Monday, 12 April 2021

Picture Book Characters with a Passion for Fashion by Garry Parsons


Who Wants to be a Poodle - Lauren Child


Animal characters in children’s books have long been wearing clothes, but some appear to a have a passion for fashion unbounded.


Fabulous Frankie - Simon James Green and Garry Parsons

Having recently illustrated a book where the central character has a penchant for fabulous attire, I have been taking a closer look at what the animal characters on my bookshelf are currently wearing and revisiting some old favourites whose clothing style still remains striking.


Rupert The Bear - The Daily Express

Stories where animals appear wearing humans’ clothes preoccupy most of my bookshelf, as they seem to do in most children’s bookshops. This anthropomorphism is everywhere in our lives and has a long history in literature.

Illustration from the Panchatantra

Preceding Aesop’s Fables by centuries, personification is a well-established literary device from ancient times such as in the Panchatantra from India, in which anthropomorphized animals illustrate principles of life. 

The Wolf and the Crane - Aesop

Many of the animal stereotypes we are familiar with today originate from these texts and have an influence on what we read today and the roles animal characters take on in our stories but these weren’t aimed directly at children in the same way we recognise animal characters in picture books today.

Before the mid-eighteenth century, the notion of childhood, as we know it now, did not exist. Children were dressed in adult clothes and their natural playful curiosities were largely ignored, at least in literature, where illustrated material for children was virtually non-existent. Later, as the middle class developed and views about children changed, adults began catering to their emotional needs, and animals with human characteristics began to appear in children’s books.

Struwwelpeter, considered to be the first children’s picture book that used anthropomorphism in illustrations (1845) is a collection of moral tales that relate what might happen when children don’t heed the advice of parents, to pretty disastrous consequences. Heinrich Hoffmann was a physician as well as author and illustrator of the book and created the stories for his son as a Christmas present.


In The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches, Harriet ignores the warnings from the two cats not to play with matches which results in her catching fire and being burned to ashes, just leaving a pair of shoes. The cats in the illustrations are not yet wearing clothes but do use handkerchiefs to dry their tears at Harriet’s demise.


In The Story of the Wild Huntsman, the hare steals the hunter's gun and spectacles and turns the gun on him until he falls down the well outside his house.

More anthropomorphic illustrations followed including John Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland in 1865 which of course included the inimitable pocket watch carrying white rabbit in his plaid jacket and in 1902 came Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and there is a clear resemblance between the two.


Looking at these illustrations now, we can be forgiven for having a nostalgic view of them because of their attire but the clothing that Potter’s characters are made to wear are mainly for them to look socially acceptable for the time, rather than the characters themselves having a desire for fashion.


However, The story of Barbar, the little elephant by Jean De Brunhoff, first published in France in 1931 (English edition 1934), tells the story of an elephant who discovers an attraction to tailored suits and fine footwear.  The first story of Barbar depicts his life as a young elephant who is tragically orphaned by a miserable hunter right at the beginning of the book. The distraught Barbar flees from the hunter and finds himself in a wealthy provincial town where his mind is taken off his tragedy by his admiration of the clothes of the people who live there.


Everyone in the town appears to share an enthusiasm for fashion including an old lady who helps Barbar out with a place to stay and some spending money. Barbar purchases himself a smart green suit, a lovely bowler hat, shoes and spats. How wonderfully smart he looks!


Barbar’s cousins, Arthur and Celeste, find him in the city and help encourage him to return to the ‘Great Forest’ where, with his new found knowledge from the city, he becomes the new Elephant King and marries his cousin Celeste in stylish wedding clothes picked out by a dromedary with an uncanny eye for high fashion.

The attention to stylish clothing perhaps reflects the fact that the original publisher of the books was Editions du Jardin des Modes, a French language women's fashion magazine published monthly in France between 1922 and 1997 and owned by Condé-Nast. The Babar books were the first Condé-Nast publications not specifically about fashion.

