Monday 29 June 2020

Adapting to picture book life online

With events in book shops, libraries and schools cancelled, I’ve been curious to find out how some of my friends and colleagues have been adapting their picture book lives.

Pippa Goodhart

Pippa’s been wearing her fantabulous empathy glasses for Empathy day online events.

 She’s also busy reading stories including Daddy Frog and the Moon as part of a project with Cambridgeshire Libraries.

A bigger picture book online project was taking part in Puffin Random House’s Big Dreamer Festival that ran for a full week online. " Nick Sharratt was the artist in residence, every day drawing big dream ideas sent in by children. The first session of the festival gave the world premier of Nick and my You Choose Fairy Tales which was to have been published in March, but is now scheduled for September. But if anybody wants to see it all, and to hear Nick and my choices for each spread, here’s the link

Abie Longstaff

Abie’s made the move to live online events.

“I’ve done a few live events now. At first it was surprisingly stressful, more stressful than a real life reading. I think the worries about the tech and broadband signal were factors, but there was also the feeling of talking into empty space that was initially very intimidating. In a real life event you see the children laughing or nodding along, and there are so many opportunities for interaction. With a live event on for example, Facebook, you can't see your audience and that makes it hard, particularly when your books are aimed at little ones. I've finally got into the swing of it now though and I really enjoy them. It's lovely to have the events stored online, and it means that far more people can see your event. I've had people emailing from all over the world who would never normally be able to come to a Fairytale Hairdresser reading. The online events feel more inclusive - people from all backgrounds and abilities can attend and it's lovely to be part of a movement like that.’"

Here's a link to her Book Nook Q and A

Garry Parsons

"I've been spending more time online than ever before. Launching a picture book during lockdown requires almost immediate responses, so I find I'm constantly checking and updating, which at first was distracting but now feels like a new normal. I'm not a natural with social media so it has been an interesting learning curve, finding ways to interact and get attention online and I've spent a lot of time making things to be downloaded.  I'm used to talking and drawing at live events but that has changed to attempts at recording myself (awkwardly) talking to camera, announcing drawing prizes and taking live drawing sessions on Zoom. It feels like the picture book has evolved a necessity to have a multi-media and multi-sensory experience attached"

Natascha Biebow

Since the beginning of March, I've done many more virtual school visits and have become more confident about my presentations, even when tech fails and I have to resort to show and tell. Some of these had over 100 second and third graders! It is really fun to interact with them and to be able to feel that maybe your book is connecting with young readers stuck at home.
SCBWI was quick to respond to the needs of teachers, librarians and parents at home, creating a huge pool of online resources by published members: SCBWI Connects. As well as submitting existing resources to this initiative, I also created new ones, prompted by online initiatives that I could link up to, like  Outdoor Classroom Day.

Inspired by fellow SCBWI members, who created the fabulous Our Corona Diary project, I made a video about how to make a Crayola Doodle Keepsake Diary.

 Possibly my biggest challenge was to create an acceptance speech video when THE CRAYON MAN was awarded the Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children's Books in early May.

It was so exciting, but sadly the awards ceremony in NYC had to be cancelled. It turned into a three-day video project which I filmed and created with the help of videographer son who was fortuitously, well, AT HOME!  Filming in your garden with ever-changing light and cheeping birds is one thing, but there's no accounting for the 'studio quiet' you need when the other stay-at-home neighbours are doing PE homeschooling next-door.... And the dog decides to walk into the frame also.

Gareth P Jones

"This year I have done lots of new things. I’ve uploaded interactive short stories, readings and virtual festival performances. I’ve found that those connected with existing events (Camp Bestival, Wychwood & The Summer Reading Scheme) have fared better than those I did independently. I am gradually moving towards virtual school visits. My assemblies were always based around questions from pupils so I have been asking schools to send me questions. Then I record a rambling reply to all of these, which is working OK. But my favourite online project has been a collaborative song performed with authors around the UK in support of bookshops."

Clare Helen Walsh 

Clare has had not one but two picture books published during lockdown, and says she’s been forced to think more creatively about how she ‘launches a book’ and interacts with little readers and their families. For the publication of ‘How Selfish!’, Clare planned a virtual duck race! And for ‘The Perfect Shelter,’ people were invited to post photos of their dens and take part in a community collage.

