Monday, 10 May 2021

Long Ago? by Pippa Goodhart


‘Long ago and far away’ is the setting for so many picture book stories, and yet historically realistic ‘long ago’ is rarely found. Why?

This question came to me as I’ve been compiling a virtual summer course for Cambridge University’s ICE (Institute for Continuing Education) on ‘Writing Historical Fiction for Children’. I had hoped to include picture books, early reader illustrated chapter books, middle grade novels, and young adult fiction. I do include all those, but very little on picture books because picture book historical fiction is scarce.

There is a current boom in picture books about famous people from the past, tapping into national curriculum topics for Key Stage 1 such as ‘the first aeroplane flight’ and ‘lives of significant individuals’ ranging from Mary Anning to Alan Turing. Those topics ensure book sales to schools.  

But why not use historical settings for stories, as background, with no link to a great historical character or event? 

            Surely nobody thinks that a picture book story setting from the past would be off-putting to young children for whom everything is new? We rightly offer young children stories set in geographical places and in cultures very different from their own. They also happily accept characters who are peas and carrots and robots and cacti! Children are naturally ready to imagine and play. And they happily enjoy the very few picture books which do have a setting which we can see is from a past time. 



I wonder, did publishers in 1981 feel doubtful about Janet and Alan Ahlberg’s ‘Peepo!’ being set amid World War Two family life, a bombed building and air-raid warden visible? If they did, they needn’t have worried. Many, perhaps most, small children enjoy that book for its ‘peepo’ game, with the baby and adult family members they can relate to. Some might look at picture detail, ask questions, and have an interesting discussion about the differences in that home from their own with the adult who reads the book to them. But all children exposed to the book, will, I suspect, have absorbed a feel for that time and place. When they come to learning about the Second World War, and life on the Home Front, something of it will already be within their existing knowledge, thanks to ‘Peepo!’. 

But, earnest educational value aside, life is simply richer and more interesting the more we know of it. So, let’s enjoy the diversity of story setting that the past offers us, and offer it to young children too! 

            Why aren’t there more picture book stories with historical settings? Is it for fear of ‘getting it wrong’? With prehistory, so little is known that there’s a freedom to use a sort of generic visual shorthand for how things looked in Stone Age times; people in fur knickers, waving spears at woolly mammoths. There are quite a number of picture book stories set in prehistorical times. 

But for historical times about which we know more, there will always be those ready to point out mistakes, just as they do for historical films. I’ve been an ‘extra’ when the ITV murder mystery ‘Grantchester’ series has been filmed in my home village, and, yes, they hung prop tights rather than stockings on a washing line set in the 1950s. Wrong! But the tights were background, and not pertinent to the story. If we mind too much about accuracy, we restrict ourselves for the sake of academic safety. That’s a waste. Children think in bigger ways than that. 

Children love ‘long ago’, and illustrators and publishers are confident when using a ‘long ago’ setting that is clearly fictional, so can’t be ‘wrong’. Fairy tales, and the many newly created picture book stories featuring knights and princes and princesses, tend to be set in vaguely ‘long ago’ times of long dresses and carriages and page boys. It’s the same unspecified ‘long ago’ sort of setting that pantomime sets and costumes go for. But let’s use the picture book opportunity to introduce children to more realistic other times. 

David Roberts shows children lush 1930s Art Deco wonders in his version of Cinderella (written by Lynn Roberts Maloney). 

I think there’s an opportunity here for more beautiful and interesting extra visual riches to be brought into some picture book fiction. I wonder if any publishers and illustrators agree?!

Monday, 3 May 2021

How I am Writing My New Books Every Minute Even When I'm Not • by Natascha Biebow

Writing is something I do. But most of the time, I am not writing.


