Monday 31 July 2023

Accidental Route into Making Picture Books by Nadia Shireen

 Nadia Shireen is an award-winning author and illustrator of picture books and chapter books. We asked Nadia about how she started out and her advice for those who are starting out now. Enjoy!

My route into becoming a picture book maker was offbeat and almost accidental. After a few years of working in magazine publishing, I started to take evening classes in illustration. This was mainly because I was constantly doodling over the sheets of paper I was supposed to be editing (distracting for all concerned.) 

Anyway, these evening classes led to me eventually undertaking a part time MA in children’s book illustration at Anglia Ruskin University in 2008. I was, to be blunt, a bit of an oddball on the course. Trying to juggle a career as a freelance journalist with no formal art training meant that I found it a bit of a struggle, and I got heroically behind with the coursework. A career in picture books wasn’t something I was even contemplating at this point.

But the course was invaluable in so many ways. For a start, thanks to the tutelage of experts and practitioners (such as Martin Salisbury, John Lawrence, Pam Smy and James Mayhew) I learnt to love picture books and appreciate how word and image can collide to create magic.

However, there were also the dreaded regular group crits, when everyone would take it in turn to nervously share their works-in-progress to the rest of the group. You could expect to: 

1) Receive tentative feedback from friendly peers    

2) Receive constructive feedback from informed tutors

3) Try not to cry

And someone would always, always cry. The many caring, generous and encouraging compliments seemed to bounce off the surface of our brains like hail on a tin roof. The criticisms? Now those guys would burrow into our souls, destined to stay there forever. 

To make things even more complicated, the next month we would maybe get a different kind of constructive feedback from a different tutor, which sometimes totally contradict the previous critique. This cause a bit of a tailspin. Whose feedback should you believe? Whose opinion could you trust?

Though it didn’t feel like it at the time, we were learning an invaluable lesson. As a picture book maker, you soon realise that the best projects are a collaborative effort. With a bit of luck, the team you are working with share the same end goal – to make the best book possible. I work closely with fantastic editors and art directors, who add immense value to every book I make.

This means that you need to learn to park your ego at the door and take critique on board. It also means you need to develop and trust your own judgement. Because inevitably down the line, people will not agree. There may be a difference of opinion over a sentence, or a page layout, or the colour of a bear’s nose. 

Now, to further expose myself as a bit of a twerp, my knee-jerk reaction to any proposed editorial or art change might be “No way! These are MY perfect words and MY beautiful pictures and nobody else is going to change them! So there.”

This is not a helpful reaction.

A wiser reaction might be to ask oneself why does something need to change… and is this particular solution the best one? If you’re able to really easily articulate exactly why something needs to be the way it is, then you’re probably right. It’s all about being able to explain the reasons behind that gut instinct. 

Yes this can sometimes be tricky, but it is a skill that can be developed and honed. And really, it’s about learning to cut through the noise of many opinions and trust your own judgement.

If, on the other hand, you can’t really drum up much of a reason as to why a particular sentence/drawing/bear nose cannot be changed, it may be a sign that you need to loosen your grip and allow things to evolve with the guidance of smart people who want to help. 

I’ve definitely felt sad about losing drawings or plot beats that I was really attached to. But pretty much every time I have done so, taking on board someone else’s feedback has resulted in a much better book. 

Everyone’s experience of making a picture book is different, of course. But in mine, any success I have had is shared with the editors and art directors I have collaborated with. 

So my advice would be to try not to be scared or discouraged by thoughtful critique. Instead try to embrace it, gently grapple with it where necessary, and high-five your ego for waiting politely outside. 

Nadia Shireen is a picture book author and illustrator. Her books include Good Little Wolf, The Bumblebear, Billy and the Beast, Barbara Throws a Wobbler and most recently, Geoffrey Gets the Jitters. 

She also writes and illustrates the Grimwood series for older children. 

Find out more at and follow her on Twitter (or X as some people call it now) and Instagram here.

