Monday 27 November 2023

Write Picture Books Like the PROs – Create a Rock-Solid PREMISE first! • by Natascha Biebow

The art of writing a picture book is deceptively difficult. (It can be tempting to take a good long nap when you're stuck or in need of inspiration and fortitude when submitting . . .)

Summed up perfectly in this cartoon by Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson

Here's why:

Most picture books start with an idea.

IDEA the initial inspiration for the story. The reason why the book is being written.

Yay! An idea is top-notch. Now, you can dive right in and write your picture book. You've made a good start, you might argue . But wait . . . there's a catch – picture books written in this way often lack both emotional resonance and cohesive narrative flow. 

This is because many ideas have been done as books before. This is also why you might be getting rejection letters that say your book 'feels too familiar' and 'doesn't stand out in the competitive marketplace'.

More experienced creators will write out an outline and figure out key elements in the PLOT.

PLOT – is just what happens in the story.

This is a great start too, however it still often leads to books that aren't compelling enough. Why? Because the author hasn't addressed a key factor - WHY should anyone care about this story?

Waiting to plot out the book until after you've figured out what makes the book tick can save you a lot of time!

So how do you develop that initial idea into something that will make editors, agents, and most importantly, young readers take notice?

You need a Rock-Solid Premise!



If you figure out your rock-solid premise first, you'll stay on course and not go walkabout as you figure out
how to fix your picture book that just isn't resonating or selling. As inspired by Calvin and Hobbes (by Bill Waterson),
artfully balancing their way to the other side of the stream. Don't make the mistake of falling in or getting lost in the woods!

PREMISE — The unique way YOU are going to develop that idea into a compelling, marketable picture book with resonance and impact.

This is a KEY step that many picture book creators miss when developing their idea. By taking the time to work out a solid premise, you can take your picture book to the next level by making it unique, memorable and powerful.

To give you an idea of how this can work, let's look at a bestselling picture book that is celebrating 20 years:


Premise: a child-like pigeon wants to drive the bus, but the driver has left the reader with strict instructions to mind the bus and not let the pigeon drive it. The pigeon begs, wheedles and negotiates, trying all the tactics that young readers might recognize from when they are trying to get grown-ups to do what they want. The pigeon gets increasingly frustrated and angry, but the readers keep on telling him "NO!" 

From Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems


When the driver returns and thanks them at the end of the story, the pigeon is sad, but still hopeful. Now, he's dreaming bigger with his sights set on driving . . . a truck!


From Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems

In an interview on CBS Mornings, Mo Willems said, "I think of my audience, but I never think for my audience."

In the first book of his bestselling series, the author places the child firmly in the driver's seat. The interactive dialogue format itself encourages creativity and imagination. The book is something kids can play with. It is also a springboard for imagining new adventures for the pigeon character.

The reason this premise is so strong is that the role-reversal resonates with both children and adults alike. Willem's child-centred plot, character motivation and humour are seamlessly interwoven to create a very simple, but unique and compelling story that resonates. 


Crafting a strong PREMISE is a powerful (and often missed) pro skill. It is the core concept that gives your book a reason to exist. It's what takes an idea that many other writers may have had, and makes it uniquely yours. It takes craft and skill – and sometimes 'cooking time' – to develop a solid premise that will make your book stand out in the competitive marketplace. It's well worth spending some time to consider your premise before you start writing.


Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor
Want to know more? Take a deep-dive and learn how to develop a rock-solid premise and how it can empower you to create the perfect hook for your pitch and query letter here.

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


Sunday 19 November 2023

Picture books – not just for children (with Mini Grey)

It always looks like picture books spring into being perfectly formed, so it's fascinating to see the journey of bringing a picture book into existence, and lately I've been lucky enough to sit in on the brilliant Just Imagine's An Audience with... featuring Sydney Smith. So today I want to show you a bit of the book he talked about, plus a bit of Jon Klassen's latest book The Skull, and wonder about who these books are really for.

