Monday 26 June 2017

The Picture Book World Cup • Jonathan Emmett

As well as being a picture book author, I'm a Patron of Reading. A Patron of Reading is a children's author, poet, storyteller or illustrator who partners with a school to encourage and develop a culture of reading for pleasure within that school. I thought I’d use this post to tell you about The Picture Book World Cup, a week-long reading for pleasure project I helped organise at my Patron of Reading school, Asfordby Captain’s Close Primary School in Leicestershire.

The inspiration for the project came from Texas elementary school teacher Dianne Fulton. Back in March, Dianne sent me the tweet below to tell me that The Princess and the Pig, one of my picture books with illustrator Poly Bernatene, was in competition with 15 other books in her school's Sweet Sixteen Book Challenge.

The challenge was a knockout contest, where books were played off in pairings with students voting to decide the winner of each pairing. Dianne kept me posted on The Princess and the Pig's progress via Twitter and I was delighted to see it get all the way to the final before its winning streak was finally interrupted by David Ezra Stein’s Interrupting Chicken.

It seemed like such a great idea that I decided to adapt it to use with my patron school.

Dianne's wall chart reminded me of the progress charts that newspapers and magazines give out at the beginning of a football World Cup.

Dianne’s Sweet Sixteen wall chart after the first round and a chart from the 2014 Football World Cup

So we called our version the Captain's Close Picture Book World Cup and I created this World Cup style progress chart to go with it.

Each class had a copy of this chart  to follow the contest's progress.

I firmly believe that picture books can be enjoyed by all ages – not just preschoolers and infants – and Captain's Close's Literacy Co-ordinator Lisa Gackowska and Headteacher Julia Hancock feel the same way. So we had the whole school vote in our contest, from Reception right the way up to Year 6. The initial groups were age-graded, so the Group 1 books, which were voted on by Reception class, were chosen to appeal to slightly younger readers than the Group 2 books which were voted on by Years 1 and 2. However, as the contest progressed, the age range voting on each match widened. So all of the Key Stage 1 students got to vote on the outcome of Semi-Final 1, while all of the Key Stage 2 Students voted on Semi-Final 2. And the whole school got to vote on the outcome of the final.

One of my aims as a Patron of Reading is to introduce reluctant readers to new books that they'll enjoy reading. Many reluctant readers prefer non-fiction to fiction, so the initial selection contained an equal number of non-fiction and fiction books, with each group starting out with both a non-fiction and a fiction match.

And – following the example of Dianne’s US version – each of the initial matches had a different theme.

Group 2's non-fiction books were both about the Natural World and their fiction books had an Animal Antics theme.

I wanted to encourage students to stray off the beaten path a little, so I tried to avoid books by big name authors like Julia Donaldson (as much as I admire her work). And – to ensure impartiality – I didn’t include any of my own picture books.

I introduced all sixteen books in a special assembly at the beginning of the week. Once the voting had begun, students could follow the progress of all four groups on one of the wall charts, which were updated after each round.

The School's World Cup corridor display with a wall chart showing the progress of the contest.

After fourteen qualifying matches, the two books that made it all the way to the final were Oi Frog! by Kes Gray and Jim Field and Nuts in Space by Elys Dolan. You can see the results of each qualifying match in the filled in version of the chart below.

Here's how the chart looked before the final.

At the end of the week we had another special assembly to finish the contest. I started off by asking students if they had any favourite books that hadn't made it to the final and was pleased to discover that all of the books in the contest had found some new fans.

I’d been tweeting updates on the contest throughout the week and I showed the students some of the responses I’d received from the authors and illustrators of the competing books. You can read some of these tweets in a collection here.

Finalists Jim Field and Elys Dolan engaged in some pre-match banter on Twitter.

Then it was time to reveal the winner. The votes for the final had been collected by secret ballot and  – to string out the suspense – I announced the results a class at a time. It was a close run contest, with the lead shifting from one book to the other as the votes were counted in. Both books had enthusiastic supporters who broke out into excited cheering whenever their book pulled ahead. I've never had to ask a school audience to settle down so many times!

I'd ordered the results so that it wasn’t clear which book was going to win until the votes from the very last class were counted in.

Sparrows Class were the last to have their votes counted in.

