Monday, 17 September 2018

From redundancy to award-winning picture book • Guest blog post by Kate Milner

Huge congratulations to author illustrator, Kate Milner, who last week won the prestigious 2018 Klaus Flugge Prize for the most exciting and promising newcomer to children's book illustration.
In her guest blog post, Kate takes us behind the scenes of her award-winning  My Name is Not Refugee. We see illustrations that didn't make it into the final picture book, and discover why they were left out.

When my job was replaced by a machine at our local library I decide to take the chance to do an MA in children’s illustration at Anglia Ruskin. I had wanted to do the course for many years but it felt like a huge risk to step out of the labour market when I had commitments. There was so much excitement and so much fear wrapped up in returning to education in middle age.

I had done some work in editorial illustration when I was younger and I have always drawn and written stories for adults but it was working in the local library which showed me all the possibilities in children’s publishing. I also, of course, met a lot of readers. It was an excellent education.

I came up with the idea for My Name Is Not Refugee at the very end of the course when I should have been finishing off a piece of work for presentation. It was born out of anger at the debate in the press about the march of refugees out of Syria. They were being described as a zombie army, shuffling towards us, and it felt important to me to explain to children why these families had no choice but to leave their homes. It was crazy to start work on this idea a few days before the end of the course but that is what I did, presenting at the final crit a scrappy, half-finished picture book, with no cover. We all agreed it had no chance of commercial success. 

All the steps which have taken me from that crit to winning the Klaus Flugge Prize feel as if they are nothing to do with me but all the wonderful tutors, fellow students, agents and publishers who have picked it up and run with it. When people congratulate me I always say that I have been very lucky. Being polite they generally then say something like, not luck but talent; but, without any false modesty, I know that it takes collaboration to get a book into the hands of children and I have been very very lucky in my collaborators.

Unlike others below, this is an early illustration
that did make it into the final book.
From My Name in Not Refugee by Kate Milner
Published by The Bucket List (Barrington Stoke), 2017
Some of the spreads in the final book have hardly changed since I first drew them. The illustration showing people sleeping on the station platform is an example (see above), it is almost exactly the image I made as soon as I had the idea. Some spreads, on the other hand, have gone through a lot of changes and below are three early illustrations which have not made it into the book.

1) We'll hear words we don't understand.
This was the first example of the idea. I was trying to get the feeling of not understanding anything around you as a child might who finds themselves in a strange country. It’s not just the people who are speaking a strange language, it’s the radio, the dog, the street signs and the magazines, everything is different. Although I still like this image I can see it didn’t fit in with the rest of the book.

Early illustration idea on language, Kate Milner

We'll hear words we don't understand, from the final book
My Name is Not Refugee,
Kate Milner

2) We'll see lots of new and interesting things.
Here is  another spread that went through many many changes. The little boy at the centre of the book is basically a cheerful, curious character so, to give a change of mood, I wanted to show him excited about something new. But what should the new thing be?

Early illustration idea on seeing new and interesting things, Kate Milner

This was one idea which came from looking at pictures of refugee camps on the internet. I could see temporary shops being set up with items for sale wrapped in plastic bags and hung from washing lines. I found this visually very interesting, the sweeping curves of the washing lines, the distortion of the objects through the plastic; I got a bit carried away. Again I like this image but I can see why it hasn’t made it into the final book. It’s my idea of what is interesting, not a small boy’s.

We'll see lots of new and interesting things, from the final book
My Name is Not Refugee,
Kate Milner

3) Sometimes we'll wait by ourselves...
I like this image, probably more than the illustration in the final book which is a return to my original idea. However, I can absolutely see why we decided not to use it.

Early illustration idea on waiting, Kate Milner

The heart of the book is the relationship between the mother and her little boy. On nearly every spread of the final book they are touching, or close to each other, or looking at each other. If she is there he is safe and can look out at the world around him. This illustration does not show that connection between them.

