Monday 29 March 2021


Today on Picture Book Den we’re discussing picture book themes. What are the popular ones, the tricky ones and how can you use this knowledge to make your stories more marketable?

Some of the most common picture book themes I’ve come across include the following:

·        Making new friends

·        Learning new skills

·        Following or not following rules

·        Making choices

·        Facing fears

It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but these kinds of themes aren’t going to get old. Books about worries, facing fears, bedtime, parties, pets, first experiences, kindness, sharing, love, friendship, accepting differences are always going to be relevant to a picture book audience.

Here are some of my favourite titles on these themes:


The Littlest Yak

by Lu Fraser and Kate Hindley  

"On the tip of the top of a mountain all snowy, where the ice-swirling, toe-curling blizzards were blowy, in a herd full of huddling yaks, big and small, lived Gertie . . . the littlest yak of them all.

Gertie is the littlest yak in her whole herd, and she's feeling stuck in her smallness - she wants to grow UP and have bigness and tallness! But when it turns out that there are some things that only Gertie can do, might she come to see that she's perfect, just the way she is?”


The Koala Who Could 

by Rachel Bright  and Jim Field  

In a wonderful place, at the breaking of dawn, where the breezes were soft and the sunshine was warm, a place where the creatures ran wild and played free ... A Koala called Kevin clung to a tree.

Meet Kevin. A koala who likes to keep things the same. Exactly the same. But sometimes change comes along whether we like it or not... And, as Kevin discovers, if you step outside your comfort zone and try new things, you might just surprise yourself!”

This Book Has Alpacas And Bears 

by Emma Perry and Rikin Parekh 

Have you ever noticed that bears are absolutely EVERYWHERE? Alfonso the alpaca has and it really gets his GOAT! He's decided that alpacas should get the recognition (and LOVE!) that they deserve. And sometimes it only takes one voice speaking out to make a change. It's time to be proud of who you are. (Watch out, bears!)



…being relevant and relatable isn't enough. As you’ll see from the examples above, to stand out in the market your picture book will need a new or different angle. Can the concept be stretched? Can you take the setting, the character, the plot and make them bigger? Play about with them and see if you can add more of a hook / more conflict/ more interest to the idea. For example, what if your shy character was a starfish not a child? What if your fearful squirrel lived in an ice cream parlour instead of a tree? Is the set up as strong as it can be?


Just because there are some picture books themes that are more popular than others, doesn’t mean we should shy away from the more profound. Far from it. I’ve read some brilliant picture books recently on the themes of dementia, poverty and judgement, which could be considered niche, but are important for everybody.

The Forgettery

by Rachel Ip and Laura Hughes 

“Amelia’s granny forgets lots of things. Little things, like where she put her glasses, and big things like people and places. But everything anyone has ever forgotten is stored in The Forgettery, and there Amelia and her granny learn the power of making memories.

Filled with warmth and gentle humour, The Forgettery is a beautifully written, sensitive look at dementia and memory loss.”

The Invisible

by Tom Percival

A moving, powerful story that shines a light on those that feel invisible in our world - and shows us that we ALL belong.

The Invisible is the story of a young girl called Isabel and her family. They don't have much, but they have what they need to get by. Until one day, there isn't enough money to pay their rent and bills and they have to leave their home full of happy memories and move to the other side of the city.

Milo Imagines The World

by Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson  

“Milo Imagines the World is a warm and richly satisfying story from the award-winning and New York Times bestselling picture book duo, about a little boy with a big imagination who learns that you can't know anyone just by looking at them. Set in a bustling city, and full of a family love that binds even in difficult circumstances.”

 Wanda's Words Got Stuck

by Lucy Rowland and Paula Bowles

Wanda the witch is so shy she can't talk! No matter how hard she tries, the words won't come out. But when another nervous little witch called Flo joins her class, it seems that Wanda's not the only one who worries about speaking. Then disaster strikes at the magic contest . . . will Wanda have the courage to shout out the magic words and save her new friend Flo from a dangerous dragon?

This heart-warming adventure about finding confidence through friendship is filled with potions, spells and magical animals! Children will fall in love with brave Wanda the witch, especially those who have difficulties with speech, anxiety about talking, or lack confidence in front of others.”

