June 22, 2011

The Gruffalo, Fancy Nancy, Elmer the Elephant, and Old Tom

Fancy Nancy And The Posh Puppy By Jane O'Connor

What makes a good children's book character?

I've been researching the success of many popular children's book characters to gain a better understanding. Many of the really popular children's characters have been turned into T.V shows, toys, clothing, and more merchandise than you can poke a stick at. But, why is this? It's an obvious bonus for the writer, editor, and publisher (ka-ching). But how does a character evolve into this marvellous being? It's got me thinking, that's for sure!

How do you develop your book characters? Do they just come to you? Do you painstakingly write your characters profile such as, voice, personality, relationships, mannerisms, physical characteristics and environment before you even consider your plot?

What's the secret ingredient for a popular children's book character? Each of the following book characters are completely different but are well recognised and loved by children all over the world. Have a read, you might discover some tips with your own book characters.

The Gruffalo was written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler in 1999,and published by Macmillan Children's Books (United Kingdom). The Gruffalo is well...a 'Gruffalo!' With his monstrous good looks he can be described as, big, hairy, honest and simple minded. He lives in the woods with characters, mouse, fox, owl, and snake. Donaldson is a genius at writing in rhyme and repetitive verse which is why, The Gruffalo, has been so successful selling over 10.5 million copies.

Author Jane O'Connor, came up with her picture book character, Fancy Nancy, one summer evening. As she describes it, "It was after dinner one evening that the title just came to me," she recalls. "I sat down and wrote the first and last paragraphs. The rest of the story took me awhile, but the beginning and the end just flew into my head."

O'Connor wrote the book in 2002, but it didn't come out until 2005. Editor, Mararet Anastas, insisted on waiting for illustrator, Robin Preiss Glasser, who was busy on other projects. Fancy Nancy's popularity cannot be denied with 13 books, games, and merchandise.

I believe Fancy Nancy's success is attributed to her larger than life personality and focus on dressing up and playing pretend. Girls love dressing up in fancy, frilly clothes, and pretending to be grown up. With her posh language, 'Ooo-la la,' and her adorable demeanour, there's no wonder why she's so well loved.

Elmer the Patchwork Elephant was first written in 1989, by British author David McKee, and published in the United Kingdom by Anderson Press.

Elmer is an elephant who has a colourful patchwork body. He is fun loving and optimistic and he loves practical jokes. Many of the themes that author McKee explores include, being different, self acceptance, friendship, and diversity.

Since 1989, it has sold 20 book titles and has sold more nearly 5 million copies in 40 languages around the world.

Old Tom

Old Tom was written and illustrated by Australian author Leigh Hobbs in 1994, and published by Penguin Books, Australia. Old Tom is a scruffy, lazy, mischievous cat that turns up on the door step of Angela Throgmorton. Angela is fastidious and fussy woman which makes this unlikely pair an interesting couple. Angela tries to train Old Tom but despite his good intentions he just can't stop getting into trouble.

According to Leigh Hobbs, 'In the Old Tom books I never refer to Old Tom as a cat. In character he is a seven year old boy and Angela Throgmorton is the archetypal mother/authority figure. Theirs is essentially a parent/child relationship. Old Tom defiantly will never be shamed into helping around the house for he knows that ultimately, Angela's love for him is unconditional.'

The 'Old Tom' series was adapted as a cartoon television series that aired in Australia, Europe and the United States in 2002.

Some More Popular Book Characters:

Cuddley Dudley

Spot the Dog

Handa's Surprise

Charlie and Lola

Winnie the Witch

What Faust Saw

Thomas the Tank Engine

Koala Lou


Rascal the Dragon

Meg and Mog

Mr Mc Gee Goes to Sea

The Way Back Home

Eloise at the Plaza

Wombat Stew

The Little Critter

Franklin the Turtle

Winnie The Pooh


The Cat in the Hat

Some links that might be helpful with character development:

Children's Books (7 and Under) Shirley Hughes's Top 10 Picture Books

Creating Believable Characters in Children's Books Robyn Opie

Picture This! Relatable Main Characters Rob Sanders

Can you name the popular children's book characters? Sporkle

Writers Digest 5 Tips for Creating Characters for Kids

A Way with Words Tips for Writing Picture Books


Grillyfish said...

I adore Spot the Dog and Elmer! It is an interesting subject, some characters are just amazing and live forever in the hearts and minds of generations whereas others can be so quickly forgotten!

I wish I knew the secret to making the difference :) Off to go and read the articles you have linked to - thank you!!

Unknown said...

Hey Grillyfish,
Thanks for your comment. The link I attached, 'Picture This!' I found interesting because he writes about making characters relatable, looking at their flaws, and developing a well rounded character. I must add some more to my list :)

Deirdra A. Eden said...

You have a fabulous blog! I’m an author and illustrator and I made some awards to give to fellow bloggers whose sites I enjoy. I want to award you with the Best Books Blog Award for all the hard work you do!

I invite you to follow me, if you haven’t already done so, since we have a lot in common, but no pressure. I’m not giving you the award just so you will follow me. You really do deserve it!
Take care:-)

Go to http://astorybookworld.blogspot.com/p/awards.html and pick up your award.


Since you are an avid reader I was wondering if I could interview you and get your insights into the books you enjoy.

I'm also looking to interview published authors (agented, self published, small press, etc.) to find out what they wrote and what the pathway to publishing was like for them.

Let me know if you are interested in being interviewed and I will send over the questions you can fill out at your leisure. My email address is Guidedhope (at)gmail(dot)com.

Unknown said...

Hi Deirdra,
Thank you so much. I'm honoured to receive your blog award and I'd love to be interviewed. Thanks again, you've made my day :)