Monday 21 December 2020

Our Personal and Picture Book highlights of 2020

2020- What a challenging year it's been! I'm sure many of us will be glad to see the back of it and will welcome 2021 in with wide open arms! 

But we at Picture Book Den wanted to use our final post of this turbulent year to shine a light on some of the positives, some of the rays of sunshine that we've noticed amongst the darkness. 

We've chosen our personal and picture book highlights of 2020 and, as always, we would love to hear some of your highlights too. 

Lucy Rowland:

Picture book highlight: Rain Before Rainbows, written by Smriti Halls and illustrated by David Litchfield.

"Rain before rainbows. Clouds before sun. Night before daybreak - a new day's begun".

This picture book is a perfect partnership of beautifully written, lyrical text and gorgeous illustrations and is all about finding optimism in the darkest of places. A perfect picture book for this year where rainbows have shone from so many people's windows as a sign of both hope and of our gratitude to all the key workers fighting this pandemic. 

Personal highlight: For me, 2020 has been about finding my feet as a mum and watching my tiny baby grow into a cheeky, playful one-year-old.  While lockdown was somewhat intense at times, (my husband was working 12 hour day and night shifts) I look back at it now as an incredible bonding opportunity for me and my son and I feel lucky we had this moment when the world stood still. 

Clare Helen Welsh:

Picture book highlight: While We Can’t Hug, written by Eoin McLaughlin and illustrated by Polly Dunbar.

"They could not touch. They could not hug. But they both knew that they were loved."

From Eoin McLaughlin and Polly Dunbar, the makers of The Hug, this picture book is such an accessible and age appropriate way to tackle the trials of our times. The characters in the story find out that there are lots of ways of showing people they love them… while they can’t hug. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful and wonderfully simple. I’m certain this text will have helped many families in 2020, particularly at the beginning of the year when social distancing was strange and new to us all. It certainly helped me!

Personal highlight: My personal 2020 highlight has been working as a full-time author. Leaving my much-loved teaching career has meant that I have had more time to spend with my family and to immerse myself in the picture book world. Some of you may know I’ve been running a seven week online picture book course for Write Mentor, and I’ve managed to squeeze in five this year! It’s been wonderful connecting and working with like-minded people and the wonderful writers that join are a huge part of its success. I’m excited that I’ve also been asked to be Write Mentor’s Picture Book Writer in Residence 2021. I’ll be creating video and text-based content to support writers who love picture books as much as I do. So, all in all, lots to be thankful for and lots to look forward to.

Pippa Goodhart:

Picture book highlight: Wow! It's Night-Time, written and illustrated by Tim Hopgood

This board book has gloriously beautiful pictures of life at night observed by the owl at a time when 'we are tucked up in bed'. Weather and creatures and stars are all felt and noticed, and as dawn arrives the owls fall asleep ... just as you hope your child will be after you've read the book. The back endpaper reveals that the book is also a counting one, and there are one mole, two foxes, three rabbits, four bats, and so on up to ten stars to spot and count. 

Personal highlight: The choice of book is a clue. Just as the world closed down, we had the joy of a new life in our family. Grandson Samuel lives not far away, and I'm able to give 'informal childcare', pram walking and lap jumping and gurning to elicit grins. And sharing his first book experiences. He is very much 2020's personal highlight. Workwise I've been lucky. School visits have gone, but online teaching writing for children via Cambridge University has grown hugely. I long for more time to do my own writing! Wishing everyone a happy end to this year, and blossoming into a better world next year.

Jane Clarke:

Picture book highlight: Wow! said the Owl, written and illustrated by Tim Hopgood

There seems to be a bit of a trend here, Pippa :-) This beautifully, but simply, illustrated book is all about Owl's joy and wonder at the natural world he sees when he stays awake all day. I've read it over and over and over to my four little granddaughters this year, (2 personally, and 2 in the States, via Skype). It's resonated with me every time, reminding me of the solace I've found in nature this year.

Personal Highlight: Well, it's been a teeth-gritting year, but (touch wood) loved ones have stayed afloat, and I've been able to keep myself relatively sane and busy with lots of walks and online yoga as well as writing.  My heart goes out to those of you who have not been so fortunate. My personal picture book highlight is seeing Lucy Fleming's illustrations begin to come in for  A Small Person's Guide to Grandmas – to be published by Walker Books – and being able to dedicate it to the fab 4 who inspired it.

