Monday, 5 December 2016

Eyes-Only Advent Picture Book Quiz • Jonathan Emmett

December is here again! So, following on from last year's quiz I thought I'd test your picture book knowledge with another Advent-calendar-like picture book challenge.

When I first started out in children's books, I was illustrating as well as writing. One of the pieces of advice my first agent, Gina Pollinger, gave me at our very first meeting was to study the work of successful illustrators and – in particular – how they drew their characters' eyes. "It's important to get the eyes right," she told me, "if you don't, the character won't come alive and children will not believe in them." Although I never really made it as an illustrator, this is still an excellent piece of advice to any budding picture book illustrator.

So, for this year's quiz, how many of these classic picture book characters can you recognise from the eyes peeping out from the Christmas tree foliage below? Click on each image to reveal the answer. To make things a little more festive – there's a common theme to the even-numbered images.








8. (No – this one is not Homer Simpson's nipples!)



How did you do?

10/10Eagle-eyed: Brilliant! You have 20/20 picture book vision.
7-9/10An attentive pupil: A good effort. You know your Blake from your Briggs.
4-6/10Not bad looking: But perhaps you should add some new reading glasses to your Christmas list.
1-3/10Blinking awful: Are you sure you had your own eyes open?

Follow the fiendishly funny exploits of evil-eyed über-brat Bradley Bartleby in Jonathan Emmett's Christmas picture book, The Santa Trap, illustrated by Poly Bernatene and published by Macmillan Children's Books.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blog. You can also follow Jonathan on Facebook and Twitter @scribblestreet.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Author Technology by Abie Longstaff

How do you use technology for writing?

Lots of my author buddies use Scrivener - writing software that allows you to organise notes and research alongside your manuscript. Many of my friends extol its virtues but, because my books are shorter than theirs, I've never felt the need to use it.

In fact, at first I thought I didn't use technology at all for writing:

I scribe longhand in notebooks, recording every idea in case one comes in useful later.

I scribble out my plots by hand

I research at the library or by reading through my own groaning shelves of picture books

Yep I thought, except for the final write up in Word, I can get by without technology at all.

I tapped through my phone feeling quite zen and satisfyingly Luddite. Only - up popped Twitter and Facebook and Blogs and my stash of Bookmarks and I realised that yes I do use technology for picture book writing - I use the internet. And I use it at every stage of the process.

1. For inspiration

I flick through the Comedy Wildlife Awards for photos of foolish animals
I use Google Images - eg I might simply type in 'penguin' to see if anything visual sparks an idea.
I have Pinterest boards to store ideas for my books - my Fairytale Hairdresser one is here and looks like this:

2. For research:

If I want fairy tales I use Sur la lune, which has a wonderful forum as well as research notes on each tale.
For myths I often visit Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.
Then, of course, there's the high-level scientific research we authors routinely have to do:

3. For writing advice:

I look on forums and sites like
Notes from the Slushpile
Author Allsorts
Girls Heart Books

4. For promotion

I use my Twitter and I follow the Picture Book Den Twitter
I use my Facebook
my website
and I blog here on Picture Book Den as well as other sites as a guest.

I follow a whole range of wonderful blog and book review sites such as
Serendipity Reviews
Story Snug
Nayu's Reading Corner
Heather Reviews
Tales of Yesterday
Luna's Little Library

So I guess I'm not as much of a Luddite as I thought!

What about you - what technology do you use for writing?

Abie Longstaff's latest picture book is The Fairytale Hairdresser and the Princess and the Pea.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Learning to Wait – Childhood Training for Being a Children's Book Author



Waiting . . .

Waiting for storytime

Waiting for Mum to play

Waiting for school to end

Waiting for dinner

Waiting your turn . . .

Waiting for the rain to stop

Waiting for the cake to bake

Waiting for Uncle to arrive

Waiting for the post

Waiting for snow

Waiting for birthdays

Waiting for the phone to ring

Waiting for a kiss

Waiting for Santa!

As a child, there are ENDLESS things to wait for. Waiting does not come easy. Why do we have to wait? Why can’t we have it NOW? Is is sooooo ***** frustrating!

As we get bigger, we learn to do just that  . . . wait 

As a child, I learned how to wait for letters (and even as a grown-up, there are still some of these sometimes) and  

if I wanted to know something, I had to wait to go to the library, or look it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica at the neighbour’s house.

