Monday 25 May 2020

FIERCE BAD RABBITS by Patricia Cleveland-Peck

During the course of 2020, we are inviting author Patricia Cleveland-Peck to share her thoughts on many aspects of being a picture book author.

     It was by chance that I picked up a copy of a book which I enjoyed and am sure would interest many member of Picture Book Den. Fierce Bad Rabbits by the poet Clare Pollard, sub-titled The Tales Behind Children’ Picture Books investigates the genesis of both the picture books she loved as a child and the picture books she currently reads to her two young children.   

It begins with Clare’s rereading a favourite from her childhood, Hilda Boswell’s Treasury of Poetry which brought with it a flood of memories and her realisation that this book in fact made her a poet, such is the power of books one reads at an early age to shape one’s future.
    A series of picture books which immediately brings back memories for me is Orlando the Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale. How I loved Orlando, his wife Grace  (whose elaborate wardrobe fascinated me) and their kittens Blanche, Tinkle and Pansy. Kathleen Hale was a wonderful artist and her use of colour quite spectacular.

Seeing these books now also makes me think of my mother as she must have read them to me before I could read myself and the text is much longer than would be acceptable by publishers today.  Did these books make me want to write picture book texts? Doubtful - but oddly in later life I did have a succession of ginger cats – I also had, and have, a weakness for buying for buying picture books.
     As had Clare when she had her children. She bought lots and she also thought about them more deeply. She sees that the earliest picture books were ill-disguised vehicles for moral lessons, Struwwelpeter being a scary example. With Edward Lear, Lewis Carrol and Kate Greenaway the mood lightened and the books became closer to entertainment for children.  
    More recently critics have flagged up problems stemming from the change in attitudes held ‘then’ and ‘now. As well as out-and-out racism, these can include stereotypical representations of women and the  endorsement of colonialism as found in the Babar books by Jean de Brunhoff. My children, who loved the Babar books, didn’t notice anything amiss nor did I decades before when I read another of my favourites series, the Dr Doolittle books. These take me right back to our kitchen and with me, aged eight, reading in front of the kitchen stove with my fur slippers almost touching the bars: the memory is so potent that I can almost smell the soles of my slippers singeing. The Doctor Doolittle books are not really picture books although the author’s simple line drawings are a perfect complement to the text.  For me Dr Doolittle was just a likeable doctor who could talk to the animals and who, with his menagerie of Polynesia the parrot, Dad Dab, Gub Gub et al had various adventures as he tried to help animals.  

The copies I read were those written in the 1920s, the series was later, rightly, found to have racist content and reissued in 1980 with the offensive words and descriptions expurgated. Should such books be whitewashed, altered without the writer’s permission?   Or should they be read to children with explanations as to why these elements are just not acceptable? This is something I should like to come back to in the future.
    Another memory came to me reading Clare’s book, not an entirely pleasant one. I am not sure whether the Arthur Rackham images which illustrated some of the tales I loved as a child were in fact suitable for children. Many, like ‘the fairies of the Serpentine’ or ‘the fairies are exquisite dancers’ in Barrie’s  Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, I loved but I never liked the hoity-toity chrysanthemum

and I can remember another where I could see witches in the twisted trees which scared me and gave me nightmares to such an extent that my mother ‘tore out’ the offending picture and burned it in the above-mentioned stove. I think some sleight of hand was involved as I still have the book and it is intact  - but it did the trick for me. Even so I didn’t use books with these illustrations with my own children because even as an adult, I find many of them frightening.      
    I thoroughly enjoyed Fierce Bad Rabbits not only for the discussion of old favourites, the introduction to new ones and the snippets about the lives of the writers - but also for all the related questions which it threw up about memory and the value of picture books.
   Really worth reading.

My name is Patricia Cleveland-Peck and I write picture book texts. When my own children were little I wrote about 14 children’s books but gradually drifted into writing for adults as they grew up. It was when I had a granddaughter that I returned to the wonderful world of picture books. It was her remark, “You can’t take an elephant on the Bus,” which resulted in my book of the same name. For more details visit my website

Monday 18 May 2020

Mightier Than The Sword?, blog by Pippa Goodhart

I’ve been treating myself with a re-read of a wonderful book, ‘Fierce Bad Rabbits’ by Clare Pollard. I see that an upcoming blog on Picture Book Den is going to tell and show you something of the joys of that book, so all I'm going to say about it here is that it set me thinking and reading, and reading about, one picture book in particular, and that's 'The Story of Ferdinand'. 