Sometimes we'll wait by ourselves, from the final book
My Name is Not Refugee, Kate Milner

Kate Milner
Thank you, Kate, for this wonderful insight into your new picture book, and for showing us that redundancy can be an exciting catalyst to something new.
Follow Kate on Twitter @ABagForKatie

My Name is Not Refugee by Kate Milner is published by The Bucket List (Barrington Stoke), 2017
Klaus Flugge Prize 2018

Monday, 10 September 2018

Five Tips for the Creative Process • by Natascha Biebow

This summer, I had the good fortune to attend the SCBWI International Conference in LA, where for three days, I was one of 1180 attendees amongst the star-studded faculty.

Here are five inspirational thoughts I took away with me :

1.     Tell Your Inner Demons to SHUT UP! – this was a recurring theme amongst many of the speakers, who reminded us to stay true to our writing and storytelling and to ignore the nay-sayers, the doubting voices. “Kill the committee—those voices in your head that say can't, won't, and other things that get in the way” Andrea Pinkney urged. They DO NOT SERVE YOU.

Ah, now that they are GONE, I can begin the real work . . .

2.     SIMMER: it is important to let your stories simmer, to allow a time, to open your senses, to be still and receptive to QUIET so you can hear the story and keep moving forwards creatively. Andrea Pinkney meditates every morning before she starts work.

Author/Illustrator Eliza Wheeler shared how w
hen it comes to getting the best ideas, the farther and more freely your thoughts can roam, the better. Your mood can really affect how you create. Listen to your emotional state, so if you feel:

Anxiety: you're judging yourself and your work
Boredom: you haven't spent enough time immersing yourself in your ideas
Stress: you're trying to consider too much at once
Fried: you've pushed it too far. Take a break and return to things afresh

3.    ‘DIVE AFRAID’: it’s okay to not know what the ending is, where you are going, what shape your story will take on. When you are writing or crafting a story, the reader must also dive afraid – the author is making a covenant and inviting them on a journey. Make that human connection with your reader. TRUST.

4.     HOOK, PULL, HOLD: Andrea Pinkney shared her creative process – really useful to keep pinned to your noticeboard as a reminder when you're working: first, hook in readers quickly with VOICE and a clear premise (“Reader, we’re going on a journey – let me tell you where we’re going and why you should come along”). Add texture and flavour, that ‘twinkle’ that is unique to you. Then pull readers along with emotion and a gripping turnkey that will hold their attention until the curtain comes down.

5.     A STORY IS LIKE A RIPPLE IN THE WORLD: You never know how a scene in your book might influence and connect with a reader. Keynote Bruce Coville said: “The right story at the right moment is like an arrow to the heart; it can catch and hold a hurt and bring it to the surface.” The story that you tell now might send a ripple through the world, a scene from a book could influence the adult that child might become.


      Mike Curato said: “Don't think of publishing as the be all end all of telling your story. That stunted me as a storyteller. You need to get it out. Even if you tell your story to just one person, that's important, make it count. Make this life count.”

Coville continued: “Every creative action is a pebble making ripples that will spread out to places you can’t even imagine, and from there, those ripples will set other waves in motion, and on and on.”

       So, to sum it up:

Children are worth our best efforts. 

      That’s why we do what we do – as crazy as it is most days.

To read more inspirational posts, see the SCBWI Conference blog here

Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor
Natascha is the author of The Crayon Man (March 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. She runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. Check out her Cook Up a Picture Book courses!

Monday, 3 September 2018

When Science is the Fabric on which I Stitch Stories • Chitra Soundar

As a storyteller, I love retelling origin stories. I go looking for stories in my own culture and others where the nature is explained in a story full of wisdom. How the sun came to be or why the stars shimmer? Such stories are also full of emotions and life lessons.

When I wrote You’re Safe With Me, that was my underlying objective – I wanted to explain thunderstorms in a poetic way while also making it scientifically accurate because science has come a long way since origin stories. Teaching children something wrong like the earth is flat will backfire when a 4-year will demonstrate to me why I’m wrong.

