Sunday 31 January 2021

Everything Takes So Much Time by Gareth P Jones

I’ve been trying to write a new picture book recently. It’s not going very well as I’m stuck on a rhyme for disco. 

I used to have a driving instructor who ended every lesson with the words, “Well, you don’t learn something every lesson, do you?” By the fourth or fifth lesson, he was still saying it but it wasn’t true. I had learned how to start and stop - and even steer a bit, but to listen to this guy you’d think I was still stalling every time I stopped.  

After that, I found a more encouraging driving instructor, but I still think about this first one. I’m not saying that I hear my driving instructor’s voice, but it is very much his tone – and his sense of frustration – that is whispered inside my head in those moments of self-doubt that come with the territory of being a writer. And a human being.

Writing is frustrating and I find picture books especially daunting. When I sit down to write one, I often feel as though I have no idea how to go about it. 

One of the reasons I’ve never really fancied teaching creative writing to adults is that I’ve always felt that it would require confidence and certainty about process and style, whereas I often feel like an idiot scrabbling around for words that rhyme with ‘disco’. San Francisco? This Bow? Miss Snow?  

And yet, children’s authors are required to act as ambassadors for reading and writing in a way that other writers are not. We are frequently asked for writing tips, or to run writing workshops in schools. Over the years I have learned to separate the two parts of myself. I think of it as the writer & the author. So even if the writer has spent all morning staring glumly at a collection of terrible rhymes for ‘disco’, the author can still stand in front a whole school assembly and hand out writing tips.

Not that I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. With everything so up in the air, it’s no wonder that school visits have dwindled. This has obviously financial implications but, equally, it can affect my emotional well-being. I miss the inspiration I draw from children.

So when my mum suggested I try running an online creative course for kids this year, I really liked the idea. I liked that it was generating work - rather than sitting around waiting for it to come to me. I liked the idea of assembling a bunch of enthusiastic young writers. And I liked the idea that I could create a regular source of inspiration. 

Finding the students involved a bit of social media advertising but, since I wanted to keep the classes quite small for each session, I did manage to fill the last month with two hour-long sessions every week with some brilliantly inventive 8-12 year olds. I love the immediacy and easy humour of these meetings. Last week, in under an hour, we plotted an epic saga about a mouse who lived in a world where animals kept humans pets, but who had to venture into the underground lair of the humans to defeat a rebellious leader. Why? Because the humans were quite literally revolting! It does me the world of good to have these courses to look forward to every week. 

Getting a book out of your head and into a reader’s hands can take a painfully long time so, if that’s your job, it’s worthwhile finding things that spark your creative self – and which take less time. It’s the same reason I make little recordings of songs online (#PirateJukeBox). They’re never note perfect but they allow me to connect with the outside world, they require a bit of creative thinking and they don’t take very long. 

It has been five years since I had a picture book published. Five years! 

Thankfully, I have three of them coming out this year - including Rabunzel, illustrated by the super talented Loretta Schauer. 

It’s going to be a busy year, finding ways to publicise this book without the usual possibility of schools and festivals, but I will continue to apply my creative thinking to the matter of spreading the word about books. 

I also know there will be times ahead in my career when things quieten down and my driving instructor will pop up to moan at me again. To keep him quiet, I will continue to search for things that keep me feeling creative, connected and as though I am learning and moving forward. 

Kiss though… Wish flow… 

Actually, maybe disco shouldn’t be a rhyming word after all.

Gareth P Jones is the author of over 40 children's books. His new picture book Rabunzel is the story of a long eared rabbit who gets locked up in a high hutch by her overprotective mother. It's published this month by Egmont books. Check out the theme tune here.


Monday 18 January 2021

The 10 things I really wanted to know about writing Rhyming Picture Books – by Catherine Emmett

Happy New Year, Picture Book lovers!

We’re starting the New Year as we mean to go on, launching ourselves into the nitty gritty of what makes a rhyming picture book really sing.

Many authors begin their picture book journey writing in rhyme, me included, maybe because some of our most favourite books are written in verse. A dynamic and flawless rhyme is an absolute joy to read.

However, along the way, lots of us get put off writing in rhyme when we realise that it’s harder than it looks, and that the industry standard is really very high.