‘The Story of Ferdinand’, written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, is one of those books which gets mentioned with passionate love by adults who credit it with changing their whole outlook on life in the most empowering of ways. The story is simple and strong, and the (black and white) illustrations have wit and beauty.

Set in Spain, but written and illustrated by Americans, ‘The story of Ferdinand’ tells the story of a bullock who grows big and strong but is never interested in fighting as other bullocks do. He’d rather sit and smell the flowers, and that’s what he does day after day. But when, one day, men come to choose a bull to be fought by banderilleros and picadors and the great matador in Madrid, something makes them choose wholly unsuitable Ferdinand. That ‘something’ is a lovely bit of slapstick humour. Ferdinand inadvertently sits on a bee that stings him on the bottom, making him ‘run around, puffing and snorting, butting and pawing’ to the delight of the men. Ferdinand is taken to perform … but he doesn’t. Instead of fighting, he sits and smells the flowers in the hair of the ladies in the audience. So he gets taken home in disgrace, but doesn’t care about that. He goes back to sitting under his favourite cork tree, smelling flowers happily. 

You might think that’s a story that nobody could object to, but ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ was published in the US in 1936, and just as the Spanish Civil War was starting. The book was seen as subversive with its pacifist message, and was banned in Spain. And Hitler, presumably feeling frightened and threatened by its
message, ordered the book to be burned. Clare Pollard tells that ‘it also irritated Ernest Hemingway enough for him to write a short story called ‘The Faithful Bull’ that starts: ‘One time there was a bull whose name was not Ferdinand and he cared nothing for flowers.’ Hemingway ends his tale with a hideous formulation that has the ring of propaganda: ‘the man who killed him admired him the most.’ It’s fascinating that the popularity (‘The Story of Ferdinand’ out-sold ‘Gone With The Wind’) of such a small, gentle, humorous tale could get under the skin of supposedly strong men so effectively, as well as empowering some small and young people in life-transforming ways.

Munro Leaf apparently wrote the story ‘in less than an hour’, and I think that speed must have been because he knew he had a simple story that worked to demonstrate a truth. He told that, ‘early on in my writing career I realised that if one found some truths worth telling they should be told to the young in terms that were understandable to them.’ Disney, a man with a talent for spotting a story with heart and humour and truth in it, turned ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ into one of his cartoons. 

What is the ‘truth’ demonstrated by this story? Simply that you don’t need to fight for the sake of it. You can make up your own mind on whether or not to join-in with fighting being done by others. 

The sophisticated, beautiful, funny, accessible illustrations were done by Robert Lawson, an American who had fought in Europe in the First World War. This is a book created with a light touch, but with passion. A lesson, and a joy, to us all … unless we are insecure bullies.

Monday 11 May 2020

Don't Be Afraid to DOODLE: Fresh Inspiration for Marketing & Craft • by Natascha Biebow

To gain a fresh look at my craft, I’ve been experimenting with something that might seem counter-intuitive to writers – DOODLING.

Young children are instinctively visually literate long before they can read. It’s only later, when they are a bit older, that children and then adults begin to doubt their ability to draw and convey messaging through pictures. What if, I asked myself, I were to return to the DOODLE in an attempt to take a FRESH LOOK at things?

Rather than getting bogged down with the w-o-r-d-s, WHAT IF I released myself from the strictly written form, picked up a crayon and DOODLED alongside my words?

The Doodle Revolution by Sunni Brown
In an interview for PRINT magazine, author Sunni Brown says that by creating a doodle, "we are learning to not only sift through grains of content to find the meaningful pieces but we are also bringing those pieces to life by letting them live in multiple forms: a word, an image, color, a font, a shape".

So, as a children's book author, how could I practically apply the DOODLE, I wondered? 

DOODLING is a way to free you up to think outside the box – or even to throw away the box completely – so that you can come up with a solution to that plot problem, dream up that the missing ending, or even to come up with a whole new book idea. It can also be a way to get you unstuck and drum up new ideas for the strategy of being a working author.

I decided to have a go.

