Monday, 9 December 2019

The Bookshelf of Life: How our Reading Journey Shapes Our Writing • by Natascha Biebow

Stories are fluid, malleable creatures that shift with the teller, the listener and the place.

So what tales influence us? How does our journey and relationship with story influence the kind of reader we are, what kind of person, even, we become, and the kind of story we write, illustrate, edit and design?

I'd like to share with you a little about my bookshelf of life, in the hopes that it might encourage you to do the same. When I looked at it, I came away with a startling realization – books speak volumes about us . . . and our world views.

Today, there is a lot of talk about diversity, and the need to be inclusive, self-aware and open-minded in this challenging world in which we live. But equally, it can be frustrating the assumptions some people make when countenancing diversity. Diversity isn’t just the colour of the skin, gender or ethnicity. 

A selection of diverse picture books

Diversity runs much deeper than that. It is often unseen, complex, shaped by our experiences as children and adults, the places we’ve been (or not), our families, our interests and links to the outside world. All of us, we want to be seen, to be heard, to be respected for who we are, to be given opportunities and to be valued. We are all diverse in our own ways. And, if we can appreciate this, together we can be more. 

So here are some of the books that tell you a little bit about me, that perhaps you might not have known before. They are stories I heard and the stories I read by myself that opened windows and doors and eyes and ears. And now the stories I write:
The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen from
Favourite Fairy Tales from Andersen
illustrated by Paul Durand (Hamlyn)
We didn’t have many picture books at home - possibly because we lived in Brazil, a non-English speaking country, and possibly because they were expensive and people just didn’t own such things? I had this beautiful anthology of Andersen Fairy tales and I made my mother read to me ‘The Little Match Girl’ even though it always made me cry. I’m not sure what my fascination with such a sad story was, but I see now that it is a story of light and hope for the little match girl warms her hands and her soul with images from her imagination.

My first grade teacher read CHARLOTTE’S WEB to us aloud. Every afternoon, the story would unfold. There is something gripping about being read to. Magical.
Charlotte's Web by EB White, illustrated by Garth Williams
My favourite place in the school was the library. There we had a giant papier-mache elephant in the central circular area, where the librarian read aloud after we chose our books during the weekly class visit. 
The Library where Reading became a joy and a habit

I particularly remember this book, a Chinese folktale:

I read books in Portuguese too. This one – the story about family and big dreams – stuck with me. The main character is a girl who longs to be powerful and heard like grown-ups, boys and writers. Her dreams come to life in a series of characters stuffed into her precious yellow bag, including this feisty rooster.
From A Bolsa Amarela by Lygia Bojunga

Along with books from the library, the ones I owned were precious gifts sent by my grandmother, who lived in England. I read everything: horse and ballet books, fantasy, Pippi Longstocking, Paddington bear . . .

As well as many pivotal American authors (I went to an American school, though no one in my family is American), like Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, who understood the ordinary child, the misfits, and captured the journey of figuring out who you are in this world. I still haven’t read the book about growing up with a disabled brother like mine; perhaps I need to write it someday.

But the books that I was most drawn to were those with true story narratives. The stories of real people - the pioneers, the country vet, early people, the girl who survived with a pack of wolves, the writer - these are the ones that I was fascinated by and re-read countless times.

As I’ve mentioned, we didn’t have many picture books at home. Here is one that we did have. I loved the detailed pictures and worlds. 
What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry

Later, much later, at university, I started to discover the genre, which in the late 80s/early 90s was going through a boom. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to edit and admire lots of picture books. Here are some of my favourites:

And even later, books that showed different kinds of families - ones that lived far-flung across the globe, and ones with disabled people in them and two mums and two dads.

After a lot of exploration, I remembered that I liked true stories. As I child, I was fascinated by National Geographic WORLD magazine. I dreamt of becoming a writer for National Geographic. I found my calling as a children’s book editor and writer – I can’t get away from cool facts. I challenge myself – and you – to learn at least one new fact a day. It’s fun! And the truth is often stranger than fiction.

National Geographic World Magazine, published by National Geographic
Like the story of this man, inventor Edwin Binney, who had a knack for listening and making what people needed and whose love of colour and nature

From The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons
by Natascha Biebow, illustrated by Steven Salerno
led to the invention of Crayola crayons.

Whether the stories we read and tell are modern, mythical, magical, true or fictional – we want and need them to resonate, because then they ring true and, as such, they speak to us and our young readers. These are stories that inspire ideas, deal with fears, create a feeling of belonging, change preconceptions and so much more.    

Only you have YOUR pocket full of diverse stories, your individual beat. 

Trust it. Embrace the unknown, the strangeness. Sit with it. Discover your angels, your fears, your quirks. 


Natascha Biebow,
MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor
Natascha is the author of The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, 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 is currently working on more non-fiction and a series of young fiction. She runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. Find her at



Beverley Baird said...

Fascinating post! Thanks for sharing your reading journey, your wonderful stories.

Natascha Biebow said...

Thanks, Beverley, glad you enjoyed it!