Monday, 10 August 2020

Using Animal Characters in Picture Books by Clare Helen Welsh

Animal characters are hugely popular in picture books and there are many reasons why creators star them in their stories. But what are the pros and cons of using animal characters vs human characters and what do we need to know?

After being invited to talk about animals in picture books at a really fun #ukpbchat event, I put all my thoughts down in a post for Picture Book Den. And because I have a talent for making things more complicated than they need to be, I’ve arranged them in a suitable acrostic poem!


Animals often come with pre-packaged personalities. For example, foxes are thought to be sly, bears live in caves, mice are small and eat cheese. When creating a picture book character these are useful because they can help a character feel familiar to a child. The advantage of this is that young children can open a book and quickly get a sense of the story. Picture book characters need to be relatable, so using archetypes can help.

However, the market is flooded with books that include foxes, bears, dogs, cats, rabbits, mice and wolves. I find there’s something exciting about subverting archetypes and turning these stereotypes on their head to create something new and more original.


(Note: It might be worth bearing in mind that there could be a very good reason why some animals do not feature highly as picture book characters! For example, pigs and hedgehogs might not have the global appeal publishers are looking for.)


Animals are cute, engaging, fascinating and lots of fun to read about! For these reasons, animal characters are a great place to start if you’re looking to write non-fiction picture books. This was how my foray into non-fiction began and I have now sold five non-fiction narrative texts about animals. They can be funny, poetic or anything in between. Here’s one of mine that came out most recently. It’s the first in a series with MacMillan, illustrated by Nicola O’Byrne.


Anthropomorphism is defined as the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to an animal or object and it’s a little bit marmite with publishers as far as I can gather. I’ve written picture books where the animals speak and wear clothes, and some where they do not. I have some where humans and animals talk to each other, and some where no one talks. There really is a huge range. It would be worth researching the kinds of books a publisher has on their list to see where they sit on the anthropomorphic scale. And do bear (Ha!) in mind that it can vary depending on what type of picture book you’re looking at.

For one of my non-fiction stories publishing in 2021, I was asked to tweak lines that anthropomorphised the animal protagonist, too much. On the other hand, Lenny is publishing with a different publisher and is a walking, talking ring-tailed lemur on holiday in South America! However, I do know that Nicola was asked to make the style realistic and she worked tirelessly on the setting to ensure authenticity, the reason being that biologically accurate books help children to learn and retain knowledge about the animals involved.


We’ve established that animal characters are instantly relatable and come with their own set of character traits that authors can use and subvert. ‘This Book has Alpacas and Bears’ by Emma Perry and Rikin Parekh is a great example of subverting the trope that bears make great book characters. Rikin’s illustrations are a suitable witty match for Emma’s text.  Jim Field and Kes Gray’s ‘Oi’ series and Mo Willem's Pigeon books are also packed with giggles!


Animals are easy to empathise with – everyone can see themselves in an animal character. The potential for animal characters is that all children can see themselves in books. That’s not to say they should be replacing diverse human characters. NOT AT ALL. We desperately need to see more diverse human characters in children’s stories and the industry appears to be slowly moving towards representing and celebrating different backgrounds. There's much more work to be done, but certainly one of the positives of animal characters is that they are inclusive.


Historically, animals are often referred to as masculine. It’s always worth looking at your characters to see which sexes they identify with. How many of your stories have female protagonists? Male? Are animal main characters more or less likely to be male? I made a little table of my published texts. The results were surprising!

Animal protagonist
Human protagonist
Female protagonist

Male protagonist


Androgynous (at point of submission)

These are published (or soon to be) titles. I’d hope that in my desktop files there are more books with female, animal protagonists. Michelle Robinson and Deborah Allright have created a great example of how to switch up stereotypes in She Rex! Also look out for Rashmi Sirdeshpande and Diane Ewen's, 'Never Show a T-Rex A Book,' which features a female dinosaur character.

Safe spaces:
A big positive of using animal main characters, is that creatives can use the distance between the child reader and protagonist to explore darker and more scary themes. In Isabel Thomas and Daniel Egneus’ new book for example, children learn what happens to our bodies when we die, prompting all kinds of conversations about life issues. Here’s the blurb:

‘In the frost-covered forest of early spring, fox is on a mission to find food for her three cubs. As they grow, she teaches them how to survive in the wild. Until one day, fox dies. Her body goes back to earth and grass and air, nourishing the world around her and bringing the forest to life. Death is not just an end, it's also a beginning.