But in the end, the winner, by 84 votes to 73 was …

Nuts In Space, by Elys Dolan!

Congratulations to Commander Moose and his crew for boldly going all the way to World Cup glory and to Elys Dolan for creating such a wonderful book!

My three year tenure as Captain Close’s Patron of Reading ends this term and the Picture Book World Cup was a great way for me to sign off. So I’d like to give a big THANK YOU to Dianne Fulton for letting me steal her idea and another big THANK YOU to Literacy Co-ordinator Lisa Gackowska for doing such a great job of refereeing the project in school.


If you’d like to try running your own Picture Book World Cup I’ve created some PDF progress charts and logos that you can download. There are two sets, one that uses the same books as the Captain’s Close contest described above and a blank template set that you can fill in with your own choice of books.


Here's a timetable that can be used to run the contest over a week with students split into four groups and an equal number of fiction and non-fiction books. Each group has to read six books and take part in five votes. 

Introduce the contest and all 16 books in morning assembly.
Read the two non-fiction books in your group and vote on them. 

Read the two fiction books in your group and vote on them.
Have a quarter final vote between Monday’s non-fiction winner and today’s fiction winner. 

Semi-Finals: Read the quarter final book chosen by the other group on your half of the chart and then have a vote between that and Tuesday's quarter final winner from your own group. 

Final: Read the semi-final book chosen by the other half of the school and then have a vote between that and Wednesday's semi-final winner from your own half of the school. 

Reveal the winner in assembly!

If your school runs a Picture Book World Cup and you're on Twitter, please share your results using the #PicBkWorldCup hashtag, so that other schools can see which picture books are the most successful at engaging young readers.

You can find out more about the Patron of Reading scheme at

Jonathan Emmett's 'Sweet Sixteen' finalist book was The Princess and the Pig, illustrated by Poly Bernatene and published by Macmillan Children's Books.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blogYou can also follow Jonathan on Facebook and Twitter @scribblestreet.

Monday 19 June 2017

Responding to a Call to Action • Chitra Soundar

We’re living in strange times – where dystopia is no longer confined to the pages of a novel. Around us we find fear and insecurity, differences and intolerances turn into political ideology and public policy.

 How does a children’s book writer get involved? My readers are wee people who do not understand constitution or right to vote. Many are perhaps not even potty trained. What could I possibly do to bring about change?

Read an interesting discussion in the New York Times - that discusses this very topic.

Good picture books have multiple layers and meanings. While it deals with a child’s emotion in a child’s world from the point of view of a child, it also has an adult reader, often. Many picture books are read aloud by sleepy-eyed parents, novice aunts and uncles doing bedtime as a novelty or grandparents who are amazed at how much books have changed over the years.

Any topic being discussed – whether hidden inside a story or a narrative that explains a concept – space, dinosaurs, trucks need to appeal to the child first and foremost. Then it needs to engage the adult reader too. If it manages both, then of course reading it over and over again becomes less of a chore.

So as a writer in this complex political world, I have two voters for every read – a contemporary voter who hopefully would vote in the next election (by the looks of it, we might have it regularly like an annual summer event) and a child voter who is the future of this nation. This captive audience is looking for a story. A story that they can enjoy, laugh with, think about and perhaps learn from. A story that doesn’t beat the moral over the reader’s head but through its nuanced plot elements, leads us to the inevitable but surprising ending.

As I watched the election results trickle by, as the nation rejoiced of a hung parliament, I realised I have an obligation to stand up and tell stories that
a)     promote equality, diversity, empathy and compassion
b)    children of all colour, abilities and gender in a positive light
c)     give us hope instead of despair; joy in the face of adversity.

Many of us remember the books we read as kids. Many of us have learnt some crucial things about life from books. So what better way to equip the voters of tomorrow? What better way to prepare the minds of young readers than give them stories that they can apply in real life that will bring about a better society for everyone?

Children’s writers have an important role in these interesting times. Whether we are talking about underpants or wishing the rabbit good night, we need to make our characters stand up for something. They need to find their way in these murky times through stories we tell and stories we equip them to tell.

