Monday 29 June 2015

The Oddest Place I've Written - Group Post

Today we've decided to try something a little different and create a joint blog about the oddest place we've written a story. We hope you enjoy.

The Oddest Place I've Written - Lynne Garner

The ideas for my books tend to come when I'm out and about. So I typically only get the chance to jot down the basics of the idea. However I have written two books whilst away from my desk. The first was Dog Did It! I'd just taken part in a day long workshop led by the very talented and lovely Julie Sykes. I'd had this idea for ages but not managed to do anything with it. However with Julie's hints and tips buzzing around in my head and the support of the other students Dog Did It! was ready to burst into life. So the first draft was scribbled in a small note pad on the train home. The second oddest place I've written a picture book story (one that is still looking for a home) was whilst walking the dog. The idea had been floating around my mind for a few weeks. I'd tried to get it down onto paper but it just wouldn't play the game. However as I wandered around the field doing my ball throwing duties it came to me almost fully formed. Eager to keep a record of it before it faded away I wrote the first draft on my phone (between ball throws).        

The Oddest Place I've Written -  Jane Clarke

Was in a hammock in a shared roundhouse in the middle of Los Llanos, Venezuela, after spending the day looking for anacondas. 

The anaconda we spotted was digesting the contents of a big bulge in its tummy and a rhyme popped into my head based on  'There Was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly...' It's called I Saw Anaconda, and it's due to be published by Nosy Crow next year, illustrated by Emma Dodd.

The Oddest Place I've Written - Moira Butterfield 

When Lynne asked me to think about this subject, I had a problem. The thing is I can hardly write anywhere. In fact I've gone a bit weird about it. I don't like writing in a place where someone might walk in and break my thought process. I can't write where there is music. I do, however, make an exception for trains. I don't know what it is about trains - the rhythmic noise, the confined area, being stuck in a seat - it's all good. I love writing on trains and have been known to go on a journey just to get some writing done. I write longhand in a notebook or pad, and I snigger inside if someone nosily peers over my shoulder, because my writing is illegible to anyone but me and they are foiled (see below). My best ideas come on trains. Ticket to ride please!

If you have a tale to tell about the oddest place you've written please do leave a comment and let us know, we'd love to hear about it.


The Picture Book Den Team

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Exclamation Mark Rehab Clinic by Moira Butterfield

Do you pepper your writing with exclamation marks (called exclamation points in the US)? Picture book and board book authors must get out of the habit. As a sometime editor, I know that it is the mark of an author who hasn't spent enough time editing their work. It’s also the mark of a text written in-house by an editor under pressure. 

I find I sometimes add stray exclamation marks on first drafts. We probably all do it, perhaps because we use exclamation marks a lot more these days on social media. I certainly had a serious habit when I first started writing. Oh yes, I reckon I used many a day back then. But I had to stop, and so do you. We need to edit out those mad little barks at the end of sentences. 

Read this blog as exclamation mark aversion therapy. I'm going to be tough. I want to drill it in. I want authors to stop overusing them and I want editors to stop adding them to work without thinking, as if they're sprinkling salt on their food. 

Use an exclamation mark if someone in your writing is exclaiming – “Wow!”

Or if they are shouting/calling out  “Stop!”

Or if there is a loud noise. 

New board book art for an upcoming series. A loud noise and a call-out here. 

Otherwise DO NOT use them.

Because picture book and board book texts are short, exclamation mark addiction becomes very obvious and overpowers everything else. Let's be brutal here. If you put them in all over your work  you will come across like some demented over-needy children’s TV presenter, gurning away and trying far too hard to please an audience you have no empathy with. “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is why he didn't write The Great Gatsby! 

Exclamation mark over-user

Remember that an exclamation mark will not convey lovely smiling positivity. It will not convey a happy tone of voice. Used over and over again it will make you look slightly mad. As Terry Pratchett said: “Five exclamation marks. The sure sign of an insane mind.” I think he was talking about a long row of exclamation marks at the end of one sentence (utter, utter madness) but loads of the pesky things in one short book is bad, too. 

Read through some of the best picture books. Note that most of them use one, possibly two exclamation marks at most, and always in just the right place. Then flick through some bargain board books, count up the exclamation marks and breathe deeply to calm your rage (er...that might just be me). Board books are particularly prone to exclamation mark overdose because they’re increasingly put together in-house by stressed editors who can't go back and mull over the work. 

Feeling suitably traumatised by my aversion therapy? Good.
Remember. Only use exclamation marks when someone specifically exclaims or shouts. Like this….


Moira Butterfield

New picture book series, 'Everybody Feels', for Quarto Publishing, out later in 2015.   

Friday 19 June 2015

The Letterbox Club by Malachy Doyle

I was delighted, some time back, to be asked to be a patron of The Letterbox Club.

One of the best things about being a writer for children is the way that, every now and again, you get direct evidence that the work you're doing is making a real difference. 

The Letterbox Club is a scheme, initiated by Booktrust (in the UK), where children who are placed with foster carers are sent, once a month, packs of books and number games. Many of these children have moved from one placement to another and rarely if ever get mail in the post addressed directly to them. Many have few, if any, books. Many are well below average in attainment levels.

So the big bright Letterbox packs, dropping through their postbox, addressed specifically to over 10000 children across the UK, with books and games chosen to match their current level, are truly exciting. Research has been done to prove beyond a doubt that these packs make a real difference to their reading and numeracy.

The two original Letterbox Club patrons are Dame Jacqueline Wilson and Lemn Sissay. I was asked, when the scheme spread to Northern Ireland, to be a regional patron. I write a letter to each child by name. Some of my books are included in the packs. And I go, every now and again, to a 'Fun Day' to meet the children.