Natascha Biebow:

Picture book highlight: Old Rock (is Not Boring), written and illustrated by Deb Pilutti

This year, I've attended a lot of nonfiction craft webinars and I'm on the lookout for books that will inspire my own writing. What struck me about this picture book was the voice and unique point of view. The story is told by the rock, an inanimate object, and it immediately draws readers into the (true-ish) story of his life. Is it boring? Well, rock seems to sit in the same place all day long and he never goes anywhere. Has he even seen the world?! Beware of assumptions, though! Young readers will be surprised and delighted by the quirky adventures rock has really had in his lifetime - because, of course, rocks are around for a really long time (some cool lessons in geology and history here!). Old Rock challenges his friends' expectations - we can't judge people by how they look, and indeed tell whether they are 'boring' or anything else just by looking. Like rock, we are all special and each have unique experiences. Plus, sometimes, it's just nice to stay in one place for a time and enjoy nature – not boring, just 'being'.

Personal Highlight: It's been a tough year to be creative, with so much unexpectedness, worryingness, juggling and far-awayness from family and friends. My personal highlight was winning the Irma Black Award, voted for by children all around the world, for my debut nonfiction THE CRAYON MAN: THE TRUE STORY OF THE INVENTION OF CRAYOLA CRAYONS in the Spring, and recording the acceptance speech in my garden with my son's help. I am reminded of the beauty of nature's colours, the wonder of our world and inspired to keep going by the children who need our stories. I have been lucky enough to do some virtual school visits and connect with family via techonology. It's kept me going, even as I try to write new stories.

Monday 14 December 2020

Make Way for Art! How Picture Books Are Ideal for Building Visual Literacy in Digital Natives • By Natascha Biebow

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The readers of our picture books are digital natives. 

They are driven by the visual.

The Internet has completely revolutionised the way images serve communication. People currently upload and share 1.8 billion photos every single day. On Instagram alone, 50 billion photos have been uploaded since 2010.

In fact, 90% of what we take in in the world is visual.


Surprising, even reading is visual: In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center found that when we look at a known word, our brain sees it like a picture, not a group of letters needing to be processed. Neurons in a small brain area in the left side of the visual cortex remember how the whole word looks — using what could be called a visual dictionary.


Pictures are the new language. Yet the focus in education is very much on reading and writing words, on verbal literacy – not on art, not on interpreting and analysing images. But, now more than ever, children need visual literacy.




“According to researchers, educators, museum professionals, filmmakers, and artists, visual literacy can improve creativity, critical thinking, educational achievement, empathy towards others, and ability to decipher technology.” (source OpenEd)


If you’ve ever read a picture book with a child, you’ll appreciate that they can read it long before they can read the words. This is of course because visual learning is the precursor to verbal learning.  


Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

In his time at the Toledo Museum of Art, Brian Kennedy did some research into visual literacy: “Nearly 30% of the brain’s cortex is devoted to visual processing. More than the other human senses. The optic nerve has over a million nerve fibers. Ninety percent of all the information we take in from the world we take in visually. With so much of the brain’s cortex devoted to visual processing, it is logical that visual literacy is the key sensory literacy.” 


“It’s as important to be visually literate, to understand pictures and how they affect us, as it is to be word-literate,” Kennedy says. “Being fluent in the language of images gives us an advantage at school, at work, and at home.”


Photo by from Pexels

But what is visual literacy exactly and what does it have to do with picture books? Or with teaching and valuing art and design for young children?


To be visually literate, a person should be able to ‘read’ and think critically about images. If you are visually literate, you should be able to go from passively seeing an image to really LOOKING. This means being able to interpret images meaningfully, by first looking at images, then analysing them, and eventually situating them in terms of their cultural, social and historical context.


Images can convey meaning with immediacy in a multiple ways, and have increasingly become an essential tool for generating innovative solutions in business, design, science and technology, among numerous other fields. I previously blogged about using doodling as a tool for my writing and business. Here is another really cool tool: The Periodic Table of Visualization Methods shows just how versatile images can be in a myriad of contexts. 