This feels less hard-hitting than it would were the main character a human, of course. Animal protagonists are a way of creating distance, allowing creatives the freedom to tackle themes and issues that may be too confronting with human characters. This is the case for Donna David and Laura Watkin's picture, 'Oh no, Bobo!' which has a gentle message about consent. 

In summary, children’s books of all kinds have long contained animal characters and I can’t see that trend disappearing any time soon. Animals spark wonder in children and provide potential for beautiful, funny and engaging illustrations. But it is worth thinking carefully about the animal you choose, making sure they star in your story for all the right reasons. 

BIO: Clare is the author of over 30 books for children, that star both animal and human main characters. She writes fiction and non-fiction picture book texts - sometimes funny and sometimes lyrical. She currently has books in development with Little Tiger Press, Andersen, Nosy Crow and MacMillan so watch this space. You can find out more about her at her website or on Twitter @ClareHelenWelsh .

Monday, 3 August 2020

A Hero's Journey with Farmer Falgu

When I’m mulling over a new picture book idea, I often take a large white paper and scribble all over it. Call it a spider diagram during a hurricane. I don’t see patterns yet – but I’m jotting down all ideas around the idea, words that remind me of the idea, ideas that give birth to more ideas.

Find out more about spider diagrams here
 The spider diagram reveals a picture - with broken bits of web, ideas glinting through the gaps, I gather those ideas into a new image. That new image needs a structure.  As much as I’m creative with ideas in the beginning, when I'm playing, when I'm daydreaming, I still need the comfort and safety of structure to organise those chaotic thoughts into a cohesive narrative. Yes! Picture Books have a structure and story arc as much as novels. 
Allow me to tell you a story. The year was 2012. I had published one picture book in 2006/7 and nothing had happened since then. I had a computer full of stories – some that did see the light of day many years later. But many that will never be dusted off.
            I sat down to write my first Farmer Falgu story. (Yes it's a series and find out here about how it became a series). 
Farmer Falgu series was illustrated by Kanika Nair and published by Karadi Tales, India. Available for sale in the UK from Letterbox Library.
I had a general idea of the story – it was going to be about noise and sounds. I had somehow stumbled upon the character – all I knew was that he was going to be a farmer in a farm full of animals. Perhaps it was my childhood growing up in small towns and villages, next to farms, perhaps it was reading all these English books about farms – who knows how our subconscious works and how ideas come up to the surface.
            Reading that story again and dissecting it during a course I taught, I realised it uses a number of structural devices. The first one - The Hero's Journey is what I'm going to talk about now.

How does Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip map to the Hero's Journey? Is Farmer Falgu going to fight evil villains and jump over aeroplanes and risk his life to save a precious treasure? Not really! At least not in this book.
a)     Spread 1 sets up the problem. Jumping straight in, there was no setup for who Farmer Falgu was and where he was – because that’s what the pictures will do.

b)    Spread 2 shows us the inciting incident – Farmer Falgu sets off on a trip to be away from the problem. Hence the title
c)     Spread 3 – shows character – Farmer Falgu is kind and compassionate despite his troubles. But this spread also sets up a future problem. 
     Every action must have an equal and paying off reaction in fiction. 
d)    Spread 4 shows the problem caused by spread 3.
e)    Spread 5,6 & Spread 7,8 make the problem worse. And they add to the problems.

f)      Spread 9 – Farmer Falgu is rid of the new problems caused by his kindness. But he hasn’t yet solved his original problem.
g)    Spread 10 – False hope. Farmer Falgu thinks he has achieved his goal.
h)    Spread 11 – Nope! He was wrong.
i)      Spread 12 – Farmer Falgu ponders over his original problem and he thinks about the problems over the rest of the spreads. He has a final epiphany. Yes! He has solved his problem.
j)      Spread 13 – He returns home with a changed mindset. Nothing in his farm has changed. But Farmer Falgu’s realisation over the course of his journey has changed his attitude.

With some exceptions of deadly battles and evil villains, this is a hero’s journey. Farmer Falgu, our hero, set off to solve a problem, confronts confounding problems, has a false sense of achievement and then loses hope and then finds the thing that makes him happy. He has gotten what he needed, not what he wanted.  
To make this easy for picture book writers, I have a handy storyboard planning tool here. 
            Based on the above dissection, here are some tips for you to take away on your own stories.
  1. Think about your character and story as a hero’s journey. See how it maps out in terms of spreads.
  2. The planning doesn’t need to come before the writing. If you’re like me and prefer to free write, write the story, from start to finish. Make it fun and interesting and then go back and review the structure.
  3. Check the pacing with respect to the narrative. See if you have more spreads in the beginning and you’re rushing to the end.
  4. Make sure the problems are progressively complex or accumulating. In picture books, it’s a lot of fun to add to disasters culminating in a big spread of glorious hullabaloo.
  5. Check if the character has an internal need and an external want.
Happy Structuring!