In contrast to Barbar, Mr. Tiger, in Mr Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown, feels dissatisfied with his formal dress and discovers that he feels more himself in a quadruped stance than the adopted bipedalism of city life. His friends lose patience with him and he leaves the city to reclaim his wildness. When he returns later, he discovers other folk in his community are also feeling the urge to be themselves and abandoning their need for clothing.


Clothing plays an important role in the narratives of many picture books - Walter & the No-Need-To-Worry Suit by Rachel Bright, Slug Needs A Hug from Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross and the Goat’s Coat by Tom Percival and  Christine Pym to name a few, but clothing also gives the illustrator a chance to deepen the character they are depicting through what they are wearing, or not wearing, as is the case for Kes Gray’s streaking Nuddy Ned. 

Curious to find out why Sarah McIntyre’s Grumpycorn wears a purple roll neck sweater, she told me…

“I decided Grumpycorn would wear a purple jumper because we usually see unicorns looking very glamourous... I thought it would be funnier if he was wearing his comfy at-home clothes. Also, he has a cosy fire burning stove in his writing cottage, but it still might get a bit drafty in a place that's on stilts over the water. He needs some woolly warmth. And purple? Well, he has all the other rainbow colours in his main, except purple, so purple completes the colour scheme!” In Sarah's sequel to Grumpycorn, Don't call me Grumpycorn, he has a purple space suit. "Purple is a big thing for Unicorn"

As an illustrator of animal characters myself, I find there are always relevant reasons for adorning an animal character with clothing or accessories, be they glasses for a Horse Doctor or
a feather boa and glittering hat for a dancing llama.

 As I mentioned at the beginning, I have recently been illustrating the story of a character who’s desire is stand out from the crowd and the only way he is sure he can do that is by being fabulous. But for a flamingo in a lagoon full of fabulous flamingos, standing out from the crowd is not an easy task, even when your wearing a sequin cloak inspired by Kansai Yamamoto!



Thank you to Sarah McIntyre for answering my question about Grumpycorn. Sarah is a best selling writer and illustrator. See more of her work here@jabberworks

Garry Parsons is an illustrator of many children's books@ICanDrawDinos

For more picture book passion for fashion, Fabulous Frankie by Simon James Green and illustrated by Garry Parsons publishes 1st June from Scholastic. 

Monday, 5 April 2021

Learning Your Lesson (or not) by Kael Tudor

Character development. It’s the backbone of storytelling, where our main character (or in some cases villain) come away from the story a changed person, having learnt lessons from their adventure and grown as a character. 

Picture books are no exception. In The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald, the titular seed changes his ways and makes a choice to be kind. In Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago, Gustavo overcomes his social anxiety and finds the friends he’s been wanting all along. In Ravi’s Roar by Tom Percival, Ravi realises that his anger hurt the people around him and apologises. 

Besides being excellent stories, these books, and the countless others like them, have subtle, but very important lessons for the children enjoying them; be kind, be brave, take responsibility for your mistakes. But what about stories where the main character learns absolutely nothing, despite having the chance to, and ends the book in the exact same position (or sometimes even worse) than where they started? Would children’s literature - and picture books for that matter - really portray characters who learn zip? Zilch? Nadda? Of course! Here are some of my favourites. 

But beware, from here on in there be spoilers! 

I am a Tiger - Karl Newson and Ross Collins The premise of I am a Tiger is simple. Mouse refuses to accept that she’s not a tiger, despite a colourful cast of characters insisting otherwise. But when she comes face to face with an actual tiger, is it time for Mouse to admit that she’s really a mouse? Um… no. 

Stuck - Oliver Jeffers Floyd’s kite gets stuck in a tree, so in order to knock it down he throws his shoes, his cat, a bicycle, a duck, an orangutan, and so on. There are delightful moments throughout the book where you think that Floyd’s had an epiphany (a ladder, the fire brigade, a saw), but instead of using them to get his kite sensibly, he lobs them up into the tree instead. 

