Monday 31 July 2017



Hello! Before I start my first blog as a regular Picture Book Den blogger, I’d like to say how excited and grateful I am to have been asked to do this.  For the last few years I’ve visited the site regularly and have often been inspired by the posts and comments on here so...Thank you Picture Book Den!

This year has been a year of many firsts for me…first picture book published, first event in a book shop, first event at a school, first event at a festival!  And, of course, there was that fantastic first time that I was asked to sign one of my books! (It was in the pub, for my lovely editor, Laura Roberts- and yes, she made sure that she documented the moment!)  

This year was also the first time that I was asked to speak to adults about my writing.
I was asked by Fiona Barker who, along with Kate Poels, hosts ‘Picture Book Club’ in Reading and Windsor.  Pitched as a ‘monthly book club for grown-ups who love picture books’, Fiona says that Picture Book Club is for authors, illustrators, anyone with ambitions of writing picture books, lovers of art and illustration and for those who want to learn just a little bit more about children’s publishing. 

I met Fiona at the SCBWI_BI conference in November last year.  When she first asked me to speak at Picture Book Club, I was a little nervous as I haven’t studied Children’s Literature or taken any formal writing classes. Fiona, however, invited me to come along and see Picture Book Club in action. 

Fortunately I took her up on her offer and went to watch Mat Tobin whose talk was fascinating, interactive and really eye-opening.  Unfortunately, Mat Tobin also happens to be a senior lecturer in English and Children’s Literature at Oxford Brookes and he really knows his stuff…so this experience did little to calm my nerves!  However, Fiona reassured me once again and she suggested that I speak about my journey to publication …so that’s what I did.

                                             Getting ready in Waterstones, Reading.

Speaking at Picture Book Club was a GREAT experience and, with a lovely supportive audience of picture book-enthusiasts, what could really go wrong?  There was plenty of time for chats, drinks and book-browsing in the Waterstones Children’s section and of course, no Picture Book Club is complete without one of Fiona’s famous (and often book-themed!) cakes.  Check out some of her creations so far! 


Fiona and Kate have managed to secure some fantastic speakers, from Author/Illustrators Sophy Henn and Meg McLaren to Literary Agents James and Lucy Catchpole (to name but a few). 
The evenings are very relaxed and informal and every so often Picture Book Club even goes on tour! This year it has been to Oxford and I’m told that a Summer trip to Exeter is also planned.  You can find out what’s coming up at Picture Book Club here

For those living further South, fear not! A new branch of Picture Book Club has recently been set up by Melanie McGilloway,  Emma Perry and Greet Pauwelijn and it has had some wonderful speakers so far- Yasmeen Ismail (hugely talented Author/Illustrator) and Author, Michelle Robinson (who needs no introduction to Picture Book Den readers!)   You can find out more information about Picture Book Club’s South West chapter by following the hashtag #picturebookclubSW on twitter.

This year of firsts, including my first 'Picture Book Club', has taught me to be brave and to say ‘Yes’.  Author, Tracey Corderoy, speaking at a Nosy Crow Picture Book Master Class, once explained that she says ‘Yes’ to everything and then works out how she’s going to do it later. I think that sounds like a pretty good rule.

I shall definitely be going back to Picture Book Club, for more book chats and more cake!  And who knows, perhaps I’ll be invited back to talk again one day?  Though my next picture book, with illustrator Mark Chambers , is called ‘Jake bakes a Monster Cake’ and I’m not sure anyone will want a cake quite like this one! Fiona, are you up for a new baking challenge?!

‘Jake Bakes a Monster Cake’ written by Lucy Rowland and illustrated by Mark Chambers is out in September 2017 and is published by Macmillan.

Monday 24 July 2017

Now For Something A Little Different • Lynne Garner

I was recently asked to visit a school as part of their 'aspirations day' and talk about being an author. As I have close ties with the school I agreed. The day came and I was led to the second year room and sat in front of 20 or so year two children. After introducing myself and telling them about my typical writing day I asked if there were any questions. The first question I was asked was where do you get your ideas from? My response was anywhere and everywhere. Including:

  • Seeing random objects whilst I'm out walking
  • Sitting in a pub or similar, especially when I overhear an interesting conversation     
  • On the train, again overheard conversations are wonderful generators of ideas   
  • In the car as a passenger when I'm watching the world go by
  • Reading snippets in a newspaper, when I should be cleaning out hutches
My last example received a giggle or two. I admitted my last flash of inspiration was whilst sitting on the loo of a very quaint tea room. Among the many photographs was this one of a donkey, wearing a fab utility coat full of pockets and interesting items. I have a few ideas floating around but nothing concrete, yet.