Here are some other themes that might be worth exploring if you’re interested in tackling a more challenging theme.

·        Illness

·        Death and dying

·        Natural disasters

·        War and political issues

Of course, there are things that are going to make a book a hard sell, such as being too country or culture specific, or not being appropriate or engaging enough for the age range… so if something hasn’t been done before, it might be worth thinking about why. 

Whether you’re going for a common theme or one of the less written about, it’s important to stop and ask yourself; ‘Which are my strongest ideas?’

Try asking yourself:

Which are the most marketable?

Which will help kids the most?

Which will stand out on a bookshelf?

Do you have a suitable title?

Does the title have immediate appeal?

Sharing concepts with trusted peers can be a good way of sussing out the strength of an idea. Which do they like the most? Which pique their interest and why? They might not choose your favourite, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t one to come back to. Ask yourself what’s missing in the concept to engage readers?

It’s also important remember WHY you're a writer. Listen to your inner muse. What do YOU want to tell the world? What’s important different about YOU? What do YOU love? Picture books are emotional beasts so consider writing about what matters to you and what fascinates you. Your writing will be more alive if it comes from the heart. (Just don’t forget to think about it objectively and check it’s big enough to go the distance.)

So a little bit of heart, a little bit of head… and you’ll have your next picture project.

Good luck writing it!

BIO: Clare is a children's writer from Devon. She writes fiction and non-fiction picture book texts - sometimes funny and sometimes lyrical. Her first book was published in 2015, and she currently has books in development with Little Tiger Press, Quarto, Andersen, Nosy Crow and MacMillan. Her next book, 'Wee? It Wasn't Me!' has been illustrated by Nicola O'Byrne and publishes on 1st April 2021. You can find out more about Clare at her website or on Twitter @ClareHelenWelsh.

Monday 15 March 2021

Can I REALLY be a real writer? FOMO is slowing me down • by Natascha Biebow

I have been telling stories since I was small. 

I told stories to anyone who would listen, especially the dogs!

As a kid, we used to go on long car journeys to the south of Brazil, and I’d babble on, creating all kinds of shenanigans for my fictional characters. My grandmother lived in England, so I’d send her recorded tapes with songs and stories in the mail (in times way before the internet was invented). 


A creative writing assignment in school? On it. 


This is a whole 'collection' of short stories written in school,
loving saved for me by my mother.

A short story about a cup and a saucer - who is more important?

 Poetry competition for the school newsletter? Yes! 


I used to write poetry even. Not now!


I loved to write, but I never imagined I’d actually be a published writer when I grew up.


Like many writers I know, there is no shortage of stories we could invent or tell. But when it comes to wondering if we’ll ever get them put inside a book that will land in the hands of other readers, children, often DOUBT sets in. Even if we are published, we doubt we can do it again . . . and even another time.


I’ve been pondering this.


I can draft a story no problem. In fact, I have drawers full of stories (metaphorically speaking, of course – they are all filed on my computer, a folder for each one, many drafts in each folder . . . ). My agent and I send out the most polished ones. And we wait.


But, here’s where the problem begins. WAITING. The silence while publishing grinds its wheels starts to conjure up DOUBT again. Will anyone ever say ‘yes’?


And then there are all those other writers who are doing so well – I hear and see the noise at events and on social media – successes celebrated, reviews, awards, new books launched . . . all seemingly much faster than I can get my next one finished and signed up. I’m thrilled for my fellow writers, I really am, but still, DOUBT is a mean spiral of negative thoughts that escalates, question after question:


Should I be doing something I’m not?

Am I missing out?

Why is it not happening?

Should I be submitting there instead or to this or that competition?

Should I be writing something else?

Should I spend more time marketing my book or writing a new one or . . .?

But I already have so many stories, should I be  . . . ?

What if . . . what if . . . what if . . .?

Maybe I should dig out that novel, but I’m halfway through this picture book and that idea and . . .  What to work on? What do those editors want anyway?

PLUS I really need to earn an actual living, so I’d probably better focus on doing that.


THEN I start to make excuses for not writing:


I don’t have enough time.

