Monday 28 November 2022

Sometimes You Have To Try On Different Trousers: How to Revamp Nonfiction Picture Book Ideas


I’ve Been Trying on Different Trousers  . . .


In the past few years, I’ve written four new nonfiction books.


I began them with gusto. I love true stories. Those nuggets of facts that make you go ‘wow, really?!’ have me dancing round the house to find someone who will listen to my latest discovery. I also love detective work, even if it means going to great lengths to fact-check and dig for missing links or get in touch with an expert.


But then those manuscripts didn’t sell. So I went back to the drawing board.


I read. I did more research.  


I was searching for a new way to grip the reader (and editor). One that would ‘fit’ the story in a different way.


I asked myself:


Was there another way in to tell this story? Could I change the point of view? Could I include different facts? Could I change the style of nonfiction or the target age group?  Could I make it longer, shorter, with sidebars, more back matter or . . .?


According to bestselling nonfiction author, Melissa Stewart, I was shopping for a new text structure. It’s like shopping for a pair of trousers (pants, if you’re American), she says.


“When we shop for pants, we usually know what purpose we want them to serve. Are they for playing sports? Relaxing around the house? Going to a fancy party?”


Authors have to figure out what they’re most excited to share with readers.  They have to rule out pants that are the wrong colour, size or fit. Pants they don’t like. Pants that are not fit for purpose.

Text structures are patterns that help us to arrange and connect ideas so young readers can “access, understand and remember information more easily.”

In the case of narrative nonfiction, they are an important part of the voice and way IN to the story.


Melissa Stewart has identified seven structures:



Sequence /Chronological Sequence


Compare & Contrast

Cause & Effect

Problem- Solution

Question & Answer


Finding the right text structure is like building
the right frame for a house - it can really make a book!

Once you rule out some structure types that instantly don’t seem like a good fit, you eventually get to the point where you have to try them on to see which fits best. That’s where mentor texts can really help. Looking at other picture books with a critical eye and acting like a detective can be useful to reassess what kind of structure would work best on your book. In their book, 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books by Melissa Stewart and Marlene Correia, the authors suggest looking at the same topic with different text structures. For instance FROGS. When you do this, it's amazing how many different approaches you can find for exploring just one topic in a children's nonfiction book! Lots of different structures, lots of different lenses.


Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books
by Melissa Stewart and Marlene Correia

Sometimes, you need another element as well – a personal connection to the story, an a-ha! nugget that will really hook young readers and make them take notice. You have to write and rewrite to figure out and understand what your book is really about and why it matters. Is it surprising to you? Does it make you think in a new way?


When even when I finally find the right fit, the right pants, I also need to personalize them – I need to check: why am I writing this story?  


Melissa points out that there are other structures that imaginative authors have invented to fit the topic. For example, in SWIRL BY SWIRL: SPIRALS IN NATURE by Joyce Sidman and Beth Krommes, the text starts with examples that are small and snug; these get bigger and spiral outward and finally curl up again for the ending – just like a spiral. 



In one of my favourite recent nonfiction picture books, WHAT’S IN YOUR POCKET? COLLECTING NATURE’S TREASURES by Heather Montgomery and Maribel Lechuga, Heather tells stories of what famous scientists’ collected and kept in their pockets as children – and links how these later led them to make important discoveries as grown-ups. 



For instance, Diego Cisneros-Heredia, kept snails, slugs, scorpions and lizards in his pockets – and later discovered more than thirty new species of frogs. And Bonnie Lei collected tide pool creatures and later studied sea slugs and even found a new kind!


From What's In My Pocket? by Heather Montgomery and Maribel Lechuga

From What's In My Pocket? by Heather Montgomery and Maribel Lechuga

Heather Montgomery cleverly makes each figure relevant to young readers by tapping into a universal childhood love for collecting and outdoor play – and cleverly links this to how they were growing science skills that would lead to a lifelong passion working in the field.


This is what I am hoping to somehow create for each of my nonfiction book ideas. But how?


LOOK really closely at your topic. Look for:


• patterns

• key vocabulary words

• how do you want to make the reader FEEL?

• links to children’s lives and interests!


The hardest part? Keeping it SIMPLE and not being tempted to jam in everything!


I am inspired by Melissa Stewart’s tales of how it can take a long time to find the right structure and sell a book to an editor. For instance, it took her from December 2010 to December 2014 to get the manuscript for Can an aardvark BARK? accepted.  In this time, she experimented with four different structures!

Perhaps there is hope for my ideas and revised stories yet. I’m not giving up!



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. Find out about her new picture book webinar courses! She is Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. Find her at

Monday 21 November 2022

Taking part in the Inktober challenge - with Mini Grey


When I’m being a so-called ‘illustrator’ I will go to enormous lengths to try and avoid actually drawing things. (For the evidence here’s an entire post I wrote on How To Not Draw Things.) So what could be more good for me than a challenge to make an image every day for a month?

