Monday 28 June 2021

Picture Books - a Lifetime Love by Jill Atkins, Guest Blogger


I’ve always loved picture books, since my own childhood, when I was lucky enough to have a mother who loved children’s books; then sharing them with my own children and grandchildren, as well as enjoying sharing the pleasure picture books give when I was teaching. Some favourites have stayed with me. But what do these books have that make me admire/love them? I’ll try to explain.

Timothy Tabbycat written and illustrated by Cam is from my childhood. It’s about a quest to help a hare that has been captured by two witches called Mrs Longtooth and Mrs Snatchangrab. It was terrifying yet I loved it! Still do! It’s now classed on a certain website as an ‘Extraordinarily Rare Antique Children's Book’! That puts me in my place!

Dogger, written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes is a classic. It’s guaranteed to make me cry every time I’ve read it to my children, grandchildren, a class of children... or just treat myself to the umpteenth time on my own. It’s the part where Bella offers Dave her newly-won bear instead of his lost favourite cuddly, Dogger, that gets me. Her act of kindness is so touching. Dogger must be one of my favourites of all time!

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson - Who could not admire The Gruffalo with its perfect rhythm, rhyming and scanning, its attractive illustrations by Axel Scheffler and the story of the clever, brave young mouse? For me, it’s a ‘wish I had written it’ book.

A more recent pleasure is Bonkers about Beetroot by Cath Jones. It’s about a wonderful zebra character that is determined to save the day when the zoo is scheduled to close. I love the bold illustrations by Chris Jevons, and the great twist at the end of the story... not forgetting the grumpy penguin, of course!! It’s a truly bonkers book!

Superheroes don’t get scared... or do they? This is a recently published picture book, Kate Thompson’s first. With an amazingly funny text and vibrant illustrations by Clare Elsom, it has a brilliant message – it’s OK to be frightened!

There are so many picture books that I have loved over the years and it’s impossible to name them all, but a wish has always been lurking in my mind: How fantastic it would be to have my own picture book published! I’ve tried, honest!

I began making up stories when I was a child, telling them to my younger brothers when they were in the bath! And I was praised for my story writing all throughout school, so I suppose this was the start of my desire to have a picture book published.

Then, having been a teacher for many years, most of the time in Reception Classes, I began writing simple reading books some years ago, purely because I didn’t feel there was enough interesting and stimulating material out there at the time to give readers the incentive and stimulation to learn the sometimes impossible skill of reading. None of my efforts was published then, but I kept writing and eventually, my first book came into being: Cooking with Rabbit.

That was the first of many and I’ve now passed 150 published books with a variety of publishers and at a variety of levels and a variety of genres, from a pre-reader with no words... through Early Readers that are very strictly based on phonics (very hard to write, but I love the challenge!); different levels of fiction and non-fiction ‘reading books’ for young children; Science and English workbooks; four historical books based on different periods of history; to books for reluctant or struggling teenagers and adults.

But none of these is a picture book!

During over 25 years of writing for educational publishers, I’ve attempted many times to write picture book texts to no avail. So, when yet another rejection email arrives in my inbox, or worse still, when there’s no response at all, I often ask myself, ‘Should I persevere with my attempts to get one accepted?’ Or...

‘Stick to what you know,’ is the advice many people give, so that’s what I’ve mainly been doing all this time. I’m fully aware that writing a picture book is a very different skill to writing that required for writing a ‘reading book’. The illustrations in reading books need to match the text, while pictures in a picture book add a new dimension to a story. 

So, I’m sure you can imagine the thrill and elation when the acceptance came! How it happened in the end was ironic really. I sent in a text for an early reader and guess what! My editor loved the story and wanted the text adapted for a picture book! Yay! My first picture book, Raccoon and the Hot Air Balloon, illustrated wonderfully by Kristen Humphrey, is being published on 28th June!

Sunday 20 June 2021

Picture books about Dads. Garry Parsons chooses picture books to celebrate fatherhood all year round.