While I am supposed to be writing, but really I am not writing, I am:


- Juggling: if you have work, family, volunteer commitments, and life in general like me, chances are you are also juggling. This is useful for writing because it means you are living. And living is what is at the heart of writing. So, I make lists, do the school run, hoover the house, check in on my mum, keep wishing dinner will cook itself, help run SCBWI-BI to pay it forward to other writers and illustrators, edit books, and breathe . . .  because one day these experiences will be in my books.


- Reading Other People’s Writing (Books): each day, I indulge in a bit of R-E-A-D-I-N-G. Very often, this is not a children’s book, but if you pay attention while you are reading, you can glean quite a few useful things while you are not writing: inspiration how to write good (or bad) dialogue, techniques for storytelling, ideas for formats, insights into the competition, an awareness of the marketplace. If it’s a book that hooks, or a funny book, or an artfully written one, you can bask in good language like a shark basking in the sun and dream of one day writing a book like that too.

Some books I've been reading


And picture books and nonfiction research

- Walking the Dog: this is an excellent way to pound out plot problems and other writing niggles. Plus observing people in the park means you might get the odd ideas for characters. Importantly, it makes you go out so you are not entirely a hermit in front of a computer staring at a blank screen or typing wondering where this book is going . . . You might even find out what is actually going on in the world and meet a person. And it's exercise so it helps you stay fit. (NB: If you don’t have a dog, you can walk yourself.)


My dog Luna lives for watching
then unsuccessfully chasing squirrels.

- Reading Aloud to a Child (Or a Pet): reading A-L-O-U-D is an excellent way to get an ear for the sounds and structure of writing. When reading aloud, I get completely and totally immersed in the story and it is oh, so rhythmical in a way that reading silently just isn’t. (Sometimes I read my stories A-L-O-U-D to the walls – thankfully, they don’t voice their opinion).

- Cooking, cleaning, washing and Taking Care of Other Chores that always seem to need doing on repeat: see juggling (above).

- Listening to Craft Webinars or Reading Craft Books: mostly listening to other authors speak is a comforting language of threads of a shared experience in the life of writing; it is also great procrastination “Hey, I’m learning HOW to do it, yes, really” instead of bum on seat. Bonus is you can do it at the same time as Walking the Dog . . . and get in the zone.

- Watching Children be Children: if you are lucky to meet a child on your walk or pass a playground or even have family with children or children of your own, you can do something very important while practising not writing: watching and listening.


- Sleeping. A surprising amount of writing can be done in that subconscious state before you fall asleep. This is a great time to noodle around with ideas and story problems. Plus it's necessary.


-Eating Chocolate (Shhh!) definitely helps you keep going.


In other words, I Am BUSY Living, So A Piece of Me Can Find Its Way Into My Books:

All this living is collecting material for writing. One day you’ll see it in my books. I am working on a new nonfiction project; while I’ve done some research and there is much more to do . . . as I’m ‘writing through living’, I’m figuring out HOW TO TELL THIS STORY to make it compelling for a child to read. Every book I write is written because of some living I did. A piece of me is in there, and it is this that I am hoping will connect with readers big and small to make the story resonate with them also. 


Nonfiction picture books are 100% TRUE STORIES. 


To figure out and collect the ‘true’ bit, I need to do a lot of outreach and research. I've decided my topic has ‘legs’ – e.g. it hasn’t already been done by someone else and it has a strong enough hook – so I am busy uncovering more of the required facts. Eventually, it will be time to weed out what should go in the book, and what should be parked up (what is not relevant to the story can possibly go in the backmatter).


Fueled by curiosity and a love of my new topic, my quest is to discover the inner truth, the passion that makes THIS story tick, the child-centred angle, something that will elicit an emotional response from my young readers so they, too, can connect with the spark that led me to write this book.


When I sell my idea to a publisher, you'll be the first to know how the living has made it become a real book. As I told a group of school children on a virtual author visit recently, it can take years to make a book, sometimes as long as they have been alive.  It's about trusting the process.


 For this, I need much time LIVING.


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