Monday 17 July 2023

Top Tips for New Picture Book Writers - Lynne Garner and Friends

I'd planned to write a post where I shared my top tips for those new to picture book writing. I'd written my first paragraph when I decided to include some helpful links from the Picture Book Den.  However, it soon became clear I would be repeating advice already given and perhaps not as eloquently as other members of the PBD team or our guests. So, I decided to pick a few posts which I hope new picture book writers will find helpful.

So in no particular order

Writing Retreat - Abie Longstaff (includes advice on how to shape your story) 

Abie Longstaff -

An Acrostic of Patience - Chitra Soundar

Chitra Soundar -

How Not To Write a Rhyming Picture Book - Juliet Clare Bell

Juliet Clare Bell -

Checking Roughs - a Vital Picture Book Author Skill - Moira Butterfield

Moira Butterfield -

Writing (Picture Books) As a Business - Natascha Biebow

Lynne Garner -

I hope you find these useful and if you have any tips yourself please do share. 

Monday 10 July 2023

How to Trust and Allow Space for the Picture Book Illustrator • by Natascha Biebow


As a picture book writer, I often wish I had the talent of those author/ illustrators who can write and illustrate. They have a superpower in that they can mix and match the words and pictures, adding layers and making choices to balance out the story so it is just right.


But, if you’re ‘just’ a writer, you have to allow space for the illustrator and then sit back and wait for the layouts to unfold into a fully-formed picture book that is just right. It’s an exercise in trust and letting go. The results are often hugely gratifying, but it can be a scary process.


Will the illustrator capture the author’s vision?

What if they miss a key element or get it ‘wrong’?


The temptation can be to want to take control and to over-write or art-direct with illustration notes.


In traditional publishing, authors work with a skilled team – a designer and an editor, and sometimes also the publisher and art director – who are incredibly experienced and knowledgeable in the art of making picture books. They help to pull together all the elements to create a seamless picture book that will captivate young readers. A lot of time, careful thought and revision goes into this process, including choosing the right illustrator for each story.


What’s interesting is that often illustrators add whole new storylines in the pictures – Pippa Goodhart recently blogged about this in her ‘The Joy of Visual Sub-Plots’ post. These sub-plots are filled with lots of fabulous details to spot and mini-storylines to follow, making the book one to which young readers will return to again and again.


Something else spectacular often happens, though, when authors let go of their words and create space for illustrators:


Layers and Depth

Layers and depth!


The layers are created when illustrators springboard off the text to imagine the story on the page – the key plot turning points, the setting and the characters, complete with individual personalities. Illustrators deepen the themes by attributing to them a visual representation, making them accessible and relevant to young readers, who are often astute visual thinkers.


Interpreting Themes:


When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller and Eliza Wheeler

WHEN YOU ARE BRAVE: Pat Zietlow Miller and Eliza Wheeler is the story of being brave when you have to do things in life that you’re much rather not do. The author’s words for the opening:


“Some days, when everything around you seems scary,

you have to be brave.


“Brave as a bird that steps from its nest . . .

hoping to soar through the sky.


“Brave as a dog that wanders for miles . . .

searching for a well-known light.


“Brave as a caterpillar that builds a bed . . .

wondering where it will wake.


Because some days are full of things you’d rather not do.”


These phrases could have been illustrated in so many different ways. Eliza Wheeler depicts the situation as a girl’s family moving home


From When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller and Eliza Wheeler

From When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller and Eliza Wheeler


and creates a neat segue between the metaphorical, lyrical words by illustrating a physical bird, dog, and caterpillar as the girl’s precious stuffed toys. Thus, Eliza helps to make the abstract more concrete and relatable for young readers.


From When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller and Eliza Wheeler


In THE TRUTH ACCORDING TO ARTHUR by Tim Hopgood, David Tazzyman must depict what a completely abstract character (The Truth) looks like and give it a personality. 


The Truth According to Arthur by Tim Hopgood and David Tazzyman.