As a grown-up, the world is a much faster-moving place. But, even so, it seems the clock of time has speeded up infinitesimally.
When I send an email, I itch waiting for a quick reply.  
Plus, I don’t have to wait very long at all to find out something now. I can ask Google. I can see whether it will rain tomorrow. 
I can see how fireworks make all those cool shapes and colours. And when I ping a message on social media, I can
be pretty certain someone will ping-back fairly instantaneously . . .   

But still there is waiting.

But, wait! AHA!  

It seems that from the moment I started out, the universe has been preparing me for my raison d’etre – writing children’s books.

The business of creating and publishing children’s books is full to the brim with WAITING!

Waiting for an idea

Waiting for the manuscript to be ‘cooked’

Waiting for your critique group’s feedback

Waiting for a reply to submissions

Waiting for an agent to say yes

Waiting for the publisher to say YES!

Waiting for the contract

Waiting for the editor’s feedback

Waiting to hear if your revision is OK

Waiting for the pictures to be added to the words

Waiting for the proofs

Waiting for co-editons

Waiting for the printing

Waiting for the books!

Waiting to see it in the shop


 Then . . .

Waiting for an idea . . .

Waiting to hear if there will be a new book.
Waiting –-

So, you see, being a child is the perfect training for being a children’s book writer. Even if it is **** frustrating. 


Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission.  Check out my small-group coaching Cook Up a Picture Book courses!

Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. 

Monday, 14 November 2016

Love Loud, Love Louder, Love the Loudest we’ve Loved (but not just within our cosy social media bubble who mostly share our views to start with). Where do picture books fit in, right now? by Juliet Clare Bell

It’s been an extraordinary week and a lot of people are feeling very unsettled (an understatement, I know). There were many reasons why people voted the way they did, but regardless of the reasons, a win for a team which has expressed openly racist, sexist and homophobic views sends a frightening message to many millions of people.

Now this is a picture book blog site and it’s a joint site (please note, any views expressed here are my own) so I’m trying to make this about what we can do, practically,  as writers and creators of children's books. And a lot of writers I know are feeling very low right now, and helpless, and not inclined to write. After all, lots of writers posted and shared posts calling out racism, sexism and homophobia –I was one of them– and all, seemingly, to no avail. I for one feel foolish –for a second time this year, I’ve let myself get too cosy in my own artificial bubble of social media contacts and probably felt better about myself for sharing things that were going to have absolutely no impact on anyone I shared them with except allowing other people like me to feel better about themselves, because we share a horror of such intolerance.

In fact, the last couple of years have been my best years of writing yet, because I’ve felt like I’m writing more honestly. I feel more engaged with my emotions, I’m more prepared to be vulnerable, and I like what I’m writing now much more than anything I’ve written before. Because it’s from the heart. And much of what I’ve written has been inspired what has been happening over the past few years.  And yet...

I still got it wrong. Properly wrong. I've let myself be duped by social media, where it has clearly been in the best interests of the people who profit from social media to let us live in our imaginary harmonious world of other people who think the same as us. I have my own protected life to live (with my three children), and it can be too easy to let Facebook be a comfort blanket and have my views reflected back at me without being challenged. And whilst I'm almost certain I've never shared anything (nor said anything) that mocked the opposite side or its supporters, in my cosy social media world where it was easy to assume people all pretty much felt the same, I didn't call people out on it publicly when I saw stuff that felt a bit patronising or even superior in the way I would have done if someone had been saying anything offensive from the opposition. I was lazy. And I am sorry.

In school visits, I encourage children to make mistakes and get things wrong. I make a big thing about it, because I think that it's critical for encouraging creativity, and we can get so much from learning from our mistakes. The children describe how it feels when they make mistakes: they feel embarrassed, upset, sad, small, horrible, angry, frustrated...

Barney Saltzberg's Beautiful Oops. Let's turn our mistakes into something positive and get to work...

Well, it's time to practise what we preach. I feel a lot of those emotions above. The circumstances that led to the possibility of people choosing someone whose behaviour and words encourage racism, sexism, homophobia and dismissal of people with disabilities, would have remained the same even if the vote had gone a different way. However the vote had gone, we would clearly need to be doing things a lot differently from how we've been doing them. I am part of the system that’s gone so wrong and as well as feeling horror at what is happening, I am also licking my wounds, feeling embarrassed and ashamed and accepting my part in that, however small. And then, I am making sure my response to it is positive and active, rather than despondent and inward looking. This isn't just happening now. It's been working up to this for a long time. There is so much for us all to do and since whatever we did do didn't work, we need to make changes. And tiny changes from large numbers of us can have a big impact. 

