Monday, 12 October 2020

How to Become a Picture Book Idea Catcher by CHITRA SOUNDAR

Over the last few weeks, PBDenners have been talking about different topics that relate to the picture book world. From end papers to book launches, talking consent or children who are at a loss for words, there is a treasure trove of topics you can dip into. 

This week I want go back to basics. Perhaps because I’m between projects and my mind is subconsciously searching for the next idea for a picture book. 

I recently watched a clip in which Neil Gaiman answers an audience question about where you get your ideas from. 

I loved his answer for so many reasons. First, this is a question everyone asks when they meet a writer – be it a school visit or at a cocktail party. Secondly, he thinks it through in real time, talking as he thinks and while the answer is never clear cut, he lays out a few fundamentals that are useful for all writers too. Go watch it. 

With the pandemic raging across the world, and most of us stuck inside our homes, gathering ideas has become more of an indoor activity – at least for me. 

So, when ideas flutter by, identify them, acknowledge them and file them for later. Ideas do grow and find other ideas to relate to. It’s like when you consciously look for red cars, all you can see on the road are red cars. When you see a glimmer of an idea, things that be compatible to that idea will attract your attention. You will notice things that you would have otherwise ignored. 

But if you’re new to this idea-catching skill, you might need some help in the beginning until your own subconscious can take over. 

Here are six tips to help you become a picture book idea-catcher.

1. Read loads of picture books. 

This is totally obvious and yet most new writers I meet haven’t read that many books or haven’t books relating to the idea or type of story, they are working on. Read more contemporary picture books – perhaps published in the last 10 years or so.

2. Read baby development books.

If you haven’t been near a baby / child/ toddler / pre-schooler in the last few years, chances are you need reminding on their behaviours. What can they do at which months / years and what they cannot do at certain ages. Not just physically, but emotionally and cognitively. Many of these books will tell you about the children’s fears, behaviours and about what they find interesting. 

3. Look for words that children would love to say.

Look for words that children might want to repeat. Or even phrases. Find funny sounding words. I’m not saying it will lead to a story directly. But it will definitely inspire ideas. 

4. Write five What-if Statements every day.

In your journal / writing notebook / laptop wherever you’re comfortable, imagine five age-appropriate what-if imaginings. 

What if a turkey were to sing… and such…

This is a brainstorming activity and is very useful for exhausting what's on the shallow top layer of your brain and slowly dig into the ideas that lie beneath the surface.

Ever so often one of those sentences might spark a story – open a new document or turn a page and start writing. 

5. Read fairy tales and folk tales. 

Firstly just for the joy of enduring stories. But secondly to see how some of those fairy tales might work out today. Or are there parallels in some stories to real life?

6. Read an encyclopaedia 

A visual one if you have it. But when you read it, read it like a child. What would a child find fascinating and now can you see a story in any of those fascinating topics? 

Becoming an idea-catcher is a lifelong vocation. Start now and see how your little idea notebooks fill up. And every few months or so, go back and read your ideas notebook and see which ideas have found each other and will work great in the same story.

Good luck with your idea-catching!

Chitra Soundar is an internationally published, award-winning author of over 40 books for children. She is also an oral storyteller with a loud voice. She also writes trade fiction, non-fiction, poetry and theatre. Find out more at Follow her on twitter  @csoundar

Monday, 5 October 2020

Express YourSHELF for National Libraries Week


National Libraries Week kicks off today to celebrate the role of libraries in the UK’s book culture and promote libraries as “spaces for reading, engagement, learning and creativity.”


When did you last visit the library? Do you remember a school or class library from your childhood? If you have children, did you go to the bounce and rhyme times? Or maybe the library is a place where you go to work and think, meet people, or even learn a new skill. People come into the library for all kinds of reasons, including searching for elusive bits of information and archive materials.  

“Libraries offer a safe space, providing access to digital & online learning, helping to combat loneliness and having a positive impact on people’s lives.” – Arts Council for England


Research shows that there is a correlation between getting families reading and children enjoying stories with them doing better at school and doing better in life. So, how can libraries engage children?


In More than a House of Books", a Podcast commissioned by the Arts Council for England, Sarah Mears (Library Services Manager, Essex County Council. Former chair of the Association of Senior Children's and Education Librarians) stressed that the most important thing is the welcome they receive at the door.


The library needs to be “ . . . an exciting and vibrant space that attracts children. It's light, it's airy, it's colourful. There are lots of things that engage them. Activities for them to do, interesting technology that they may have not experienced in their own homes. But I think most importantly, it's still the books. Children love reading for pleasure and they love being inspired to read new titles, new authors.”