One of my favourite depictions of fatherhood is the moment Geppetto lifts Pinocchio off the floor and joyfully whirls him around the room at the end of the Disney movie. This is the very last scene in the movie where distraught Geppetto is sobbing on the bed and all looks lost. But when he lifts his head to see who’s talking he realises that Pinocchio is not only alive after the ordeal with the whale but has magically been transformed into a real boy. 


Pinocchio - Disney 1940

I’m sure we’d all agree that Geppetto’s parenting skills in the movie require some attention but what I love about that final scene is the overwhelming sense of joy Geppetto has at being a father and the relief he has to be reunited with his son.  You can watch the scene on youtube here.

Like Geppetto, no one is perfect at being a parent and nor would we want to be, but Dads in picture books often seem to get a raw deal. Dads are often depicted as caricatures of dads, preoccupied with tasks in the shed, washing the car or tinkering under the bonnet. Sometimes unkempt or dishevelled, they can appear absent minded, aloof or uncaring, preferring to fix things than parent directly. 

Dads generally appear less in picture books than mums too and are more likely to play background roles. There are certainly more mums in picture books than dads but that is probably a fair representation of who is taking on most of the full time parenting today, particularly with books for younger children. Dads in picture books can be on the periphery of family life or simply absent from the story altogether, but that might also be a reflection on the world we live in too. 

From Lawrence in the Fall by Matthew Farina & Doug Salati

So it’s heart-warming to see some new Dad characters coming to the fore in recent picture books. Dads who care and parent from a place of nurture (“Lawrence in the Fall”) and dads who are gentle and willing to listen (“Jabari Jumps”) And dads who are keen to impart wisdom and help their children grow. 

What We’ll Build by Oliver Jeffers 

As it is Father’s Day this weekend we have good reason to delve back into the book shelf and pull out some old favourites too. 

Don’t Let Go! By Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Tony Ross.


I’ve picked out a few picture books with strong father figure characters who, I feel, have a lot to give and that you might enjoy too.

 Lawrence and his Papa go searching in the woods to collect things to show in school. Papa gently departs his knowledge of the forest and his wisdom of how the world works. In a moment when they become separated, Lawrence discovers a forest secret of his own. A tender story of the bond between father and son where the characters express clear emotion, beautifully illustrated scenes and characters that capture the tenderness and wild elements of the landscape.

What We’ll Build by Oliver Jeffers is a story of a father and daughter setting out plans for their life together, building memories and a home to keep them safe. A moving story of love and protection.


A story about courage and gentle parental encouragement. Jabari has made his mind up that he is going to take a leap from the diving board but it's high and a little scary but he has his dad with him for support.


Pete’s A Pizza by William Steig is a firm favourite in our house and never ceases to bring a smile. It's raining outside and Pete can't go outside to play. Pete's attentive dad decides to make him into a pizza instead and bake him on the sofa. A funny and warm story around the kindness of a tuned-in dad with paired-down but spot-on illustrations.

A Brave Bear is a contemplative story of gentle parenting and attentive awareness. Dad has to navigate encouragement and some sulking when his son has ambitions of jumping big and grazes his knee in the wilds of the forest. Beautiful, textured illustrations from Emily Hughes.

Another enduring favourite in our house is Don’t Let Go! By Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Tony Ross. A little girl wants to visit her daddy but to do that she needs his help to learn to ride her bike. "Daddy, I'm here, I won't let go. Not until you say. Hold on tight. I love you, so - We'll do this together...OK?"  Prepare to be moved by this affectionate father and daughter relationship.


Great for younger readers, My Daddy is a Giant is a simple celebration of a father with Indrid Godon's uniquely wonderful illustrations.

Dad is competently in charge, doing some chores and caring for his daughter Trixie at the same time and doing a fine job of it until it all goes wrong at the laundromat. When you're attention is focused on your toddler be prepared to make mistakes!

Stereotypically manly men are shown in emotional or scary moments in Tough Guys (Have Feeling Too) by Keith Negly. Evertone has feelings, unless you are a robot!