I’m busy homeschooling and juggling so much right now, I really don't have the headspace for writing a great book at the moment.

I’ll just clean the house and then I’ll write if there’s time.

I can’t write that book right now.

Someone else has probably done that already.

If I don’t send that story out on submission, it can’t get rejected.

I just got a rejection, maybe I should take a little break.

I don’t know how that story ends . . .

Maybe I was only ever meant to write one book?!

Maybe I’ll just bake some cookies and think about my story instead.

I’ll never earn enough from my writing.


Oh my goodness. STOP! BREATHE!


FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is taking over my head (and my heart).


I need a new story.


I need to remember to start THINKING and ACTING like a writer:


First, I need to remember – everyone has their own journey and this is mine. I will never be a series fiction writer churning out books quickly. I will be a book-every-so-often-that-is-inspired-and-cooked-over-time kind of author.


I start by breathing and being grateful that I am this kind of writer.


Sometimes, it can take a bit of time to figure out where you fit and to be OK with this, not trying to pigeon-hole yourself to be like others. FOMO doesn’t serve me well, I’ve realized. The slot for someone else won’t fit me comfortably. THERE IS SPACE FOR EVERYONE.


Next, I make two columns:











- how long editors take to consider submissions
- rejections (it might be the wrong manuscript at the wrong time; it’s not necessarily always about me or the story.)
- how much publishers will pay for a book and/or put in for marketing spend
- what other authors are doing
- the current state of the marketplace and trends
- what kind of writing I write









- bum on seat – commit to writing on a regular basis and stop making excuses for why I don’t have enough time to write. I need to put it in my diary. I need to plan ahead for the time I will write so that I’m not wasting time ‘preparing’.

- take webinars and courses to keep learning and improving my craft. There are some great free and low-cost webinars that can help me learn from other authors, illustrators and publishing professionals. I’ve been enjoying the great interviews on the weekly Kid-Lit Distancing socials

- be active in a writing community like SCBWI to find support, learn new skills, and make connections that will stand me in good stead when my next book comes out
- get critiques of my work – join a critique group or pay a literary consultant for their expert objective eye
- read lots of mentor texts - aloud

- keep an eye and an ear on what is going on in the market, but limit social media so it doesn’t become a distraction 

- spend time with children who are my audience and observe

- be brave and be prepared to re-think and re-visualize books that have been rejected; re-write! and reconnect with my vision
-  reach out to librarians and teachers to make new connections to promote my published book

- stop waiting for an editor to say yes and write more books so I have some on the back-burner while others are on submission

- research my new book ideas and reach out to experts

- look out for 1-1 or competition opportunities


Most importantly, I realize I can take control of the ‘no’ – either the rejection letter or the nearly, not quite feedback from editors – and choose how I will react. Will I let DOUBT set in with its breathless questions bringing on inertia and excuses, or will I look at my list of actions I can take and get stuck in and make a start?


LOOK! The list of things I can do is soooooo much longer than the other list, though arguably, the weight isn’t quite equal in that ultimately, we are all waiting for an editor to say ‘yes’ to that project we are passionate about.


It’s like any problem: it needs chunking down



















Then, perhaps, the process of being a ‘real’ writer begins to look more achievable.

Plus, I am a storyteller, after all, so I’m going to weave a story around this. Once there was a girl who dreamt of becoming a writer with lots and lots of books when she grew up. But . . .  there were many obstacles in the way. Does it have a happy ending? Only the author can write THAT story.  



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


Monday 1 March 2021

How To Grow A Picture Book Series, by Pippa Goodhart

One part of my work is critiquing picture book texts on behalf of the Jericho Writers agency, and very often people send a series of picture book texts, or a single picture book text together with proposals to develop a whole series.


What I’ve tended to tell those writers has been based on my own experience, that picture book series depend on creating an exceptionally strong stand alone picture book which sells so well that the publisher asks for, or agrees to, further books. My You Choose books, illustrated by Nick Sharratt, began with a single book, with the second one agreed to only once that book had sold well over a number of years.

