Tuesday, 19 October 2021

The best defined single tip I’ve heard about writing narrative nonfiction: Candace Fleming and her VITAL IDEA by Juliet Clare Bell

We are all too aware of the many disadvantages and often grave difficulties faced in a long-term pandemic. Today I'd like highlight a positive thing for writers, particularly those who may not yet be published and who are really trying to hone their craft. With so much having been moved online, over here in the UK, we have had the chance to attend lots of US webinars about the craft of picture books that we’d never normally get the chance to (as they’d have previously happened in person). Given that narrative nonfiction is so much bigger in the States than it is here (and that many UK writers write with US publishers in mind as a result), nonfiction webinars have been particular useful.

 I’ve taught writing classes and been part of a writing panel on narrative nonfiction, posted blog posts  and I’ve written three nonfiction books, all commissioned but for different markets:

Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury (illustrated by Jess Mikhail, BVT; Junko Tabei: One Step at a Time (illustrated by Evelt Janais) and Do Bees Dance (illustrated by Adam Linley)


And I’ve written several blogposts for the picture book den about narrative nonfiction -links. I’ve got loads of narrative nonfiction picture books which have been really useful for research and for comparison.

                                A small selection of my narrative nonfiction book collection

It’s something I’m really interested in, and especially so at the moment when I’m editing my latest narrative nonfiction picture book which I was thinking and researching about for a long time before I actually started writing it.

Well, there was. Many nonfiction writers might be familiar with this concept -and I’ve worked at doing this myself but I’ve never known it as well explained as Candace’s explanation. I can’t talk you through the whole webinar as it is hers -and anyone who’s interested in writing nonfiction, whether you’re already published in the genre or not, I’d highly recommend attending any sessions she does, but she’s blogged about this idea herself, so I can highlight the principle behind the general idea:


                                     Giant Squid by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann

Candace Fleming’s


for nonfiction.

Candace breaks it down into your TOPIC and your VITAL IDEA


When you set out to write a nonfiction book, you usually have the general topic in mind, and often you will start your research around the topic without yet knowing the angle you’re going to take. For example, with our book Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury (illustrated by Jess Mikhail)

 the broad topic was given to us. We were commissioned by Bournville Village Trust to write a children’s book on some aspect of the Cadbury family. That was all. So I set to work looking at the extraordinary archives attached to the factory in Bournville, UK, and at Birmingham Central Library, and I started reading books on the entire Cadbury family… There were many interesting stories to be told but after a good deal of research I found something that spoke to me more than all of the fascinating things I was reading. It was the story of Richard and George Cadbury and the creation of the chocolate factory and later, Bournville Village. So that was the TOPIC.

The story itself was fascinating but what really hooked me was looking into the personal archives and reading about why they wanted to do what they did: Richard and George were keenly aware of their good fortune and worked tirelessly -in many ways- towards sharing their good fortune with others. And this was my VITAL IDEA.

When I wrote the book, I didn’t know about the term VITAL IDEA but it’s really interesting to look back over the book and identify what Candace talks about. Once you’ve chosen your vital idea -and there can only be ONE in a picture book, then the rest of your research can be honed. This VITAL IDEA will be the heart of your story, and information you have -however interesting- that does not speak to the vital idea does not belong in that story. It can feel very harsh (but hey, you can put it in the back matter). Anyone who’s done a lot of research for a book knows there are so many things that would engage your reader, but your job is telling the story of your VITAL IDEA. It’s why you can have so many picture books on the same topic and they are all so different.

And this is what I love about narrative nonfiction: the vital idea for the story is really personal to the author. As Candace states, you need to think (once you know enough about your topic)

what is it that I -rather than anyone else- have to say about this topic to the child reader?