But the science between rains and rivers (the water cycle), the thunder and lightning didn’t require much research, I was born in the land of monsoons and I grew up near rivers and oceans.

But when I came to write “You’re Snug with Me” which will be out in November 2018, the second book in the series, the story was set in the polar regions amidst a polar bear family. While keeping the words of wisdom of Mama Bear like an ancient storyteller, I also wanted to make sure that the science wasn’t wrong. But I didn’t grow up in a land of ice and snow. Even though the story is fictional and involves polar bears talking, Mama Bear needed to be poetic and factual (but not in an overt way). It would be weird to break the storyteller voice to say "And the world has risen in temperature and the snow is melting at the pace of...."

Here are the five things I learnt while writing a story that will not present any facts, but still needs to be accurate:

a)    The science of description – I needed to understand the colours of the polar region through day and night, through winter and spring. What trees might grow there and what colours do they exude? Otherwise even the simplest of descriptions would ring false.

b)    The science of sensory details - I needed to understand the touch, smell and sounds of the land above, the oceans beneath and the den in which these cubs spend their first few months. What does snug feel like for a cub that knows only the den?

c)     The science of habitat – who else lives along with polar bears and what is the food pyramid? What would be the little bears be afraid of and who will be afraid of them?

d)    The science of climate change – what are the threats to the bear cubs? What do they need to know about their world and in protecting their world?

e)    The science of growing up – when do the cubs learn to swim? When do they hunt themselves? And when do they leave their mother and lead an independent life? Because it’s a scary world out there and one day these cubs will have to find food and start a new family too.

Where did I go for research?
  • I read a lot of original research literature about pregnant polar bears in dens, how they hibernate and what they do inside. 
  • I watched videos of simulated dens that some zoos have created. 
  • I watched innumerable number of youtube videos and BBC Nature videos of polar bears and their cubs
  • I contacted scientists and researchers who work with these magnificent beasts to ask about their specific facts.

Here is a little treat - watch the apprehension of polar bear cubs emerging out of their den for the first time.

What was my approach to writing the story itself? 

a)    Do initial research about the topic – that would take me two days of solid reading, getting completely lost inside Google and wandering into research rabbit holes.

b)    Then I’ll write a storyboard to see if I know the scenes based on my research. Especially for this book where there is a pattern based on the first book, it was critical to know how many call and response patterns did the Mother and cubs have?

c)     More research to fill in the gaps if I don’t have the 15 spreads I need. (12 if UK books, but because Lantana Publishing targets UK and US simultaneously, they prefer 15 spreads)

d)    Then I will start writing the story. If I don’t know a detail, I will make a note and keep going. This is the stage where the rough draft of the text will happen and the structure will slowly emerge.

e)    Over the next two stages I’ll get the structure right – when is the refrain happening – every two spreads or three? Where do page-turns happen? Will I have sounds or specific patterns of text for each group of spreads?

f)      Then I go back to do specific research – I need to know about the specific animals I have used in the story or the colour of the sky or the sound of the snowdrift. This will help tighten the words and cut as many adjectives and adverbs I can.

Then finally when I’m happy, I send it to the editor, who then after a few edits, will send it to fact-checkers and her own science testers to make sure we have the facts right before we will finalise the text for illustration.

When you read the story you will hopefully not notice any science protruding like a jagged rock in the story. The aim is to create a seamlessly joyful story that works because of the science but the facts are woven into its fabric just like nature itself is.

Do you research for fictional picture books? What kind of research do you do? And how much of that is procrastination and how much of that is essential?

Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer, storyteller and author of children’s books, based in London. When not writing stories or not visiting schools, Chitra fills her well with her nephews, taking photos of flowers and birds, going to museums and attending dancing classes. Find out more at or follow her on twitter via @csoundar.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Continued Professional Development • Lynne Garner

As a teacher I'm expected to undertake CPD (Continued Professional Development) throughout the academic year. Thankfully, because some of my teaching involves leading creative writing sessions I'm able to double up with my CPD. That's to say I can improve my creative writing knowledge for both of my chosen careers (teacher and writer) at the same time. Recently I've had a 'splurge' of reading books about writing and I decided to share those I felt helped me. So, here they are.

