Monday, 13 September 2021

Fury at the Farm (with Mini Grey)

 George Monbiot lays the blame on picture books.

Talking about making the film Rivercide with Franny Armstrong (livestreamed on 14th July this year), the environmentalist George Monbiot says:

“When I say farming, what image comes to mind? Well, I bet for quite a few of you, at least fleetingly, a particular kind of picture flitted across your mind. A picture with which we’re surrounded when we’re very small children, at the very dawning of consciousness.  Many of the books produced for very young children are about farms; and most tell broadly the same story.”

He also writes that even the grim realities of industrial farming cannot displace the storybook images from our minds. At a deep, subconscious level, the farm remains a place of harmony and kindness—and this suits us very well if we want to keep eating meat”.

So what’s a picture book farm?

George Monbiot says: “The animals – generally just one or two of each species – live in perfect harmony with the rosy-cheeked farmer, roaming around freely and talking to each other, almost as if they were members of the farmer’s family. Understandably there’s no indication of why they might be there, what happens to them in life, how and why they die.”

A picture book farm is a random collection of one or a few of several animals living together with a farmer – it’s a kind of animal sanctuary. No-one gets killed. The main danger is usually foxes or wolves. Old MacDonald had a picture book farm. Eee-i-eee-i-oh….

But I love picture book farms: it’s a lovely mythical place to explore – a family of animals who can talk to each other, it’s a great setting for a story to unfold. We love to see animals living together and talking together. Little children like to make animal noises and all pat the bone. It’s familiar. It’s fun.

 And lots of  ingenuity and creativity and humour can be had with farm animals.

Here’s Farmer Duck, one of my all-time favourites. It’s so thrilling to see all the animals getting together to discuss their cunning plan to outwit and oust the fat and lazy farmer. It’s so beautifully imagined and lit and painted by Helen Oxenbury. What a perfect place for a story.

(Also secretly I’m reminded by the cow of the classic Larson Far Side cartoon ‘Car!’)

 And I’ve been there too. My first book, Egg Drop, is narrated by a chicken and set on a bucolic farm idyll with gently distressed chicken houses.

Here's Chris Mould brilliantly illustrating Animal Farm and he says about the story: “It works on different levels. If you look at what it is saying politically, it will always be relevant as a text, but from a child’s point of view it’s also about animals talking to each other, and that’s great fun.” There's upheaval and horror and sadness in Animal Farm - but the animals have agency. Just imagine the same animals transposed into a factory farm. How would that look?

Older children's books do address what really happens on farms - here are a couple...

The reality of Factory Farms

But in Rivercide it’s revealed that factory farms are the leading source of river pollution. So what lies hidden beneath? What’s the reality of factory farms?


Approximately two in three farmed animals are now raised in “factory farms” worldwide (Compassion in World Farming 2018).

 The biggest cause of river pollution in the UK is farming.

Intensive chicken farms will house about 40,000 birds that will be cleared out, killed and replaced every 40 days or so.

You don’t need a permit for a farm if you’ve got fewer than 40,000 chickens.

The UK now has some 2,000 chicken factories.

Even so-called ‘free range’ isn’t necessarily what you’d think it was. Here are the images Happy Eggs want you to imagine of their ‘free-range’ chickens:

….and here’s the reality: (pictures screen-grabbed from Rivercide.)

 (Happy Eggs are one of  the biggest 'free-range' egg producers in the UK.)

It’s impossible to put this in picture books

Well, how about trying this as the setting for your picture book? 

Or this? 

Where can you go? Clearly, the Great Escape. But for very little peoples, it’s too unacceptable, too haunting, too disturbing. And what does THIS tells us about factory farming? It’s too unacceptable, too haunting, too disturbing. The truth is, we wouldn’t be able to read a picture book about factory farming to a very little child – it’s too upsetting. So if it’s too unpleasant to bear in picture books, it must be the same in real life. But we don’t get to see it.

“The history of intensive animal farming has led to a progressive removal of animals from public view” (Stewart and Cole 2009).