If you’re inspired to hold your own virtual event, you can find out more information here and here Clare says that working digitally was a challenge at first, but definitely means more people have been able to join the fun!

Lucy Rowland

Lucy did a Skype visit with a school in Switzerland. 

She says "Benji slept best when he was on me at that time so I had him in the carrier. It all went really well except that Benjamin was sick all down my top but the teacher assured me that the class didn't notice! Phew! "

Addy Farmer

I’ll leave the last words to Addy Farmer, a picture book writer, mentor and a Local Network Organizer for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
"Before the lockdown, most of my writing interactions were with my physical SCBWI group. In the PPE (pre pandemic era) we met once a month at the University of Lincoln for book chat and to critique picture book texts and writing for older children and it was lovely and supportive. Now, we still meet once a month for book chat and crit but the fact that it's online has somehow endowed it with added support - maybe it's the fact of being alone but together. 

There are drawbacks to meeting virtually; not everyone enjoys using the technology or even being seen on screen; the technical hitches; the getting used to talking in turns rather than the more free flow conversations in 'real life'. I'd recommend Google meet over Zoom simply because the former has no time limits. Once we got over the initial technical hitches and established talking protocols, the virtual get-together has worked well.

In the PPE, I started meeting my picture book crit partner, Liz Miller, online. Back then, it was a fantastic boost to my writing - in terms of upping the quantity and quality of my picture book texts. Now, it is also even more of a joy to meet and talk texts. If you can get it, this close writing support is a treasure beyond measure.   

So, whatever happens, find your people and enjoy whatever means of talking you can; even if it means that you spend the entire session upside down. Critical friends are good for your writing and your heart, especially now."

Absolutely, Addy! Keep well y'all x

Jane Clarke's been reading her picture books online for her granddaughters, contributing a fun Al's Awesome Science session for the Silly Squad Summer Reading Challenge, and has been so busy Zooming, Skyping, WhatsApping and Facetiming, she's been finding it hard to get any writing done :-)

Monday 22 June 2020

Why empathy is a force for social justice - Garry Parsons

Last week my first collaboration with author Simon James Green Llama Glamarama was published. This is a picture book about a llama called Larry who has a secret passion for dancing. The cover is a shiny, sparkly gold and Larry holds a glittering red bowler hat (inspired by Sally Bowles’ hat in the movie Cabaret) and a rainbow feather boa. It's jolly and it's camp!

Add caption

Back in January, the publicity team at Scholastic began firming up plans for bookshop events and some literary festival appearances in anticipation of a June publication date for Llama Glamarama that coincided with UK Pride month. Plans revolved around a theme of celebration, with music and dancing being the focus, something akin to a child-friendly Pride march with a lively, fun carnival vibe.
Simon and I had glittery hats, rainbow scarves and a disco playlist with dance moves that we were planning to share with the kids.

However, not unlike the rest of the world, we hadn't planned for the arrival of a global pandemic, nor had we expected to be the witnesses of such a terrible event in the USA. 

So, with event plans cancelled and bookshops closed, our launch day, like that of many other new publications became entirely virtual,  in an online world reverberating with everyone's reactions to these traumas, expressed with anger, sympathy and everything in between.
The idea of bringing a jolly, camp book with a shiny, sparkly gold cover into a world suffering from unprecedented levels of fear had me feeling a little nervous. My concern was that it could, at best, seem like just a bit of light relief or, at worst, trivial, banal and uncaring.

Undaunted, we prepared a downloadable party pack of things to make, eat and colour along with a jolly Spotify playlist for children to host their own Glamarama carnival party at home. A conscious effort to promote the book through its fun and colourful nature. This is a picture book after all!

But my concerns were missing the point. Larry’s story in Llama Glamarama is not about trying to find diversions from the world’s problems or denying they exist by offering rainbows and glitter as a distraction.  Larry’s story is an exploration of believing in yourself. His journey to get there is not easy and is even a little painful to see at times.  

Llama Glamarama Simon James Green & Garry Parsons - Scholastic

As author and illustrator, our collaborative aim was to elicit empathy for Larry’s plight, inviting the reader to step into his shoes, just for a moment (cowboy boots actually, inspired by a pair worn by Dolly Parton).

