gormley's Another Place sculpture on the way. The sculpture consists of one hundred life sized cast iron figures facing towards the sea. The figures have been there since 2007; many are fully submerged at high tide and are covered in barnacles.

I did a couple of How The Borks Became events as part of the science festival and the award was presented to me at the start of my first event by Hazel Holmes of UCLan Publishing.

I was really impressed by how many fantastic events and activities there were to see and do at the Science Festival and how many local families had come along to explore them.

Here's one of the budding young scientists that the Borks and I met.

Local bookseller Tony Higginson of Beyond Books was on hand to sell copies of my books and do a bit of Bork-spotting afterwards. Thanks for letting me use some of your photos on this blog, Tony!

Once the festival was over, Rachel and I popped up the coast to Blackpool and paid a visit to the Tower and its stunning ballroom (as featured in Strictly Come Dancing) before heading home.

I'd like to say a big THANK YOU to festival organiser Stephanie Brayn for making me part of this year's festival, volunteer Charlie for helping out at my events, Hazel Holmes and the rest of the team at UCLan Publishing for organising the wonderful STEAM Prize and the judging panel for choosing How the Borks Became as the prize's very first "Best Early Years Book".

How the Borks Became An Adventure in Evolution
illustrated by Elys Dolan is published by Otter-Barry Books.

Buy this book at amazon UKBuy at amazon US

Find out more about this book and
download activity sheets on my website

My How the Borks Became event is suitable for ages 5-9 years.
If you're interested in booking it, you can download an event outline here.