I was then asked how random objects could generate a story. I replied things can spark different ideas based on our life experiences and our imagination. So here is the 'now for something a little different' part of this post.

Below I've inserted a few random objects I've photographed whilst out walking. I'm inviting you to give one of these objects a story, a life of it's own. Go on give it a go. I'd love to read what life you think these objects had prior to being lost or discarded in the grass.

If you've taken the time to write a few words thank you. I hope you enjoyed the process and fingers crossed it may even give you an idea for your next piece of writing.



Now for a blatant plug:

Hedgehog of Moon Meadow Farm

Monday 17 July 2017

Can you teach people how to write a good picture book? • Pippa Goodhart

         No and yes.

         No, in that there are no clear rules that can be learnt and followed that would fit all good picture books.  If you set rules for picture book writing they might include …

Rule 1) Remember that pictures are the key feature of any picture book.  That’s why they are called picture books.  But then you’d never get a brilliant and successful book such as this –
The Book With No Pictures - Paperback - 9780141361796 - BJ Novak 
Rule 2) When writing for young children you must always supply a happy ending.  But then you’d never get an important honest books such as this –
Missing Mummy - Paperback - 9780230749511 - Rebecca Cobb 

Rule 3)  When writing for such a young audience, you must make clear exactly what is happening in the story.  And then we’d miss out on genius such as this –

I Want My Hat Back - Paperback - 9781406338539 - Jon Klassen 

So, no, you can’t neatly teach picture book writing in that didactic sort of way.  But you certainly can equip people with necessary knowledge for writing picture books, and also nurture their skills at working with pictures and the book format to convey stories suited to both target audience and market place. 
I’ve just finished teaching another run of the four week online course in picture book writing that I do via the Writers’ Workshop.  On that course, I take students back to thinking about what life was like when they were of the 2-5 year old core picture book audience age themselves. What mattered to them?  What did they find funny?  I tell them a bit about the often international market for picture books.  We think about what a story is, and how best to play it between words and pictures and page turns.  We think about writing style, how the text must read out loud pleasingly, the potential pitfalls of writing in rhyme, how dialogue can bring pictures to life, and so on. 
I asked the participants on the recent course what they thought about that course, and perhaps the most telling comment was this –
‘I learned a lot through doing (making mistakes, your comments, having another shot at it).’
It’s that having a go, actually doing, and then discussing the results, that develop writing skills far more than teaching 'rules' ever could.  It’s what I get from group of writing friends I belong to where we meet regularly, bounce ideas around, read out work and critique it, but the course provides that supportive yet critical community virtually.  I love it.
Still no guarantee that it will result in a publishing contract and book sales, though! 

            Do any of you have experiences of courses in picture book writing?  
            Can you think of any other books that clearly disobey the sorts of rules that might be thought to apply to the writing of picture books?

Monday 10 July 2017

This post has no pictures by Juliet Clare Bell

I'm trying a new way of writing. Without writing.

I have a temporary problem with my arms and hands which makes writing and typing very difficult. Fortunately it is only temporary, and I am trying to learn what I can from this enforced difference in the way that I try to write.

As anyone who knows me can testify, I talk a lot. My answer phone messages are always too long and I can take a lot longer to say something than I need. Which is why writing picture books has been a really interesting challenge for me over the years.  

I'm a really messy thinker. So for me, I always need to start by brainstorming ideas messily onto a piece of paper. And when I start structuring my picture book, I leave out the vast majority of the original thoughts that I had. But I do need to get them down on paper before I start refining my thoughts. I think best by writing things or typing things down. 

Soon I'll be able to write and type things again properly. By the end of the summer, things should be back to normal. And I will be very happy when that happens. But in spite of the frustration of not being able to do what I want to do, it has also been an interesting learning experience.

Here are some things I have learnt.