Today, libraries aren’t places of where librarians go ‘shhh!’; instead they are vibrant community hubs where authors, illustrators and storytellers visit, arts & crafts clubs meet, music and theatre activities inspire the imagination, and poetry groups perform.


Regrettably, many libraries are closing, but some – such as the new Manchester Library, which has soundproofed music area, and the Birmingham Library, with its roof gardens ­­- are being imaginatively re-purposed and re-thought to inspire the next generation to use the space to engage people both with reading and digital skills.”

Libraries are filled with wonderful new contemporary books to explore, and dedicated, knowledgeable librarians who are thrilled to help you. You can check out a whole pile of books to explore new ideas, discover and re-read favourite authors & illustrators, and even learn new skills. If something doesn’t resonate, I love that the books come with no strings attached – you can simply return them and check out some more – for free!


As part of the campaign for National Libraries Week, six SCBWI authors were invited to participate in CILIP’s Express YourSHELF campaign and make a video about the books that influenced us.


For me, books are like friends, so choosing favourites was tricky!  


You can see the videos here at midday each day this week.


And YOU can join in too! Express yourSHELF by sharing some books that shaped YOUR world by snapping a pic of your book shelves, too, and posting on social media with hashtag #ExpressYourshelf


The thing about libraries is they are there for all stages of your life and for the whole family:


In lower school, I went to the library at break time to hang out with the books and magazines, and choose new ones; I even made library cards for the small shelf of books I owned at home (mostly birthday presents sent by my grandmother who lived in England).


The EARJ lower school library had a lovely central area
where we could read beneath the colourful papier maché elephant

In high school, I spent most of my lunch times in the library eating my sandwich on the sly while hanging out with my friends (we weren’t allowed to eat in the library). In those days, you went to the library after school and in class to look stuff up in the Encyclopedias; reference books couldn’t leave the reading room because they had to be on hand for all students to use for research. Strange, now we can ask Google everything!


Now, I go to my local library almost every week to get a pile of bedtime reading, to see what’s new in picture books and check out nonfiction kids’ books for research. 

A pile of TRUE story picture books to pore over

There is something comforting about being amongst all those book friends, the promise of a story or a new idea or a-ha moment. You never know – until you get home and crack open the covers – whether it’s the right book for you, but it’s ever so exciting!


I asked some fellow Picture Book Den authors to share some stories of how libraries have influenced their lives, too:


Lucy Rowland


    “I remember my primary school library the best – a calm quiet space where we would be taken in small groups to borrow beautiful books. It was also used as a spill-over learning area so we had some of our most exciting lessons in there - music lessons, a craft workshop, a puppet show performance. For that reason, the library always felt like a rather special place!” 


Jane Clarke


    “As I child, I loved Kettering's town library. I'd rush up the steps, dash into the children's section, scoop up armfuls of books, then retire to a quiet corner to sit on the floor and decide which to take home. When I discovered new series, there were nerve-racking moments - would the title I had set my heart on be on the shelf - or had it already been borrowed? Oh, the joy if it was there!”


Jane Clarke entertains her library audience with a science activity

Clare Helen Welsh


Clare Helen Welsh enthralls her young audience


    “I don't actually remember visiting the library as a child, which is a huge shame. I'm sure we did and that it's just my foggy memory, but I vividly remember taking my classes to the library as part of my job as primary school teacher. The informal visits provided the opportunity to pore over worlds and characters, words and pictures. The times we went to meet visiting authors, illustrators and storytellers were just as memorable. I'm certain they inspired the children and they definitely inspired me. I now have the outrageous privilege of writing stories that live on those shelves, and delivering story sessions just like the ones I watched


Craft activities with author Clare Helen Welsh

I wonder if I would have had the courage to make the step from teacher to writer, had it not been for the possibilities the library gave me. Of course, in these increasingly challenging times the battle is keeping libraries open and keeping them alive. But we must - a library is so much more than library.”


Pippa Goodhart

     “When my children were little, a visit to the library was the treat at the end of the weekly shop. I think a lot of people find the huge number of books on shelves in libraries daunting, and don’t know where to begin with choosing. Children just find the right shelves and get stuck in! But we do need expert librarians onhand to help pair the right child with the right book at the right time, especially with those books that might comfort or inspire or enlighten at particular moments in a child’s life. Or an adult’s life, come to that!