And to return to Geppetto and his son, Pinocchio by Pinocchio, retold by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark

As ever, please use the comments section to recommend your favourites and let’s celebrate the fully formed Dad in picture books all year round.  Happy Fathers Day!


Garry Parsons is an award winning illustrator of children’s books and father to two boys. 

Garry is the illustrator of My Daddies! By Gareth Peter. 



Monday 14 June 2021


 My fourth picture book is published on 24th June. The Lion on the Bus is illustrated by Jeff Harter and follows an eventful bus journey through the eyes of a little girl happily singing ‘The Wheels on the Bus.’ When she spots a lion get on, she sings:

Her mother is lost in a book and oblivious to the fact that her daughter's song is describing what is happening around her - as yet more ferocious animals board the bus, eventually taking the passengers hostage! Don't worry. It's all right in the end. 


I came up with the idea for this book when I was singing The Wheels on the Bus with my daughter and one of us (we don't agree on which one) started singing The Lion on the Bus goes RAR RAR RAR! 

I wondered what a lion would be doing on a bus then wrote this book to answer that question.

While most picture books are designed to be read aloud, this one is designed to be sung so requires some level of performance. 

As the author, I am dying to get out and perform this book. I find that picture books come to life through performance in ways that often surprises and intrigues me.  I often learn something new about my own books when I read them in public, because it allows me to see them through my audience's eyes.

When I’m writing a picture book, I will read it aloud countless times to ensure that the words trip off the tongue, rather than the tongue tripping over the words, but reading a book to an audience is an entirely different experience. 

With 3 picture books out this year, I can't wait for the return of school visits, festival shows and library events. Happily, I've got a few lined up so I've been reminding myself of the important things to remember when performing a picture book. 

You can practice reading your book in advance all you like but you won't be able to properly rehearse it until you have an audience in front of you (no matter how small). For me, it takes a good 5 or 6 public readings before I have properly learned how to perform one of my books. Even after 50 performances, I still discover new ways to improve the reading - and quite often these ideas come from the audience.


The best readings (especially of picture books) don’t actually involve much reading. With a new picture book, I might still be reading the words for the first few performances, but eventually these words get ingrained in my head like the lyrics of a song and this means I can focus on all the other aspects of the performance. It also means I can hold the book so that the audience can see the pictures. 


With my first picture book, The Dinosaurs are Having a Party (illustrated by Garry Parsons) I get the audience to roar a lot and, at one point to throw tantrum, shouting, "It's not fair and nobody cares!" In Are You the Pirate Captain? (also with Garry) I have them hammering nails, chipping off snails and swabbing the decks. With Rabunzel (illustrated by Loretta Schauer) I have discovered that the audience love to bring the hungry eyes creatures to life with growls howl, hisses and eagle screeches - although mine often sound more like seagull squawks. I don't think about these interactive elements when I'm writing the books. Nor when I'm commenting on the illustrations. I usually discover them through the performance itself. 


The more engagement, the better when it comes to reading books in schools. The more you can keep the audience involved the less chance you give them to wriggle about and get distracted. Don’t be afraid to stop and ask a question or add in a funny aside. Or maybe you have a puppet. Or a prop like this treasure map that Garry made. Or a song. Whatever you can do to make the reading more than a reading will really help hold your audience's  attention.


No matter how clear it is to you that your beautifully composed conclusion signifies the end of the book, your audience may not realise it's over. Perhaps you can indicate it's the end with an emphatic closing of the final page. Or maybe you have a song to finish with. Or is there a repeated phrase or action that the audience can join in with that will let them know it's all done? It’s worth thinking about because, although it is perfectly fine to end with the words “And that’s the end of this book,” there will always be a more satisfying way to conclude.  

And that’s the end of this blog.  

Gareth P Jones’ new book The Lion on the Bus is illustrated by Jeff Harper and published by Farshore Books. You can see him talking (and singing) about the book on 24th June at Moon Lane TV. He is appearing at Camp Bestival & Latitude this summer and is currently taking bookings for school visits, library events and festivals.  