Cockatoos - Quentin Blake Professor Dupont’s cockatoos are well and truly fed up of the annoying way he greets them every morning, so they declare that enough is enough, escape through a crack in the conservatory glass, and hide from him throughout the house. After a day of trying to find his precious cockatoos (delightfully, they are hiding on every page, just out of sight), Dupont goes to bed, but wakes to find that they’ve returned. And how does he react? He greets them the same way as always, of course. 

That’s What Dinosaurs Do - Jory John and Pete Oswald William the dinosaur spends his days roaring at anyone and everyone as loud as he can. Why? Well, because that’s what dinosaurs do. However, at the start of the book he gets a sore throat and is given strict no-roaring orders from his doctor. After a week of rest and happy townsfolk, William can’t wait any longer, and roars his dino heart out at everyone. And does he see the error of his ways when everyone comes to his house to complain? Not one bit. 

Rescuing Mrs Birdley - Aaron Reynolds and Emma Reynolds Miranda Montgomery, keen nature expert, spots her teacher, Mrs Birdley, at the supermarket. Concerned that Mrs Birdley has strayed, Miranda decides to capture her and put her back in her natural habitat, the school. When Miranda finally accomplishes her goal, it looks like things are finished, but then she spots her headteacher, and the whole process is set to happen again, with Miranda none the wiser about how you cannot capture school staff and lock them in the building. 

Here Be Dragons - Susannah Lloyd and Paddy Donnelly A knight is on the hunt for a dragon, to prove his naysaying friends wrong. But despite the warning signs, subtle hints and obvious sightings (including an epic battle involving the dragon, a princess and the knight’s horse), the knight completely fails to find what he was searching for, even when half of his armour has been melted away by dragon fire.  

In addition to books such as these, I’ve reserved a special subsection for stories with a different sort of ending. One thing that all of the books on the above list have in common is that, while the characters don’t learn from their experiences, nothing particularly bad happens to them, either. They finish the book completely unchanged, but they do finish it. I like to call this next list (I just came up with the name, as I wrote this) the Grave Consequences list, for obvious reasons. 

The Fate of Fausto - Oliver Jeffers Fausto is a man who believes that he can claim everything in the world to be his own, and for the most part he proves himself right. Flower, sheep, mountain and boat all bow before him and allow themselves to be claimed by Fausto. But when he attempts to claim the ocean, and the ocean refuses, Fausto loses his temper and decides to stamp his foot on the ocean to prove how cross he is, with Grave Consequences. 

Not Now, Bernard - David McKee A book so good it should be included on literally every list relating to picture books ever. Whether viewed as a commentary on parents not devoting enough time to their children or simply a story about a boy, his parents, and a monster in the garden, one thing is the same: Bernard keeps talking to people who are too busy and ultimately is on the receiving end of some Grave Consequences. 

So the question stands: why? Why do children’s books with protagonists that learn nothing and teach their readers nothing exist? Shouldn’t all children’s literature, especially books for children as young as the picture book audience, teach children something? I’d argue not. While there is a huge need for stories with morals, I’d say there’s an equally important space for books like those on this list, where characters are flawed and don’t always learn the first time around. At the end of the day, can we all say that we’ve never made the same mistake twice? 

Could children say the same? Children who can spot a forced lesson from a mile away, who love being in on a joke, and who delight at the sign of mischief because often so much of their time is spent being taught the correct way to behave. Sometimes it’s just fun to hear a story about someone who isn’t willing, or capable, of learning from their experiences. 

And besides, there undeniably something lip-smackingly delicious about getting to the end of a story and realising that the main character is going to make the same mistakes all over again, and it’s often these endings that have solicited the biggest laughs, from both myself and the children I’ve been reading the stories to. When you consider that, sometimes the biggest lesson is that there shouldn’t be one at all. 

