Monday 25 September 2017

The Writer's Busman's Holiday : Natascha Biebow

In his recent blog post about how many illustrators like to sketch when they're out and about and on holiday, Garry Parsons asked: "Now I’m left wondering if authors do this too? Do they sit on the beach on holiday in Minehead conjuring poetry, psalms or haiku just for pleasure? I’m curious!"

Intrinsic to our craft is the fact that authors, like illustrators, never really take time off - our minds are constantly finding ideas and fine-tuning characters, plots and story arcs. On holiday, we sit on airplanes, trains, diners, cafés and at the in-law's dinner table listening to dialogue, experiencing situations and new scenery that will very likely, one day re-emerge in our books.

A few of the bloggers in the Den have commented that they carry around a notebook and jot down ideas and snippets that will perhaps later become books. Others, said they have a go at drawing too. I do both those things, but find that the notebook musings come second to a whole bunch of other activities (see below).

Being freelance comes with all kinds of challenges to do with when you are actually on a designated holiday and when you're supposed to be working. But I do try to take time off. Because it's important to just 'be' and let new vistas come and refresh the page. I love being close to nature and walking.
I took this snap on a holiday in RSA to celebrate my mum and my birthdays
I am not yet lucky enough to count myself as a full-time writer, and so I find myself actively having to carve out time to write. Having recently embarked on picture book non-fiction– and then actually having sold something in this genre – I discovered that I can suddenly spend my holiday time researching all kinds of seemingly useless information in the name of being a writer.  This is actually really quite fun.

So, this summer, whilst on holiday in Pennsylvania, I:

The mini-golf course was filled with unexpected hurdles . . .
- played mini-golf with my family in a place called Bird-in-Hand (boy, this shows up personalities that make for good characters!)

- went to the library and checked out a dog-eared young fiction biography of Elizabeth Blackwell,  first woman doctor so I could see if it had any nuggets in it (and because she's a lady Judy Moody admires and I knew nothing about)

- read the fascinating story of William Kamkwamba, who changed his people's world by inventing and building a simple windmill with scraps, despite the famine and because of the village library (and that his story is now a bestselling sensation because of a blogger)

- studied a whole bunch of non-fiction picture books and studied how other people who get paid to do this stuff do it well

- watched a few episodes of Frasier on TV (to research humour of course)

Staring contest from 'Frasier' -Eddie wins
- spent several hours in the hammock reading Judy Moody, Hank Zipzer and several other American young fiction series (again, for research of course)

- visited the Crayola factory to see how they make crayons in real life (I know, how cool is that!)

- spent copious hours the floor of the children's section of Barnes & Noble and any other bookshop my family would let me near . . .

I also:

- hiked in beautiful Valley Forge National Park with the dogs (and worked out plot problems and suchlike)

- bought a vivid set of Crayola pastels and swirled some backgrounds for my new author website

- was lucky enough to be invited by my lovely new agent to a weekend retreat in Vermont to hang out with fellow clients. Sitting by the peaceful riverside, we each shared a work in progress with the eight other retreaters. Though I found this daunting because I'd never met any of them before, it was a very useful experience and the feedback invaluable. We ate, laughed and hiked, plus discovered that Victoria Wells Arms is a master chef.

- oh and sometimes, I wrote. Yes, when I'm on holiday, I can do that. 

What did you do on your summer holiday?


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 Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. 


Monday 18 September 2017

Picture Books and Animation • An Vrombaut

This week we have a guest blog from multi-talented author-illustrator-animator An Vrombaut exploring the differences between working in picture books and animation.

I trained as an animator and now work as a creator and writer of animated programmes for pre-school television. I have also written and illustrated fifteen picture books. One of my picture books has been adapted for animation (Dear Dragon / Florrie’s Dragons) and one of my animated stories have been adapted as picture books (64 Zoo Lane). All this means I’ve done a fair bit of hopping back and forth between the worlds of publishing and animation, and I’m often asked what the differences are between working in these different fields.

