Monday 27 April 2020

'The Problem with Plastic.' Children's author, Fiona Barker, talks picture books with an environmental theme.

Remember 2019? When all we had to worry about was carbon footprint and plastic pollution? Things have been overtaken by more immediate concerns with difficult and sometimes tragic consequences but the environment hasn’t gone away.

2019 saw a slew of books, articles, vlogs and blogs about using less plastic and caring for the environment. There were hints and tips for people wanting to reduce their plastic consumption and waste everywhere. Children’s publishing was no exception.

They say that ‘children are the future’ (well, actually it was Michael Masser and Linda Creed). They’re going to be the business leaders and consumers of the future. Teaching them well and letting them lead the way really is a good idea. Traditional in-print publication is generally quite a slow, considered business but it was great to see, following the lead of Blue Planet II, the fruits of writers and illustrators labours in the teaching-them-well department. 

My favourites were: 

·         ‘A Planet Full of Plastic’, a non-fiction picture book written and illustrated by the award-winning Neal Layton (Wren & Rook) which built on other non-fiction foundations such as ‘The Big Book of the Blue’ illustrated by Yuval Zommer (Thames and Hudson).
         ‘Clem and Crab’ by Fiona Lumbers (Andersen Press), a lovely gentle story encouraging children to act and show their love for the marine environment.

It was also great to see the mainstream publishing industry getting on board with the #lessplastic message. Authors and illustrators supported it too, creating the hashtags #Authors4Oceans and #KidLit4Climate.

Who knows how the world is going to look after corona virus? Will green issues still be on the agenda? I hope so. If nothing else, the pandemic has shown our capacity for change and ability to adapt. It’s those skills that will be needed in the fight to reduce carbon footprint and change the way we consume resources in the long term. 

My own ‘greening’ began in childhood when I toured the neighbourhood with my Dad and a wheelbarrow collecting newspapers for recycling. I’m a plogger (that’s a good thing, honestly) and low waste advocate. I’m thrilled that this year will see the publication of my own contribution to the green publishing canon (virus-permitting). It’s the story of a real-life mermaid and how her friendship with a lonely whale saves her, the whale and the ocean and, like Danny and the Dream Dog, is illustrated by artist and marine biologist Howard Gray. I hope you like the sneak peeks of Howard’s stunning illustrations. 

I wrote the story in 2017 secretly hoping he would get to illustrate it because I could see how much he loved the ocean just by looking at his portfolio when I met him at the SCBWI conference in 2016. Now our dream is coming true thanks to Tiny Tree Children’s Books and I’m looking forward to using it to spread the word about the excellent work done by the Marine Conservation Society.

During the lockdown, I’ve been using my daily exercise to pick up litter and I can tell you that this problem at least definitely hasn’t gone away, I’m just picking up different things. People still need a push to change their behaviour. We mustn’t let up on the longer term, but no less urgent, fight we face.

Monday 20 April 2020

Grandma on Demand by Jane Clarke

Grandma On Demand

I have four granddaughters, now aged 2,3, 5 and 6, two live in the USA and two in the UK. All my grandma-ing has had to go online, of course.  I had visions of grandma Skype sessions consisting of me reading a different picture book each time from my extensive collection - to calmly-seated small people. 

Books patiently waiting to be read:

In practice, I generally get to see them at the end of the day when concentration is hard, so the session starts with a lot of pushing and shoving as each granddaughter tries to get as close to the iPad as possible, occasionally licking the screen - or they are jumping up and down or whirling round in a blur. So I thought it would be useful to read a story online and put it on You Tube so they could have a grandma story on demand.

At  the end of March, the publisher Nosy Crow sent out blanket permission to authors and illustrators to do this, and Five Quills also emailed me to encourage me to do this.  A You Tube channel seemed the way to go. Setting up a channel and putting videos on it was a steep leaning curve for me, but I figured it out (in a meta manner, thanks to You Tube videos). I’m two weeks in to this now and the goal of putting a story on a day for my granddaughters has given a structure to my day. I’ve moved on to my out-of-print backlist, now I don’t need to ask publisher permission to read those online as the books are no longer selling.

Is it a success? Measured in clicks, no not at all, there is no danger of this going viral. But it gives me something to do, and, more importantly, my granddaughters get 10 minutes or so of calm grandma story time at whatever time of day they want it.

So now, when we Skype - we do important things like seeing who can pull the funniest face, play screen peep-bo (with puppets), and share air hugs and kisses. And read the occasional story picture book story  ‘live.’

Air Hug: 

You can see Jane reading Neon Leon, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup here

Sunday 12 April 2020

Garry Parsons speaks to author Gareth Peter about his recent journey into publishing, his debut picture book and why writing from the heart really matters.