We invited super star rhyming picture book author, Catherine Emmett, to discuss what she wished she had always known about rhyme. Catherine is the author of King of The Swamp, illustrated by Ben Mantle, which stormed into 2020 despite being released during the pandemic. Catherine’s next picture book illustrated by David Tazzyman, ‘The Pet; Cautionary Tales for Parents and Children,’ is also in rhyme and is set to be another huge success. 

Without any further ado, let’s hear from Catherine!

The 10 things I always wanted to know about writing Rhyming Picture Books

It’s easy to forget as a writer, when you have a lovely network of writerly friends and helpful writer groups, just how hard it is to FIND STUFF OUT when you first start writing.  Back in the beginning I had SO many questions, and NO ONE to ask.

Like, ‘Why, when so many rhyming picture books are in bookshops, does everyone say that no one wants rhyming picture books texts?’.

And, ‘Do I REALLY need to worry about stressed syllables?’.

So, here it is - my gift to my former, friendless self!  These are the 10 things that I really wanted to know when I started off writing rhyming picture books - but had no idea how to find out…

1 – Why does everyone say that agents and publishers don’t like rhyming texts, when there are so many rhyming picture books getting published?

I wondered this so much when I started out. The answer seems to be that no one wants BAD RHYME.  And sometimes agents or publishers would rather see no rhyme at all, rather than wade through piles of bad rhyme.   

One of the main reasons for agents turning down rhyming picture books texts is because the rhyme - and especially the metre - aren’t strong enough.  The answer is to get GOOD at rhyming.  Learn about metre, practice and get really fluent with it.


2 – What is a co-edition?

Compared to most books, picture books are expensive to print because of all the full colour illustrations.  To make things work financially, publishers like to have other foreign publishers buy the book to sell in their own territories (and in their own languages).  These ‘co-editions’ can help making printing picture books more cost-effective.


3 - Will a rhyming Picture Book sell any co-editions?

There is always discussion about whether rhyming picture books will sell co-editions.  The concern is that it is difficult to translate rhyming stories into other languages.  I have certainly had a PB turned down for being so reliant on rhyme that it would ‘only have UK appeal’.  However, if you have a strong enough STORY, then co-editions do happen. 

4 – Should I worry about regional accents?

Yes! The problem with the UK is that so many different regions pronounce words in different ways.  

What rhymes for someone in Newcastle, does not necessarily rhyme for someone in London.  Ignore this at your peril!  You don’t want to write a book that only works for half of the country.  I know of at least one editor who sometimes reads through submissions in a Scottish accent to check this! Find yourself a friend from the opposite end of the country and if the words don’t rhyme for them, then AVOID.


5 – Do I really need to worry about metre / stressed syllable patterns?

First up, what is metre?  Metre is your pattern of stressed syllables. When writing picture books, you need to make sure that the stressed syllables in the words that you use fit your metre pattern.  If you aren’t sure what a stressed syllable is, then check out my blog here:

Now, do you need to care about it?  In my view, yes, ABSOLUTELY.  It’s incredibly difficult to write a smoothly rhyming book and it’s even harder if you don’t understand the building blocks that you are using.


6 – What sort of metre should I use?

Not only did I used to wonder about this, I’ve also been asked this a lot by other writers, so I decided to do a bit of research into what the most common metre patterns are in published books.

Finding this sort of information for the whole market seems to be impossible, so I used my kids’ bookshelves as a proxy for the market. There were 207 books of which 79 were rhymers and 128 prose, suggesting that the rhymers make up about 38% of the market (or my sample set at least).


For the purposes of the below:

S = stressed syllable

U = unstressed syllable


Of the rhymers, about a third had 11 syllables per line and used a metre pattern where there were two unstressed syllables in between each stressed syllable.   This was the most common metre pattern. (u/s/u/u/s/u/u/s/u/u/s). As an example:


“The swamp was quite dark and the swamp was quite dank,

And due to the mud the swamp rea-lly quite stank

-          ‘King of the Swamp’ by Catherine Emmett and Ben Mantle


Approximately 20% had 14 syllables per line (or split across 2 lines) with an alternating stressed syllable pattern – i.e. where each stressed syllable alternated with one unstressed syllable (u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s).  As an example:


“I told the vet a-bout my pet, he said that I was right,

She has to change her col-our, to stay safe and out of sight.”