The farm myth in picture books acts as a very useful screen.

Picture books have helped to shield hidden factory farms, acting as a screen that we don’t worry about looking behind, because we all feel farms are friendly places. Intensive farming is hidden, invisible, and also shielded by the visible happy farms we can see when we go for a nice walk (like the lovely shaggy beasts I see grazing on Wittenham Clumps). 

 So let’s have a look at the Invisible.

The Invisible is the true cost of cheap meat.


Enormous amounts of animal shit that the landscape can’t absorb

Nitrogen-fuelled algal blooms in rivers, dying rivers

Misuse/overuse of antibiotics (and don’t even mention sea lice on farmed fish)

Methane emissions

The loss of small farms, as they can’t compete with the economies of scale of huge ones

Animals inside can’t forage and need feeding. Soya to feed livestock is a main cause of deforestation in the Amazon (and don’t even talk about feeding farmed fish.)

The suffering and discomfort and misery of millions of animals

And don’t forget fish farms – fish can be miserable too. 

Can we make the invisible visible?

 What about a packaging revolution so it is impossible to buy a product containing factory-farmed animal product without knowing about it? Let’s do a magic trick and make the invisible visible. 

If policy makers are not up to banning or limiting factory farms (which is what they should do), I want to make it impossible to buy intensively farmed meat without knowing who it was, and that it’s from an industrial livestock unit. (Honestly, it shouldn't deserve the word 'farmed'. )

Look at cigarette packaging. I don’t know if you’ve hung around with smokers lately – but I have, and I noticed that the horror on cigarette packets is impossible to ignore.

The packaging on animal products should also be impossible to ignore.

Do picture book makers have a responsibility?

Well, maybe. But maybe we should make our farming more like picture books. We should “eat meat as our grandparents did, as something rare and special” and “recognise that an animal has been sacrificed to serve our appetites, to observe the fact of its death: is this not the least we owe it?” (George Monbiot 2015)

Living within your landscape

Landscapes need animals. All farmed animals should be able to live in a natural landscape and be able to behave as they naturally would. (This means really low stocking densities. And yes that means really expensive animal products. But we could subsidise ethical meat.) Meadows need grazing animals; a proper landscape would have top predators too, but around here, they’re us. We live in a landscape (which is often a river valley): the landscape is our framework, and we must only put in it the amount of animals, houses and waste products that it can support without being degraded – which means treading lightly. The signs of environmental collapse: disappearing creatures, algal blooms, polluted rivers – mean we are dumping too much onto the landscape and taking too much out. Humanity’s long term project has got to be to learn to live in balance with the Earth: balance in CO2, water, habitat, wildlife, landscape.

The picture book superpower is to be able to put the reader into the place of someone else. 

Someone who might be a chicken.

So here, to end, is a story for you: the story of Doris, the chicken who changed the world.


Doris the Chicken appeared in the Puffin Book of Big Dreams, published by Puffin Books in 2020.


 Mini's latest published book-involvement is The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, with AF Harrold.  Her BlogSite is at Sketching Weakly.

Monday, 6 September 2021

Paper, pencils and picture book ideas by Jane Clarke

Chitra recently contributed a great step by step post How to edit picture book texts without cutting trees and I intend to try her method the next time I attempt to put a picture book text into pages. But when I'm working on a new idea, it never starts off on the computer. I'm not advocating the destruction of forests, but at the outset, paper, pencils and picture book ideas go together for me.

  •  Working this way is an excuse to buy notebooks. And pencils. And stuff like sticky notes. Even if the ideas in them get outdated, the notebooks don't become obsolete and are easy to access.

 I have LOTs of notebooks filled full of half-baked ideas. I’m not that fussy about notebooks. Some caught my eye, but I’ve been through a lot of cheap spiral bound notebooks. The posh Moleskine one was a gift. 

  • Working with paper and pencil feels free-er and more creative than screen and keyboard. There’s something just too neat and tidy and regimented about computer text.

Mind map of what became Firefly Home. Messy handwriting with lots of crossing out happens in my notebooks. 