64 Zoo Lane - The Story of the Whale Trip

The thing about animation is … it’s expensive to produce and it takes time – considerably more time than the making of a picture book! It is not unusual for the development and finance of an animated project to go on for three, five or even seven years… Initially, a production company will option a book for a fee (usually a modest one) which gives the company the right to develop the project during an agreed time period - perhaps one to two years. A pilot episode may be made as a tool to develop and refine the look and content of the animation. It’s also used to show at test screenings to get audience feedback, to establish a production pipeline for the animation, and of course to help raise finance. When the project has been green-lit, the creator should receive a larger rights fee. From this moment, it can take another one to two years to complete the programme depending on the length and on the animation technique used.

64 Zoo Lane – early development drawing

The level of involvement of the picture book author or illustrator in the making of an animated adaptation can vary greatly, from simple approvals at key stages to consultancy work on design and/or content, to co-writing and co-producing. Contracts tend to be more complex than publishing contracts, so it’s advisable to work with an agent. Alternatively you could get a media lawyer to look at contracts, but this can work out costly!

Another key difference between publishing and animation is that writing and illustrating picture books tends to be a solitary profession whereas animation is team work. This can take a little time getting used to - yes, it’s likely you will be asked to make changes! However, most picture book authors/illustrators find working with other creatives stimulating.


It’s exciting for any author/illustrator to receive news of a picture book being adapted for animation, and exhilarating to see characters come to life on a screen. However, the process is not without its pitfalls. There are the legal complexities, the agonising waits during the development and financing phase, the politics and the conflicting demands of having to work with so many different parties… ‘We need you to add a vehicle to this show’ is a phrase often heard from those selling toy merchandising rights. But perhaps the hardest thing from the creator’s point of view is the emotional intensity of seeing your ‘baby’ reborn in a new medium. I have met creators of animated TV programmes who felt utterly drained after the last episode was delivered to the broadcaster. It’s important to keep perspective – and there’s always a little letting go to be done, even on projects where the creator has been closely involved during all stages of the production.

One thing that has changed for the better over the last decade is a decrease in snobbery on both sides: publishing and animation. Early on in my career I met a literary agent who was happy to represent me as an author but not as an illustrator because she considered my character’s eyes to be ‘too cartoony’. She said picture book characters ought to have simple dot eyes! I’ve also met independent book sellers reluctant to stock a picture book simply because it existed as an animated programme first. I’ve come across snobbery in the world of animation too: animators who look down on TV adaptations of books because - unlike the ‘full animation’ of feature films which requires between 12 and 24 drawings per second - TV animation is more ‘limited’. These days the offering of pre-school animation is much more varied and most of it is of high quality. As a result, working in TV animation is now held in much higher regard by animators. To get an idea of what’s being produced, take a look at Sarah & Duck, Hey Duggee or Lily’s Driftwood Bay - all original creations for TV which use 2D animation to great effect. For a very different look, check out Bing (based on the books by Ted Dewan) which uses photo-realistic 3D CGI animation. And Miffy (based on the work of Dick Bruna) - also made using 3D CGI, but in a minimalist pop-art style true to its book origins.

Miffy’s Adventures Big and Small

Thankfully those small snobberies I came across in the past have all but disappeared. There is much more cross-fertilisation between publishing and animation these days, with people such as Benji Davies, Steven Lenton and Leigh Hodgkinson (creator of the new CBeebies series Olobob Top) working in both media. With the advent of apps, the boundaries between publishing, TV animation and gaming are bound to blur even further.

For anyone interested in animation I would recommend attending the Childrens Media Conference. Held in Sheffield every year during the first week of July, it’s a great opportunity to hook up with producers, directors, script writers, broadcasters etc. Maybe see you there?

You can find out more about An’s books and films at her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @anvrombaut.


Monday 11 September 2017

FROM PAGE TO STAGE: Adapting Picture Books into Children's Theatre • Jonathan Emmett

Some of the picture books currently treading the boards in the UK.
(Scroll down to the bottom of the page for links to each production)

If you're a regular children's theatregoer, you'll be be aware that a growing number of stage shows are adapted from picture books. I'm fortunate to have had several of my picture books adapted for the stage, most recently The Princess and the Pig, which finished a summer tour last week.