-          ‘My Colourful Chameleon’ by Leonie Roberts and Mike Byrne


Just over 10% of the books used an 8-beat line with the same alternating stressed syllable pattern – i.e. where each stressed syllable alternated with one unstressed syllable (u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s).  As an example:


“When Da-ddy made it home that night

He’d ne-ver wit-nessed such a sight”

-          ‘The Pet – Cautionary Tales for grown Ups and Children’ by Catherine Emmett and David Tazzyman


Just under 10% varied their syllable count per row, for example, 3 rows of 8 beats and the one of 11 beats.

Just over a quarter of the sample had a metre pattern that varied throughout the story.  It’s worth noting that this was skewed because a large number of these were Julia Donaldson’s books, which often use a varying metre pattern (see ‘The Highway Rat’ for a good example of this).


7 - Do some words always get stressed?

Stressed words can vary depending on the context.  Usually the ‘bigger, more important’ words are always stressed, but the smaller ‘in-between words’ might or might not be stressed, depending on the context.

I find writing the sentence out in prose can really help with this, as can asking someone else to read it out.  Actually - my best tip is to find a ‘new reader’.   My confident reading 6yr old will easily pick-up good metre and really shows up where metre isn’t right.


8 – Should I vary the rhythm or syllable count to keep things interesting?

I personally think this depends how your mind works.  I think if you are of a more musical persuasion you might naturally think more in ‘verses’ and different patterns of rhyming.  For me (someone who is not musical at all!) I stick to a constant pattern.  Ultimately, I think it comes down to your story and what your story needs – let the story lead the rhyme.


9 – Should I include a comma or pause in my syllable count?

Controversial.  This in entirely up to you… …but I don’t.  Having looked through my sample set, I would say that the books which I read most smoothly tended not to do this, whereas the ones that I have tripped over in the past sometimes do include this.  I suspect that this might be different for other people though - I’d love to hear your views. 


10 – Should I include a repeated refrain?

Of the sample I looked at, very few had a strict repeated refrain, though about a quarter had some form of repeated structure.  A lot of those with a repeated structure were by Julia Donaldson and again possibly reflect her songwriter background. 

In deciding whether it works for you, again, I’d focus on the story. If your story lends itself to a repeated verse then great, but there’s no need to include one otherwise.  Your story should lead your rhyme, not the other way around. 

So that’s it! The 10 things that I really wanted to know when I started writing rhyming picture books, but didn’t know how to find out.   

I hope this has been useful, if you have any more questions then come find me on Twitter at @emmett_cath or drop me a line via my website

Happy rhyming!


Wow! What a wonderfully thorough look at metre, rhyme and why it matters. Thank you so much, Catherine, for sharing your research and experience with us at Picture Book Den. And to those of you among us writing in rhyme or thinking about it, we very much hope this guest post leaves you informed and inspired!

Bio: Catherine grew up in Newcastle Upon Tyne and spent all of her childhood reading books. When she grew up, she spent fourteen years making spreadsheets and not reading any books at all. After advising a group of young girls to find a career that they loved, she decided to take her own advice. She packed up her husband and her three young boys, moved to rural Essex and started to write picture books.  
She now spends her days surrounded by words, animals and noisy boys. When she needs a bit of peace and quiet, she can be found running (very slowly) across muddy fields.

 Bio: Clare Helen Welsh is the author of over 4- fiction and non-fiction texts, either published or in press, including picture books and early readers. She runs a 7 week picture book course for Write Mentor and is a Writer-in-Residence for 2021. Find out more here: 


Tuesday 12 January 2021

Our window of tolerance: how do we cope in lockdown no. 3 by Juliet Clare Bell


Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year. He is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety. Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in. Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This new day is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on the yesterdays.


Great words from Ralph Waldo Emerson, but how do we possibly keep this positive -and preferably creative, too-  as writers and illustrators in the new lockdown?

This isn’t a blogpost full of my amazing lockdown secrets of success. Like many people, I’ve barely coped with much of it. But I asked a few friends, writers and children what had helped them, and I’m determined to steal anyone’s suggestions if they work (I’m hoping you might leave what’s working for you in the comments). So here are some tips from others -and me- which I hope might be useful.

And after one of those difficult days, when we feel we could have done it very differently, we can at least wake up the following morning and “not to be cumbered with my old nonsense of yesterday”…

Someone recently introduced me to Dan Siegel (a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA)'s Window of Tolerance. It's the optimal zone of arousal in which each of us is able to function and thrive (see the diagram below). Environmental changes (amongst other things) can push us out of that window into hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal, and for many of us, we've been pushed into one or other (or both) in response to the fear surrounding the pandemic. There's a useful, short article on people's Window of Tolerance in relation to the current pandemic climate: you can read the article here


And there's a really clear video (though six minutes’ long) on what a window of tolerance is and how to get back into your window here:



Pre-covid, I think I had a reasonably large window of tolerance within which I operated in quite a calm, effective way:

Relatively large window of tolerance

During the pandemic, that window has shrunk considerably:

considerably smaller window of tolerance...