  • Paper and pencil slows me down and grounds me. There are not so many distractions - no clicking of tabs and going off down ‘research’ rabbit holes or checking out social media. 

 Squirrel! moments on the computer are lots of fun, but make it hard to concentrate on one idea at a time. 

  • Paper and pencil makes me feel more relaxed and under less pressure to ‘perform.’ Very few editors are interested in seeing scribbles. It’s only when I’ve tidied up a text on the computer that I dare to send it off.

Tidy text of Tiptoe Tiger

If a picture book text is taken by an editor, all future work on it will be on the computer - electronic versions will whiz back and forth by email. Which brings me to my final point in favour of paper, pencils and picture book ideas:

  • When I spill my cup of tea over paper and pencil work, it’s not nearly as traumatic as upsetting one over the keyboard :-)

Jane’s latest picture book is Tiptoe Tiger, gloriously illustrated by Britta Teckentrup, and published by Nosy Crow.


Monday, 23 August 2021

Not Just a Jealous Guy - Gareth P Jones

If you are an author, there is a good chance you have some presence on social media. If you’re anything like me, you have found that your life online became a considerably more significant aspect of your life over the course of the pandemic.  

Twitter is my social media site of choice. Most of the time, I find it a great way of making friends, maintaining friendships, making silly jokes, feeling connected, promoting books and finding work. 
But the subject of this blog is one aspect of being an author online that is harder to talk about because it involves a personality trait that I am ashamed of. I’m talking about Jealousy.

In G.E.M. by Jane Clarke and Garry Parsons, Royd has a Green Eyed Monster, which gets bigger and bigger until it eventually consumes him.

As my twitter friend, Elon Dann points out, there is a difference between jealousy and envy. As he puts it, “Jealousy is insecurity about a potential loss. Envy is resentful longing.” 

The feeling that I’m addressing here lies somewhere between these two definitions. Insecure longing - possibly with a touch of resentful fear of potential loss.  

Lots of my friends tell me they never feel this. Maybe you’re the same, in which case I am envious of your lack of jealousy. 

In David Litchfield’s The Bear, The Dog, The Piano and The Fiddle, Hugo the dog learns the fiddle and gets the chance to play with Bear’s Big Band but the question is whether Hugo's owner Hector can swallow his pride and learn to be for happy for his friend.

When you go online to big up your books, you are likely to encounter lots of other people doing the same. Whether you have signed a contract, received a copy of your brand-new book, found an agent, had a book published or received a glowing review, you are expected to capitalise on this positive moment. If you are appearing at a book festival or picking up a national book award, it would be stranger if you didn’t mention it on social media. As authors, we understand this and we support each other’s efforts in the hope that we can create a supportive, inclusive environment.  

Happily, for the most part, we succeed in this.

There is no place for expressing jealousy in this world. Feeling it is bad enough. Voicing it is unforgivable. Sometimes it might seep out in the form of suitably vague, but snarky joke. But you’ll know what you meant – and so will others. For that reason, those who suffer from jealousy learn that it is better to bury our feelings. 

We chastise ourselves for feeling this way. We tell ourselves that we have much to be grateful for and that many people’s dream is to be a children’s author. We feel embarrassed about these ugly thoughts. We feel shame that such thoughts could even cross our minds.

But jealousy is also intricately connected to ambition. Denying its existence is to ignore the positive aspect of how much it can be a motivator. My jealous thoughts remind me that I am able of doing something about my situation. I can write another book. I can send out an email or tweet to get more school bookings. I can contact a festival and offer my services. I can bribe a national book award judge with a barrel of fudge. 

OK, so I have never done this last one, but my point is that, although jealousy is an unattractive quality, pretending that it isn’t there, will not make it vanish. The way I have learned (and am still learning) to deal with it is to acknowledge that it’s there, understand why it’s there, and try to find a positive side to it.

Inch and Grub (Alastair Chisholm and David Roberts) sees its two eponymous cavemen heroes coming up with increasingly impressive inventions as their competitive jealousy spurs them on.