Kael Tudor is a children’s writer from Swansea. He’s not allowed to talk about whether or not he’s got any books in the pipeline, but is silently excited. He loves chatting all things picture books, so if you want to say hi, or suggest even more picture books with characters who don’t learn or change at all, you can do so on Twitter at: @KaelTudor

Monday, 29 March 2021


Today on Picture Book Den we’re discussing picture book themes. What are the popular ones, the tricky ones and how can you use this knowledge to make your stories more marketable?

Some of the most common picture book themes I’ve come across include the following:

·        Making new friends

·        Learning new skills

·        Following or not following rules

·        Making choices

·        Facing fears

It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but these kinds of themes aren’t going to get old. Books about worries, facing fears, bedtime, parties, pets, first experiences, kindness, sharing, love, friendship, accepting differences are always going to be relevant to a picture book audience.

Here are some of my favourite titles on these themes:


The Littlest Yak

by Lu Fraser and Kate Hindley  

"On the tip of the top of a mountain all snowy, where the ice-swirling, toe-curling blizzards were blowy, in a herd full of huddling yaks, big and small, lived Gertie . . . the littlest yak of them all.

Gertie is the littlest yak in her whole herd, and she's feeling stuck in her smallness - she wants to grow UP and have bigness and tallness! But when it turns out that there are some things that only Gertie can do, might she come to see that she's perfect, just the way she is?”


The Koala Who Could 

by Rachel Bright  and Jim Field  

In a wonderful place, at the breaking of dawn, where the breezes were soft and the sunshine was warm, a place where the creatures ran wild and played free ... A Koala called Kevin clung to a tree.

Meet Kevin. A koala who likes to keep things the same. Exactly the same. But sometimes change comes along whether we like it or not... And, as Kevin discovers, if you step outside your comfort zone and try new things, you might just surprise yourself!”

This Book Has Alpacas And Bears 

by Emma Perry and Rikin Parekh 

Have you ever noticed that bears are absolutely EVERYWHERE? Alfonso the alpaca has and it really gets his GOAT! He's decided that alpacas should get the recognition (and LOVE!) that they deserve. And sometimes it only takes one voice speaking out to make a change. It's time to be proud of who you are. (Watch out, bears!)



…being relevant and relatable isn't enough. As you’ll see from the examples above, to stand out in the market your picture book will need a new or different angle. Can the concept be stretched? Can you take the setting, the character, the plot and make them bigger? Play about with them and see if you can add more of a hook / more conflict/ more interest to the idea. For example, what if your shy character was a starfish not a child? What if your fearful squirrel lived in an ice cream parlour instead of a tree? Is the set up as strong as it can be?


Just because there are some picture books themes that are more popular than others, doesn’t mean we should shy away from the more profound. Far from it. I’ve read some brilliant picture books recently on the themes of dementia, poverty and judgement, which could be considered niche, but are important for everybody.

The Forgettery

by Rachel Ip and Laura Hughes 

“Amelia’s granny forgets lots of things. Little things, like where she put her glasses, and big things like people and places. But everything anyone has ever forgotten is stored in The Forgettery, and there Amelia and her granny learn the power of making memories.

Filled with warmth and gentle humour, The Forgettery is a beautifully written, sensitive look at dementia and memory loss.”

The Invisible

by Tom Percival

A moving, powerful story that shines a light on those that feel invisible in our world - and shows us that we ALL belong.

The Invisible is the story of a young girl called Isabel and her family. They don't have much, but they have what they need to get by. Until one day, there isn't enough money to pay their rent and bills and they have to leave their home full of happy memories and move to the other side of the city.

Milo Imagines The World

by Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson  

“Milo Imagines the World is a warm and richly satisfying story from the award-winning and New York Times bestselling picture book duo, about a little boy with a big imagination who learns that you can't know anyone just by looking at them. Set in a bustling city, and full of a family love that binds even in difficult circumstances.”

 Wanda's Words Got Stuck

by Lucy Rowland and Paula Bowles

Wanda the witch is so shy she can't talk! No matter how hard she tries, the words won't come out. But when another nervous little witch called Flo joins her class, it seems that Wanda's not the only one who worries about speaking. Then disaster strikes at the magic contest . . . will Wanda have the courage to shout out the magic words and save her new friend Flo from a dangerous dragon?