So what can we as writers and picture book creators, do right now, to play a more successful part in challenging intolerance, racism, sexism and homophobia? How can we encourage critical thinking in children (and remind us to use it better ourselves)? First of all, we can fight off the desire to go and hide under a duvet -and write (or take our pen and paper with us under the duvet and write from there). In the words of Toni Morrison:

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That’s how civilizations heal.”

It is not self-pitying to be inward looking for a little bit and challenge ourselves as to how we can do things better; it is crucial. And in terms of healing, which books are healing? I asked people (from a highly biased group of people of my Facebook friends, the SCBWI British Isles Facebook site and the US-based picture book writing site, PiBoIdMo group) which picture book they’d recommend for children at the moment during these unsettling times, with a view to writing this post. I was overwhelmed by responses -and a particular thank you to people with differing political views who posted. In this current climate, it can't have been easy. Here are some of the recommendations, with some responses:

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and E.B.Lewis (which came up quite a few times by American writers). Also, by the same author, The Other Side. ‘I love it so much. Especially poignant now because the children voted differently in the election than the adults did. And in this book, the children act differently than the adults, too--and they are correct’

Tusk Tusk, by David McKee ‘But maybe that's too depressing...’; also his book The Conquerors, which came up a couple of times: 'about a general who invades countries for their own good (all except one little country...) and Two Monsters (arguing about whether the sun's rising or the dusk's descending)'

Dr Seuss came up for lots of people:
The Lorax –which came up several times ‘Very pertinent’, as did Oh, The Places You'll Go!

‘...Chokes me up every time I read it to the kids (3 & 6) as it pretty much sums up life to me!’; ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is a perennial favourite in our house. Reading it is not restricted to Christmas because we love it and take it in turns to recite the bits we know by heart. So the sharing of it is joyful and fun but there's also the lovely idea of his heart growing 'three sizes that day' because of the community spirit’; ‘The Sneetches are good for thinking about differences between us and the fact that ultimately we're all the same… they included it when doing Black History month at school…’  ‘I love Dr. Seuss's books! … teach… lessons in subtle ways. And I love his quirky kind of illustrations!’ and ‘who wouldn't want to build a quick trick chick stack? (Fox in Sox)… (and there were more)

No Matter What by Debi Gliori –which came up several times and was the book I’d also been thinking about most this week: ‘such a wonderful and important message to give children’ (but it's ended up in so many of my posts that I'm putting a different book of hers this time -but you can watch Debi reading it if you press on the link, above). (Also, her Dragon loves Penguin: ‘still makes me cry. A great story of just because you're different doesn't mean you can't fit in’

and ‘At home, when we're feeling sad, we go back to Mr Bear Says Can I Have a Hug? - which I can recite by heart, we read it so many times’)

‘I think wordless PBs would be so effective right now--

Henry Cole's Unspoken comes to mind; so does Sidewalk Flowers (by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith)’. Others recommended wordless books, too: Tuesday and Flotsam by David Wiesner

and the wordless The Arrival by Shaun Tan. 'Poignant, resonant and exquisitely illustrated. But to share with an older child obviously'. Suggested by several.

Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers. ‘Classic story and the boy learns to love 'the other'’; also his Hueys books, and The Way Back Home ‘beautiful in terms of friendship and …co-operat[ion]… even when the same language and culture is not shared’; and The Day The Crayons Quit

And then there are many other fantastic books recommended, some I know already and plenty, especially recommendations I was given from people on the US PiBoIdMo site, that I've never heard of. And where I've found them, I've put links to a YouTube reading of them.

The Knowing Book by Rebecca Kai Dotlich… ‘a beautiful and comforting book’

The Tin Forest by Helen Ward. 'It's such a beautiful idea because this man wants so much to be in a real forest instead of a wasteland so he makes one out of tin, and soon one actually grows... and the illustrations really show how the two become one. It's a wonderful story about hope and the power of belief (but not the kind where you just want stuff - where you do stuff to make it happen!)'

You Belong Here by M.H. Clark. '[A teacher I know]… plans to use it in her legacy unit with 5th graders. She has a very diverse class and I love that she creates an amazing community'.