Dolly Parton. Camp icon and children's literacy promoter

Over the last decade neuroscientists have discovered that most of us have empathy wired into our brains, debunking the notion that we are solely self-interested creatures.
A Cambridge University study led by Maria Nikolajeva, Professor of Education, found that “reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind, that is, understanding of how other people feel and think”.

Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How Can I Get It 

“We are homo empathicus  says writer and cultural thinker Roman Krznaric, founder of The Empathy Library. “There has been an extraordinary shift … a concept that has been buried in psychology textbooks for nearly a century – empathy – is coming to be seen as one of the fundamental forces for tackling global challenges.”
Krznaric goes on to explain that a crucial method of expanding our empathy is by making the imaginative leap into other people’s lives through books and films.

Of course we all knew this already on some level.  We’ve all been moved by words and images we’ve read and by movies we’ve watched that have touched us. But in murky times like these, where the challenges of the world are so apparent, to consider actively developing empathy through reading seems like the best action to take.

Joseph Coelho

Writer Joseph Coelho put it like this:
"Focusing on the young and developing their empathy skills strikes me as the best possible action we can take in these troubling times, equipping the next generation with the tools to help them avoid the storms we find ourselves in, storms that are very much a result of a lack of empathy, an inability to communicate and an unwillingness to understand."

So for the youngest readers it starts with picture books.
Looking through my book shelves at home I’ve picked out a few picture books that I enjoy because they take me on that imaginative leap Roman Krznaric describes.  

As an illustrator I’m drawn to the moment in each of these stories where the character hits the lowest level just before they undergo a realization or an experience that transforms them or their situation for the better, when we as the reader are invited to pause and feel what it’s like to be in their shoes.
Perfectly Norman Tom Percival - Bloomsbury

Me and My Fear Francesca Sanna - Flying Eye Books

The New Neighbours Sarah McIntyre - David Fickling Books

The Lion Inside Rachel Bright & Jim Field  - Orchard

Melrose and Croc Emma Chichester Clark - HarperCollins

Piper Emma Chichester Clark - Andersen Press

Developing empathy helps children understand their own and other people's feelings and becomes the foundation for building good relationships. Empathy is a force for social justice and if there ever was a time when we need it, it’s got to be now.


For a wealth of information on promoting empathy through reading as a core life skill visit the Empathy Lab website.

Find out more about Roman Krznaric and the Empathy Library here.

Garry Parsons is an illustrator of children’s books. 
LLama Glamarama is written by Simon James Green and published by Scholastic

Garry Parsons @icandrawdinos

Further reading.

Monday 15 June 2020

The Right to Laugh

Hello. My name is Gareth P Jones. I am a children’s author and I am a Twitter addict.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will already know that the main thing about me is that I am a silly person. I am a bit cheeky, sometimes a bit naughty, occasionally a little spiky but my prime motivation is to make you laugh, or smile… or make one of those snorting noises that acknowledges a joke has been made but that it wasn’t quite funny enough to generate a full laugh – the aural equivalent of clicking the like button. Oh, that and to promote my books of course. 
Unfortunately, recently Twitter has become consumed by outrage, indignation & self-righteousness. It has become a dangerous place for people like me, whose modus operandi is to make light of things.

In this increasingly paranoid, hypersensitive tinderbox I have noticed an increase in the number of people who have taken offence at my jokes (and not for the usual – and entirely justifiable reason that they just aren’t funny enough). Then, last week, in response to one such joke, it was suggested to me that authors have a duty to their readers to make public their views.

So my question is: to what extent should we, as children’s authors, feel compelled to make public our views on all issues?

As subjects go, this is a minefield, so let’s set out some parameters.

Some authors will have issues that are important to them for personal, social or political reasons. Of course, they should say whatever they like - wherever they like - about these subjects. Some of them will have written books tackling these issues. If you are so passionate about the plight of bees you’ve written a book about it called ‘Where are all the Bees, Mummy?’ then, of course, you should shout about bees until the cows come home.

Then there are subjects which we all have a duty to address such as racism. To my mind, there are no two sides to this debate. Racism is abhorrent and should be called out and stopped wherever it emerges. As a white man living in the UK, it rarely has a negative effect on my life, which is why I think it more befitting to allow other, more relevant, voices to be heard. For this reason, I am more inclined to retweet than tweet, amplifying minority voices rather than adding to the virtuous ‘white noise.’ And yes, that pun was intentional.
But the racism debate is not the issue that is currently ripping apart our usually so polite and supportive community of children’s literature. Oh yes, folks. This is the row about transgender politics surrounding JK Rowling’s recent comments.