This heart-warming adventure about finding confidence through friendship is filled with potions, spells and magical animals! Children will fall in love with brave Wanda the witch, especially those who have difficulties with speech, anxiety about talking, or lack confidence in front of others.”

Here are some other themes that might be worth exploring if you’re interested in tackling a more challenging theme.

·        Illness

·        Death and dying

·        Natural disasters

·        War and political issues

Of course, there are things that are going to make a book a hard sell, such as being too country or culture specific, or not being appropriate or engaging enough for the age range… so if something hasn’t been done before, it might be worth thinking about why. 

Whether you’re going for a common theme or one of the less written about, it’s important to stop and ask yourself; ‘Which are my strongest ideas?’

Try asking yourself:

Which are the most marketable?

Which will help kids the most?

Which will stand out on a bookshelf?

Do you have a suitable title?

Does the title have immediate appeal?

Sharing concepts with trusted peers can be a good way of sussing out the strength of an idea. Which do they like the most? Which pique their interest and why? They might not choose your favourite, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t one to come back to. Ask yourself what’s missing in the concept to engage readers?

It’s also important remember WHY you're a writer. Listen to your inner muse. What do YOU want to tell the world? What’s important different about YOU? What do YOU love? Picture books are emotional beasts so consider writing about what matters to you and what fascinates you. Your writing will be more alive if it comes from the heart. (Just don’t forget to think about it objectively and check it’s big enough to go the distance.)

So a little bit of heart, a little bit of head… and you’ll have your next picture project.

Good luck writing it!

BIO: Clare is a children's writer from Devon. She writes fiction and non-fiction picture book texts - sometimes funny and sometimes lyrical. Her first book was published in 2015, and she currently has books in development with Little Tiger Press, Quarto, Andersen, Nosy Crow and MacMillan. Her next book, 'Wee? It Wasn't Me!' has been illustrated by Nicola O'Byrne and publishes on 1st April 2021. You can find out more about Clare at her website or on Twitter @ClareHelenWelsh.

Monday, 15 March 2021

Can I REALLY be a real writer? FOMO is slowing me down • by Natascha Biebow

I have been telling stories since I was small. 

I told stories to anyone who would listen, especially the dogs!

As a kid, we used to go on long car journeys to the south of Brazil, and I’d babble on, creating all kinds of shenanigans for my fictional characters. My grandmother lived in England, so I’d send her recorded tapes with songs and stories in the mail (in times way before the internet was invented). 


A creative writing assignment in school? On it. 


This is a whole 'collection' of short stories written in school,
loving saved for me by my mother.

A short story about a cup and a saucer - who is more important?

 Poetry competition for the school newsletter? Yes! 


I used to write poetry even. Not now!


I loved to write, but I never imagined I’d actually be a published writer when I grew up.


Like many writers I know, there is no shortage of stories we could invent or tell. But when it comes to wondering if we’ll ever get them put inside a book that will land in the hands of other readers, children, often DOUBT sets in. Even if we are published, we doubt we can do it again . . . and even another time.


I’ve been pondering this.


I can draft a story no problem. In fact, I have drawers full of stories (metaphorically speaking, of course – they are all filed on my computer, a folder for each one, many drafts in each folder . . . ). My agent and I send out the most polished ones. And we wait.


But, here’s where the problem begins. WAITING. The silence while publishing grinds its wheels starts to conjure up DOUBT again. Will anyone ever say ‘yes’?


And then there are all those other writers who are doing so well – I hear and see the noise at events and on social media – successes celebrated, reviews, awards, new books launched . . . all seemingly much faster than I can get my next one finished and signed up. I’m thrilled for my fellow writers, I really am, but still, DOUBT is a mean spiral of negative thoughts that escalates, question after question:


Should I be doing something I’m not?

Am I missing out?

Why is it not happening?