The moral of this caveman story is that ‘stuff’ isn’t what matters, but I think it also shows how these negative feelings can lead to positive action. I do my best to hide my jealousy (except for when I’m writing a blog about it) but I also accept that it is a part of me and a part of life online. So long as it’s kept in check, it can fuel invention and motivate us to create. 

Gareth P Jones' brand new picture book, Cinder Gorilla, illustrated by Loretta Schauer is published this September by Farshore Books.


Monday, 16 August 2021

Could it be… ADHD? ADHD and writing by Juliet Clare Bell

I have a terrible confession to make about Picture Book Den. So... we take it in turns to write blogposts each week and there’s a rota of who goes when…

only I don’t know where that rota is

…which means I don’t know when I’m meant to post. Which means I periodically get a heart-stopping moment where I think ‘oh no [though much less politely], it might be my turn and I’ve forgotten (again)’ -but I don’t think the thought through properly enough in the run-up to the Monday when someone posts (and ignore that nagging feeling), I think it on the Monday… but I have an almost pathological fear of checking to find the rota to see if I’m right (that I’ve missed my date). 

Sounds ridiculous, right? Because it is. Why don't I just write the dates on a calendar? And why would I choose to stick my head in the sand and NOT check the dates when I know that I haven't posted for ages? 

And yet I do it time and time again. When someone else posts on a Monday, I breathe a sigh of relief as it can't have been my week after all...  Over the years, I’ve occasionally remembered to write down my dates for the whole year onto my calendar which means I’ll get them in on time for that year -(IF I’ve remembered to look at my calendar regularly, of course) but mostly I don’t. And so, shamefully, I am reminded when I’ve already missed my deadline. It’s not that I don’t want to do it. I love being in the Picture Book Den. I’m only posting this because shame thrives on secrets (thank you, Brene Brown). I’ve got plenty of terrible confessions I could make about opportunities missed because I have huge difficulties prioritising anything, and how I can be 98% through a writing task but cannot make myself do the last two percent -for often weeks, or months, or years. But all this confession talk is working up to something that happened about four weeks ago…

It was my Usual Suspects moment (you know, when the big reveal all comes together and it’s like ‘no way! [another realisation]… no way!... [and another] no way! With each additional realisation that you’re suddenly bombarded with, you think. Wow. 





It reminded me of the lightbulb moment in my most recent picture book, Ask First, Monkey! (illustrated by Abigail Tompkins). Monkey gets it wrong time and time again and doesn’t realise what he needs to do in order to work out whether someone wants to be tickled or not. 

(c) Abigail Tompkins (2020)

And then…

                                                         (c) Abigail Tompkins (2020)

The realisation...

                                                            (c) Abigail Tompkins (2020)

It doesn’t mean suddenly that he’s always going to get it completely right and never makes mistakes but it’s that realisation…

I suddenly realised -at the ripe old age of fifty, that 




For three months after a family member suggested that both she and I had it and asked me to do an online test like she’d done I had been in complete denial. I went and did one and the ‘this result strongly suggests you have ADHD’ didn’t even leave me questioning if I had; I simply assumed it wasn’t a good test (though I was totally on board with my family member having it). I took three more tests at various points over the following months (with only the last one feeling in any way like I was doing it to find something out about me and not the wrongness of the test). Obviously everyone must come up looking like they had it. I am similar in my difficulties to quite a few friends and family and surely we didn’t all have it?! Unless, of course, you’re drawn to people with a similar slightly chaotic way of thinking/living…? And unless there’s a large genetic component and actually you might come from an extremely neurodiverse family but you all thought it was just normal (and that it was other people who were different and not you…)  