Hi Gareth. In 2018 you were selected as one of ten exceptional finalists to participate in the Penguin Random House 'Write Now' mentoring scheme. Can you tell us about the scheme and how you got involved?

It’s a remarkable project which aims to seek out, mentor and publish new writing talent. They’re looking for under-represented voices, including writers from a socio-economically marginalised background, LGBTQ or BAME writers, and writers with a disability.

Mentees from the WriteNow scheme with Gareth Peter top right

I heard about the scheme from my local writing organisation (W.E.M) and was urged to apply… although at the time I didn’t think I stood a chance. Over 1700 people applied and thankfully I made the long list. 150 of us were invited to attend a workshop where we received a 1-2-1 with an editor (which was incredible). Then it was a waiting game to see if we had been shortlisted. Amazingly I was, and those 40 applicants were requested to submit more work and have a telephone interview. It was like a cross between the X Factor and applying for a job! I honestly thought this was where it would end for me and was grateful to have got some professional feedback on my work,  but when I received the email to say I had been accepted, it was phenomenal. This meant I would be working with a major publisher, improving my writing with the possibility of getting my work published. 
I was thrilled to receive a two book deal with Penguin Random House publishing under Puffin. The scheme has enabled me to start a career as a writer. 

Thumbnail sketches and first roughs for My Daddies!

Your debut picture book publishes in May. Was writing for children something you had previously envisaged or hoped for?

I always wanted to do something creative, but I thought I would be writing musicals for the theatre. I have always been theatrical and love telling stories. But the older I got, the more I enjoyed using words to creature texture, rather than using music. It was about 2001 when I really considered writing for children, mostly chapter books… but these remain gathering dust in a drawer somewhere. It wasn’t until I went on a picture book course in 2018 that I realised it was picture books that I had been longing to write for, where the illustrations would be the music to my words instead, as they shape the world and create the texture of the story. I think I had resisted this genre as I’d read so much about not writing in rhyme and the pitfalls associated with that, but as a song writer this was something I wanted to do. 

The WriteNow experience completely changed my outlook on writing and I haven’t looked back since. I may return to my other writing someday, but having two young children to read picture books with inspires me to stay with this fantastic and poetic genre.  

Your picture book follows a day in the life of a book-loving family which consists of two gay dads and their adopted daughter.  Is drawing on your own life experiences an important writing tool for you and will you be taking this forward into other stories?

Absolutely. Write what you know. I think it was the authentic voice telling this story that Puffin connected with. I think you can successfully write about any subject or point of view, but when a story comes from the heart and has an inherent truth within it, then the story can take you to a another level. The book is about two dads who have adopted and both myself and the illustrator are part of a two-dad family and have adopted. I can’t think of another picture book where this has been the case. With this integrity I hope it makes the story even more exciting to the reader.  But at the end of the day, it’s a book filled with love and adventure with a message of acceptance… what more could you want?

Considering the characters in your picture book, how do you feel about the recent protests outside primary schools arguing against the reading of certain picture books in schools?

I think it’s essential for children to have books that they can see themselves in, including differences within family dynamics, and I feel it’s important for children to see that there are different types of families.
I was deeply saddened about the protests because we need to have a society that connects and supports and tolerates each other. Everyone and every family is different and it is important to know, accept and understand this and each other.

What was your experience of working with an illustrator for the first time?

It was phenomenal. It didn’t quite feel real at first.  It felt like I was looking at a ‘proper’ picture book that someone else had written.  I was amazed that my words could inspire someone else to create such amazing images. It told the story, enhanced it and took the reader off on a visual adventure as well as literal. I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a little tear when I saw it. The picture book art form is so rich and the illustrations enable the reader to get so much more from the story. 

As an illustrator, and having worked on this book with you, I’m interested to know 
what the process was like for you seeing your characters visualised. Were the drawings what you expected and were the characters how you envisaged them? 

The editor and I worked on the text over a few months but we hadn’t discussed the visual appearance of the book other than I wanted the couple in the book to be of mixed race. Then there was a big gap while the illustrations were worked on. When I first saw the rough drawings they were set in the layout with the text and it was then that I was asked my opinion and to give feedback.
The illustrations gave the words context in a way I hadn’t imagined and with all the texture and movement they really brought the story to life.

Rough for the Life Story Book spread

You mentioned that one of your favourite spreads from the book is the Life Story Book scene. Can you tell us about that?

Every adopter understands the importance of a Life Story Book. Through words, pictures, photographs, certificates and other ‘little treasures’ a Life Story Book provides a detailed account of the child’s early history and a chronology of their life in a simple fun format. New adopters are encouraged to use the Life Story Book to promote a sense of permanency for the child and encourage attachments in the adoptive family. In my book, the family are set off on incredible adventures as the stories they read together burst into life, so to include the life story book as part of this adventure felt just right.