Pippa’s daughter as a child blissfully combining reading a book (from a library -

see the spine!) with a kitten, and her now as a grown-up, reading to baby her son.


I love using libraries now, at least in non-Covid times. I borrow armloads of books, but I also like them as places to work. Being surrounded by books and other people, heads down as they work, somehow helps me to focus better than I sometimes can at home.”



Gareth P. Jones


    “The Summer Reading Challenge is one of the best things that libraries do. Each year, libraries around the country encourage children to keep reading through the summer. As an author I’ve had my books selected for several lists (my Dragon Detective series formed part of this year’s Silly Squad), and I’ve appeared at libraries up and down the country to hand out certificates, celebrate reading and shake the hands of local mayors (shaking hands - remember that?).


2020 Summer Reading Challenge

But my most positive experience was when my son did the challenge. He had to sit down and talk to a librarian about each book he had read, telling her what he had enjoyed about it and what he had taken away from the book.


Gareth P Jones plays the uke and Steve May pens the pictures

Many politicians think that libraries are old fashioned and irrelevant, but when you have seen first-hand how they bring communities together and the positive effects they have on children’s (and the nation’s) reading habits then it makes you want to scream #SaveLibraries from the top of the tallest library.”



And here's a pile of picture books on one of my shelves. There are others around the house . . . As I've said, they are my friends.  


But I'm always looking for more -











 Do you have a library story? Share it with us!


Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor

Natascha is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, winner of the Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children's Books, and selected as a best STEM Book 2020. Editor of numerous prize-winning books, she runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission, and is the Editorial Director for Five Quills. She is Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. Find her at

Monday, 28 September 2020

Showing Off Our New Picture Books!

     Usually on Picture Book Den we don't directly promote our own books. We write blogs about some aspect of picture book writing, publishing or use. But 2020 is an extraordinary year. Publishing has been effected by the Covid 19 pandemic. Most books due to be published from March to August were delayed because shops were closed and warehouses struggling. Book distributor Bertrams went into administration, and a sad number of bookshops have ceased trading.

    But September brought hope. We are seeing a glorious, almost overwhelming, number of new books published all at once. There are over a thousand new titles in the UK this month! Many of those books will get lost in the crowd. So here we are going to wave around and celebrate our own new picture books!


'All Sorts', illustrated by Emily Rand and published by Flying Eye Books, is about how Frankie tries to sort out her world.

Frankie sorts her toys, the foods and clothes, flowers, trees, vehicles, animals, and then tries to sort people. Hardest of all is sorting herself ...

And a happy muddle of life provides the happy ending. After the recent blog on endpapers, I can't resist adding the front and back endpapers for this book, demonstrating some of Frankie's sorting!  ...

'You Choose Fairy Tales', illustrated by Nick Sharratt and published by Puffin, is the latest in the You Choose series of books which offer lots of choices to consider and talk about. This time the book has a shimmery golden cover, in keeping with its fairy tale theme!

Choose what appeals to you on each spread, and you can create a new fairy tale of your own. 

And, again, the endpapers aren't wasted!


'Poo! Is that you?' illustrated by Nicola O'Byrne and published by Macmillan Children's Book, is a non-fiction picture book about Lenny the ring-tailed lemur whose sunny, summer snooze is interrupted by something stinky.

Learn about sloths, stink birds and much more in this book, which cleverly interweaves facts throughout. It also contains an information page at the back of the book, with a photo of each animal.


'Wanda's Words Got Stuck'- illustrated by Paula Bowles and published by Nosy Crow.

Wanda the witch is so shy she can't talk at school. No matter how hard she tries, the words simply won't come out. But when another quiet little witch named Flo joins her class, it seems that Wanda's not the only one who gets nervous sometimes. Then disaster strikes at the school-wide magic contest. Will Wanda have the courage to shout out the magic words and save her new friend?

'Rapunzel to the Rescue'- illustrated by Katy Halford and published by Scholastic. 

What if Rapunzel saved the prince? In this terrific twist on a much-loved fairytale, a prince with magical hair is saved by a fiercely independent Rapunzel.

 'The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice'-  by AF Harrold and published by Bloomsbury.

 160 pages of poems and advice from AF Harrold and illustrated by me...featuring a lot of food, swearing parrots, bears in your cornflakes and the right number of tigers to have at your picnic. (None.)

How to avoid escaped giants....

an outbreak of tigers at a picnic...

and the perils of shiplofting. Hopefully there's something for everyone here. There's also an absolutely enormous index compiled by AF.