Many of us would like to get our larger windows of tolerance back and here are a few of the ways we might do it…


Just to make clear, being positive or productive doesn’t have to mean our usual level of positive or productive. It might just be more than you’ve managed in a while, or better than yesterday, or just anything at all… It’s important to be kind to ourselves and others and to remember that for many of us (see the red writing):


 For an interesting, short read from Mars Vista on the pandemic seen through Maslow's hierarchy of needs, click here:

I really find that letting go of days that haven’t gone well (a la Ralph Waldo Emerson) has helped. Fellow PB Denner, Natascha Biebow says on being kind to yourself: “You might not be able to write or illustrate as much as you'd like during these times, but maybe you can read or snatch a moment to daydream ideas whilst doing a chore. Often, I find myself challenging my brain to solve a plot problem or figure out another story quandary in the minutes before I fall asleep. It's something!”. 

Take those somethings!

YA author, Olivia Levez, provided lots of practical tips for staying positive but also says: “On days I’m feeling a bit low, I coddle myself as if I’m my own child, with snuggly blankets, hot water bottle and cosy socks, my comfiest clothes, an indulgent bath”. Things she avoids: waking up to newsfeed, catastrophising, being relentless with goals, tasks, targets, and things that help: listening to birdsong, saying, ‘I’m feeling x’ instead of ‘I’m x’, writing negatives on one page of a journal and turning them into positives on the other. And when fellow PB Denner Jane Clarke’s creativity “goes awol, I turn to jigsaws until it returns”.

One of our Christmas jigsaws, and we did finally find the missing piece (in case it was bothering you)...

Be kind. We need to have basic needs met before we can feel as creative as we might want to. In these extraordinary times, many people's safety and other basic needs are not being met and we may not always be able to create as we would like. But in case you’d like to try…


Most people mentioned how having a structure helped them. One child always writes down what she plans to do the following day before she goes to bed. She writes it on a fresh piece of paper each night, rather than in a notebook, so that each piece of paper feels like a new day (very Ralph Waldo Emerson!).  

YA author, Olivia Levez, also finds that: “structure helps. I curate my day to give plenty of treats between writing sessions: yoga, hot chocolate and biscuits, a walk with a friend.” One of my daughters and I have started going out for a half-hour walk before coming home for school/work and it’s lifted our spirits and started the day feeling energised and ready for it.

I've been surprised, but really pleased, to find that this first week of school lockdown has actually been productive. I’ve been struggling to feel motivated for a while now, but with the children working hard in their rooms all day with live lessons, I’m actually finding it easier to be focused than when they were at school last term. Not wanting to slack off whilst they can’t has really motivated me.


Our local SCBWI group used to have a write-in once a week. We’d meet together somewhere (usually at mine), and just write together. Clearly we can’t do that anymore (although the children have been a bit of a proxy for that), but it’s possible to recreate it to some extent online. Early on during the first lockdown, I did some online write-ins with fellow picture book writers from my local SCBWI group. We’d log in on zoom, say hello and what we were planning on writing, and then just write. I could look up and see them writing away and they could see me. Sometimes it’s easier to stay writing when someone can see what you’re doing! After a bit writing slump, I think I’m ready to start doing it again. If you haven’t tried it, it’s worth a go…


Jane says “I live on my own and online meetings are keeping me going… [and the] meet ups with fellow authors and children’s poets keep creativity ticking over as we set each other small writing challenges every week”.

Every time I meet online with other writers I remember how much it sustains me. In a normal year, I’d see writers in person most weeks, have monthly local meetings, weekends away in small groups of writers I know well, and in bigger groups of writers I know less well. These events are such an important part of my life. I live with three teenage children whom I adore, but spending proper time away with adults is so important, and surrounding myself with writers is great for writing but also for the inspiration and energising. I forget so quickly how important it is (because I’m thinking of practical day-to-day things for the family) but talking to other writers on video calls regularly, whether it’s one to one or in a group is a great way to feel positive. And I know we still have to wait for it, but we’ve started talking tentatively about writing weekends away later in the year when it’s ok again. It’s still a way away but just talking about it makes it feel real and gives us something to look forward to.