His Dark Materials follow-ups announced by author Philip Pullman ...
Philip Pullman

As Philip Pullman discovered, even the most innocuous comment on this subject is very much like tying a chicken around your neck then throwing yourself to a pack of ravenous wolves. Previously reasonable people are increasingly inclined to slap on the caps lock and shout fascist if you say anything other than what they want to hear. Whatever your view on this complex subject, you will be told you are wrong and instructed to ‘educate yourself’. There are certainly many aspects but if Twitter is your primary source, you could be forgiven for thinking there are just two (extremely polarised) sides - and both feel embittered and attacked - making sensible discussion impossible. I am utterly dismayed by how many smart, literate people are suddenly willing to endorse absolutism. As Obi-Wan Kenobi reminded us, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

Obi-Wan Kenobi series set 8 years after Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi

So I will not be nailing my colours to any masts but I will make these two points. I would never put myself in the same camp as anyone who wanted to oppress the rights of a minority. But, as someone brought up by a feminist - and who understands very well what the radical feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s achieved - nor could I ever condone the use of the term ‘radical feminist’ as a term of abuse.

And whatever I think, I will not be expressing my opinion on this vastly complex subject in the hugely reductive arena of Twitter. Let's not forget, if it had been designed as a place for reasonable people to share and digest considered opinions they wouldn’t have called it Twitter. They would have called it Nuance… or Listen.

There is precious little nuance or listening on twitter. There is shouting, proclaiming, denouncing, but so little listening, even amongst those who have built careers on empathy and understanding.  

I remember Patrick Ness once observing that children’s authors are required to be ambassadors for literacy in a way that other authors are not. I have never had a problem with this aspect of my job and I will continue to champion reading, writing & the importance of creativity. I will continue celebrating books, imaginative thought and the value of libraries and bookshops. In schools, I will address any issue that comes up, but, as any teacher who has met me can testify, the prime emphasis of my school visits is to remind pupils that reading and writing are both fun. That's what makes them worthwhile. In other words, I take my right to be silly very seriously.  

These last few weeks, Twitter has been consumed by a tsunami of righteous sincerity and, while I hope some of my silly output is a welcome distraction from this, my best jokes are the ones specifically designed to prick holes in all this pompous posturing.

If I suggest that Jo Rowling is a victim of her own success because she taught a generation of readers to expect a twist in which the least expected character turns out to be the baddy after all – then yes, it’s a joke but I'm also asking you to question your misjudged absolutism.

J.K. Rowling

Mostly, it's safer to avoid these subjects and doing so does not make one complicit in either side. We would all argue in favour of freedom of speech, but we should also have the freedom to say (and not say) what we want in the forum of our choice. 

On a final note, let's not forget that for much of this year, most of us have been stuck at home with restricted human interaction, helplessly witnessing terrible world events while being retrained to treat each other as potentially lethal virus-spreaders. It's no wonder that it's got like this. Personally, I'd rather build bridges than draw lines in the sand. While so much of our interaction with the world takes place on Twitter, I'd rather try to make it a better, kinder, more positive... and funnier place. 

My latest book, Dragon Detective: Schools Out! was published last week. It's published by Little Tiger, costs £6.99 and is the second in the a four book series and is available from all online booksellers or from bookshops.   

Monday 8 June 2020


I’ve been thinking a lot about dens lately. Mostly because, what with the lockdown the way it is, we have one in almost every corner of the house. In the garden, too! But also because my latest book ‘The Perfect Shelter,’ illustrated by debut talent Asa Gilland and published by Little Tiger Press, features one of the most BEAUTIFUL dens I’ve ever seen! 

Illustrated by Asa Gilland and published by Little Tiger Press, 'The Perfect Shelter' is about ‘homes from homes’ and about seeking ‘shelter’ in difficult times. 

Dens have been on my children’s minds, too. 

Can you come in my den?’

‘Can we eat in our den?’

‘Can we sleep in our den?!’