"Towards A Periodic Table of Visualization Methods for Management"
Lengler R., Eppler M. (2007)

Being able to both understand images and convey meaning through them are key skills that future generations of children will need more than ever.


As picture book creators, we know just how powerful images are. We know that how words and pictures work together in a picture book creates something that is more than the sum of its parts.

It is ART. 

Art that tells a story. ART that communicates powerful messages and evokes beautiful things:

This powerful image from Small in the City by Sydney Smith shows a little girl looking for her lost cat, small in the city, just like her.  No words are needed to convey the emotion of this scene: the art with its use of colour, composition and fluid lines conveys the message beautifully.

In his book
Grand Canyon, Jason Chin paints in masterful realistic detail the majestical rock formations and the tiny creatures that live in the Grand Canyon so that readers everywhere can experience this beautiful place and its history. Chin's impactful artwork compositions, combining macro and the micro views, guide readers in making connections between the elements immediately visible and those observed through taking a closer look.


Benedict Blathwayt's stunning watercolours are packed with so much detail for young readers to pore over! In this spread from Green Light for Little Red Train the train speeds through a mountain landscape, but it is all the delightful additional 'mini' stories that invite a closer look.

In this story about the boy Matisse, inspired by a lifetime surrounded by art in nature and at home, Hadley Hooper instantly creates a visual connection between the boy's world and the grown-up artist's famous (actual) paintings through her evocative, colourful, bold picture book artwork. From the Irridescence of Birds by Patricia McLaughlan and Hadley Hooper

No need for words in this instantly-recognizable scene. Mo Willems' inspired combination of photographs and comic-style illustrations conveys the simple joy of being reunited with a favourite toy. From Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins is a gem with its bold imagery and simplicity, yet clever complexity. Even the youngest of children can spot the joke in the images -- the wily fox is always one step behind the hen in this classic example of how the art speaks volumes.

This illustration from Chris Wormell's One Smart Fish, the story of a clever fish who dreams of walking on land, ends with this amazing image - such a lot of information about the story of evolution is conveyed in just one piece of art!


As Picture Book creators, we recognize the importance of including all kinds of art and diverse imagery in picture books so that children everywhere can really see themselves and their world reflected in the pictures they encounter in books.

From Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross


Tony Ross' vibrant, lively pencil drawings depict Susan experiencing all the emotions and enjoying all the activities every child loves - from painting, to go-karting to playing with Dad. The final image might surprise readers and encourages them to consider their assumptions and empathise with Susan, unique, just like every child. From Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

With beautiful textured paintings, Britta Teckentrup uses simple and bold imagery to pack in a heartfelt and universal message about belonging. From Under the Same Sky by Britta Teckentrup

Todd Parr's distinctive, simple, colourful images speak first, almost before the words - conveying powerful messaging in bold artwork. From The Family Book by Todd Parr


Evocative, imaginative and empowering artwork fills this beautiful book, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, empowering children to find a home in a world of books and dare to dream big.


So many different styles of ART with powerful visual messaging!

From an early age, picture books are perfect for scaffolding children in order to extend their innate visual literacy. By encouraging parents and teachers to value the visual art form that is picture books, and engage in conversations that prompt children to really LOOK and think critically about their pictures – even older children – could we be helping to set them up with critical skills for a better future in our digital world?


Make way for art!



Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor

Natascha is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, winner of the Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children's Books, and selected as a best STEM Book 2020. Editor of numerous prize-winning books, she runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission, and is the Editorial Director for Five Quills. She is Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. Find her at







Monday 7 December 2020

How Long Does it Take for a Picture Book to be Published? By Pippa Goodhart


This is one of those questions that picture book makers often get asked, and its one where the annoying answer tends to be, ‘It depends.’


Back in 1981 when I worked in Heffers Children’s Bookshop in Cambridge I was lucky enough to go on a tour of the Ladybird Book factory in Loughborough. It was an exciting place! Full of noisy machines printing, folding, chopping pages, sticking on covers, then books shooting out onto conveyor belts at speed. But Ladybird didn’t just manufacture the physical books in that building. Upstairs were offices where creators wrote and drew and designed. And they proudly showed their Ladybird book of the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. Their wedding was on the 29th of July. The Ladybird book was created, manufactured, and distributed into shops to be published on August 3rd. Not a picture book in the sense of a big format twelve-spread kind of picture book, but a book with more pictures than text, created and printed and published in just five days. 