Monday 7 June 2021

28 Creatives and What Inspires Them To Write and Draw (Plus a MEGA GIVEAWAY!)

What inspires you to be creative?
The publishing industry is pitted with challenges and obstacles, a lot of which are out of our control, which means it's even more important to keep WHY we create at the forefront of our minds.

In today's Picture Book Den post you'll hear from 28 picture book creators about what helps the words flow, the ideas strike, AND what keeps them going through hard times.


Being creative makes me feel good. In particular, I find writing a very mindful activity, allowing me to process what’s buzzing around my head, either in a conscious or unconscious way. Of course, there are times when writing can be hugely frustrating, but the breakthrough moments make it worthwhile. As well as the personal gains, I also write for others - be that my own children, children I've taught, my godchildren or those I've yet to meet. It makes me very happy to think of my books bringing something special to bedtimes, difficult times and lesson times. I often aspire to write books I would have used if I were still a teacher myself. Keeping these internal and external gains close at heart, helps me through the ups and downs.


'I write because it's such an amazing feeling to watch a little seed of an idea grow into a whole book which can be enjoyed by children and families. I am inspired to write when something crosses my mind and makes me think 'Now, who might need a story about that?' That's why I wrote Wanda's Words Got Stuck.'

                                                      EMMA REYNOLDS:

For my picture books, words and pictures come together. Often I'll start with a character that sparks something special, and then I will write a story about them. I'm inspired by nature and saving it, imagination and the magic found in the everyday, and making books about kindness.


                                                        KAREN SWANN:

I write because I have stories in my head that I want to tell, in a way that only I can tell them. I keep writing because there are always more stories that need to be told.



 As writers we have the power to transform a blank sheet of paper into something that will empower, reassure, or simply entertain children (and hopefully their grownups) - it's a pretty amazing super power! I can’t control what happens to my manuscripts once they’re out in the world, but I’ll keep writing as long as I have stories and characters in my head that need to be created.


I started writing as a bit of a challenge, sort of to see if I could do it. I found out there was a lot to learn and I’ve been trying to get it right ever since! It’s so satisfying to start with an idea or a character and build a story around them.


I write stories that I want to illustrate. I build in all of the things that fascinated me as a child, and I love that creative process of crafting words and images simultaneously to form one story. It was an extra special treat that my debut author illustrated picture book was based on a real disappearing and reappearing lake near my hometown in Ireland. Getting to share a little piece of magic from home in my stories is definitely a motivating factor for me.


I write because I’ve started to realise that I can’t ‘not’ write! There are too many voices in my head that demand attention.  Often, I can find myself a bit distracted with life and realise that I haven’t written anything for a while. When I’m writing a picture book and it’s going well, I have a huge sense of contentment and satisfaction – I find something in the process of constructing a story (particularly rhymers) is very calming. When writing is going well, everything else goes well!


My brain is bursting with ideas, which is what keeps me going with my writing! I’m always so excited when a new idea POPS into my head!! The chance that one of these ideas may actually make it onto a shelf and bring joy and excitement to children, absolutely blows my mind. I feel very lucky that in 2022, my debut picture book will be making its BIG entrance into the world and I can’t wait to reveal more about it in the coming months.


Three things inspire me to write: my mum, my children and books! I first started writing as a way to channel my emotions when my mum got sick. After having my daughters, I was blown away by the incredible range of children’s books being published, and it made me want to try to write my own stories. But I also began to reflect on the fact that growing up I never saw myself in children’s fiction. Representation in children’s books still has a long way to go, but I’m hoping that I can be a tiny part of the solution and I’m really excited to share my debut picture book with the world in 2022.


                                                    MEREDITH VIGH:

Inspiration can come from anywhere - things my children say, something I saw online, a random title that pops into my head or a verse of rhyme that appears seemingly from nowhere.  Sometimes a germ of an idea hovers on the edge of my brain and needs teasing out to become fully formed.  Generally, for me to write I must feel excited by a project, but there have been occasions where I’ve forced through a block and ended up creating some of my best work.  I write because I can’t NOT write.  Each story is a challenge - but writing is FUN!  And to create something lovely for children in a world that is so often ugly feels like a worthwhile thing to do. 