This concept (without using the term vital idea) is really interestingly discussed throughout the book Narrative Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep -where authors tell the personal stories behind why they chose their topics and the particular angle of the story:

                                   Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep (edited by Melissa Stewart)

For me, when it came to the Cadbury story, I had grown up with the Quaker philosophy (my dad and his Irish family for generations had been Quakers) and although I’m not a Quaker, I went to Quaker Meeting regularly for a while as a child and have always liked a lot of their philosophy. Our local Amnesty International and CND groups where I grew up were dominated by Quakers -they were actively involved in trying to make the world a better place to live. And the more I read of George Cadbury’s writings on responsibility and society, the more I felt that their story was highly relevant to our current climate. I would find quotes from him, almost one hundred years old, that felt like they could have just been written. The Quaker philosophy was never going to take up a big part of the book (it was only referred to specifically in one sentence of the story) but I appreciated how it underpinned so much of what they felt and how they lived their lives. And we (Jess, the illustrator, and I) both lived within three or four miles of Bournville and the Cadbury factory. All these reasons came together to form the vital idea -the story that only I could tell in that particular way because of my engagement with the subject.


So there is only one vital idea and that has to be honoured throughout the story. And this will affect the mood and the language used. As Candace says, when you know your vital idea, you hone your language accordingly and this is what makes the language ‘soar’, which editors are always so keen to see.

Even though I’d pretty much applied this to the Cadbury book (and to the Junko Tabei book) without having used the terminology of vital idea, I applied it to my editing for my current book, which took a lot of research before I realised what I wanted at the heart of the story.

                                                    Lots of notes for my current manuscript

 I can’t write it about here as the book is not out yet (nor even yet sold) but articulating the vital idea to myself, writing it down and honing it until it was really precise, meant that I was able to edit more effectively and ruthlessly, even killing my darlings -things I really wanted to share with the reader but weren’t important enough to my vital idea (but all is not lost: I get to sneak them into the back matter!) And I’ve been able to adapt the language slightly to help bring out that vital idea…

For anyone who is interested, I’d recommend checking out the Writing Barn webinars and all the SCBWI online events. Some of the digital SCBWI events are free to SCBWI members but the regional ones (like Candace’s one) have a small fee.


Do you have any brilliant tips for nonfiction writing? Have you applied the vital idea principle to your manuscript? I’d love to hear any thoughts or suggestions in the comments below. Thank you.

Juliet Clare Bell (always called Clare) is a children’s author of more than thirty books -but who will always love learning new perspectives on writing and thinking from fellow authors. www.julietclarebell.com


Monday, 11 October 2021

Should We All Celebrate? by Chitra Soundar

We All Celebrate, don’t we? Autumn is here and that means across the world, many communities are celebrating different festivals through the next few months as skies darken and the air turns cold and traditionally was the harvest season in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Last week marks the start of Dussera or Navarathri for me as a Hindu from India.  Hindus across the world mark nine days of Dussera celebrations in different ways. And then it leads up to Deepavali or Diwali, one of the largest Hindu festivals. Did you know the same day is marked as a festival by Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs too? 

As a writer of picture books and writing in the UK, I always wondered why there weren’t that many picture books about Deepavali (or Dussera for that matter) and why the lead up to Christmas, booksellers didn’t highlight this wonderful festival of lights?

So, when Albert Whitman from the US asked me to write a Deepavali book, I was absolutely elated. 

Illustrated by Charlene Chua, published by Albert Whitman
Illustrated by Charlene Chua

In some ways, the US had caught the wave a little sooner. These books were published both by indie and big publishing houses and very popular among South Asian families and western families in the US.

But my original complaint remained – why aren’t UK publishers not interested in other religious and cultural celebrations? 

Do we need another Christmas book? Actually, do we need another Santa Claus / Father Christmas book? Even if we do, can they feature different communities celebrating Christmas in diverse ways? 

Will the children that are not celebrating Christmas be missing out on their own celebrations?

To counter this dearth of books, I wrote a Diwali counting book (which will come out soon! Shh!). 

Then I wanted to address the above question. Can I highlight celebrations that are not so well-known? So I pitched this book (We All Celebrate) to Tiny Owl and they loved it. With Jenny Bloomfield's glorious illustrations, this book will be out this autumn, right in time for the festival season. 

Illustrated by Jenny Bloomfield and published by Tiny Owl Books

But back to Deepavali (or Diwali as many call it) books in the UK... I went looking for books that celebrate this festival, written by authors and illustrators from the culture the festivals belonged to. 