While some authors are content to sell the stage rights to their books and let the theatre company take it from there, others like to have some degree of involvement in the adaptation.  I'm one of the latter group; I always ask for script approval before an adaptation goes ahead. I usually have a few comments and suggestions on the early drafts and, once the script is approved, I'll continue to give feedback on the adaptation for as long as the theatre company wants me to, which can mean sitting in on rehearsals or reviewing marketing and publicity material.

Although picture books and theatre have many things in common (see Timothy Knapman's excellent PBD post here), they are very different media and what works well on the page, will not necessarily work well on the stage. Successfully translating a story from one to the other takes a great deal of skill across a wide range of disciplines: the list of creative contributors involved in a stage adaptation may include a scriptwriter, director, composer, lyricist, actors, musicians, set designer, costume designer, puppet maker, and lighting designer. However in smaller adaptations, individuals will usually take on two or three of these roles.

Here are five things that I've learnt from working with theatre companies on the stage adaptations of my picture books.

1: DO make a song and dance of it!

A common ingredient of most picture book adaptations is music and all of the shows that have been adapted from my picture books have included songs that were written for the adaptation. Songs are sometimes sung to a pre-recorded accompaniment, but it’s not unusual for the music to be played live as part of the performance.

In Belfield and Slater’s adaptation of Here Be Monsters all of Simon Slater’s score is performed live by a cast of actor-musicians. The original picture book is written in rhyme and Simon incorporated some of the couplets from the original text into his lyrics.

Poly Bernatene's illustration and Ben Tolley as Captain Cut-Throat, Eloise Secker as Sneaky McSqueaky, Lauren Storer as Quilly von Squint, Toby Vaughan as Stinky O'Bleary and Josh Sneesby as Findus Spew performing one of the songs from Belfield and Slater's adaptation of Here be Monsters. Photo: Ian Holder.

2: "Make 'em laugh!"

Children love to laugh and another common ingredient of many, if not most, picture book adaptations is comedy. In many adaptations the comedy stems from the original picture book, but it's often added in to a stage adaptation to provide moments of light relief in more serious stories.

The first of my picture books to be adapted for the stage was Bringing Down the Moon, illustrated by Vanessa Cabban. While the picture book has some gentle humour, I would not describe it as a comedy. Whereas Peaceful Lion's stage show was frequently laugh-out-loud funny – and all the more enjoyable for it!

Vanessa Cabban's illustration and Henry Wyrley-Birch as Mole and Victoria Andrews as Rabbit in Peaceful Lion's stage adaptation of Bringing Down the Moon. Photo: Pamela Raith.

3: "It's good to talk!"

Word count restrictions tend to limit the amount of dialogue that authors can include in a picture book. The same restrictions do not apply to stage adaptations and scriptwriters will usually take advantage of this, adding extra dialogue to flesh out characters and embellish the plot.

The Santa Trap's beastly anti-hero Bradley Bartleby spends most of the original picture book alone in his booby-trapped mansion. Consequently, the book has little dialogue and most the story is told in narration (along with Poly Bernatene's wonderfully atmospheric illustrations). Unfortunately, a children's show in which so little is said by the characters is unlikely to hold the interest of a young audience. Belfield and Slater's stage adaptation solved this problem by expanding the roles of the three secretaries who only appear on one page of the picture book. In the stage version, the three secretaries become Bradley's reluctant stooges, giving him someone to talk to (or in Bradley's case - shout at) and interact with throughout the play.

Poly Bernatene's illustration and Toby Vaughan as Bradley, with  Eloise Secker, Lauren Storer and Josh Sneesby as secretaries Scribe, Scribble and Smythe in Belfield and Slater's adaptation of The Santa Trap.

4: Sometimes story elements have to be added in …

Entirely original story elements such as new characters, settings, scenes and subplots are sometimes needed for a stage adaptation.

The original picture book cast of Ruby Flew Too! were joined by two new birdwatcher characters who acted as narrators in Topsy Turvy Theatre's stage adaptation of the book.

Rebecca Harry's illustration and Claire Alizon Hills and Rachel Priest as the birdwatchers with Jessica Kay's puppets in Topsy Turvy Theatre's adaptation of Ruby Flew Too! 

5: … and sometimes story elements have to be taken out.