Instantly, loads of my life made sense for the first time. Before there were so many individual things that I really struggled with but hadn’t put together (really MESSY in real life -no idea how to keep a tidy home, and frantic tidying (or hiding away of mess into various cupboards before anyone comes round), always FORGETTING things, including how not to forget things -like writing things down… (and periodically thinking I'd invented an amazing new device comprising writing down what I was doing on each day before realising, once again, that that was a calendar and I had one -and could use it), not being able to stay FOCUSED -except on certain things (I could do mindless puzzles for hours, or follow some random research thought down a rabbit hole for hours), my whole pattern of work history when I worked in academia…, massive trouble PRIORITISING, having my work in one of nine places (I counted for this post) because of real difficulties ORGANISING anything, being really messy in my writing scribblings, not being able to FOLLOW even the simplest of DIRECTIONS or INSTRUCTIONS, a shockingly bad PROCRASTINATOR, an almost pathological DIFFICULTY FINISHING things. And then I think about our childhood -and, of course! I could go on (and I do, I could talk for ever, and I’d INTERRUPT you loads, too -another thing I’ve not properly realised, or at least admitted to myself, until now) but I won’t.

It’s a bit embarrassing to have been so blindingly unself-aware for so many years (I used to be a research developmental psychologist! I’m a writer! Surely being self-aware is pretty important for those jobs and I’ve seen myself as being a pretty self-aware person, so my pride took a bit of a hit). I had become more aware in some respects over the past twenty years or so -mostly since having children) and this had spilled over into my author visits in a really positive way. We play games around embarrassing moments -doing or saying the wrong thing (of which moments I have a considerably greater than average number) and we talk about why writing is brilliant -because I can be messy, I get to be in charge, I have to let go of perfectionism (for so many years I hated making mistakes and the crippling anxiety that goes with it…), I even do projects with children called ‘I am a work in progress’ and mention about how I was bullied in school for being different, and look good humouredly at all the things I struggled with.

We made a whole book about it! (Thank you to Hallfield Year 4s and 5s)

It was great way of engaging with children and helping them feel better about themselves… And the playing of lots of what if…? games where we go down those crazy rabbit holes and things become ridiculous are loads of fun

 but I still hadn’t put all the pieces together…


In the past, I was very harsh on myself and I all always asked the question

why can’t I do things that normal people can do?

I would berate myself that I could do a PhD (even if each chapter/sub-chapter deadline was scarily last minute and I had to stand up whilst writing for the last three days before I handed the whole thesis in as I knew I’d fall asleep if I sat down to write) but I was completely incapable of keeping a room tidy. I’d be furious at myself and think

What’s wrong with you?!

Even now, keeping a room tidy for a few days feels like a bigger achievement than getting a book published because it feels like I’ve finally, inexplicably gained this secret knowledge of how to be normal... 

And then I lose it again.

So what does this actually mean for writing?

There are parts of writing and related activities that seem to work pretty well for me (the more sociable bits -where I’m with students, or I’m doing school visits -doing, not organising them; the organising and admin around them are very painful). I can come up with really interesting ideas for books and love doing the research parts where I need to. And the fact that I have trouble with sustaining focus whilst working from home means that no one sees me when I do things in tiny bursts of productivity amongst long periods of zoning out. The productivity can be really productive for short bursts and I have to accept that it does work out sometimes as I DO get books published occasionally! And I have had periods with my accountability partner (2020) where lots of things come together and I have what looks and feels like a massive rush of things going right before it all goes extremely quiet again. And actually, when I am commissioned to write books, or get a book deal, I ALWAYS get them in on time. It’s down to the last minute of course (often literally) but I do deliver when I’ve got a firm deadline. But it comes at a personal cost, relying on heaps of adrenaline to make me finish it, and I’ve also missed amazing opportunities because I wasn’t able to prioritise and didn’t turn opportunities into these firm deadlines like publisher deadlines.