So this week I wanted to tell you what I’ve learned from doing the odd Inktober challenge and similar things, and how discoveries from Inktober-type activites can come in useful to a terrified illustrator.

So what’s Inktober?

It’s a challenge to make a picture for every day of October, possibly in ink. There’s a set of prompt words you can use if you want. Here are the prompt words for 2022:

There are other daily drawing challenges. In 2018 John Vernon Lord inspired a One Inch Drawing a Day challenge for September with Quentin Blake’s House of Illustration (now the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration).

John Vernon Lord’s drawings were about 3cm square, and he kept up his Drawing-a-Day challenge for an entire year. He didn’t have any themes or prompts, saying “I would just plunge into something that occurred to me on the spur of the moment.”

Some of John Lord's Drawing-a-Days: can you guess the month?

I particularly liked JVL’s life-size objects and creatures, like this fly, woodlouse, and beetle. 

It felt like you could pick them out of the picture. I decided to do an insect every day for the September 2018 one-inch challenge. I ended up calling them Meet the Relatives. Each one had  a name label a bit like those cases of pinned insects you get in Natural History Museums.

The Drawing a Day challenge with the House of Illustration inspired lots of joining in. Here are just a few of the collections at the end of September 2018.

By Sojung Kim-McCarthy: litter found on the beach transformed into tiny beauties

One inch miniatures by John Shelley

A Drawing a Day from Freya Hartas (John Vernon Lord's granddaughter)

But back to this year’s Quinktober.

This year I set myself some rules. This October, for my Quinktober2022, my rules were:

µ A size rule: the picture had to be 10cm square.

µA materials rule: had to use Quink ink somewhere.

µ A theme rule: the theme was ‘animals’.

And what did I find out making Quinktobers this October?

That scribbly response doodle you did first: that’s your friend.

I discovered that I love the surprise of responding to a word, it’s like going fishing in some magic lake where you never know what unexpected creature you might pull out.

I discovered the value of the quickest sketch ever – that first response scribble – as a crumb, a clue, a starting point to draw from. Leaving a breadcrumb trail of rough starter sketches for the days coming up make it easier for tomorrow’s you to get started.

Sketches for Quinktober 2022

Responding – to a prompt word – is a thrilling process. Your own response can be surprising and take you to new places. Sometimes you have to drag a response out kicking and screaming. Sometimes you have to worry away at the word to find something in it that you can use.

I think the act of responding…is at the heart of picture book making. Pictures respond to words, words respond to pictures, they dance together.

Once you’ve caught an idea you like, the rest is easy….It’s having that starting point that’s so valuable, you’ve got something to work with – rather than the endless possibilities of a blank page.

Tracing Paper is my friend... experiment, to make copies, to cut up and move around on my 10cm grid for working my drawing out. I can’t just draw something right how I want it first time, so now I don’t expect to be able to.

Working out day 25 TEMPTING

Impossible prompt words – can be good.

Some of the prompt words just didn’t fit in my animals theme, or didn’t appeal; for example, Day 23 BOOGER and day 29 UH-OH. But it’s good to be pushed away from your familiar territory and have to work at how to find an image.


I do love the square. I do love breaking the frame.

For me, the fun of having things escaping out of your border never gets old!

Making your daily drawing can become your happy place...

…and you can start to look forward to going there – especially when you know your rules/method.

There’s a relief to doing a small solvable thing: especially when it’s relief from smashing your head against the brick wall of a story idea that refuses to work. There’s also the relief of images not having to be consistent or related in any way.

Determination to complete the challenge creeps in, so it becomes important that it has to be done – which is motivating.

This activity can’t take too long – so there has to be a bit of acceptance when you’re unhappy with it. I never allowed myself to start till after 5.30 pm.

I was VERY unhappy with day 19 - PONYTAIL.

Also your prompt words provide something to mull over when you’re driving up the M40 again (or whichever is your motorway of choice.)

And lastly:

Making a collection is nice.

It’s fun to see if the collection seems to belong together.

It always takes longer than you think. (Even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.)

 John Vernon Lord notes that his Drawing-a-Day average time was 36 mins per drawing. I think my pictures often took most of an hour.

Your pictures can sail out into the world.

It was fun to post up an image every day on Twitter and Instagram, and discover that nice people were following them. So at the end of October I sold them off at exceptionally reasonable prices. And now they’ve flown off in the post to their new homes.

Day 29 UH-OH now in the collection of teacher and illustration fan Mr Ben Morgan.


 Mini’s latest book is The Greatest Show on Earth, published by Puffin.