Online SCBWI nonfiction conference which was really stimulating...


Natascha says: “I've recently re-connected with my critique group and we've decided to make each other accountable by meeting every month and sharing our work. Having a friendly group or even just another person to help you focus and spur you along is very encouraging. (If you don't have a critique group, I'd recommend joining the SCBWI for a supportive and welcoming community)”.

Like Natascha, making myself accountable to someone else really helps me keep going. I’m very fortunate to have a brilliant accountability partner, fellow picture book author Rebecca Colby, and we meet weekly online. We’re discussing something that’s really important to both of us, and I always come away feeling more inspired, even if I’ve not got much done.


Maybe have a go at a different kind of art. Children's author Mo O'Hara says: “I have discovered that writing books is not my only way to be creative. I’ve written poems and songs and loved it!  I’m also allowing myself to be  interested in exploring drawing and crafts too.  I’ve always been too scared of being terrible  to try but thanks to extra time in Lockdown and the ‘Zero f***s ‘ to give attitude that comes after 50 I have decided to let myself have a go even if it turns out I am terrible.  Who will ever know?!!!”



Most people I asked talked about exercise, including yoga (both online and alone). I’ve just started my first ever online yoga course and even though I never ‘got’ yoga before, it’s working for me now. If you’re like me and need more motivation than normal, you could try doing it with a friend (it really helps that mine’s run by my sister-in-law and I know some of the other people doing it).

I also copied my accountability partner and got an exercise bike with a laptop table on it

 which means I can cycle during our accountability sessions, phone calls or watching any zoom events that don’t require my looking or sounding professional

I have yet to learn the art of looking calm and professional whilst pedalling...

And I copied my sisters and got a fitbit! Prior to the first lockdown, I’d hardly done any exercise (apart from countless school runs for years) in twenty years, so that’s definitely something positive I’ll take from this… (I’ll take all the positives where I can!). And we’re even doing some Just Dance (which I’m terrible at but is lots of fun).


Most writers I spoke with talked about the importance of nature for them.

Mo O’Hara says “I am making myself go for long walks” (note the making myself. It’s the same with me. I have to make myself because I don’t generally want to. That’s where structure works for me. Anyway, Mo continues:

"Connecting with nature is a great way to re-centre yourself… I had no idea there were soooooo many parakeets in London parks!!!!” 

Surely no parakeets here, Mo?

But look more closely...

There really are!!!

I also discovered the same in my local park in Birmingham (where do all those parakeets come from)?!

(anyone else reminded of Cockatoos, here?)

(c) Quentin Blake, Cockatoos

Jane also goes for regular walks: “seeing nature continuing and even flourishing through all this is uplifting”.

This tree on our terraced block never fails to lift my spirits

When we had snow on Friday morning of last week, we knew it might be our only chance so we left the house in the dark and took the sledges to a local park and the children sledged quickly before coming home, eating breakfast and starting school at 8.45am.  

We’re snatching moments more than we would have done because we need that buzz to keep us going. One of my children met up for a five-minute snowball fight (socially distanced, of course) with her school friend and neighbour during breaktime. I love the spontaneity for joyful activities and it’s a brilliant reminder to me, too, to enjoy unexpected things.

a random sundial on a walk...

And specifically thinking of creativity, something that’s quick and structured (it happens every day in January) which is great for boosting creativity is:


I’ve been doing Storystorm and its predecessor, PiBoIdMo (created by the wonderful Tara Lazar) for years now. If you’re struggling to feel creative, there’s a daily blogpost that encourages you to come up with a new idea every day. I've not started properly yet this year (unlike other years) but I’m hoping that this blogpost will encourage me to practise what I preach. I read my first Storystorm post of the year today (Day 10 as I write) - and not only did it get me thinking creatively –which is nice, I came up with three ideas, and the topic of the post was so relevant to what I’m writing today. It’s just what I needed to hear, with Kirsten Pendreigh finding joy in the journey. She was talking about process over product and I'd urge you to read the post. It’s just what I needed to hear.