Should I be submitting there instead or to this or that competition?

Should I be writing something else?

Should I spend more time marketing my book or writing a new one or . . .?

But I already have so many stories, should I be  . . . ?

What if . . . what if . . . what if . . .?

Maybe I should dig out that novel, but I’m halfway through this picture book and that idea and . . .  What to work on? What do those editors want anyway?

PLUS I really need to earn an actual living, so I’d probably better focus on doing that.


THEN I start to make excuses for not writing:


I don’t have enough time.

I’m busy homeschooling and juggling so much right now, I really don't have the headspace for writing a great book at the moment.

I’ll just clean the house and then I’ll write if there’s time.

I can’t write that book right now.

Someone else has probably done that already.

If I don’t send that story out on submission, it can’t get rejected.

I just got a rejection, maybe I should take a little break.

I don’t know how that story ends . . .

Maybe I was only ever meant to write one book?!

Maybe I’ll just bake some cookies and think about my story instead.

I’ll never earn enough from my writing.


Oh my goodness. STOP! BREATHE!


FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is taking over my head (and my heart).


I need a new story.


I need to remember to start THINKING and ACTING like a writer:


First, I need to remember – everyone has their own journey and this is mine. I will never be a series fiction writer churning out books quickly. I will be a book-every-so-often-that-is-inspired-and-cooked-over-time kind of author.


I start by breathing and being grateful that I am this kind of writer.


Sometimes, it can take a bit of time to figure out where you fit and to be OK with this, not trying to pigeon-hole yourself to be like others. FOMO doesn’t serve me well, I’ve realized. The slot for someone else won’t fit me comfortably. THERE IS SPACE FOR EVERYONE.


Next, I make two columns:











- how long editors take to consider submissions
- rejections (it might be the wrong manuscript at the wrong time; it’s not necessarily always about me or the story.)
- how much publishers will pay for a book and/or put in for marketing spend
- what other authors are doing
- the current state of the marketplace and trends
- what kind of writing I write









- bum on seat – commit to writing on a regular basis and stop making excuses for why I don’t have enough time to write. I need to put it in my diary. I need to plan ahead for the time I will write so that I’m not wasting time ‘preparing’.

- take webinars and courses to keep learning and improving my craft. There are some great free and low-cost webinars that can help me learn from other authors, illustrators and publishing professionals. I’ve been enjoying the great interviews on the weekly Kid-Lit Distancing socials

- be active in a writing community like SCBWI to find support, learn new skills, and make connections that will stand me in good stead when my next book comes out
- get critiques of my work – join a critique group or pay a literary consultant for their expert objective eye
- read lots of mentor texts - aloud

- keep an eye and an ear on what is going on in the market, but limit social media so it doesn’t become a distraction 

- spend time with children who are my audience and observe

- be brave and be prepared to re-think and re-visualize books that have been rejected; re-write! and reconnect with my vision
-  reach out to librarians and teachers to make new connections to promote my published book

- stop waiting for an editor to say yes and write more books so I have some on the back-burner while others are on submission

- research my new book ideas and reach out to experts

- look out for 1-1 or competition opportunities


Most importantly, I realize I can take control of the ‘no’ – either the rejection letter or the nearly, not quite feedback from editors – and choose how I will react. Will I let DOUBT set in with its breathless questions bringing on inertia and excuses, or will I look at my list of actions I can take and get stuck in and make a start?


LOOK! The list of things I can do is soooooo much longer than the other list, though arguably, the weight isn’t quite equal in that ultimately, we are all waiting for an editor to say ‘yes’ to that project we are passionate about.


It’s like any problem: it needs chunking down



















Then, perhaps, the process of being a ‘real’ writer begins to look more achievable.

Plus, I am a storyteller, after all, so I’m going to weave a story around this. Once there was a girl who dreamt of becoming a writer with lots and lots of books when she grew up. But . . .  there were many obstacles in the way. Does it have a happy ending? Only the author can write THAT story.  



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