He deftly imagines the situations in which the boy bends, stretches, ignores and covers up The Truth.


The Truth According to Arthur by Tim Hopgood and David Tazzyman.

The Truth According to Arthur by Tim Hopgood and David Tazzyman.


In I AM NEFERTITI by Annemarie Anang, Natelle Quek also artfully captures an abstract element – music.


I Am Nefertiti by Annemarie Anang and Natelle Quek


Natelle shows how the band feels and sounds when it makes music that is discordant and harmonious, even adding different colours for each instrument.


 From I Am Nefertiti by Annemarie Anang and Natelle Quek

The main character, Nefertiti, is the drummer, who keeps the all-important beat in the band. But when her teacher shortens her name to ‘Nef’ because it’s easier to pronounce, something shrinks inside her – both literally and figuratively. In order to make this idea accessible to young readers, Natelle needed to show Nefertiti’s physical transformation as well as how it felt. To convey this, she positioned the main character tiny amongst the looming drums:


 From I Am Nefertiti by Annemarie Anang and Natelle Quek

Characters & Their Worlds :


I AM NEFERTITI is a story about identity and belonging; the multicultural, diverse cast of band members is intrinsic to the narrative. Working from the starting point of the author’s text (just the characters' names and their instruments), the illustrator and editorial and design team worked closely together to envision what each child should look like:


 From I Am Nefertiti by Annemarie Anang and Natelle Quek

In James Catchpole’s WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU?, Karen George also creates an authentic group of children, and sets them in the playground, cleverly juxtaposing the real with the imaginary using blocks of solid colour.


What Happened to You? by James Catchpole and Karen George


The main character, Joe, says, “And there are sharks down here, too.

They especially like to eat pirates.”


If you look closely at this scene, Karen George adds all the drama of different children’s reactions to the pretend play in their well-observed expressions and body language. This is intuited in the dialogue between Joe and the curious children, but not written explicitly into the text. It is more powerful this way.


From What Happened to You? by James Catchpole and Karen George

In LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, a boy sets out on a bus journey with his grandma.


Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson

Readers are introduced to the people they meet, among them, a blind man and guide dog, a musician, and a woman with butterflies in a jar. The illustrator has to decide: what kind of dog? What ages, ethnicities and backgrounds will the people be? What should they wear? How will young readers engage with the pictures. Will they see themselves and their backgrounds represented? And so much more!


Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson


Similarly, in MY DADDIES! by Gareth Peter, the illustrator, Garry Parsons, imagines what this family looks like and how they act and react in each scene. 


My Daddies! by Gareth Peter and Garry Parsons


The illustrator must imagine situations to best convey the layers and flesh out the accompanying words. For instance:


“They’re not the best at everything . . .


(one dad is not a particularly good artist)


but I don’t really care.”


(one dad is not a particularly good cook)


From My Daddies! by Gareth Peter and Garry Parsons


It’s almost as if the words are ‘coming true’.


Especially poignant, is the double-paged spread, where the child’s adoption story is lovingly imagined and portrayed from babyhood to new, two-dad family home.


From My Daddies! by Gareth Peter and Garry Parsons

The illustrator is essentially adding a 3-D version of the author’s words, envisioning the child’s adoption journey and the family’s home life, and making it feel real and relatable to every young reader.   


The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald

In THE BAD SEED by Jory John, Pete Oswald envisions what a ‘bad’ seed might look like:


From The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald

And what the seed might do when lying:


From The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald


Or in which situation the seed might cut in line:


From The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald

And what other bad things the seed might do:


From The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald

And what the seed might do when turned nice:


From The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald


In essence, Pete Oswald has envisioned the ‘bad’ seed’s entire world and background, and made important choices about how to convey the emotional journey of the main character as readers turn the pages. This isn’t written into the author’s words per se, but as a finished picture book, it is so much richer with the illustrator’s contributions.


Finally, sometimes, the layers and depth of the message emerge in the form of a visual punchline, such as in SUSAN LAUGHS by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross. 


Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

In this book, the space evoked by the words is filled with the pictures of Susan enjoying life just as any able-bodied child might. The detail in the pictures adds context about Susan's family, friends, and the activities she enjoys - for example "Susan flies" could have been interpreted in many different ways!


From Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

The final page shows Susan is in her wheelchair, and together with the preceding images, a picture of the whole suddenly emerges – Susan as a child just like every other.


From Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross



Next time, you’re tempted to be wordy, to add too much description, or even to over-art-direct a book, have faith. Think: could the illustrator add those layers? Time to trust! 



It’s totally worth it, and you’ll end up with a richer book as a result.



Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor, Coach 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 3 July 2023

The Magic of Pop-Up (or should that be Plop-Up?) with Mini Grey

The book: it’s portable magic – an object full of possibilities. With pop-up books there’s the possibility that the book is a Tardis: bigger on the inside. A world explodes from the book. Pop-ups are about movement: the book comes to life in your hands.

Pop-ups are made possible by the structure of the book, that central fold that lends itself to movement and acts as the engine that moves the mechanism: opening and shutting so that pop-ups can hide away inside.

So, this week (inspired by Garry’s post from April about lift-the-flap books) I thought I’d bring you a quick tour of the history of pop-up, through books I’ve picked up over the years.

The first pop-ups were for grown-ups, to do useful things like show the movements of the planets or the structure of the human body. 

De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Vesalius

In Andreas Vesalius’s book De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) from 1543, layered pages allow the reader to probe through the layers of the human body. Now I don’t have this book, but I have seen it! The images were woodblock printed, then cut out like fine lacework.

On my bookshelf we start with Lothar Meggendorfer and the first golden age of pop-ups in Victorian times. With industrialization, a wealthy middle class was emerging who had income to spend on books for children, and all could gather in the evenings to be entertained by the movable book. Meggendorfer’s moving pictures had an amazingly complicated under-structure of tabs and metal pivots.

Movable horserider by Meggendorfer

This is the kind of mechanism of levers and pivots that would have lain beneath the movable piccture.

International Circus (by Meggendorfer) is a book that is also a toy and a model. 

My copy of International Circus opened out, each scene pulls down with a parallel box type mechanism.

Meggendorfer’s Doll’s House folds out into a set of rooms you could play with.

That golden age of pop-up was brought to a close by the 20th century and the first world war: materials for making books became scarce. Then in the late 1920s the Daily Express started publishing the Bookano books. 

These were fat volumes with self-erecting pop-up ‘models’. They were made of cheap low-quality paper which meant they were affordable, so pop-ups were suddenly available to a mass market. One Bookano was given to me by John Vernon Lord. It had been given to him by Raymond Briggs. 

It must have been well played with; every single pop-up is broken except one.

The one unbroken pop-up in Briggs' Christmas present

  But not broken is the Bookano  Story of Jesus – somehow this one stayed safe from young fingers.

 Look at this – the last supper, assembled in a panelled room. Judas is skulking off in the background. There's a landscape beyond the back window. Da Vinci would have been proud.

In case you're wondering , there are 12 disciples in this pop-up but two of them are at right angles to us so we can only see their Flat Stanley-style edges.

In my Bookano Stories book is a fabulous underwater world complete with cellophane water layer.

The stand-up models in the Bookano books, like this dog, remind me of The Tiger Prowls by Seb Braun; there’s something lovely about 3D animals springing up on the page. 






In Prague I came across the work of  Vojtěch Kubašta, who was a former architect and prolific maker of pop-ups from the 1950s. 

I love the scary movable cover for his Red Riding Hood. You can watch the whole book here. 

He made thousands of works of pop-up. The ones I have are pop-up stand-up models, and my favourite is Columbus’s ship.

Probably my ultimate favourite and full of endless inspiration for pop-up mechanisms to try is Jan Pienkowski’s Haunted House.

Note the pop-up toilet. This one has a black cat inside.