Of my own picture books, the one that took the longest from the point of interesting a publisher to arriving in shops was Chapatti Moon. Looking back I see that the editor who published it first showed interest in May 2012, and publication finally happened in September 2017! So that one took more than five years, and that’s not counting the writing of it! But it’s a book I love, with wonderful illustrations by Lizzie Finlay, and it has remained in print and is still selling well, so proved worth the wait. 



But now I’m going to tell about a new picture book of mine which has taken a much more typical couple of years from publisher interest to being a book for sale in shops, but with very untypical timing of both ends of that process.

I actually made a note of the exact timings of the start of this publication journey because I knew I’d look back and not quite believe it. At 9.30 am on the 2nd of October 2018 I sent All Sorts to my agent. She read it and sent it to Flying Eye. At 9.45am (really!) she got a response from Sam Arthur saying, ‘I like the new text’. An offer was made by Flying Eye within days, and contracts signed the following month. Emily Rand set to work on illustrations, and publication was set for May 2020. And then we all know what happened. Covid19, lockdown, bookshops shut, and many many book publications delayed. But as things eased in September, All Sorts was published, and I’m delighted with it –

The delayed publication actually meant that the little 'elephant' the book was dedicated to had time to be born before the book was. Here he is at two weeks old, being read his book! -



So how long does it take for a picture book to get published? It all depends … 


Downloadable worksheets worksheets for All Sorts

Monday 30 November 2020

The 12 Cards of Shhh-You-Know-What (with Mini Grey)

 Little things please little minds. I’ve always loved making little things, from teeny books to spreads of tiny clay food for my doll's house when I was a child. This post is about home-made Christmas Cards and how obsessions and picture book themes can surface in the other things we make just for fun.

It all started 20 years ago when I was at Brighton University finishing an MA in Sequential Illustration. One task we were set was the Batch Production Project. You had to make 5 of something, and each item had to cost less than a pound to make. All sorts of things got made, from paperweights to matchbox books to pocket orreries. And then the massive fun was running our own stand at the London Artists’ Book Fair and selling our stuff. One thing I learned was maybe the most effective way to add value to a scrap of paper is to turn it into a book.

The challenge for the Christmas card – is to stick around. Will it earn a place on someone’s shelf, or will it be thrown out at twelfth night?

The ground rules for my cards were: to fit in a small envelope usually around 10X11cm, and be made of cheap stuff. Here are 12 of them, from the last 20 years.

At Number 12 – from 2000: Fragments of the True Santa

At last! Definite proof of Santa’s existence with these genuine fragments from the Relics at Christmas range. I can’t remember what I made the fragments out of – maybe it was real really doesn't bear thinking about. Here's what was inside:

11 – 2003: The Inventors at Christmas Party Hat

 It’s important to remember the Inventors at Christmas. This card from 2003 is also a tiny party hat, featuring Orville and Wilbur Wright, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Frank Whittle and many more. Sadly no female inventors: nowadays I’d definitely have had some there. 

10 – 2004: Cracker

 I was so excited to find those cardboard bangy bits (that go in crackers and explode when you pull them) were for sale at my local Oxford Art Shop (Broad Canvas). This is an attempt to make a card that is also a cracker. The idea is two people pull either end and it goes bang.

Hidden in the middle is the pointless gift, small paper hat and joke (sort of). I didn’t have enough bangers to test it properly so I hope everyone managed to make their cards explode.

09 – 2008: The Pocket Finger Panto Theatre

I have an ongoing obsession with model theatres. I often think of picture books as being a bit like theatres, and in The Bad Bunnies' Magic Show it definitely is. I was given a teeny toy theatre from Prague by my sister Pippa and that inspired this pocket theatre. It folds flat. Dress your fingers up and act out your favourite panto scene.

08 – 2009: The Christmas Choc Box

This one was inspired by Jim, my illustrated version of the Hilaire Belloc cautionary tale. The book starts with an open-out present to Jim, and there are a lot of sweets throughout, so I used the same open-out format and imagery to make the Christmas Dinner Chocolate Selection, an unwise mixing of Turkey, Sprouts and the usual suspects with light and dark chocolate, praline, ganache, and so on. A card to make you feel slightly queasy.