Plots and Plotting, How to create stories that work by Diana Kimpton

This book is broken down into easy to follow sections and covers everything from brainstorming for ideas to creating interesting characters to inventing places/worlds and crafting an original plot. Useful for authors of all genres, including picture books.

How to Write a Children's Picture book by Darcy Pattison

This book covers everything from the basics of writing a picture book to exploring picture book genres to looking at structuring a picture book. Well worth a read for beginners to learn the craft and for those who've been published and need a bit of a refresh.

From the Heart of a Copy Editor (10 most common mistakes and how to fix them) by Sheila Glasbey

Today publishers are very, very choosy about the books they publish and your manuscript (for any genre) has to be as error free as possible. I know I have a few gaps in my knowledge which is why I picked this book up.

Whilst reading this book I had a few light bulb moments and I'm hopeful some of the lessons it taught me have stuck.  

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young

This book was originally aimed at people working in the advertising industry. However, this little book (just 48 pages)  has helped me generate new ideas, not only for my fiction writing but also my non-fiction.

How to Write a Children's Picture Book (Volume I: Structure) by Eve Heidi Bine-Stock

This book explores how well known picture books are structured. It breaks them down and highlights the tools and techniques the authors has used to build an interesting and layered picture book story.  There are another two titles in the series these being:
  • How to Write a Children's Picture Book (Volume II: Words, Sentences, Scene, Story)
  • How to Write a Children's Picture Book (Volume III: Figures of Speech) 
And they are both on my reading list.

My next read will be Dear Agent - Write the Letter That Sells Your Book by Nicola Morgan. It was recommended by a writing friend after I'd moaned that I still haven't found myself an agent. As soon as she told me who had written it  I knew I had to add it to my list. I've had the pleasure in meeting Nicola on a few occasions and she really does know her stuff.

I'm hoping one or two or the books I've suggested may help you. If you've read a book that you found useful please share and I'll add it to my reading list.



Just a little plug for my latest book. It's the second in my Moon Meadow Farm series and features the sly, cunning and fascinating Fox of Moon Meadow Farm (ebook just 99p). With fingers crossed the paperback will be available late September or early October 2018.

Ten short stories featuring Fox

Monday, 20 August 2018

Tips for titles: What's in a name? by Lucy Rowland

This year, I was asked to produce 4 short pieces about writing picture books for the SCBWI-BI ‘Words and Pictures’ online magazine.  I chose to write about writing in rhyme, editing rhyme, picture book endings and also picture book titles.

I decided to share and expand some of my thoughts on picture book titles in this post.  This is partly because, at the moment, I’m really struggling to come up with the right title for a particular story!... but also because titles are so important.

Strong titles can hook us in and make us want to pick up a book. So how do you know when you’ve found the right one?  Here are some points I consider when looking for the perfect picture book title.  It’s certainly not easy though and I’d love to hear your pointers too!

Be short and snappy! Tara Lazar, Children’s Book Author, writes that ‘Picture books tend to sell on concept. That concept must be communicated succinctly in order to capture a young child’s (and a parent’s) imagination.  If your picture book manuscript has an overly long title, it may suggest your concept is either too vague or too complicated for the format. You want to nail down your concept and make it snappy!’
Lots of picture book titles are quite short and to the point. Just having a look through my bookcase today, I notice that many of them are just 2-3 words long. For example:
'Blown away' by Rob Biddulph

'Oi Frog!' by Kes Gray and Jim Field
'Daddy's Sandwich' by Pip Jones and Laura Hughes
'Grandad's Island' by Benji Davies
'Mr Wolf’s pancakes' by Jan Fearnley
'Lost and Found' by Oliver Jeffers
'Dinosaurs don’t draw!' by Elli Woollard and Steven Lenton.