                                                FRANCES STICKLEY:

I’m a bit of a compulsive daydreamer, and I always have been. I never really stopped escaping into my head and I like to furnish my worlds with all the little details and all the character nuances so I would imagine that’s what made me want to write it all down. I started writing poetry when I was 6; It was a poem about my Dad’s milk float getting stuck in the snow. They do say that, if you’re a writer, you write for the age-group you were when you first fell in love with stories, so I wonder if that’s perhaps when it happened for me.

                                                     LEONIE ROBERTS:

I write despite numerous rejections because when I am writing, editing  or coming up with new ideas, that's when I am at my happiest. Nothing else gives me this sense of bliss. So, even if I don't write for months or need to take a break from the rejections, I always go back to it. I feel it's important to do what you love.

                                                     DONNA DAVID:

I write because you can stay in your pajamas all day and 'work' in bed.  I write because you can secretly be watching YouTube whilst everyone thinks you're working.  I write because there are no colleagues to judge you for having a family size bag of Maltesers for lunch (again).  What's not to love?


I was a late starter to writing. It took me until I was nearly forty to realise that I should begin writing, but now I’m making up for lost time. Now I think that, even in all those years when I didn’t write a thing, and even though I didn’t know it, I was always a picture book writer deep down.  I always loved picture books with an almost religious reverence, and whenever I read a sentence than really shone, I used to think  “I really wish I had written that!” 

Ideas tend to float into my head unannounced when I’m far from my desk, and occupied with other things. I gather up little stacks of random notes that I’ve made on scraps of paper, the backs of soap packets and crumpled up bun wrappers... and try to turn them into a story. 


I write because of the magic and power of books. For me a book isn’t simply a story. It’s a memory, and a shared experience. It’s the feeling of reading with a grown-up, or a group, or a special sibling or friend, over and over – a feeling that sticks with you. I grew up loving Dogger, so I’m all about finding stories in the real situations of children. I enjoy picking up on little phrases or actions that kids say or do and making more out of them. I love peeking into a child’s world and seeing where it can take you – and where it can take them. Most recently, my picture book favourite and inspiration has to be John Condon and Matt Hunt’s The Pirates are Coming! – a retelling with humour, heart and TWO twists. What more could you strive for?

                                                   CATHERINE JACOB:

I’m inspired to write by my children. Betsy Buglove is based on my eldest daughter, who’s a real nature lover. I first wrote a Betsy story when she was five years old and would always be found looking under rocks, naming families of woodlice, or saving bees and butterflies from peril on pavements. It’s the same with many of my books: they all start the seed of an idea that might entertain my three children (4, 9 and 11) or sometimes, that comes up in a game they’re playing, and it goes from there. I write when inspiration strikes, which can often be in the most unusual place, particularly, for some reason, while driving long distances! 

                                                  RASHMI SIRDESHPANDE:

I write for children because they're so curious and so full of hope and wonder. I write to make them smile, laugh, feel, think, and dream. And I write for me. Because it feels right. Because it feels like I've found My Thing.

        JANE CLARKE:

I write because I've always enjoyed telling stories. I loved making up funny bedtime stories for my sons when they were small. When I worked in a school library, I took requests (the first was for a little girl called Jasmine, who wanted a story about a Princess, a rabbit and shopping). It was the teachers who told me I had to write them down! It gives me enormous pleasure to think that now lots of children can enjoy them.


I love to write! I am always writing even when I'm not. I see ideas for stories everywhere. I challenge myself to learn one new fact every day - chances are there's a story there and, sometimes, even a book. Our world is filled with wonder and seeing it with the kind of curiosity that is inate to children is a special thing to keep hold of. I love being able to capture that magic on the page by making books and sharing it with young readers. The books I am making now are true stories – they read like storybooks but they are 100% fact. I love doing all the research, learning new facts and the process of finding and shaping the STORY. Sometimes, it's hard work that takes so much time and perseverance, but when it comes together, you have this amazing colourful piece of work that you can share with kids and grown-ups and that is really special.


