Monday 26 October 2020



We all know that writing is tough. Really tough. Sometimes it’s a wonder why we keep putting ourselves through it, which got me thinking… why do we?

The science behind what happens when we write and partake in writing activities is actually quite fascinating. Our brains and bodies are constantly undergoing complex chemical processes that we can modify with simple, daily actions.  As it turns out, being part of the writing community releases lots of happy chemicals into our brains, which make us feel good and are good for us, too.

Let’s dig a little deeper.


Dopmaine is known as the reward chemical. When you sign a deal, hit a word count target, or finish a draft you receive a pleasurable hit of dopamine in your brain that tells you you’ve done a good job. This is why it is important to set SMART targets for yourself and celebrate little wins. No matter how big or small, when you complete a task the dopamine is released and the chemical does its ‘feel good’ job.

You can also get a dose of dopamine when you perform self-care tasks or acts of kindness toward others. Volonteering has been shown to increase dopamine as well as having other long-term health benefits. So those of you who volunteered to be mentors in the Write Mentor Agent Showcase, or who volunteer for roles in organisations like SCBWI, will be receiving a dollop of happiness thanks to dopamine. See? Your generosity and kindness goes a long way!


Oxytocin is known as the love hormone. You can get it by playing with a dog or a baby, but also from giving a compliment. It helps us adapt to emotional and social situations and contributes to us feeling close and bonded with others. The writing community is a wonderful place – if you’re a part of it, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Oxytocin is the reason why it feels good to tell an author or illustrator you loved their book, to wish them well on publication day or to post a review telling them all the reasons you LOVE their work. Yes, it’s as easy as that! A dose of this happy hormone is released just by you being kind  and thoughtful to another person.

Oxytocin is important for us, too. It helps us form trusted relationships with our peers, which in turn supports us to take risks and stay resilient in the face of challenges – of which, of course, there are many in the writing world.



Serotonin is a mood stabilizer. We can get it from exposure to sunlight and in activities such as walking and swimming.

If you’re a creative who likes to take outdoor ‘troubleshooting’ breaks, to think on a problem or solve a plot hole, the serotonin that is released will also be helping to improve your mood.

Is anyone else a creative napper? If I’m struggling to find a way forward, I often close my eyes and take a short daytime nap where I dream about my story or character. Not only does a nap boost my energy levels, a creative nap can also help me connect with my subconscious, which is great if you believe you already have all the answers to those pesky plot holes somewhere in your brain! Serotonin rewards us when we part-take in mediation-type activities, so you’ll also get a burst of happiness chemicals as well as feeling energised and inspired, too!


Endorphins are known as the pain killing chemical because they release a brief sense of euphoria that masks physical pain. Laughter and exercise are two simple ways of increasing your endorphins, which have been linked to relieving the effects of anxiety and depression.

When it comes to writing, if you’re working on a comedy or writing a funny scene and making yourself laugh, you’ll be activating a good dose of endorphins. Reading funny books will also boost your happy hormones. In a race, endorphins help you ‘power through,’ pushing harder and further to achieve your goals. So, as well as making you feel good, endorphins will be helping you stay motivated on your writing journey – which let’s face it, can be a bit of a marathon!


So, it turns out there’s a whole lot more to a writer's happiness than just the book deals! Together these four happiness chemicals create desirable brain states and feelings, that make us feel good, and keeping us coming back to writing again and again, despite the many challenges it brings. They're pretty good for our health, too. 


Now you understand how writing affects your feel-good hormones, you might be able to trigger them more often!


So, what are you going to write today?

A blog? A journal? A letter? A chapter of your WIP? Some poetry or free writing? Perhaps you’re going to take a creative nap, take a brisk walk or write a review for a book you enjoyed recently.

Whatever it is… enjoy!_+

You can read more about ‘Happiness Chemicals and How to Hack Them’ here.

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. Clare also works as a Write Mentor tutor, is the Write Mentor Picture Book Writer in Residence (2021) and offers a manuscript critique service and 7 week Picture Book Course.
Clare is represented by Alice Williams of Alice Williams Literary

Monday 12 October 2020

How to Become a Picture Book Idea Catcher by CHITRA SOUNDAR

Over the last few weeks, PBDenners have been talking about different topics that relate to the picture book world. From end papers to book launches, talking consent or children who are at a loss for words, there is a treasure trove of topics you can dip into. 

This week I want go back to basics. Perhaps because I’m between projects and my mind is subconsciously searching for the next idea for a picture book. 

I recently watched a clip in which Neil Gaiman answers an audience question about where you get your ideas from. 

I loved his answer for so many reasons. First, this is a question everyone asks when they meet a writer – be it a school visit or at a cocktail party. Secondly, he thinks it through in real time, talking as he thinks and while the answer is never clear cut, he lays out a few fundamentals that are useful for all writers too. Go watch it. 