If you’re looking for other ways to get motivated (or re-motivated with your story) and you’ve been questioning the point of it in this current climate, listen to this short video by Teri Terry, who wrote to herself in the first lockdown to get her back into it:



Mo O’Hara talked about an unexpected positive of covid insomnia: it gives her more time to read! “I’m getting through my ‘To Be Read’ pile much faster because I’m reading more late at night”. But has anyone else been struggling with reading? I was, massively–at least until a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve been really distracted, and wanting distraction (with background noise on all the time). Reading didn’t feel distracting enough, and it was too quiet. So a couple of weeks ago I started with distracting noise in the background, and tried reading again. The joy of writing picture books is that reading picture books is part of the job, so I started by reading a few picture books, then a few more, and within a few days, I was reading children’s novels again, and nonfiction, and a week later, I’m reading Victor E Frankl’s Yes to Life (In spite of everything) which feels extremely relevant at the moment:

Yes to Life (In Spite of Everything) Victor Frankl

And the distracting noise? It only took about five minutes before it go really annoying and I was ok to read in silence. Last night, I put on a yoga Spotify playlist, and that was a great background to reading when I didn’t want silence but wanted something calm. If you’re struggling with reading, I’d really recommend it. It’s helping, creatively, too.


We can look for the small things that make it a bit easier. I’ve bought a really cheerful furry blanket cover for my bed so my work space –which is my bedroom- looks less like a bedroom. But it also doesn’t look like an office. I’ve taken out the desk, and put in a small sofa and some plants so it feels really calm. And it helps!

I’ve also discovered the calmest place in the house –in my daughter’s bedroom:

It's an egg chair that she's filled with blankets and cushions, with fairy lights around it and surrounded by a blanket to block out most light!

And my lovely daughter has kindly allowed me to sit in it and read/reflect.

It has an instant calming effect and I love it

We want to be within our window of tolerance so we can cope with everything that’s going on around us, but also so we can flourish and be creative and help others navigate these difficult times. I hope that some of these suggestions are helpful in expanding your window –if it’s shrunk like mine certainly has- and helping to bring you back into it when you’re pushed out. I’d love to hear what works for you –and any tips you have so please do leave a comment if you can.

Be kind to yourself. This too shall pass. x

Clare is the author of over 35 books, including eight picture books. Her website is

Monday 4 January 2021

Letting Go - The Art of Arranged Picture Book Marriage

Happy New Year to all of you. May 2021 bring us together in joy and wellness. 

As the first Picture Book Den post, I want to start with a new resolution for Picture Book writers. 

Do your best work and then let go.

Allow me to tell you why!

As a picture book writer, I’m dependent on the partnership with an illustrator to bring my book to life. This is usually (unless one of the partners in this relationship commands influence) a mediated relationship. It’s almost like arranged marriage – until the book comes out, the two parties talk through their respective people. While there might be inconsequential bickering or a misunderstood thought like in every arranged marriage, normally both sides are excited for what’s going to happen next – the wedding – the book.

The writer talks to the editor, the illustrator talks to the designer and the editor and the designer bring consensus understanding where the red lines are on each side. I say arranged marriage because often the illustrator is chosen by the publisher’s team – the editor and the designer together. If you’re lucky, they might ask you for an opinion. Just like those old-style arranged marriages in Victorian England. 

As a picture book writer by trade, I’ve long come to understand that the publishing team knows what they are doing – they can visualise the final book (which is why they offered to publish it) and they have an idea of which illustrator will suit. 

There are a number of factors to determine who should illustrate – 

  • the content and the story itself determines the kind of illustrator to choose, 
  • the style of the illustrator for the market they want to sell the book in. The look that appeals to American readers might not be the same as what will appeal to European readership. 
  • And so depending on the marketing and publishing strategy, the designer and editor will come up with their shortlist.
  • Then of course the illustrator needs to be available within the planned timetable and should be willing to illustrate and the terms need to be negotiated.

Once all of that is done, the final choice will be communicated to the writer who will go and look them up on the Internet. Unless there is a press announcement for the book being published, there won’t be a peep until the cover is ready which is normally earlier than the inside pages – so the designer and editor can showcase it around the rights markets – in trade fairs and with internal sales and marketing teams. 

As a writer, this is the first Zen step of letting go. What Buddha said, that. 

What Krishna said in Bhagvad Gita – Do you best work and leave the consequences to the workings of the world. 

That’s the most important thing for all writers, but especially picture book writers (who are not illustrators themselves) to keep in mind.

Let go of that vision in your head when you wrote the story. 

Let go of the preconceptions of how the end-papers will look like or where the spreads are broken. 