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 and she also writes trade fiction, non-fiction, poetry and theatre. Her stories are inspired by folktales from India, Hindu mythology and her travels around the world. Chitra regularly runs writing workshops in schools across the world. Find out more at

Monday, 27 July 2020

Writing (Picture Books) As a Business • by Natascha Biebow

I have a dream – to write more and earn enough to write more and so on. So, I’ve been reflecting on how other writers manage to do this.


The trick, it seems, is not just bum on seat time writing, but either enough publishing contracts to create an income stream, alongside potential earnings from backlist titles, or even a bestseller to earn big bucks. Maybe it’s something in-between?


The main question remains: how to get the books (or content) you write and create to actually sell to a publisher in the first place? Obstacles:


-       Frequently, you have to write many books – or creatively re-visualize the ones you’ve written so they actually sell – before a publisher says ‘yes’ and you have come money coming in.

-       Some books, especially non-fiction or longer novels, take a long time to write. Meanwhile, you’re not earning money.

-       Submissions take so much time to get a response! In the meantime, again, you’re not earning any money . . .


Most business people have a PLAN. As entrepreneurs, we are writers, creators of content, editors, marketeers, accountants, PR experts and more. Possibly, a business plan might look something like this:














Show up for work!


OK, so once you decide to try to make a go of writing to earn a living, how do you survive in the interim? Don’t give up the day job yet (in my case, editing), because you need to pay bills. But maybe try to consistently dedicate a few hours a week to writing. Gradually try to shift the balance between different kinds of paid work?



Make products that could generate income.

I can do this. I can definitely visualize lots of books I’d like to write, that I’m excited to create. Great!


Except for the fact that just creating books doesn’t earn enough money to live off – yet. So, while waiting for those to hook in an editor . . .


Here are some things other authors are doing to try to generate a more steady income:


• Work on LOTS books at once (some authors work on up to 10 picture book or non-fiction projects at once). This might help increase the probability of the right book finding the right editor at the right time, but the chicken and egg conundrum around this that I wrestle with is:


How to spend time on so many projects when you need a day job to live? There are not enough hours in the day . . .


• Write for different types of publishing markets – e.g. work for hire, magazines, educational materials. Arguably, this doesn’t pay as well as if you sell your book on an advance and royalty deal, and sometimes these jobs can be hard to come by. Bt maybe if you are able to land some, enough of these jobs could be good ‘bread and butter’ money to start to shift the balance?


No one said it would be easy!



Get creative with your content and talent to generate additional income


• For many working authors and illustrators, fees earned at events like festivals, school and library event appearances are a great way to supplement their income. Plus it’s super-important to be visible, connect with readers and promote & market your book and it can be a good earner if you’re willing to put in the time and travel.


• I can also offer workshops to schools and to other writers/creative for a fee.


The key to this is figuring out what unique skills you have and how you might be able to market them to schools, libraries, writers, etc. Then, if you can get enough gigs, you could start to supplement your day job (and, if relevant, any current book sales) income in other ways such as teaching, workshops, and appearances.



Promote sell promote sell promote sell  . . .


Once you do have a body of work, you need to sell more copies – and keep them selling over a longer period of time! HOW?


-       Keep meeting people who you can tell about your book


I’ve been doing this by making it my goal to reach out to people who might be interested in my book every week or so and offering to connect with free content. Who?


-       Bloggers and Podcasters (and other influencers)

-       Booksellers

-       Teachers and librarians

-       Reviewers

-       Fellow authors and illustrators

Recently, I’ve been doing some virtual visits for free to promote THE CRAYON MAN with the aim of selling copies of the book to attendees.

You can create free content such as videos, activities, educators' guides and similar to support this endeavor.

But this again takes time – less time to write and create new content . . .

So, how to advance beyond this circular conundrum?


I don’t have the answer, but I am persevering.

To shift the pie-chart quarters, I am trying to:

1. Be goal-centred, productive and focused in order to get more writing accomplished in a small amount of time

2. Schedule what I will do when. When we don’t have to pfaff around figuring out what to do and can ‘hit the desk running’ knowing what tasks need to be done when, we can be more efficient and waste less time. This is part of the PLAN.