With the pandemic raging across the world, and most of us stuck inside our homes, gathering ideas has become more of an indoor activity – at least for me. 

So, when ideas flutter by, identify them, acknowledge them and file them for later. Ideas do grow and find other ideas to relate to. It’s like when you consciously look for red cars, all you can see on the road are red cars. When you see a glimmer of an idea, things that be compatible to that idea will attract your attention. You will notice things that you would have otherwise ignored. 

But if you’re new to this idea-catching skill, you might need some help in the beginning until your own subconscious can take over. 

Here are six tips to help you become a picture book idea-catcher.

1. Read loads of picture books. 

This is totally obvious and yet most new writers I meet haven’t read that many books or haven’t books relating to the idea or type of story, they are working on. Read more contemporary picture books – perhaps published in the last 10 years or so.

2. Read baby development books.

If you haven’t been near a baby / child/ toddler / pre-schooler in the last few years, chances are you need reminding on their behaviours. What can they do at which months / years and what they cannot do at certain ages. Not just physically, but emotionally and cognitively. Many of these books will tell you about the children’s fears, behaviours and about what they find interesting. 

3. Look for words that children would love to say.

Look for words that children might want to repeat. Or even phrases. Find funny sounding words. I’m not saying it will lead to a story directly. But it will definitely inspire ideas. 

4. Write five What-if Statements every day.

In your journal / writing notebook / laptop wherever you’re comfortable, imagine five age-appropriate what-if imaginings. 

What if a turkey were to sing… and such…

This is a brainstorming activity and is very useful for exhausting what's on the shallow top layer of your brain and slowly dig into the ideas that lie beneath the surface.

Ever so often one of those sentences might spark a story – open a new document or turn a page and start writing. 

5. Read fairy tales and folk tales. 

Firstly just for the joy of enduring stories. But secondly to see how some of those fairy tales might work out today. Or are there parallels in some stories to real life?

6. Read an encyclopaedia 

A visual one if you have it. But when you read it, read it like a child. What would a child find fascinating and now can you see a story in any of those fascinating topics? 

Becoming an idea-catcher is a lifelong vocation. Start now and see how your little idea notebooks fill up. And every few months or so, go back and read your ideas notebook and see which ideas have found each other and will work great in the same story.

Good luck with your idea-catching!

Chitra Soundar is an internationally published, award-winning author of over 40 books for children. She is also an oral storyteller with a loud voice. She also writes trade fiction, non-fiction, poetry and theatre. Find out more at Follow her on twitter  @csoundar

Monday 5 October 2020

Express YourSHELF for National Libraries Week


National Libraries Week kicks off today to celebrate the role of libraries in the UK’s book culture and promote libraries as “spaces for reading, engagement, learning and creativity.”


When did you last visit the library? Do you remember a school or class library from your childhood? If you have children, did you go to the bounce and rhyme times? Or maybe the library is a place where you go to work and think, meet people, or even learn a new skill. People come into the library for all kinds of reasons, including searching for elusive bits of information and archive materials.  

“Libraries offer a safe space, providing access to digital & online learning, helping to combat loneliness and having a positive impact on people’s lives.” – Arts Council for England


Research shows that there is a correlation between getting families reading and children enjoying stories with them doing better at school and doing better in life. So, how can libraries engage children?


In More than a House of Books", a Podcast commissioned by the Arts Council for England, Sarah Mears (Library Services Manager, Essex County Council. Former chair of the Association of Senior Children's and Education Librarians) stressed that the most important thing is the welcome they receive at the door.


The library needs to be “ . . . an exciting and vibrant space that attracts children. It's light, it's airy, it's colourful. There are lots of things that engage them. Activities for them to do, interesting technology that they may have not experienced in their own homes. But I think most importantly, it's still the books. Children love reading for pleasure and they love being inspired to read new titles, new authors.”


Today, libraries aren’t places of where librarians go ‘shhh!’; instead they are vibrant community hubs where authors, illustrators and storytellers visit, arts & crafts clubs meet, music and theatre activities inspire the imagination, and poetry groups perform.


Regrettably, many libraries are closing, but some – such as the new Manchester Library, which has soundproofed music area, and the Birmingham Library, with its roof gardens ­­- are being imaginatively re-purposed and re-thought to inspire the next generation to use the space to engage people both with reading and digital skills.”

Libraries are filled with wonderful new contemporary books to explore, and dedicated, knowledgeable librarians who are thrilled to help you. You can check out a whole pile of books to explore new ideas, discover and re-read favourite authors & illustrators, and even learn new skills. If something doesn’t resonate, I love that the books come with no strings attached – you can simply return them and check out some more – for free!


As part of the campaign for National Libraries Week, six SCBWI authors were invited to participate in CILIP’s Express YourSHELF campaign and make a video about the books that influenced us.