Also in my all-time favourites is Raymond Briggs’ – Fungus the Bogeyman Plop-Up Book. 

Here's Fungus about to use the facilities.

Fungus's toilet 'The Leaky' has a sign in it: DO NOT PUT ANYTHING IN HERE UNLESS YOU HAVE EATEN IT FIRST, and it's patented non-flush and guaranteed to rust.

I love the toilet page, complete with Government Property toilet paper that tells you the address of the person to complain to about this page (and that there's an entire complaints department dedicated to Fungus the Bogeyman). (For more on the wonderful Raymond Briggs, see Pippa Goodhart's post from last week.)

OK, the Pop-up toilet is an obsession of mine. Here are a couple of pop-up toilets I’ve made.

From Our Machines are Sick, personal project from long ago

These toilets are for using the contents to discover plots and conspiracies with a bit of stool-reading - from Gulliver's Travels (to Laputa). (personal project from long ago)

And on, and away from toilets, to the king of pop-up – Robert Sabuda. My favourite is the Wizard of Oz.

Look at the city of Oz with its iridescent foil and green glasses to wear. 

The Wizard of Oz by Robert Sabuda

The message in the multicoloured dots is invisible until you put the green glasses on. (In photos you can make it out, but in real life you can't.) There’s also his Alice in Wonderland. Here is a beautiful V-fold house with a gigantic Alice trapped inside. 

From Alice in Wonderland by Robert Sabuda

The genius of Nick Sharrat is in making movable books that play in beautifully simple ways. Here’s the floating helicopterpus from Octopus Socktopus.

Octopus Socktopus

The lenticular cover of ABC3D

Pop-up playtime is not just for children.

ABC3D is a pop-up alphabet of surprises made from purely architectural letters.

 Pop-ups can even explain Plate Tectonics. Have a watch here


 In the Sensational Books Exhibition at the Bodleian Library I came across Creatures of the Deep by Maike Biederstaedt – bringing scientist Ernst Haeckel’s illustrations of underwater flora and fauna to life.

There is a Game of thrones pop-up book and a Pop-up Book of Phobias.

At the dentist in the frankly triggering Pop-Up Book of Phobias

The Walking Dead Pop-up Book – this is an actual horror; zombies attempt to escape the book - look away now if you feel fragile.

 – and there are even more terrifying pop-ups in this book that I can’t show in a family-friendly blog like this.

Pop-up involves the reader: the engineer is the puppet-maker, the reader becomes the puppeteer.

But sometimes, less is more. When my son Herbie was little we acquired the We’re going on a Bear Hunt pop-up book and you know…the pop-ups felt clunky compared to the pop-up-free original. A simple flap can often be more effective than a wildly complicated mechanism. The magic of every picture book is to have space for the reader’s imagination to get involved.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the incredible world of pop-up books in this post. Have you got a favourite? Do let me know!

Bruce Foster, a paper engineer based in the US, commented about the process of inventing pop-ups: “The first phase of any project is strictly playtime,” he said. “I play around a lot, work out these different mechanisms, putting them all together, experimenting.”

So, to end with, here are some books I’ve found useful for learning how to make pop-ups, because inventing pop-ups is all about playing with paper.


Paper Engineering by Mark Hiner.You make your own demonstration models for the mechanisms so it turns into a useful resource for working out what you might need to make - a nice first introduction.

Pop-Up - A Manual by Duncan Birmingham - This is a dense exhaustive guide to just about every paper engineering mechanism. For the die-hard pop-upper.

By the same author - Pop-Up Design and Paper Mechanics is much more user friendly and appealing visually, with a nice set of projects to make at the back.

The Elements of Pop-Up by David A. Carter and James Diaz. This is a brilliant resource - it contains little working models for all the mechanisms like a delicious moving menu of pop-up possibilities - being able to see how they move really helps you to choose which mechanism will work for what you want to do.

Still want to see more pop-up books? Watch on Youtube here! 


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