This is the time to bring out stories that empower our children with skills and sensitivity to live in an integrated society, where we do not fear “the other” and “the unknown.” And the good news is many writers are already doing this. There are books out there that show us “others” are not different. Like Siddhartha Mukherjee says in his book The Gene – An Intimate History, we are more similar than different as human beings.

On 13th June, Empathy Lab UK initiated a new celebration called EmpathyDay and on that day, we all tweeted our recommended reads. I’ve started collecting them all here. If you know of a book that inspires empathy, promotes togetherness and brings us together, then do post in the comments below or tweet it out with hashtag #ReadForEmpathy.

Let’s help raise better citizens for tomorrow.

Chitra Soundar is a closet clown, consummate liar, writer and storyteller. Find out more at or follow her on Twitter at @csoundar. 

Monday 12 June 2017

My Prickly Friends • Lynne Garner

A book about the friendship between a
mouse and a hedgehog.  
If you're a long-term follower of The Picture Book Den then you'll know I love hedgehogs. So much so that I've been rescuing them (on a very small scale from a 6' x 8' shed in my back garden) for the last 25 years (Herts Hogline). They're so much a part of my life that they even creep into my writing. In fact my first picture book 'A Book For Bramble' was inspired by them. I've also written a great many non-fiction magazine features about hedgehogs and this year they star in my latest collect of 8 retold traditional tales (Hedgehog of Moon Meadow Farm) and my latest picture book written as co-author with hypnotist Chris Caress called 'Harvey's Big Sleep.' 
A picture booked aimed at helping
children to sleep

As I write this post and if you're reading this within a couple of weeks of my pressing the publish button, I'm hand rearing six hoglets. So rather than tell you something about picture books I've decided to do something a little different. I'm going to turn you all into hedgehog geeks, so you'll know exactly what to do to help our dwindling hedgehog population. Quick fact: hedgehog numbers in the 1950s-60s were an estimated 30 million. Today that has plummeted to 1 million (a faster loss than the loss of the world's tigers). So here are a few ways you can help our hogs:

There are 6, promise. One is hidden under it's siblings.
The white marks are tipex, so I can tell who is who.

  • If you have a pond with steep sides then fit a ramp.
  • Keep netting at least 15cm (6") off the ground.
  • Leave out food and water. This can be special hedgehog food, tinned cat/dog food (non-fishy flavours) but NEVER bread and milk. To avoid cats eating the food buy or make a feeding station.
  • Always check under hedges and in long grass before cutting.
  • Pick up elastic bands or hair bands, cut up and put into a bin. These and prickles don't mix well.
  • To avoid hedgehogs making a nest in your shed/garage, stable or tack room keep the door closed at all times.
  • Do not use slug pellets; find safer alternatives.
  • Always check a bonfire before you light it.
  • Provide shelter by buying or making a hog home
  • Hedgehogs out during the day are highly likely to need medical help a.s.a.p. so contact British Hedgehog Preservation Society for advice.
  • Never treat for fleas; pet flea solutions are lethal to hedgehogs.
  • During autumn and winter small hedgehogs (under 600 grams) are too small to hibernate, so need to be rescued.

As this is the height of the breeding season the BHPS provide the following advice on nesting females and hoglets:

The first feed of the day - hence still in PJs
If you accidentally disturb a nest, try to restore it quickly and without too much fuss.  Check with a piece of screwed up piece of paper to see whether mum is returning, they all react differently, some move the babies over several days, a few have been known to kill them whilst others just abandon them.  If the nest is in a place where it cannot be left, catch the mother before the babies as she will be the most mobile.  Place her in high-sided box with some of the bedding from the nest and then slip her babies in with her.  Contact the BHPS to find a local contact who can advise and if necessary take in the family.  Do not release them somewhere yourself as the mum is very likely to abandon them, given the amount of disturbance she has endured.

Last but not least if you're concerned about your local visiting hedgehog, need advice or find an orphaned, sick or injured hedgehog, contact the BHPS (01584 890801)  they can give general advice and perhaps details of a local hedgehog rehabilitator that you can contact.

If you've reached this far, thanks for reading and please do share this far and wide. Hedgehogs need as many friends as they can get.  



Now for a blatant plug:

My latest collection of short stories featuring Hedgehog is available on Amazon in eBook format and as a paperback.

Hedgehog of Moon Meadow Farm