What inspires me to write is the joy of bringing a character to life and sending them off on an adventure. And the hope that this character will some day take a child on that adventure with them.


I write for different reasons: to discover something, because I want to find out what happens next or because I just want to play with an idea. I find picture books the hardest thing to write because thinking visually doesn't come very naturally to me, but when I do get one off the ground I love the collaboration with illustrators and I love how the end result is something I could never do on my own. 


I write non fiction and picture books about the natural world and its strange and wonderful creatures. By telling their stories, I hope to inspire young people to take an interest in our wonderful world and the amazing plants and animals we share it with.

                                                     ALICE HEMMING:

For me, writing is my creative outlet, my therapy and, happily, how I earn a living. In hard times it's the writing itself that keeps me going, along with the support of friends and family, yoga, and cake.

                                                     KARL NEWSON:

Why I write? Well, naturally,
like a fish in the sky,
or a bird in the sea, 
it's just a thing that happens to me
while I'm busy dunking biscuits.

                                                    ALISON DONALD:

All children's authors are big kids at heart and I'm no exception! I love to put myself in the shoes of a child and to write a story from their point of view. I hope that my books will be an escape for kids - especially during difficult times.  The thing that keeps me going is that I genuinely love to write. I try to focus on the enjoyment I get from writing rather than focusing on publishing deals. If I'm enjoying what I'm doing, it comes through in my writing.


 love creating imaginary worlds just from some black and white text on a page - it's such a magical process.  I also love seeing a book come to life and all the stages in between. To be a part of that journey is such a thrill.

What keeps me going through hard times: writing, reading, and my family and pets.  Being able to escape into imagination is a great resource.

                                                     NATELLE QUEK:

I communicate with people through art. It's something that's always a constant in my life and I feel like I can put thoughts and emotions through illustration that are quite difficult for me to convey otherwise. I hope to create stories that connect people to each other, that offer tiny worlds to escape to, that resonate with someone enough for them to create memories that they can carry with them for many years to come.

To enter this MEGA GIVEAWAY, winning a copy of all the books pictured above, simply leave a comment at the bottom of this post and we'll pick a winner at random. Closes midnight 13th June. (UK Only) 

Titles include:

Amelie and the Great Outdoors - Fiona Barker and Rosie Brooks
Amara and the Bats - Emma Reynolds (will be posted in July)
Betsy Buglove Saves the Bees - Catherine Jacob and *8 (will be posted in July)
Blue Planet 2 - Leisa Stewart- Sharpe and Amy Dove
Danny and the Dream Dog- Fiona Barker and Howard Gray
Firefly Home - Jane Clarke and Britta Teckentrup
Here Be Dragons - Susannah Lloyd and Paddy Donnelly
If You See a Lion - Karl Newson and Adrean Stegmaier
Love You Always - Frances Stickley and Migy Blanco
Oh no, Bobo! - Donna David and Laura Watkins
My Colourful Chameleon - Leonie Roberts and Mike Byrne
Never Teach a Stegasaurus to Do Sums - Rashmi Sirdeshpande and Diane Ewen
Setusko and the Song of the Sea - Fiona Barker and Howard Gray
Superheroes Don't Get Scared - Kate Thompson and Clare Elsom
The Colour of Happy - Laura Baker and Angie Rozelaar
The Knight Who Might - Lou Treleaven and Kyle Beckett
The Leaf Theif - Alice Hemming and Nicola Slater
The Little Mermaid - Natelle Quek and Anna Kemp
The Perfect Shelter - Clare Helen Welsh and Asa Gilland
The Pet - Catherine Emmett and David Tazzyman
The Pirates Are Coming - John Condon and Matt Hunt
The Tale of the Whale - Karen Swann and Pacmandara
The Vanishing Lake - Paddy Donnelly
Wanda's Words Got Stuck - Lucy Rowland and Paula Bowles
What will you dream of tonight? - Frances Stickley and Anuska Allepuz 
The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons - Natascha Biebow and Steven Salerno