Garry Parsons

The Dinosaur That Pooped A Pirate 

By Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter, illustrated by Garry Parsons. Puffin.

More nonsense shenanigans from Danny and his friendly 'eat everything' dinosaur as they set sail in search of treasure, but will being swallowed by the jaws of the monstrous whale and the perils of skull island be too much for them?

Monday, 14 September 2020

CHATTER MATTERS: Picture books featuring characters with SLCN (Speech, Language and Communication Needs) by Lucy Rowland

During the school holidays, I noticed a few people tweeting to ask for recommendations of picture books that feature characters with Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN).  Unfortunately, they weren’t always able to find exactly what they were looking for.

Children with SLCN are, I believe, quite under-represented within picture books and yet it is estimated that the prevalence of DLD (Developmental Language Disorder- where children have severe and persisting difficulties with their understanding and use of spoken language) is approximately 7.5% (Norbury et al. 2016).  Therefore, in each UK classroom, it is likely that there are, on average, two children who have DLD.   Usually there are also other children within the class who have communication needs as a result of different diagnoses e.g. ASD, Learning Difficulties, Down's Syndrome. 

Last week, ‘Wanda’s Words Got Stuck’ (written by me and illustrated Paula Bowles) was published by Nosy Crow.

As a Speech and Language Therapist, this book is very close to my heart.  It is dedicated to the brilliant NHS Speech and Language Therapy Team in Lewisham, where I used to work.  

'Wanda’s Words Got Stuck' isn’t about any one particular communication diagnosis.  Our little Wanda could have Selective Mutism? Or perhaps she has DLD and, therefore, has a reduced vocabulary, finds it hard to understand verbal information and struggles to express herself in sentences? She might have a Stammer- her words get stuck and don’t come out easily? Or perhaps she is just very anxious and feels shy about talking in class? 

Either way, I wanted to write about a character who finds talking tricky, who finds words sticky. And I wanted to write about how talking is not the only way to communicate and make friends. 

‘Some words are meant well but come out all wrong.

Some are important (and ever so long.)

Some words can be brave (even if they’re just small)

And sometimes you find you don’t need words at all’. 

I also knew that I wanted to write a blog post focusing on characters with SLCN in picture books but, I have to admit, that I couldn’t initially find very many! So I do have to say a big THANK YOU here to the twitter world and to everyone who responded to my call for help with their brilliant suggestions.  I haven't been able to include every single book here but thank you so much.  I really enjoyed researching them.

Talking is not my thing! by Rose Robbins

'The autistic sister in this sibling pair is non verbal, but she finds plenty of ways to communicate and have fun with her brother. Although she can't talk, this little girl understands everything, and has plenty to say, and lots of ideas. Through body language, drawing pictures, making gestures or using flash cards, she is able to contribute to their life together. Her brother and granny are able to understand her whether she needs help or is helping them!'

This is a lovely book highlighting alternative methods of communication. 

What the Jackdaw Saw- written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Nick Sharratt

'The jackdaw wants all his friends to come to his party, but when he calls out his invitation the animals just touch their heads. Why won't they answer? And what do their actions mean? Luckily a brown owl can help him with the puzzle!

This book about friendship and sign language was created by Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, with a group of deaf children in a workshop organized by the not-for-profit organisation Life & Deaf which helps deaf children to explore their identities through poetry, film, performance and art.'

The first time I read this book I knew I had to buy it.  I gave it to the Hearing Impairment Specialist in our Speech and Language Therapy Team. It's really great to see sign language being celebrated within a picture book.

Penguin- by Polly Dunbar

'This is the story of Ben, who couldn’t be more delighted to find a penguin friend inside his present. “Hello, Penguin!” he says. Penguin says nothing. Ben tickles Penguin, pulls his funniest face, puts on a happy hat, sings a silly song and does a dizzy dance ... but still Penguin says nothing. It isn’t until a passing lion intervenes that Penguin finally speaks – and, when he does, Ben discovers that some things are worth the wait. '

I love this picture book! It's a real classic and reminds me of some of the children I have worked with who can be so quiet and shy until you find the key (communication method, motivator, relationship or subject matter) that unlocks their voice!

I Talk like a River- written by Jordan Scott and illustrated by Sydney Smith

'When a boy who stutters feels isolated, alone, and incapable of communicating in the way he'd like, it takes a kindly father and a walk by the river to help him find his voice. Compassionate parents everywhere will instantly recognize a father's ability to reconnect a child with the world around him.'