But the children’s writing community is lovely (check out SCBWI if you haven't already) and there’s loads of support to be had. I’ve been trying to ‘self-medicate’ with numerous productivity planners and books on getting organised/escaping chaos, and accountability partners and in-person/online write-ins for years without realising it all stems from the same thing. There’s even an ADHD term for the write-ins and similar meetings up: using a body double, where you get someone to be in the same room as you whilst you’re doing something you find difficult to do. The other person doesn’t help you; they’re just there. I find it really hard to get started and to finish things, so having people around makes getting started much easier. And I have a wonderful accountability partner (a fellow picture book author). Now she knows, she’s going to hold me accountable for some of the things I find unbearably difficult -by being my body double. I have about one hour of paperwork I need to do for part of my job each week that’s really simple if you do it straightaway but I have an almost pathological dread of doing it straightaway, so it then takes three or four times as long to do it later. From now on, my accountability partner and I will stay on our zoom call for an hour after our weekly accountability session and she’ll do whatever work she’s working on and I’ll specifically do the thing I can’t bear to do -which is actually a really easy task if there’s someone there.

And soon (pandemic permitting) I'll start back with some in-person write-ins in a local cafe. With write-ins, there’s an element of not wanting to look bad by not writing anything and feeling less inclined to look online as someone will see me, but it’s actually much more than that. My totally illogical anxiety involved in actually getting it started just isn’t there.

I’d really recommend body doubling for reading, too, if you struggle to read, or finish a book. My children asked to read together (not out loud, but silently, in the same space) over lockdown, and it’s actually got me back into reading in a way I haven’t read for over 25 years. I’ve probably given up on five books for every one that I’ve finished when I’m reading them for myself, and the ones I’ve read are mostly young adult books where they’re designed to get you engaged from the first page. I read so much as a child and I absolutely love it again now. Our reading sessions together are highlights of my week.

I realise I’ve written plenty of blogposts relating to aspects of this (especially on procrastination and motivation) and each time it feels that it’s the start of something new (I am an eternal optimist), but it’s different now (no, really!). There’s a difference between thinking something is helpful and knowing it’s necessary. ADHD isn’t an excuse for anything I’ve done (or not done) or do (or not do), but it’s an explanation and I feel like I’m arming myself with knowledge that will equip me really well for writing -and life!- in the future. Self-awareness is always good when writing authentically, and knowledge about a whole person approach (including good sleep, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, specific strategies for prioritising, making lists, using a calendar consistently, setting loads of alarms to remind me to do things, etc. and possibly stimulant medication) is a really positive step.

One of the biggest changes in my thinking over the past few weeks is about raising my expectations. I’m naturally a happy person. I am daily extremely grateful for my life and family and friends. But in order to decide that this wasn’t a huge personality flaw (to believe that I wasn’t lazy and stupid and selfish) and to accept myself for who I am, I did lower expectations of myself quite significantly about ten years ago. If laziness wasn’t the reason I wasn’t writing as much as most writers (and why I had a messy house) then there wasn’t much I could do about it except accept it. I actually didn’t want to have much more going on writing-wise because I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with the extra workload. But that’s all changed. I feel like I want to do more, now -because if I use the right strategies and get the right support then it’s not an alarming thought to think of having more deadlines from editors. And imagine if I managed to get organised enough to do the right kind of publicity for my books? And if I sorted out a system for doing author visits that didn’t feel like the admin was so grim that it might not be worth it (and where I could do that admin with a kind body double who was just getting on with her work on skype whilst I finished my admin?). (And what about a calm, tidy house?! Now that would be something…)

Waiting lists are notoriously long so I haven’t got an official diagnosis yet (believe me, I’ve refrained from including the dozens of personal stories which would make it feel like I didn’t need to wait for a diagnosis to know!) but apart from stimulant medication which I may or may not try, I can start doing all the other things now. It’s going to be a life-long process (we’re all a work in progress after all...), but I’m enormously relieved and really excited. Next fifty years here I come. And as for the picture book den deadlines? I’m going to find the dates tomorrow and write a year’s worth onto my online calendar which I’m going to check every day. I’ve even set the alarm (with accompanying label) to do it…  

Are you a writer with ADHD (I’m guessing there are quite a lot of writers out there!)? If you have any tips for writing with ADHD, please share them below. Many thanks.

Juliet Clare Bell (always called Clare) can be found at www.julietclarebell, though oddly enough, her website needs updating...