Though, of course, as Tara Lazar mentions, sometimes long picture book titles stand out and can work really well, particularly if they're used to stress a key idea such as in
'Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day' by Judith Viorst and Roy Cruz. 

Be intriguing! I love a title that makes me want to know more.  ‘There is No Dragon in this Story’ (by Lou Carter and Deborah Allwright) is a title that does just that.  The cover clearly shows a dragon and yet we’re told there are no dragons in this story! So what exactly is going on here?!  
And what about the unusual titles, ‘Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs’? by Judi and Ron Barrett or 'Don't let the pigeon drive the bus?' by Mo Willems.  Those are titles that definitely make me want to read on.

Be aware of co-edition sales This is where I tend to fall down! I often come up with stories because I like experimenting with words.  Many of my picture book titles are rhyming- e.g. ‘Gecko’s Echo’(illustrated by Natasha Rimmington) and others are plays on words like ‘Little Red Reading Hood’ (illustrated by Ben Mantle).  But how do these titles work for co-editions where the words may not rhyme in the new language? It can be done (Little Red Reading Hood is now published in French as ‘Little Red Riding Hood who loves to read’) but it’s certainly something to consider.

I personally really enjoy rhyming titles. In fact, ‘Where Bear’ by Sophy Henn, ‘Lucie Goose’ by Danny Baker and Pippa Cunick and ‘Follow the Track all the Way Back’ by Timothy Knapman and Ben Mantle are just a few of the rhyming titles that I currently have on my shelf.

Be open to changing your title.
My original text ‘Ned said No’ is now called ‘The Knight who said No’ (illustrated by Kate Hindley).  ‘Stoppit Floppit’ is now titled ‘Catch that Egg’ (illustrated by Anna Chernyshova).  These changes were made after discussions with my publishers who consider things such as search engine optimisation.  Parents often buy books for a particular time of year- Christmas, Mother’s Day, Halloween etc or because their children are going through a particularly intense ‘dinosaur phase’.  If a parent is searching for a picture book about ‘knights’, ‘dinosaurs’ or ‘Easter’- you want them to be able to find yours.
Also worth considering is whether or not to use character’s names.
Sometimes the character’s names don’t give us a lot to go on. They don’t give us a really clear idea of what that book is about.  I’ve recently changed a title where I was using a character’s name ‘Wanda’ to one where I use ‘The Little Witch’.  Again, it can be useful to think about the words that someone might search for if they are looking for a book about a particular topic.  Parents often look for picture books in order to support children with fears/phobias or to help them to learn about and navigate new experiences.  
Is your book about worry/fear of the dark/first day of school/ a trip to the dentist? If so, is this communicated really clearly by your title?
Having said that, looking again at my lovely picture book shelf, using character names certainly didn’t harm Sophy Henn with her gorgeous book ‘Edie’ or Claire Freedman and Kate Hindley with their book ‘Oliver and Patch’! 
Oooh this is so tricky!!  

I’d love to hear some of your top tips for titles.  Do you have any particular picture book titles that stand out to you?

Friday, 10 August 2018

#OnlyOneOfMe: Making a picture book in just a few weeks • Michelle Robinson

We have a guest post this week from former Picture Book Den team member Michelle Robinson about Only One of Me, a very special picture book Michelle has written with Lisa Wells. You can find out more about the project and read the book's text on Michelle's blog.

I swear: no deadline will ever stress me out again.

Since announcing our intention to produce #OnlyOneOfMe on July 31st, it's been go, go, go. With the help of my amazing agent, James Catchpole I've been spearheading a campaign to make a top quality heirloom picture book for charity.

Thankfully there isn't only one of me. The team is small but tight knit, and everyone is pulling together to make it happen. Illustrators Catalina Echeverri and Tim Budgen are currently burning the midnight oil, more than earning the right to be referred to as, "The hardest working people in the business".