Do You Remember by Sydney Smith

From Do You Remember by Sydney Smith

We're in the dark, close up, with a boy and his mum in bed, and they start playing a game of Do You Remember.

From Do You Remember by Sydney Smith

With the first memory we're in the summer countryside with a blue checked picnic rug.

From Do You Remember by Sydney Smith

The memories feel swiftly painted, and the first blob in the grass - that's our boy hunting for berries. The fragments have the feel of remembering, before the page turns and there's the whole picnic from the boy's point of view.

From Do You Remember by Sydney Smith

Below is one of Sydney Smith's sketches for that scene.

by Sydney Smith

Here's the remembered night of the storm - but there's more disruption going on than just a storm...

From Do You Remember by Sydney Smith

The boy and his mum look out into the stormy garden and his new red bike and the blue checked picnic blanket are being ravaged outside.

From Do You Remember by Sydney Smith

We can wonder about weather and light reflecting inner turmoils and there's been some great thunderclap and their lives are going to change.

Here are some of the sketches Sydney showed at An Audience with - capturing a mood, a memory, in landscapes.

by Sydney Smith

by Sydney Smith

by Sydney Smith

The boy and his mum leave for the city, leaving the dad behind. Here's a sketch of city driving - I love the zinging red light blobs.

by Sydney Smith

  Here's the scene in the book: 

From Do You Remember by Sydney Smith

  The bear is a gift from the boy's dad, who they have left behind, to start again, just the two of them in the city. So where we started, the mum saying "Do you remember?" in the darkest time of the night, is maybe a night of not sleeping because of huge change and upheaval. Punctuated through the memories we see the boy and the mum in bed, as the first dawn light starts to fall on them, and the sun comes up on a new day.  .

From Do You Remember by Sydney Smith

From Do You Remember by Sydney Smith
...and then we see what they've been watching emerge from the gloom through the night:

From Do You Remember by Sydney Smith

All the things they've brought with them from the country: that blue checked rug, the bike that is always slashes of the brightest red, the oil lamp from the storm: all the memories.

It was amazing seeing the quantity of paintings Sidney Smith made as he was discovering the book he was trying to make, inching towards a sort of crystallization of memory with landscape and mood to tell a story of family break up, but central to it is the boy and his mum, trying out being just the two of them together. The last image is them together, but it's framed as a memory would be, and it feels like the author is reaching in from the future to show this too will be what he remembers.

From Do You Remember by Sydney Smith

And now, to a Tyrolean Folktale retold.

The Skull by Jon Klassen


Jon Klassen is the master of the impassive face, the baleful eye. The Skull opens with Otilla running through the darkness. One night, in the middle of the night, when everyone else was asleep, Otilla finally ran away. We never know for sure what she's running away from, but that 'finally' seems to be important.

From The Skull by Jon Klassen

Here's Otilla after she's tripped and fallen and had a good cry. Now she has done crying, and a light of hope is falling on her face, from the sun rising behind a massive mansion she has come across. And living in that mansion is a disembodied skull.

From The Skull by Jon Klassen

The skull is an interesting challenge: how to make an impassive skull into something we can care about. Suddenly coming across a skull - especially an alive one - would utterly fill me with terror. But this skull has no visible teeth or separate jaw, and what this does is take away the tendency skulls have to grin, this makes it into a quiet reflective sort of skull. The skull absolutely looks the same all the way through, but it is what the skull says that make it an endearing skull. Here below is the skull 'drinking' tea, and really enjoying the tea even though it has run through him out onto the chair. The blankness of the skull means all this hope and tea-enjoyment and vulnerability can be projected onto him.

From The Skull by Jon Klassen

 The skull needs Otilla, and it turns out he is visited nightly by a terrifying headless skeleton. Otilla takes a terrible final vengeance on the skeleton, smashing it to pieces, burning it up, and then sinking the ashes in a bottomless well, in utter cathartic total destruction. Has this helped destroy what she's been running from too?  Otilla’s resourcefulness, tender tea-making and ruthless brutality towards headless skeletons is admirable. The story is thrillingly dark and scary, and also has a skull as an unlikely hero.