I now have a bit of a series developing from a different book. Fair Shares, illustrated by Anna Doherty and published by Tiny Owl came out in 2019. It quickly proved popular with teachers and librarians, and so Tiny Owl asked for another book from us, and now Best Test will be published in April. I have an idea for a third book, but wait to see if that is going to be wanted!


So I wondered if my experience of series growing from single book success was shared by my co-denners. Here are their interesting answers -  



Natascha Biebow, (an experienced picture book editor as well as writer):


All the series that I've ever edited or seen do well on the market started with a single title - e.g. DAISY, Kes Gray's OI series, YOU CHOOSE as you say, THE DINOSAUR THAT POOPED..., HARRY AND THE BUCKETFUL OF DINOSAURS. The only exception I can think of is PRINCESS POPPY- in this case the author had already self-published and built a brand and so RH bought in the character rights and kicked off with a planned series.


Chitra Soundar


a) When my first Falgu book came out (illustrated by Kanika Nair), I wasn’t well-known in India or known at all in the UK. But after they edited the first book, they offered me a second book right away.


b) After rights sold in Frankfurt for Book 1, Book 3 and 4 was commissioned together. (‘Frankfurt’ refers to the annual International Book Fair at which co-editions are sold)


With respect to the massively popular You’re Safe With Me series (illustrated by Poonam Mistry), the first book was on unsolicited submission which was then rejected and then solicited back. Even before it came out, when US Junior Library Guild agreed to stock them, the publisher commissioned a second. And then commissioned a third soon after. 


None of those were automatic series - but one thing I’d say is as a writer I always put character first and when I’m writing, I’m always thinking of other scenarios for the characters. Even when not commissioned as a series, I create potential for it from the first book and then depending on my relationship with my publisher, ask if I can show them another story in the series. I do this for chapter books as well and it has worked well. 


Every time I have an idea, I evaluate if that idea will work for any of my existing characters and if so, I’d see if I should write it and show it to my publisher or ask them first and write it. 


Jane Clarke


Interesting topic because unless you are an author illustrator, picture book series depend on keeping both the writer and the illustrator on board.


I've experienced it both ways - eg I wrote Gilbert the Great as a one-off, and it slowly (over the next 5 years) became a 3 book 'series' because the first book was popular. They only commissioned the third book when the second also sold well. The illustrations by Charles Fuge were a huge attraction and at that time, Charlie was so busy it was hard to fit the third book into his schedule.

Same experience with Knight Time but it only got as far as book 2 (Knight School) - I wrote more texts but the decision was made to stop at 2. I cheekily pitched my most recent text (A Small Person's Guide to Grandmas, to be published 2022) as a potential series, I'm contracted for the first title only - but I guess it doesn't hurt for them to know that there's the potential for more :-)


On the other hand, I was contracted from the outset by Nosy Crow to do 4 picture books with Britta Teckentrup ( the unifying characteristic being the use of neon colours rather than a character, and I'm sure the 4 book contract was because they wanted the incredibly popular and busy Britta to schedule time for these books). Titles are Neon Leon, Firefly Home, Leap Frog and the upcoming Tiptoe Tiger.


I was also contracted from the outset to do 3 x picture books featuring the character Sky Private Eye - but that series was the concept of the publisher Five Quills.


Garry Parsons


My experience of working on a series has been that they have developed after the first book has  reached a certain level of popularity and then increased one book at a time. Having a tie-in title publishing a year later helps ignite new interest in the first and so on until you gradually acquire new readers who hopefully will enjoy all the books. My most popular sequence of books being The Dinosaur That Pooped series. Initially a one book contract for the first title, The Dinosaur that Pooped Christmas has now grown into 6. 

The Dinosaur That Pooped series written by Tom Fletcher & Dougie Pointer

The other series of picture books I worked on was with author Peter Bently - The Tooth Fairy is a funny series of 3 rhyming story books which also started with a Christmas title, The Tooth Fairy's Christmas followed by The Tooth Fairy’s Royal Visit to coincide with a royal birth and finally, Happy Easter Tooth Fairy! for the spring. Similarly, this series, published by Hachette, developed one contract at a time. So it seems to me that a series grows on the strength of one book at a time but the potential for a series can be very worth while as well as fun to have the opportunity to take a character through different stories.