Last Saturday we all met up in the Ulster Museum in Belfast. I read them my new picture book, The Nose that Knows - they seemed pleased to be the first children to see and hear it. I read Too Noisy, and they all joined in (especially a particularly enthusiastic young girl at the front!). I read them a chapter from Pete and the Five-a-Side Vampires and one little boy acted out, to much amusement, the role of Pete's pet dog Blob as he turned into a Werewolf. Everyone, even the adults, joined in the howling. Then we all went off and made models of wolves out of Jumping Clay.

As I was reading one very small boy edged closer and close to me until he was almost sitting in my lap. Afterwards his foster mother told me that, only a few weeks ago, he was so wary of strangers and of coming forward that such behaviour would have been unthinkable.

Dr.Rose Griffiths, founder of the Letterbox Club

The Letterbox Club in Northern Ireland is funded by Fostering Network as part of its Fostering Achievement programme, in partnership with the Northern Ireland Government.  At a time of savage cuts - the NI government support for the Bookstart programme has recently been completely withdrawn - Letterbox Club funding has been guaranteed up to 2016. I very much hope that it will continue beyond that, and that The Letterbox Club, across the UK and possibly beyond, will survive and grow. 


Sunday 14 June 2015

Exploring Story Cubes - Lynne Garner

In my last post I discussed how you can use a Story Sack to enhance the reading experience of your child. This month I've decided to write a follow-on post about the glory of story cubes.

They're a great addition to any story sack and can be used in a variety of ways, all of which help children meet some of the EYFS goals. For example:

  • Personal, Social and Emotional Development: making relationships (bonding over play) and building self-confidence 
  • Communication and Language: speaking and listening skills
  • Physical Development: small motor skills (throwing the cubes, holding a pencil)
  • Expressive Arts and Design: being imaginative

So what are story cubes?

Story cubes are small cubes that contain images, these can be used to help you create a story, poem, work of art, anything creative really. You can purchase them or you can make your own. If you prefer to make your own you can create a cube from card (there are loads of templates you can download from the Internet) or up-cycle some old wooden play bricks. Once you're armed with your cubes and are ready to experiment with them here are a few ideas to get you started:

If you choose to purchase a set (typically they come in sets of nine cubes):

Group game - Create a story version one: Throw all nine cubes and each person picks one cube. Decide who goes first and that person has to start the story using the image from their cube as inspiration for their part of the story. The next person then has to add to the story using the image from their cube. Continue in this way until everyone has had a turn. If there are a small number of players e.g. 3 then each person can pick three cubes and use one cube per go until all have been used.

Group game - Create a story version two: Give each player the same number of cubes. Then taking it in turn each player throws one of their cubes and carries on the story from the previous player using the image they've just thrown as inspiration for their section of story.

On your own: Throw the cubes and arrange in a line. Following the sequence of images to create a new story.


  • You don’t have to be literal with the images for example if a rainbow is thrown there doesn’t have to be a rainbow in the sky. Perhaps someone is singing ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ or someone is wearing a rainbow coloured top. 
  • You may wish to record the results of your 'game' so the story it not lost. 

Homemade story cubes: 
You could create a story cube based on a story you've recently read with your child or make a set and use the ideas above. However if you choose to base your story cube on a story you've read then these ideas may be helpful:

What happened? Throw the story cube. Using the image that lands face up to discuss that part of the story. Was it funny? Was it sad? Was it scary? What happened before or after that part of the story?

Rearrange the story: Throw the cube and use the outcome to rearrange the story you’ve read. Perhaps the goodie loses and the baddie wins. Perhaps something the character was afraid of is no longer afraid of. Perhaps something they were bad at they are now fantastic at. You can then explore how this would impact on the story.

I hope this has given you a few ideas for using story cubes and you can see the benefit of adding these to your story sack.

If you decide to experiment with them please do let me know the outcome. 



My writing eCourses starting soon:

Monday 8 June 2015

Joining In by Jane Clarke

When I started writing picture book texts for children (at the age of 40 , I was a late starter), I didn't tell my friends. I'd snatch an hour here and there, then blindly send off the results to random publishers and keep silent when the rejections arrived. I had no confidence in myself as a writer, and no connection with anyone who was writing – as far as I was aware, I was on my own. I only admitted what I was doing to my immediate family - they were supportive, but in a vague that's-a-nice-hobby sort of way.

I don't think I'd be published now if I'd continued to be secretive about my writing.  I plucked up courage to join an Arvon Foundation  writing course. 
 The first Arvon course I went on was led by Pat and Lawrence Hutchins. It was inspirational to be with people who shared my passion for picture books. 

Then I joined Wordpool
 and SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators)
Our own Natascha Biebow is Regional Advisor of the British branch
I participated in lots of critiques, attended what conferences I could get to, and gradually made connections through them which led me to find an agent and get published. They're a wonderfully supportive bunch, too.

As time's gone on, I've become a member of the Scattered Authors Society
 and the Society of Authors (Children's' Writers and Illustrators Group).

It's a joy to attend writing conferences and meet up with people like my fellow PictureBookDenners. I try to give back a bit by running a monthly SCBWI drop in and chat meeting for children's writers and illustrators in Canterbury - I'll set up one in Market Harborough when I move there later this year.

It's also fun to join in with Picture Book Ideas Month in November (you can't register for 2015 until October)

The best writing choice I ever made was to stop being secretive and join in. Please share the names of other groups or organisations that you have joined that have been helpful to you.

The first two books in Jane's new series of How to... board books, wonderfully illustrated by Georgie Birkett, are out this month -yay!