So much of my thought processes are crystallised by writing things down. I discover what I'm really trying to say by writing it down. Voice recognition software on the phone has been brilliant, but even making to do lists by speaking rather than writing is massively less efficient for me. It's not just that it's slower, it's that I still haven't learnt to think that way. So I miss out loads of things I should be doing. 

Writing helps me remember what I'm trying to remember in a way that speaking does not.

Someone told me the other day how my text messages now are like my old answer phone messages! But in fact, text messages and emails are the easiest things to do with voice recognition software if they're just about something practical. And actually, when everything is completely better again soon, I will still use voice recognition software for those kinds of texts and emails- because it is really quick.

Some people are very quick writers. They can say what they want to say really concisely from the start. I, on the other hand, am very slow. And without being able to brainstorm first so I can see what my ideas are in order to structure what I write, I am going to be slower than ever over the next few months...

Brought to you by voice recognition softer with minimal editing and no brainstorming so no structuring. 

If you've ever tried new ways of writing, physically, because of an injury or condition, how much has it actually affected what you write?

And has anyone come up with a way of brainstorming without having to use your hands?

Monday 3 July 2017

Ask a Question, Write a Story! • Natascha Biebow

From Curious George Visits the Library by H.A. Ray

Children often think grown-ups know everything. But I like to think grown-ups know a lot, but still have a lot to learn . . .

Like the eponymous children's book character, Curious George, children are full of wonder and bursting with curiosity. Their enquiring minds are a seemingly bottomless pit of questions that lead to new knowledge and discoveries about the world. Importantly, children are often coming fresh to things so they question WHY things are the way they are. But most adults accept the world as a matter of course. I wonder: do we sometimes get so wrapped up in the business of everyday life, doing stuff, that we pass up the opportunity to STOP, look and learn?

Do we forget to ask questions and stay ahead of the ever-changing world? Are we missing out on the fun of the ‘WHAT IF?’ game, taking a leaf out of the book of children’s curiosity?

From Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
I like to think that I learn something new every day. My seven year-old says, “Really, Mommy?”

YES, really! The world is so big and full of the unknown, surely it is possible to learn something new – even if it's just a small thing – every day?!

So, for instance, yesterday I learned that the new self-driving cars being developed by Volvo can detect a whole range of wildlife hazards, but bouncy kangaroos are eluding them. Hmmm. Random. But a story is forming. What if . . . ? 

And did you know that we are born to lie, that lying is innately part of human development, like walking and talking? 

Or that there is a tomato fight in Spain every year?

Or that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were best friends?
Of course, living with a young person in your house helps. Children are always asking “WHY?” and “HOW COME?” and “WHAT IF?” and saying, “DID YOU KNOW . . .?” 

"Oooh a worm - what does it do?"

Sometimes the questions are quite difficult to unpick:

WHO tells your brain what to do – who is the boss?
WHAT is the universe made of?
WHEN can we get a robot to do our chores?
WHY can’t we have cars that go on tram tracks? (Perfect for not using so much petrol!)
HOW COME cigarettes don't cost a million pounds each if they cause cancer?
WHY hasn't anyone invented a flying car yet?!
Cover of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again illus by Joe Berger

These day when you want to find out something, the first recourse is often to “Ask Google”. Oooh, look, quick answers, facts at the end of your fingertips. What wonder! Hmm, but though the internet may be ‘clever’, it is only as good as the person asking and thinking through the answer.

What does all this have to do with picture books, I hear you ask?

Well, the truth is often stranger than fiction. And this kind of curiosity is a great start for STORY and a fabulous resource for writers.

Non-fiction picture books are a fantastic launching point for our quest to learn about the world and pursue our questions, but facts can also be so much fun when you fictionalize them to knit the story in between. Like in this book:

Because story is one of the most powerful ways we can find out about the world, 

introducing us to ideas and facts that we had perhaps never even considered,

. . . and some stories are so delightfully complex or ambiguous that we just want to keep asking and delving deeper.



In fact, I'd wager that some of the best stories leave us with more questions than answers . . . 

If we all keep on asking WHY the world goes and WHAT makes it go – whether or not the answer can be found on Google or inside a picture book near you – oh, the wonder of the stories we can create!

What will you learn today?!


Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission.  Check out my small-group coaching Cook Up a Picture Book coursesNatascha is also the author of The Crayon Man (coming in 2019!), Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.