But the question that prompted this post was…

Why don’t adults make dens?’

That got me wondering, when did I stop making dens? I know I loved making them as a child. Had I lost my sense of adventure in adulthood? That’s when it struck me…

...I do still love dens! Not necessarily behind the sofa or under the kitchen table anymore, but as an adult and writer I still need a place to escape to. A place that’s comfortable and equipped and allows me to immerse myself in creativity and the wonderful world of stories. 

And I am not alone. I invited the Picture Book Denners to share a little bit about their creative places. This is what they had to say; 

NATASCHA BIEBOW: When it's my turn, I am lucky to write and edit at this lovely desk in the shed overlooking our garden. The pine wood is calming, and handy on the bookshelf, I can keep mentor picture books, books I've recently edited, notebooks and folders for keeping organized, and of course crayons for doodling!

LYNNE GARNER: As you can see I’m tucked away in a corner, kept company by RAF Teddy. My other half bought him from a stall which was raising money for the local air cadets. A reminder of my late father who did his National service in the RAF. My desk lifts up when I need to so I can work standing up. The large screen is useful when I’m researching for any non-fiction I’m working on. So I can just touch type and read the screen.

GARETH JONES: This is my desk in my backroom where I sometimes write. On the wall are notes and diagrams of work in progress. Behind me are all the music instruments I play when I'm thinking about what to write next. I write in other places too. I've always enjoyed going out and finding places to write on buses and in cafes but that's not really an option right now so I find other spaces in my house as I find physical movement helps me create.

LUCY ROWLAND: I love that my desk looks out over the farm and I can see the cows and calves. It feels like a very calm, baby-free space up there! The notice board has some (rather dried out) cacti, some post cards from illustrators and a piece of art work from Mark Chambers from our ‘Pirate Pete and his Smelly Feet’ book. There is also a photo of my Gran when she was young. The framed pictures are by Natasha Rimmington from our ‘Gecko’s Echo’ book and Laura Hughes from our first book ‘The Birthday Invitation.’

GARRY PARSONS: I work from home and use the biggest room in the house to illustrate in. It’s bright, quiet and overlooks the trees of Nunhead cemetery. I have enough room to spread my work out across the desks in the middle or space for the kids to draw or do their school work, so during lockdown it’s been busy. It’s quite cluttered but it’s ordered and everything I need is to hand.

JANE CLARKE: I'm lucky to have plenty of room. Currently, the most important things are my granddaughter's art work and the yoga mat on the floor in the foreground for Zoom yoga sessions. The 'don't panic' sign is always a good reminder :-)

CHITRA SOUNDAR: I moved the armchair sofa from living room to study during quarantine so I can read and write here and my desk stand allows me to stand while writing and editing. 

My own creative den is rather more temporary and portable at the moment. Sometimes on the sofa, in the garden or on my bed! Being a Mum and fulltime primary school teacher means that I have learned to work pretty much anywhere. Even traffic jams! But given the choice, my dens are always flexible, comfortable and relaxing. I like to have a blanket and to put my feet up… anything that tricks my brain into thinking I’m not actually working! Nature, as well as music, helps to transport me into a sort of meditative, mindful state where I can immerse myself in my imagination. 



My husband is building his own den… but he’s agreed to let me commandeer a small corner! I do wonder whether I’ll find it too much ‘pressure’ to write at a desk, but it will be nice to have a place to keep my things and a more permanent writing space.

Both on a physical and emotional level, dens offer us protection, a place to call our own, and escape from the outside word. We all want, even need, a little place to escape, to recharge, to feel inspired, but just like us, those places are all different and varied. 

Now my children ask; 

'Can we come in the grown ups den when it's finished?'

We'll have to see about that! 

Now it’s over to you! 

Do you have a den? What is it like? Is it permanent ? Temporary? What’s inside? And what do you use it for?

We look forward to hearing about them!

Clare is the author of fiction and non-fiction picture books and early readers. She is passionate about using creativity and the arts to promote a love of learning and emotional well-being. Her newest book, with Asa Gilland and Little Tiger Press, is about her personal exeprience with cancer and about seeking ‘shelter’ in difficult times. 

‘The Perfect Shelter’ publishes on 25th June and can be pre-ordered here:

Clare is represented by Alice Williams of Alice Williams Literary.