Let go of the expectation on how the covers will look or even what the blurb will say.

When you let go, any little role you play during that design and production phase will feel like empowerment.

For example, when I wrote Shubh Diwali – the story is told in the point of view of a child. There is mention of family – but nothing specific. 

Charlene Chua, the amazing illustrator brought it to life – she created the characters in the story, she made them inclusive and she introduced blended families without having to say that in the story. That made the book stronger, inclusive and joyful to more families. 

That is the power of collaboration especially when two (or more) people work separately but on the same thing. 

There is a different kind of joy in working together too – thinking of characters together, coming up with the storyline that will best serve the illustration. That is a different experience, and that doesn’t always happen to all writers in the publishing world. And remember, not all writers and not all illustrators like to work together closely. By nature, many of us create best on our own. We like tinkering in our own spaces before we produce the work. 

The flip side of allowing the writer and illustrator communicate is the spoon-feeding of imagination or the stress of too little or too much control. It doesn’t make sense for the writer to point out unnecessary things like the coat on the character should be red and I think there will be three cars parked on the street. Unless it’s critical to the story (in which case you will have either included it in the text or in the illustration notes [used sparingly]), the illustrator must be able to imagine the story in their own mind and come up with their art.

There are of course a few caveats:

a) There are stories that are drawn from real life – either of someone or the author. So, it makes sense that in those cases, the writer is able to provide visual references. Without cramping the artists’ style, the writer can guide the illustrator with the source material.

b) Stories that are culturally specific – when writing stories from a specific culture – it’s important to keep the details as authentic as possible. For example, when Frané Lessac illustrated Pattan’s Pumpkin, I was allowed to look at the roughs. I shared all of my research with the team but Frané too did a zillion % research on her own.

c) The market place – sometimes there might be a reason why something can or cannot be portrayed in a picture book (either in words or pictures) and that could dictate how the final look comes about. 

When you let go, you’re often surprised. 

When I wrote You’re Safe With Me, I had imagined (to my limited knowledge of art), a different style. 

But when Poonam Mistry tackled the story in her style, she earned herself a place in the Kate Greenaway Medal shortlist. Not only that, children love her art. If you had asked me four years ago if children will enjoy a book busy and full of intricate drawings that adults love, I would have said no. But I’m a convert – children love the intricate art, the details they can find each time they read, and the mirage of images that makes them work hard to find the full picture. 

When I write a story, in my head, there is usually a running movie. I write down what I see . I read aloud the words numerous times. Every edit is read aloud and every beat is checked. Even when not in rhyme. That story I imagined in my head, is just that. Then the editor reads the story and they imagine it while they read. Then the designer does the same thing. Then a big idea in broad strokes is sent to the illustrator with the text and they wait to see what the illustrator comes up with. 

That’s like the suspense of the arranged marriage, isn't it? What will you discover on the day of the wedding? How beautiful will it be? 

Some of you will wonder if I ever get to communicate with my illustrator? Yes and no. Often as a writer I don’t get to meet my illustrator unless they live in the same city or country. Sometimes we find ways to connect via video chats or emails. Most often I meet my illustrators (if at all) after the book has come out. However, contrary to belief, we never discuss the second book we might work on together. 

I’ve worked with Poonam Mistry on three books and we have met a few times. But each time, we will circle around the next book in question like – I’m still writing it. I can’t wait to read it. That’s it. It’s not my place to tell her or feed her ideas. The text must do that.

That is why the text must stand on its own. Remember that often the book is read aloud to children. If read in a class or in a library, the children might not even see the pictures closely until later. But the words must tell the story and there happens the magic when the listener imagines the story in their head. And that's when the connection is complete from writer to reader. Then the listener explores the art and they discover the same joy as the writer – matching their own imagination with what’s on the page. 

The cogs turn, the wheels move and the reader is understanding the relationship between words and pictures and how imaginations vary and discovering new ways of telling a story. 

So, my word of advice – Let go! Don’t try to control the process too much. And don’t expect to control the process too much. There is joy in letting go. 

Chitra Soundar is an internationally published author of over 50 books for children. 
She is also an oral storyteller and writer of many things.  Chitra writes picture books and fiction for young readers. Her stories are inspired by folktales from India, Hindu mythology and her travels around the world. Her books have been published in the UK, US, India & Singapore and translated into Chinese, German, French, Japanese and Thai. 
Find out more on her website  and buy her books here