One of the most challenging aspects about creating picture books is digging deep for a unique story that will hook in and grab young readers, then making it pacey and concise.  Starting with Debbie Ohi’s helpful picture book page plan, I doodled the trajectory of a picture book plot:

Next, one could try this out on an actual picture book mentor text and eventually on your own work in progress. 
I tried it out on Lizzie Finlay's wonderful new book The (Ferocious) Chocolate Wolf:

From The (Ferocious) Chocolate Wolf by Lizzie Finlay

It’s incredibly helpful to be able to SEE your picture book (and its possible flaws) if you can doodle map it out like this.

Then I decided to see if I could doodle some ideas for marketing, post publication, one year on: 

After I got to this point, I realized I needed to keep going and think about how I could re-frame my MESSAGE in a new way. So I decided to try to DOODLE brainstorm about two topics and themes related to my book, THE CRAYON MAN: DRAWING and NATURE.

I realized that there are many jobs that involve DRAWING. Could some of these PEOPLE be book-buyers interested in my book's message? Or could I use this idea to create new content? I decided to brainstorm on a new page:

If I keep going, I hope to be able to relate these ideas back to my marketing plan and create new CONTENT to engage and CONNECT with new people, who might be interested in drawing and nature.

I’ve really enjoyed flexing my creative muscles by DOODLING with coloured crayons. It's taken me to cool new and unexpected places. 

Doodling is a really cool TOOL. How can you start? Allow yourself some TIME and SPACE, a notebook or some sheets of paper, some pens, pencils and crayons. Then, choose a starting point and start. Really LISTEN . . . and HAVE FUN! Your drawings and icons don't have to be artistic. Your DOODLES can be just for you! 

I was inspired to learn about doodling from experts such as Sunni Brown and Dave Gray


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, selected as a best STEM Book, editor of numerous prize-winning children’s books, and Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. She is currently writing more non-fiction picture books 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. She is also Editorial Director for Five Quills. Find her at

Monday 4 May 2020

Illustrating Pippi - with Mini Grey

When I was a child I didn’t meet Pippi Longstocking. 

She just didn’t cross my path, which was generally wandering in the direction of the Moomins. 

My first Pippi encounter was acquiring a copy of the beautifully illustrated Lauren Child edition, in around 2009 I think. 

Here is Lauren’s Pippi stamping out gingerbread with concentration,
Illustration by Lauren Child
Illustration by Lauren Child
and here, in bonkers style and wearing her father’s old nightshirt, waving sword and pistol, vowing to become a pirate.

Later I read it to my young son Herbie, but we weren’t entirely sure about it – a bit too much horse-lifting for us. Pippi seemed impossibly strong, in a world that was otherwise fairly realistic.

But then last year I was invited by Oxford University Press to illustrate new versions of Astrid Lindgren’s books for the 2020 75th anniversary editions. My friend Niki who lives down the road is Swedish, and when I mentioned the Astrid Lindgren commission she immediately brought over her entire Astrid Collection (and it is quite a huge collection) to properly show me just how important an institution Astrid Lindgren is in Sweden, and what an honour illustrating Pippi was. (Incidentally, Niki also makes very fine cinnamon buns and gingerbread, so I love it when these pop up in the Pippi books.)

In the original editions, Pippi is intrinsically linked with the illustrations of Ingrid Vang Nyman. Here’s Niki’s own copy of Pippi Goes Aboard.
Pippi Gos Aboard, illustration by Ingrid Vang Nyman
To the modern (and un-Swedish) eye, Pippi looks pretty strange. I saw weird slightly alien eyes, anti-gravity hair, anatomically puzzling legs, possibly suspenders. And was she all of nine years old?

Here’s Pippi grinning at her garden gate, and rolling out gingerbread with Mr Nilsson, her monkey. 

Here’s Pippi getting up, and below she is wrestling with a tiger.

In Sweden, these images are an inseparable part of Pippi Longstocking. I started to see how strange and gutsy they were, and appreciate the pared-back lines, and limited colours that have become so emblematic of Pippi now that she has her own set of pantones.

There could be a Japanese influence to Van Nyman’s pictures, with their lack of shadows, flat colour, and unusual diagrammatic perspectives. She made everything really clear, and worked out all the details. And look at the lettering in Pippi’s notes – it looks particularly nice in Swedish:

Pippi Longstocking came out in 1945 and was the first work of acclaim for both author and illustrator.  