Waterloo and Trafalgar by Olivier Tallec

One Family by George Shannon and Blanca Gomez

Peace Is An Offering by Annette LeBox and Stephanie Graegin

The Journey by Francesca Sanna (which came up a couple of times)

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes and Louis Slobodkin

Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko

Smoky Night by Eve Bunting and David Diaz  (a picture book about rioting)

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty & David Roberts ‘Rosie is a brilliant inventor of fabulous gizmos and gadgets. A couple of lines in the book that I love......."Your brilliant first flop was a raging success!" & 'Life might have its failures, but this was not it. The only true failure can come if you quit' A fabulous inspiring & heartwarming tale about failure, perseverance & self belief!’

Vanilla and Chocolate by Maritza Martinez Mejia and Estella Mejia (recommended by the author) ‘a bilingual book about tolerance’.

Enemy Pie by Derek Munson and Tara Calahan King. It's about making friends with someone you thought was your enemy.

I'm Coming To Get You by Tony Ross. ‘A great story about keeping things in proportion. I'm not playing down our current situation but cutting monsters down to size is always a good idea’.

Mumbet's Declaration of Independence by Gretchen Woelfle andAlix Delinois: ‘A woman who listened and understood the words of the declaration of Independence and then took action in court to set it right. A perfect example of understanding of our Rights and Peaceful Protest’

Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev and Taeeun Yoo ‘a story of compassion and inclusion’

That's What Friends Do by Kathryn Cave and Nick Maland. ‘I cried at least the first 5 times I read it to [my daughter]...’ and also Kathryn Cave and Chris Riddell’s Something Else ‘Favourite for reading in class’

‘So, in the spirit of communities pulling together I give you The Giant Jam Sandwich [by John Vernon Lord] which details the extraordinary events that befall a small town and how the inhabitants deal with them. Lots of bonkers ideas and social cohesion’.

Zog! by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. ‘It is a brilliant book challenging gender stereotypes’.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr. ‘Love it and somehow never scary!’

How to Live Forever by Colin Thompson

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson--'I love the voices and the relationships'.

Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram. 'If only because it's life affirming and timeless and at the end of the day love is all you need. And it's reassuring for yourself and your child'

Wendel's Workshop (also Wendel and the Robots) by Chris Riddell ‘has both themes of protecting the planet and of creating a monster which is only overcome when they all get together, get creative and accept that they're all different’.

The Christmas Eve Tree by Delia Huddy and Emily Sutton. 'Festive, features a homeless boy yet quite positive and not scary...'

The Robot and The Bluebird by David Lucas. ‘Really got to me. Beautiful and bitter-sweet, brought a knot to my chest’. (I also felt really moved by David Lucas's honest and soul-searching approach to writing and illustrating picture books -which he discussed with us at the SCBWI Picture Book Retreat earlier this year.)

Little Beaver and the Echo by Amy MacDonald and SarahFox-Davies. Sweet uplifting story, gorgeous artwork.

And a couple of people posted really interesting blog post links which they've ordered books from (and so have I, since checking them out)…
‘because the best thing I can do at this point is try and impart to my children the ability to feel empathy, and the best way I know how to do it is through books’.

And I loved this recommendation by a mother with a young baby:

‘It's not exactly profound but we've just read Dear Zoo and he laughed his tiny little head off’.

So, some really interesting books, suggested above (and note, there are titles up there without a happy ending –which is unusual but possible –Each Kindness, Tusk Tusk, for example)…

And now it’s time for us to get on and write.

People have clearly voted for change, and if we are unhappy and unsettled about that, then we need to be out there, getting across a message of love –and not just to people who think the way we think. It doesn't have to be an issue based story, or a preachy story (as the books above testify) -but when it is written from a place of love, that will come through. There is so much for us all to do (in our personal, public and writing/creating lives) to try and make a positive difference. 

We must write. I am writing. I will write.

And I am committing to taking bigger risks now –because we need to show even more love. To love loud, love louder and love the loudest we’ve ever loved. To everyone (which means there needs to be more support for school libraries and public libraries so the books can reach wherever they need to reach)–and we can do that through picture books.

And I'm massively looking forward to the upcoming SCBWI British Isles conference this weekend where we can regroup and look to the future, and do what we must do: write, draw, create.

A huge thank you to everyone who posted recommendations and comments in response to my question -regardless of your political allegiances. I've kept the quotes anonymous. And in the spirit of coming together and trying to move forward towards a time where someone who said such hateful things would never have got enough support to run, I'd love to hear from anyone with any thoughts on how we can love louder in our stories for children (and encourage real dialogue between people who have vastly different experiences of living in society, without name calling) in a way that isn’t preachy, and which other books would you recommend to encourage greater love?