This book isn't out until September but it looks absolutely beautiful and I have heard very good things about it! I thought the illustrations by Sydney Smith in 'Town is by the Sea' were stunning and these look totally wonderful too.  It is so important that children who stutter are able to see themselves and their experiences represented within the books they read.

Another recommended picture book, featuring a character with a stutter, was 'A Boy and A Jaguar' written by Alan Rabinowitz and illustrated by Catia Chien.

Boy- written by Phil Cummings and illustrated by Shane Devries

'The king’s battles with the dragon were always mighty and loud. Boy lived in silence and couldn’t hear the fighting. But Boy could see the fear around him… and how everyone would be much happier without it.'

A picture book featuring a boy who is deaf.  Unfortunately, I was not able to source this book from my book seller in the UK, but a few different people recommended this one and highlighted it as good for exploring communication breakdown.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

'El Deafo is a funny, deeply honest graphic novel memoir for middle graders. It chronicles the author's hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences with a powerful and very awkward hearing aid called the Phonic Ear. It gives her the ability to hear--sometimes things she shouldn't--but also isolates her from her classmates. She really just wants to fit in and find a true friend, someone who appreciates her, Phonic Ear and all. Finally, she is able to harness the power of the Phonic Ear and become "El Deafo, Listener for All." And more importantly, declare a place for herself in the world and find the friend she's longed for.' 

The Bear who Stared- by Duncan Beedie

'There once was a bear who liked to stare... and stare... and STARE.

Bear doesn't mean to be rude, he's just curious but too shy to say anything. But nobody likes being stared at and it soon gets Bear into trouble. Luckily a goggly-eyed frog helps Bear realise that sometimes a smile is all you need to turn a stare into a friendly hello.'

Perfect for children who have difficulties knowing how to initiate conversation and play.  Sometimes the children I worked with just needed a bit of support to know how to join in and make friends. 

Duncan Beedie's new book 'Oof makes an Ouch', which I bought for the purpose of writing this blog post, is also about communication and has a lovely section about some of the behaviours that we sometimes see when children don't yet have the right words to communicate their emotions. 

I go quiet by David Ouimet

'I Go Quiet is the exquisite story of an introverted girl, struggling to find her place in a noisy world. Through the power of books, creativity and imagination, she begins to see possibilities for herself beyond the present, to a future where her voice will finally be heard.'

A book for older readers, the words read 'When I speak, I'm not understood. So I go quiet.'  This reminds me so much of some of the children I worked with in a specialist Language Resource Base in London. It is vital that there are books like this highlighting the difficulties that some of these children face. 

For this blog post, I also explored picture books which use alien characters as a way of dealing with those feelings that children with SLCN often experience- of not understanding, of not being understood and of not belonging.  These books are also good for exploring other methods of communication.  For example, use of non-verbal communication such as gesture, body language and facial expression.  Some of the books that fall into this category are:  

Krong by Garry Parsons 

The Cow Who Fell to Earth by Nadia Shireen (which I also treated myself to as part of the research for this blog post and it's great!) 

Beegu by Alexis Deacon

Of course, picture books don't have to use alien characters to explore these themes.  Chatterbox Bear by Pippa Curnick is the tale of Gary the Bear who is a real chatterbox until he finds himself on an island full of birds, who don't speak 'Bear', and must learn to communicate in other ways. 

All the Ways to be Smart written by Davina Bell and illustrated by Allison Colpoys

'Celebrates the myriad ways for kids to be smart--being empathetic, artistic, athletic, and inquisitive.

A tender, funny, and exquisitely illustrated picture book celebrating all the unique and wonderful qualities that make children who they are.'

Whilst this book does not explicitly feature children with SLCN, I wanted to include it because it has SUCH a wonderful message.  The children I worked with often focused on what they struggled with, what they couldn't do.  Some of the most important work that their therapists and specialist teachers did was to support them to focus on and celebrate their individual strengths.  This book reads....

Smart is not just ticks and crosses,
smart is building boats from boxes.
Painting patterns, wheeling wagons,
being mermaids, riding dragons...

I really hope that the books discussed in this post can be shared and enjoyed with children who, for whatever reason, are struggling to find their voice. 

Please do comment below with any suggestions of books I have missed. I would love to find more picture books featuring characters with SLCN.  Thank you.

Wanda's Words Got Stuck

written by Lucy Rowland

illustrated by Paula Bowles

published by Nosy Crow.