So, if you don’t see Peppa Pig or Mr Men Celebrating Diwali in this list, that’s why. 

Here are two that came out decades ago.

And here are two just out this year, right in time for this year's festival. What are you waiting for? Go and grab these! 

That is it. Two new books in decades. 

While I have to scroll through a long list of Christmas books, books about Diwali, I can count on one hand - published across four decades. 

We need more books about all the little and big celebrations everyone is celebrating across our country – because we all celebrate and so, let’s celebrate together. 

Here is a call to action!

Are you a picture book writer? Do you celebrate a festival that we are not familiar with? Do you have unique traditions of celebrating a well-known festival? Then why don't you try writing a picture book about it? 

Writing about a festival need not be dry or didactic. It can be full of wonder and storytelling, it can be filled with activities and hands-on fun and it can be joyous inviting others to join in. 

Have a go! Write something different about Christmas or pick another festival from your own heritage and tell us a story that resonates universally! 

Monday, 4 October 2021

From Here to There . . . Why SCBWI is Key to Getting YOU There


SCBWI turns 50 this year. It started out when Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser, two newbie writers, commissioned to write some children’s books, sought to learn more about their craft and the publishing industry. Finding no established organization, they decided to start something. Responding to their advert, Sue Alexander suggested getting in touch with published author Jane Yolen, who was keen to help out.


Lin Oliver, Founder and Executive Director, SCBWI


Stephen Mooser, Founder, SCBWI


At the library, Lin read and researched the children’s book section, then wrote to 10 authors inviting them to a conference. She received 10 replies. Dr Seuss sent an apology in the form of a hand-typed letter: ‘the more I talk as a talking author, the less I write as a writing author’. Steve’s dad licked the mailing labels and Lin’s mum made the potato salad for lunch.

And from there, it grew . . . 


At the SCBWI Big 50 Conference,
Lin shares the letter she received from Dr Seuss

The founding members started a monthly Bulletin at Lin’s kitchen table (it is still published today), and the friends started pouring in: Judy Blume, Uri Shulevitz, Sid Fleishman, Tomie dePaola, Judy Blume, Ezra Jack Keats, Dawn Freeman, Myra Cohn Livingston, Mildred Fitzwalter, James Marshall, Walter Dean Myers, Laurence Yep, Arnold Lobel, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Paula Danziger - the great voices upon which the organization was built, who became friends and colleagues, organizing conferences and meet-ups. 


Acclaimed author Jane Yolen was a founding member of SCBWI.
Bear Outside
is her 400th book.


More friends joined: Jerry Pinkney, Lois Lowry, Arthur Levine, Bruce Coville, Christopher Paul Curtis, Pam Munoz Ryan, Elaine Konigsburg, Linda Sue Park, Karen Cushman, Virginia Hamilton and Dan Santat – the community was formed, and still is, by volunteers.


The Bulletin 1971

The Bulletin, May 2021 artwork by
Maple Lin

Now, 50 years later, the SCBWI is the largest international professional organization for children’s book creators with over 26,400 members in 70 regions around the globe. The British Isles region, founded in 1996 by author Gloria Hatrick and E. Wein, started in a similar way, and now its published members are those to whom new(er) authors and illustrators find inspiration – Candy Gourlay, Chitra Soundar, Jane Clarke, Sara Grant, Mo O’Hara, Kathy Evans, Sarah McIntyre, Bridget Marzo, Jasmine Richards, A M Dassu, Patrice Lawrence, Teri Terry, Sarwat Chadda, James Brown, Loretta Schauer and many others.


SCBWI British Isles Conference Mass Book Launch 2019

Why am I telling you all this? I was inspired by a talk at the SCBWI big 50 summer conference by Dan Santat in which he spoke about his creative journey from the beginning to #1 New York Times bestselling and award-winning author and illustrator. What struck me was that he talked about how when you look back at the creative path you took, and you are in awe of what has transpired in the all the years you’ve been in the business; you look back at your work and you see that there is really no ‘there’ because you continue to grow, find out about yourself and – and, here’s the important bit – you do this with SCBWI as your family.