The writer's maxim "kill your darlings" applies to adaptations as much as original stories and sometimes much-loved elements of the original picture book need to be removed completely for the story to work well on stage.

A popular element of the original picture book version of The Princess and The Pig is the way characters hold up books they've read to back up their (usually misguided) theories about what is happening in the story. The refrain "It's the sort of thing that happens all the while in books," is repeated throughout the text, culminating in the final punchline, "Unfortunately for the prince, it's not what happens in this particular book". The first draft I was shown of Folksy Theatre's script for their stage adaptation of the book retained this refrain and punchline, but it didn't feel quite right for the stage show. Much of the show's audience would be unaware that the story they were watching was adapted from a book, so I felt it would make more sense if the final punchline was altered to, "it's not what happens in this particular story." And once "story" was used in the punchline it had to be swapped in throughout the rest of the play as well. Folksy's scriptwriter and director Lee Hardwicke agreed and cut the "book" references from her script.

One of Poly Bernatene's illustrations and Emma Kemp as the Queen, Christopher Pegler-Lambert as the King and Em Watkins operating Sarah Lewis's pig puppet in Folksy Theatre's adaptation of The Princess and the Pig.

I hope this post has whetted your appetite for some picture book performances. Here's a selection of stage shows adapted from picture books that are currently showing in the UK. If you know of any more, feel free to link to them in the comments box below.

UK Stage Adaptations of Picture Books

Showing in September 2018

by Clare Helen Welsh and Sophia Touliatou
adapted by Entertainingly Different
by Anna Kemp and Sarah Oglivie
adapted by Little Blue Monster Productions 
by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
adapted by Tall Stories 
by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
adapted by Tall Stories 
by Lynley Dodd
adapted by Nonsense Room 
by Eileen Browne
adapted by Little Angel Theatre 
by Emma Dodd
adapted by Little Angel Theatre 
by Peter Harris and Deborah Allwright
adapted by Nick Brooke 
by Joyce Dunbar and Polly Dunbar
adapted by Long Nose Puppets 
by Nick Sharrat
adapted by Nonsense Room
by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
adapted by Scamp Theatre
by Judith Kerr
adapted by David Wood
by Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks
adapted by Kenny Wax
by Tim Hopgood
adapted by Little Angel Theatre

by Dianne Hofmeyr and Jane Ray
adapted by Little Angel Theatre

Jonathan Emmett's latest picture book (which would make a wonderful stage show!) is Prince Ribbit, 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 blog. You can also follow Jonathan on Facebook and Twitter @scribblestreet.

Monday 4 September 2017

Picture Books That Talk about Floods • Chitra Soundar

The recent hurricane in Texas and the floods in the Indian subcontinent, has made me thinking about how we talk about natural disasters to children.

My own picture book Pattan’s Pumpkin is a flood story too – and it talks about how Pattan had to make a boat from a giant pumpkin to escape the floods in the valley in they lived.

So I went to look about other picture books handle the traumatic concepts of  floods and its effects for children.

Here are the ones I found – perhaps of use to you in your classrooms to discuss the topic that must be on children’s minds.

This is a wordless picture book – it shows the preparation of a family of an impending storm and how they evacuate and their house gets flooded. It also shows how the family pull together on their return to restore their house to order and life resumes. It is a wonderful way to bring out conversations in classrooms – be it in younger ages or older.

Flood by Gillian McClure

In this book the victims are three friend – an ox, a fox and a hen. They are caught up in a flood and they need to work together to reach land.

In contrast, The Bobbling and the Flood is a comic take on what do with a flood. Bobbling Poodle Doodle wants to clear the flood by finding the plughole. The result is hilarious though.

Frog is a Hero is a digital edition from Andersen in which we find out about how Frog saves his friends when the river bursts its banks.

And finally one of my favourites – Elmer and the Flood in which Elma has to rescue a young stranded elephant when the forest is flooded due to heavy rains.

These five titles will trigger conversations about what happens during a flood, how do we prepare for them and how to deal with the aftermaths. Children will be able to relate to, empathise and talk about families across the world caught up in such disasters.

Do you know of other books you can recommend?

Find out more about Chitra Soundar at or Follow her on Twitter @csoundar