** Block out creative time, day job time, family time and admin time (where I answer emails, do social media and volunteer work in blocks of time which is more efficient than being interrupted all the time).

And if I don’t manage it?

Here’s the thing I’m trying out: Be kind to yourself! There are many days when I don’t succeed in doing what I set out to achieve.

That’s OK. I can adjust. And keep writing.


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, selected as a best STEM Book, editor of numerous prize-winning children’s books, and Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. She is currently writing more non-fiction picture books and a series of young fiction. She runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. She is also Editorial Director for Five Quills. Find her at


Monday, 20 July 2020

Do Picture Book Writing Courses Work? Pippa Goodhart interviews Catherine Emmett

I have been teaching day schools and online courses about picture book writing for some years now, and one of the joys of that teaching is when somebody comes onto the course who takes every idea and suggestion offered, and runs with it. Catherine did my four week course run though Jericho Writers, and also had critiques of manuscripts done via them. But now she's producing glorious texts, supported by her own critiquing group, achieving publication and being paired with absolutely top illustrators. I'm mighty proud of her, and delighted to ask her some questions for Picture Book Den -

Catherine, have you always been a stories sort of person?

When I was little, my dad used to make up bedtime stories for me and my sister.  I loved those stories and can still remember all of his characters.  There was a sort of magic to him weaving those stories out of thin air.  I loved writing, but my real love was always reading.  I read books about everything, but mostly horses.  I loved the feeling of opening up a book by a favourite author and knowing that you had a whole new story to read. I still get that same feeling now when one of my favourite authors writes a new book!  The longer the better - I’ve never really liked short stories as they finish too soon!

Do you think that story writing can be taught, or is it innate, and you either have the skill or you don’t?

I think that WANTING to write is perhaps innate.  I think that some people seem to spend more time in their own heads than others, and that, for me, is what makes a writer.  The characters that form in the quiet moments, the ideas that appear at unexpected times and refuse to go away!  I started writing because I constantly had ideas in the twilight of my mind and the only way to get them out was to write them down.   
I think a lot of the rest can perhaps be taught.  For me certainly I spent a LOT of time learning to write in rhyme.  It took a lot of time to understand the concepts and more time again to be able to THINK in rhyme, but now I would say it was one of my strengths.   I think that a lot of story structure can certainly be learnt, but that it is those ‘twilgiht ideas’ that can make a story magic.

What sorts of working with others do you find most helpful in the picture book writing process?

All kinds to be honest!  When I first started writing I had friends and family read the stories - in the words of my then 6-year old niece, ‘Keep trying Aunty Catherine, I’m sure you’ll get better.’!  

After that my husband purchased me a place on a picture book writing course as a Christmas present.  The course was brilliant at helping me to think about what is really important to children, and about teaching the magic of picture books - the power of ‘the page turn’!  I also found having a professional critique was incredibly valuable.  Having really honest feedback from someone more experienced really shows the issues with your story.

Once I’d completed the course, I joined SCBWI and started a critique group.  The group has been brilliant as it is so much easier to see what is working or not working in other people’s stories – and for them to see it in yours. 
Since then I have been lucky enough to work with my agent, Alice Sutherland-Hawes who has a great commercial eye for where a story needs to be improved.  And of course, with my brilliant editors at S&S, who always seem to find a way to make a story better!

But of course, the very best part of being a picture book writer is working with your illustrator and watching them bring your story to life!  That for me really is the magic!  Ben Mantle has done such a fabulous job with ‘King of the Swamp’ – the first time I saw his illustrations I couldn’t stop smiling!

What comes next for Catherine Emmett the writer? 

After ‘King of the Swamp‘, my second book will be out in Spring 2021.  It is another rhyming picture book, but it is very different!  ‘Cautionary Tales for Parents and Children: The Pet’ is out with Macmillan and is illustrated by David Tazzyman.  It explores what happens when a very spoilt boy doesn’t look after his pets!  More books are coming after that, but nothing that I can talk about yet!  I am now however, obliged to write lots more as, after years of writing on the sofa, I am I the process of building a house with a brand sparkling new writing room!  I can’t wait to start writing in it!

PIPPA: As somebody else who has been lucky enough to build their own home, and to go from writing in odd corners around busily family life to having a proper work room, I promise you it'll be strange but wonderful, Catherine!

And here is Catherine's upcoming first picture book, looking magnificent! CONGRATULATIONS, Catherine! Publication date is on August 20th, so SOON!