From The Skull by Jon Klassen

But when you finish this book there are many questions. Who was the headless skeleton? Was the skull once part of the skeleton? Why didn’t the skull want to be reunited with the skeleton? What would have happened if the skull and skeleton got joined back together again? What was Otilla running away from? Will she ever go home? And I love a book that leaves you with questions, a story that is a bit unresolved. As you walk down to catch the bus you can have a really good ponder about it, the story sticks around because your mind isn't finished with it, and it makes you want to talk about it to someone else. 

From The Skull by Jon Klassen


So, who are these books really for?

Both of these books are by author/illustrators and the pictures are doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Do You Remember is like a work of autobiography, capturing the feelings of memory using light and colour to evoke a mood, a moment, with loose paintwork. It's not in full focus and that unresolvedness makes images feel momentary, but also there's room for our imaginations to come in and do some of the resolving. There's also space for us to wonder what happened and why the boy and his mum had to move and start anew.

The Skull takes us into a dark and scary place with Otilla. I loved going there, and I think it's a brilliant exploration of the scary and perfect for an audience of children and everyone else too. Words, in The Skull, do as much work as the pictures and are beautifully understated. Also, it turns out this book is a bit about memory too, because it started in a library in Alaska, where Jon found a story called 'The Skull'. The story haunted him afterwards and he kept thinking about it. Eventually he wrote to the libary in Alaska and he got to find the story and read it again. And then discovered that in the mean time, his mind had rewritten it for him into something completely different. 

From The Skull by Jon Klassen

Reading pictures is something that people of all ages can do. I think picture books are special because there’s no other way of telling a story that has the same powers. These books couldn’t say what they need to say in any other format. The story of the pictures is deep and open-ended and resonant and being conjured by our imaginations.

From The Skull by Jon Klassen

 Our education system always ranks words higher than pictures; the words are serious, the pictures are decorations. If the pictures are serious, then it's Art and that belongs in a art lesson. Pictures: we can be looking into them with as much curiosity and insight as we would bring to literature.

My two barometer questions of my favourite picture books are: Is it for everybody, are all welcome? And:  When you get to the end, do you feel like you've been taken somewhere utterly else? Been lost spellbound in the picture book's world? The book is a door into another world -  to being transported, being taken into someone else's interior world, sharing what it feels like to be someone else.

Picture books have inclusivity - for everyone, but especially for children. Picture books allow older children instant access, to plunge straight in to the story even if they are not a fluent reader. Pictures are always open to your own interpretation, there's no right answer, so pictures are a very good thing to discuss - so readers can be expert Picture Book Detectives, readers of pictures.

The Skull and Do You Remember both have a sort of openness at the heart. We never know what Otilla is running from or how the bodiless skull came to be. The events that lead to the boy and his mum starting a new life in Do You Remember are also not spelled out, they are available for us to wonder about. The central issues that brought the characters to where they find themselves are a bit of a mystery, and open for us to ponder.

A strange surreal image from Paradise Sands, by Levi Pinfold

So who's it for? Maybe that's the wrong question, Maybe the reason why something is a picture book, is that a picture book was what the maker needed to make in order to tell the story they wanted to tell. So the question was "How can I tell my story?" and a picture book was the answer.

Picture books are a special unique format for telling a story where ALL are WELCOME - but if the books have to sit on a shelf marked 'for children' everyone else thinks they're not for them. 

Last week Julia Donaldson was on Radio 4 - with the excellent help of  Frank Cottrell Boyce -  lamenting the poor coverage children's books get in the press and on radio. What are thought of as Children's Books get put on a far dusty shelf and people who like reading what are thought of as Children's Books feel vaguely embarrassed. 

Maybe that's because of the label, and if we could see picture books especially as not exclusively for children they could get a bit more notice.