Your writing is represented by Mandy Suhr at Miles Scott Literary Agency. Can you tell us how you met Mandy and joined the agency?

Luck. A chance meeting.  Cheekiness. 
I nervously went to a book launch… on my own.  I sat in the corner, eating biscuits and happened to catch someone’s eye. I only knew the author (it was author Jonathan Emmett’s book launch) so it was nice to chat to someone else, who I later found out was a writer. It didn’t register with me initially, but I almost choked on my cookie when I realised who they were and that her books were on my bookshelves at home. That friendly writer was Caryl Hart and we got on like a house on fire... so much so that I cheekily bit the bullet and asked her to read one of my stories. I was aware she gets asked this a lot. I, however, asked for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as to if I stood a chance. 
This story nearly ended there as I lost my initial confidence and didn’t send any work to her. She is an amazing writer and I didn’t want to send my trash over. However, two weeks later, an email pinged over asking if I was still sending some texts? I was in shock, not because I hadn’t given my email address to Caryl, but because a professional author wanted to see my work. I nervously sent some over and she replied with some lovely, detailed and thorough advice. It was way more than I hoped for. I will forever be thankful to her.  

Over the next four weeks we worked on those texts before she asked if she could send it to someone. “Goodness yes… send it to the world,” I said. Bizarrely enough, I never asked who. But to end this long story, later that day she called me and casually said her agent loved my work and was interested in representing me. Once I got up off the floor I thanked her and it dawned on me how lucky I was and how it is important to seize an opportunity.  
I almost didn’t go to that book launch.  I am so glad I did. 

As well as being cheeky and taking chances, what advice would you give aspiring authors?

I’d say take every opportunity you can to do with books, do the courses, attend the launches and enter competitions and don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. Believe in yourself and do what you enjoy. Take risks!

With the coronavirus lockdown in operation can you tell us how it has affected your writing and the launch of you first picture book, My Daddies!

Massively actually. I don’t have much time to write any more.  Even at night, I can’t get much done as I am quite tired… and to be honest I never really function at night. I know this isn’t forever and I am thankful to be surround by my family. I do worry that I will lose my spark and that my completed texts won’t sell and publishers won’t buy as many stories. It’s quite worrying. But then I remind myself to take the risks, believe in myself and I’m back to writing again.
In terms of the launch of my book, “My Daddies!”, all the physical events have been cancelled and everything will now be done on line.  Maybe with more people at home this will be a successful strategy, who knows? So currently I am more eating biscuits than writing, but ideas are always popping into my head, so that writing spark is still burning. I’m also looking forward to going into schools and doing events even more once the lockdown is over, particularly to talk about diverse families and inclusion.

At the time of posting this piece, it is looking likely that the launch of My Daddies! will be delayed by potentially up to a year due to the coronavirus lockdown. How do you feel about that?

It’s heart-breaking, especially as it’s my debut book, but we are in very uncertain times. Let’s all keep smiling and writing when we can.  

Gareth's YouTube channel on all things picture book

You have been very active in promoting your writing through social media and by launching a YouTube channel. Can you tell us why you wanted to do this and what the experience has been so far?

When I started my writing journey, I struggled to find videos that offered writing advice from UK authors. There were several about self-publishing, but not many that depicted the traditional publishing route.  So, I thought I’d make my own.  I guess I’ve always dreamed about being a talk show host also!  But If I launched my own channel then I could also meet other authors and learn things along the way. I am still new to this industry so any help and tips are greatly appreciated. I hope others will get something from my videos, whether established or aspiring story tellers. It’s been tremendous fun so far and I’ve learnt a great deal. I am so thankful to the picture book world for being so welcoming and taking time to let me interview them. 

Thank you Gareth. So what else is in the planning for the future?

I'm delighted to have written for the The Puffin Book of Big Dreams, (an anthology of short stories celebrating Puffin's 80th birthday which comes out later this year) and my second picture book with Puffin is a family story set in space and is being illustrated now. I’m also thrilled to be writing for other publishers. Watch this space!

Gareth Peter

Gareth Peter lives in Nottingham with his partner, two huskies and their two children. Gareth has written musicals, produced albums of his music, and had a song played on Radio Two! It was the arrival of his own children that inspired Gareth to begin writing picture books.

Gareth's debut picture book MyDaddies! is illustrated by Garry Parsons and is available to pre-order and is published by Puffin.
Find out more about Gareth Peter here and for links to his YouTube channel "Gareth's Story Planet".

For information about the WriteNow scheme click  here.  The deadline for applicants is Sunday 31st May.