Is it important that the irrepressible character of Pippi emerges from 5 years of wartime lockdown, like a spring bursting out of a box? 

So I thought I’d better properly meet Pippi.


When we first meet Pippi, her appearance is very definitely described:

Pippi is also tremendously strong, the strongest girl in the world.

I still had problems with the impossibility and with the horse-lifting; and the excessiveness; smashing things up, being a bit too violent to a bull and breaking its horns off.  There was also a view of the world that was of its time, especially the South Sea islanders in the third Pippi book.


OK, she’s the strongest girl in the world, and is indestructible with the constitution of an ox (she eats poisonous mushrooms, she drinks random mixtures of medicines).
But as I met Pippi properly I found out how much about her I’d missed in that first brief reading aloud. I made discoveries: Pippi’s kindness, her fairness. (When Astrid Lindgren’s characters get really upset there’s usually a big unfairness happening.) Pippi knows what’s going on, even though it seems she doesn’t. You can be safe with Pippi.
There’s also Nature lovingly described, especially Pippi’s wild garden, and also Food, which Pippi enthusiastically creates.
To Pippi, everything’s an opportunity.

Pippi is funny.
‘Who tells you when it’s time to go to bed? Tommy asks. “I do that myself,” said Pippi. “First I tell myself once, very nicely, and if I don’t obey I tell myself again, quite crossly, and if I still don’t obey, well, then there’s trouble, I can tell you”
 Pippi has a way of turning the world upside down, upending convention, using words however she likes. She is a master of the bizarre and surreal monologue. She is a Teller of Tall Tales. She is wild and unpredictable, with the destructive potential of an unexploded bomb. 

She is able to take care of herself and other people: to cook, to clean, to camp, to feed everybody, to organise. Pippi is generous in every way. She has independent means of finance – an endless bag of gold coins. Pippi is not scared of ANYONE, no matter how important they think they are. Pippi gently perplexes those who are trying to educate her or make her do things like ‘multikipperation’, by possibly deliberately misunderstanding things. 

Pippi is an uncontainable force: when she tries going to school, Pippi’s drawing of a horse refuses to be restricted to a piece of paper and takes place on the floor: she explains: 
“I’m in the middle of doing the front legs now, but when I get to the tail most likely I’ll have to go out into the corridor.”

Pippi makes a mess: she Invades Tommy & Annike’s mother’s coffee party like a thunderstorm, burying her face in the cake and strewing sugar on the floor.

Near the end of Pippi Longstocking, after rummaging in her attic,
‘Never let children play with weapons,’ Pippi says, taking a pistol in each hand and firing them into the ceiling.

There’s joy in language: looking through a telescope Pippi says: 
“I can practically see the fleas in South America with this.”
When Tommy, Annika and Pippi go Thing-finding, Pippi defeats bullies but then gets Tommy to look in a tree-trunk, where he finds a little leather notebook with a silver pen. Then Annika is asked to feel inside an old tree stump, where she finds a red coral necklace. Had Pippi dreamed up the whole scheme and hidden the treasures earlier on?  Was it all part of a masterplan? With Pippi you can never tell.
“You never know,” said Tommy. “You never know anything as far as Pippi’s concerned.” 
– and to me, that’s her magic.

Under it all there is understated heart from Astrid Lindgren. 

In Pippi Goes Aboard the threat of Pippi going away looms. Here’s when Pippi is just about to leave and board her father’s ship:
“She turned to Tommy and Annika and looked at them.
What a strange look, thought Tommy. It was exactly the same look Tommy’s mum had on her face once when he was very, very ill.’
And what is that look? 

Astrid Lindgren leaves you to work that one out for yourself.

And lastly, here’s my favourite character, Mr Nillson.  I did love drawing all those Mr Nilssons.

 Mini Grey is an author/illustrator based in Oxford UK. Find more at: Sketching Weakly, Mini's blogsite.

Pippi Longstocking, Pippi Goes Aboard, and Pippi in the South Seas, by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Mini Grey are published by Oxford University Press, May 2020. 

And, you collectors of visual feasts, watch out for Pippi Goes Aboard illustrated by Lauren Child, to be published in October 2020 by Oxford University Press.

Look out for more on Pippi Longstocking in Books for Keeps a little later in May.