For me, books are like friends, so choosing favourites was tricky!  


You can see the videos here at midday each day this week.


And YOU can join in too! Express yourSHELF by sharing some books that shaped YOUR world by snapping a pic of your book shelves, too, and posting on social media with hashtag #ExpressYourshelf


The thing about libraries is they are there for all stages of your life and for the whole family:


In lower school, I went to the library at break time to hang out with the books and magazines, and choose new ones; I even made library cards for the small shelf of books I owned at home (mostly birthday presents sent by my grandmother who lived in England).


The EARJ lower school library had a lovely central area
where we could read beneath the colourful papier maché elephant

In high school, I spent most of my lunch times in the library eating my sandwich on the sly while hanging out with my friends (we weren’t allowed to eat in the library). In those days, you went to the library after school and in class to look stuff up in the Encyclopedias; reference books couldn’t leave the reading room because they had to be on hand for all students to use for research. Strange, now we can ask Google everything!


Now, I go to my local library almost every week to get a pile of bedtime reading, to see what’s new in picture books and check out nonfiction kids’ books for research. 

A pile of TRUE story picture books to pore over

There is something comforting about being amongst all those book friends, the promise of a story or a new idea or a-ha moment. You never know – until you get home and crack open the covers – whether it’s the right book for you, but it’s ever so exciting!


I asked some fellow Picture Book Den authors to share some stories of how libraries have influenced their lives, too:


Lucy Rowland


    “I remember my primary school library the best – a calm quiet space where we would be taken in small groups to borrow beautiful books. It was also used as a spill-over learning area so we had some of our most exciting lessons in there - music lessons, a craft workshop, a puppet show performance. For that reason, the library always felt like a rather special place!” 


Jane Clarke


    “As I child, I loved Kettering's town library. I'd rush up the steps, dash into the children's section, scoop up armfuls of books, then retire to a quiet corner to sit on the floor and decide which to take home. When I discovered new series, there were nerve-racking moments - would the title I had set my heart on be on the shelf - or had it already been borrowed? Oh, the joy if it was there!”


Jane Clarke entertains her library audience with a science activity

Clare Helen Welsh


Clare Helen Welsh enthralls her young audience


    “I don't actually remember visiting the library as a child, which is a huge shame. I'm sure we did and that it's just my foggy memory, but I vividly remember taking my classes to the library as part of my job as primary school teacher. The informal visits provided the opportunity to pore over worlds and characters, words and pictures. The times we went to meet visiting authors, illustrators and storytellers were just as memorable. I'm certain they inspired the children and they definitely inspired me. I now have the outrageous privilege of writing stories that live on those shelves, and delivering story sessions just like the ones I watched


Craft activities with author Clare Helen Welsh

I wonder if I would have had the courage to make the step from teacher to writer, had it not been for the possibilities the library gave me. Of course, in these increasingly challenging times the battle is keeping libraries open and keeping them alive. But we must - a library is so much more than library.”


Pippa Goodhart

     “When my children were little, a visit to the library was the treat at the end of the weekly shop. I think a lot of people find the huge number of books on shelves in libraries daunting, and don’t know where to begin with choosing. Children just find the right shelves and get stuck in! But we do need expert librarians onhand to help pair the right child with the right book at the right time, especially with those books that might comfort or inspire or enlighten at particular moments in a child’s life. Or an adult’s life, come to that!

Pippa’s daughter as a child blissfully combining reading a book (from a library -

see the spine!) with a kitten, and her now as a grown-up, reading to baby her son.


I love using libraries now, at least in non-Covid times. I borrow armloads of books, but I also like them as places to work. Being surrounded by books and other people, heads down as they work, somehow helps me to focus better than I sometimes can at home.”



Gareth P. Jones


    “The Summer Reading Challenge is one of the best things that libraries do. Each year, libraries around the country encourage children to keep reading through the summer. As an author I’ve had my books selected for several lists (my Dragon Detective series formed part of this year’s Silly Squad), and I’ve appeared at libraries up and down the country to hand out certificates, celebrate reading and shake the hands of local mayors (shaking hands - remember that?).


2020 Summer Reading Challenge

But my most positive experience was when my son did the challenge. He had to sit down and talk to a librarian about each book he had read, telling her what he had enjoyed about it and what he had taken away from the book.


Gareth P Jones plays the uke and Steve May pens the pictures

Many politicians think that libraries are old fashioned and irrelevant, but when you have seen first-hand how they bring communities together and the positive effects they have on children’s (and the nation’s) reading habits then it makes you want to scream #SaveLibraries from the top of the tallest library.”



And here's a pile of picture books on one of my shelves. There are others around the house . . . As I've said, they are my friends.  


But I'm always looking for more -











 Do you have a library story? Share it with us!


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