Read more on the protests outside schools from Den member Juliet Clare Bell  here  

My Daddies! Soon to be published by Puffin

Monday 6 April 2020

How to write through this? by Gareth P Jones

So, my original plan for my second Picture Den blog was to continue writing about my experience with the picture books scheduled for publication Egmont next year but then… well, you know what came next because the thing that happened to me, happened to you. It happened to all of us.

Our world collapsed and the very idea of normality shifted to such an extent that an action as simple and instinctive as the shake of hand is now as alien and strange as conversing in Klingon or doing that Vulcan greeting that Spock does. (OK, so maybe I have been binge watching Star Trek this week.)

So how do you keep writing through this? Should you keep writing through this? Maybe, like me, you currently have your son or daughter sitting next to you. Should you be spending your time helping them with their lesson rather than spending time on your own writing projects?

I’m afraid I don’t have any answers to these questions. (I would be very wary of anyone who claimed they did.) Instead, I’m going to tell you how I have coped (and not coped) in the hope you can relate.


We all have different starting points. Mine came a week before the schools closed. I was supposed to have four school visits but I woke up Monday feeling unusually ill (although not with the correct symptoms). I had to cancel the school visits (losing a fair whack of money) then, on Wednesday I learned that my 12-week TV contract (due to start the following week) was being cancelled. This was my lowest moment. Coupled with the news that my picture book publication date was being pushed back, it felt as though the ground had fallen away from beneath my feet.

I couldn’t write anything. I couldn’t read or concentrate on anything. The only solace I could find was in music. I found playing or listening to music calmed me down in a way no other activity did. My only other distraction was my children, whose ability to cope with this rapidly changing world was both a comfort and a reassurance.


We had taken the kids out of school the previous week, but this was the week everyone in the country did the same. Suddenly, work appeared on their school websites and there was an expectation that we should be continuing their education on top of continuing our own work. And managing our family’s mental health.

A conversation with Jodie, my agent calmed me down about the impact this would have on publishing and I managed to concentrate enough to edit a picture book text. In this story (written a few weeks before) the narrator finds his carefully constructed narrative derailed by events that are out of his control. Suddenly, re-writing it felt cathartic. I found new relevance to my current situation.

My son also came up with his own act of self-healing. He was floored by a sudden painful realisation that he couldn’t do all the things he wanted to do (he is very sporty) so took himself to his room, drew a picture of how he was feeling then placed it under his pillow. In the picture a rhino is weeping while ramming his head against a tree trunk.
My five-year old daughter continued writing her own little books through this week as well. And, as so many children around the UK have done, they both drew pictures to stick in the window to cheer people up.

Both of my kids constantly remind me how we can all find solace, comfort and escape through creativity.


It would be misleading to say that everything is fine and dandy now and that our family has settled into a routine that works well for everyone. My son still has low moments and is continuing to use his own self-therapy technique.

The other day, I said to him that it was all going to be a roller-coaster, which was admittedly a rather tired metaphor until he rescued it by pointing out that the thing is about rollercoasters is that the ups are painfully slow but the downs can be unexpected and sudden.

I am extremely grateful to have found my own writing project to get my teeth into. This one is not a picture book and I don’t have a publisher for this one (yet) but, once again, it is an idea that has been floating around for a while. The basic premise is a world in which children have been born with a crippling debt incurred by their parents, which they must pay off rather than going to school. Suddenly, this imagined world felt much more less fantastical than when I first came up with the idea. And the fact that I have found relevance to our current situation means that, instead of having to block out upsetting or distracting news items, I can channel my emotional response to these events into my writing.

I have no idea if it will find a publisher (any publishers, by all means let me know if you're interested), but, whether or not it does, it is proving to be a useful a piece of self-therapy – just like my son’s sad rhino & wounded lion. Also, I've now developed a writing technique that includes my children. Usually, if I am stuck, I take a walk or hop on a bus. Now, I invite Herbie and Autumn to write or draw something, which I then incorporate into my story. 

The other thing I’ve found helps has been to spend time creating online resources. I know a lot of writers and illustrators are doing this at the moment but it does feel like one of the few positive things we can do at this uncertain stage in all of our lives. I spent the second week recording an 'guess-along' whodunit based on my Dragon Detective series. All four parts are now available to listen to here.  

So, take care of yourselves, everyone. Look after your physical health, your mental health and the creative child that keeps you going. I'll see you all on the other side.

Gareth P Jones is the author of 40 books for children of all ages. Both his picture books are published by Andersen and illustrated by Garry Parsons. His next picture books will be published by Egmont in 2021. His next non picture book to be published is both his 41st and his 1st, as Dragon Detective: Catnapped is a republished version of his first ever book The Dragon Detective: The Case of the Missing Cats. The first in the series of four books is published by Stripes, February 2020. You can find out more on Gareth's website, listen to the Dragon Detective theme tune here or follow him on Twitter @jonesgarethp.