07 – 2010: Three by the Seeds

 This one again was book-inspired. In Three By The Sea, the threesome Cat Dog and Mouse are given packets of herbs by a passing foxy stranger. This card includes a packet of herb seeds to grow your own stuffing. The seeds were a bit random as they were everything I could find in the garden shed. There were mixed reports about what came up.

06 – 2011: Insect House

 I so wanted to make a card that was also a house. On my teeny card scale, it had to be an Insect house. And the chance to check in with how Christmas is going for the insects.

Uncle Fly is wrestling with sellotape, the young ants are playing charades, and in the attic the little maggots are looking in their stockings. I’m just a bit worried about what Mrs Weevil is up to…

I’ve always wanted to feature insects in a picture book, and the project I’m working on at the moment features insects and theatres. Most exciting.

05 – 2012: Pocket Planet

This is where a matchbox obsession set in. Could you make a Christmas card that was also a matchbox? What could you put in a matchbox? What about a spare Pocket Planet, just in case of an emergency.

With instructions on the back for what to add to make your habitable planet (then simply wait for 4 ½ billion years and – Hey Presto!:

Now, dear reader, this card was a painful lesson about Royal Mail Postage prices. Yes, it was but matchbox-sized and fitted in a teeny envelope, but it was 2 ½ cm deep, and this means a lot in postage prices – it meant it was a Large Letter. So most of the pocket planets were impounded in mail depots and the unlucky recipients had to go and pay at least £1.70 to release their miniscule item.

04 – 2013: The Pocket Fairy Godmother

In 2013 I’d been running an after-school club in paper engineering at my son’s primary school. This card happened after we’d looked at angle folds, and I found out you could use the power of a tiny angle-fold to make wings beat. Everyone needs one….a pocket Fairy Godmother…

03 – 2014: The Cabinet of Mystery

This card I’d accidentally made when messing around with my book The Bad Bunnies' Magic Show. The Bad Bunnies have locked their magician the Great Hypno in a trunk and are attempting his tricks and unleashing unexpected transformations. I thought this could be an excuse for some crazy paper engineering, so the first sketch model book of the Bad Bunnies had things like woven panel dissolves in it. Eventually I realised less in more, and all you need for picture book magic is your reader’s imagination and maybe an unexpectedly-shaped page. The Glenda Cabinet of Mystery never got into the book, but it managed to be a card. Here’s Glenda disappearing and reappearing. (She's Brenda in the book!)

02 – 2018: Slight Accident

In 2018 it really looked like our planet was in trouble and big changes needed to happen to grow biodiversity and cut carbon dioxide. It still looks that way. But Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg were also happening, so hope was in the air too. Christmas is a time for presents, and our planet is a present that we pass to future inhabitants of Earth: what sort of gift are we bequeathing to the Earthlings of 2050? So what if we REALLY mess it up, and pass on a broken planet?

This seemed altogether a too grim way to leave things, so I put in another hidden layer, from the People of 2019…because you’d have to be NUTS to break your only home. We have to give the Earthlings of 2050 more wildlife, and less carbon dioxide.

01 – 2019: Waving or Drowning?

So here we reach last year. Pollocks Toy Museum in London is the Mecca for toy theatre lovers, and I’d been involved with a project at Pollocks that autumn. Artists made their own toy theatres to in response to Pollock's collection. I was allowed to look through the Pollock Toy Theatre scenery archive, and loved the stormy sea scenery. So this card was inspired by the water-scenery in Pollocks Toy Theatres.

My card was waving goodbye to 2019 and waving in a new decade, which seemed hopeful then. But my hand was also maybe drowning and the sea contained hidden perils.

 And now, from the perspective of What-On-Earth-Happened in 2020, I just don’t know where to go next.

STOP PRESS UPDATE : So here's B. Bird Esq who flew into houses as the Card of Christmas 2020....

And what's in B. Bird's suitcase?

Beach towel, sunglasses, luxury mixed seeds, and some pool-side reading with Far From the Madding Sparrows and Tit of the D'Urbervilles (both by Thomas Hardly).

Merry Christmas!

Mini's latest book-involvement is The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, with AF Harrold.