Before the nitty gritty: I'm auctioning the rare opportunity to have an in-depth picture book manuscript critique with me, with all proceeds going to the fund. You can bid here!

Let me tell you a little about the book: Written from the perspective of a terminally ill parent, Only One Of Me is an expression of undying love for their children. What makes it so unique is that it was written by someone in that terrible situation.

Lisa and baby Saffia
Lisa Wells was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel and liver cancer at the end of 2017. Her doctors told her she has between just two and twelve months to live. Lisa and her husband Dan have two lovely little girls, Ava-Lily, 5 and Saffia, 9 months. I don't need to say anything more about it, really. It's too sad to think about. But for Lisa and Dan there's no getting away from it.

How do you go about preparing yourself to leave everyone you hold dear behind? 

I can only begin to imagine, and I'm so glad that for me it's just hypothetical. I wish I had a magic wand and could change the future for Lisa. The only wand I have is my pen - so I've given it a wave with Lisa's help.

Our story is designed to help dying parents express their feelings, giving them a lasting and tangible token of comfort to leave behind. Thanks to Lisa's courage, energy and loving nature - and thanks to all the people who are donating, spreading the word and supporting the Only One Of Me team throughout this crazy busy time -  her voice will bring comfort not just to her own family but countless others like them.

So how do you create a picture book in just a few weeks? You fly by the seat of your pants and call in favours from as many generous experts as you can!

Tim's initial character sketches for dad
We were inundated with hundreds of submissions from illustrators. I reckon we had to make our decision faster than any editor ever in the history of publishing! We chose to go with both Tim and Catalina. This way we could produce two different books - one for mums, one for dads - with the freedom to draw human characters instead of gender neutral animals. It also meant no single artist was going to bear the burden of the project alone. The two are forming a great partnership behind the scenes, supporting one another in every decision - there are so many to make, and we have to make them at break neck speed!

What should the characters look like? How can we be sure to make the characters diverse and inclusive? How do we convey the depth of sorrow involved while ultimately providing comfort? What colour scheme? What type style? Spreads? Single pages? The list is endless! Thankfully Catalina and Tim have plenty of support.

The counsellors at WHY We Hear You, our official charity partner, have been helping guide us, as have our publisher, Graffeg and my own super agent, James Catchpole. It's faster, easier and cheaper to get Tim and Catalina together in London (Graffeg are based in Cardiff Bay) for a brainstorming session, so my friends at Walker Books have offered to host, feed and advise them on Tuesday 14th August. In short, Tim and Catalina have a lot of support - but even so, they basically have to create a spread a day to meet our August 30th deadline.

We are so close to full funding - and we print on September 21st!

Huge thanks to Rob Hayward and the team at CPI Antony Rowe, Melksham, and are aiming to hold a fundraising launch party on the same day. To say timings are tight is an understatement! If the books aren't ready in time, we'll be celebrating thin air! We simply can't afford to mess this up.

But we won't. The whole team is dedicated, committed and fired up. We are determined that Lisa will get to enjoy the thrill and satisfaction of seeing her book in print before she dies.


Thank you to everybody who has read the story, spread the news, donated and sent words of encouragement! It means so much. We've had donations ranging from £2 to £250 and every single one is equally appreciated. The more we raise, the more books we can ultimately print - our bookbinders are very generously doing the first run free of charge, which is phenomenal, but we predict a bit of a frenzy in sales!

I should say that the book will be available to everyone, but has been designed as a resource for dying parents. Do keep a copy on your shelf, but be careful sharing it with young children if you're a parent in fine fettle! We wouldn't want to cause any undue anxiety! You will have the option to buy copies and donate them directly to charity, either under your own steam or via WHY We Hear You, who will help see that the books get to where they're most needed.

So wish us luck! Luxuriate in your deadlines! And above all, live, laugh and love. 

Michelle x

Michelle Robinson is the bestselling author of picture books such as A Beginner's Guide to Bear Spotting and Goodnight Spaceman