#1 New York Times bestselling and award-winning author and illustrator
Dan Santat and his picture books

In the words of Lin Oliver: Picasso once said ‘Inspiration is great, but when it comes, it better find you working’. So, we must combine our talents, with our training and our dreams and our passions and then combine it with hard work. But even more than this, we are more if we are part of a supportive community because the path to creation is often a very solitary one.  


When you are part of a community of critique groups, networking connections, friendships and happenstance opportunities such as those you find in SCBWI, standing on the shoulders of the published friends who came before you, innovating and finding new paths then the creative journey as you grow from here to ?there?, the possibilities are infinitely expanded.


The themed Mass Book Launch cake features mini book covers made out of icing

What you get out of the SCBWI isn’t something you can quantify – it’s somehow more than the sum of all its parts. Sure, your membership offers practical things like


• critique groups

• webinars, podcasts and conferences

• mentorships, retreats and masterclasses

• 1-1s with industry professionals

• scholarships, grants & awards

• industry insider newsletters
• marketing & publicity opportunities, training and support

• porfolio showcases

• mass book launches


But did you know that you can . . .

• banter with an agent at a party?

• make like-minded friends – the kind you can ask questions of at all stages of your career?
• make insider connections with industry professionals and super-famous authors & illustrators by organizing an event you’ve always dreamed about?

• raise your profile by writing for and editing for Words & Pictures, the British Isles’ regional magazine, or contributing illustrations?

• get top tips on how to connect with those disruptive kids in your school visit audience?

• buddy up to create promotional opportunities?

• get discovered through the Undiscovered Voices initiative?

• make some art that might land you a 1-1 meeting with an art director in NYC?

get your book cover made out of icing on a Mass Book Launch cake?

• eat pizza with a librarian?


Author Mike Brownlow with his icing cake cover of Ten Little Monsters at the SCBWI Annual Mass Book Launch

These are just some of the priceless gems that you can tap into at whatever stage of your career you find yourself.


Here’s a story about HOW IT'S WORKED FOR ME:


KitLit TV studio recording of the read-aloud
with Julie Gribble in NYC

Some time ago, I was really STUCK with my picture book writing – I needed a new direction. Cue fellow SCBWI member and PB Denner, Juliet Clare Bell, who recommended an online non-fiction writing course with Kristen Fulton. As part of the course, I wrote a new book. Shortly afterwards, I attended an SCBWI conference, where I met author Sandra Nickel, who was a faculty member and whom I knew through SCBWI France/Switzerland. Sandra’s agent, Victoria Wells Arms was also presenting at the conference. At the drinks party after the wrap-up, Sandra invited me to meet her agent. This makes it sound easy, but I was not at all sure I could find the courage to even talk to her. After the conference, I pitched my book to Victoria and she became my agent, too. Encouraged by the advice and success of fellow SCBWI authors Candy Gourlay, Sara Grant and Mo O’Hara who run a fabulous author bootcamp to help empower us to market ourselves successfully, I peeked out from under my rock and decided to apply for an SCBWI Marketing grant. After all, what did I have to lose? Well, I got it! I used more SCBWI Connections to help me organize a mini book tour to launch my book, THE CRAYON MAN, and even film a Read Aloud with KitLit TV (another SCBWI connection!), and so it goes. 


Paula Danziger of Amber Brown fame was an inspiration
to never give up and stay true to your voice.

It was an inspirational talk for the SCBWI British Isles in London in the early 90’s (when it consisted of only a handful of members), by legendary author Paula Daniziger – one of those aforementioned founding members Lin recruited –  that inspired me to join and, soon after, volunteer. Who knew I’d still be volunteering and going ‘there’ on my  picture book craft journey alongside fellow members some 23 years later?! (Psst, it even took me to the Palace to meet Prince Charles, who knew?!)


Truly, a gold mine of friendship, connections, and information about publishing the world over is yours with your SCBWI membership if you make the most of it, even more if you volunteer. Plus, volunteering is meant to be good for your health!


All those moments of SCBWI glitter add up to something precious – a heartfelt THANK YOU to Lin, Steve and all the other authors and illustrators and creatives who have built the treasure that is SCBWI!



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 www.nataschabiebow.com