Monday, 24 July 2017

Now For Something A Little Different • Lynne Garner

I was recently asked to visit a school as part of their 'aspirations day' and talk about being an author. As I have close ties with the school I agreed. The day came and I was led to the second year room and sat in front of 20 or so year two children. After introducing myself and telling them about my typical writing day I asked if there were any questions. The first question I was asked was where do you get your ideas from? My response was anywhere and everywhere. Including:

  • Seeing random objects whilst I'm out walking
  • Sitting in a pub or similar, especially when I overhear an interesting conversation     
  • On the train, again overheard conversations are wonderful generators of ideas   
  • In the car as a passenger when I'm watching the world go by
  • Reading snippets in a newspaper, when I should be cleaning out hutches
My last example received a giggle or two. I admitted my last flash of inspiration was whilst sitting on the loo of a very quaint tea room. Among the many photographs was this one of a donkey, wearing a fab utility coat full of pockets and interesting items. I have a few ideas floating around but nothing concrete, yet.

I was then asked how random objects could generate a story. I replied things can spark different ideas based on our life experiences and our imagination. So here is the 'now for something a little different' part of this post.

Below I've inserted a few random objects I've photographed whilst out walking. I'm inviting you to give one of these objects a story, a life of it's own. Go on give it a go. I'd love to read what life you think these objects had prior to being lost or discarded in the grass.

If you've taken the time to write a few words thank you. I hope you enjoyed the process and fingers crossed it may even give you an idea for your next piece of writing.



Now for a blatant plug:

Hedgehog of Moon Meadow Farm

Monday, 17 July 2017

Can you teach people how to write a good picture book? • Pippa Goodhart

         No and yes.

         No, in that there are no clear rules that can be learnt and followed that would fit all good picture books.  If you set rules for picture book writing they might include …

Rule 1) Remember that pictures are the key feature of any picture book.  That’s why they are called picture books.  But then you’d never get a brilliant and successful book such as this –
The Book With No Pictures - Paperback - 9780141361796 - BJ Novak 
Rule 2) When writing for young children you must always supply a happy ending.  But then you’d never get an important honest books such as this –
Missing Mummy - Paperback - 9780230749511 - Rebecca Cobb 

Rule 3)  When writing for such a young audience, you must make clear exactly what is happening in the story.  And then we’d miss out on genius such as this –

I Want My Hat Back - Paperback - 9781406338539 - Jon Klassen 

So, no, you can’t neatly teach picture book writing in that didactic sort of way.  But you certainly can equip people with necessary knowledge for writing picture books, and also nurture their skills at working with pictures and the book format to convey stories suited to both target audience and market place. 
I’ve just finished teaching another run of the four week online course in picture book writing that I do via the Writers’ Workshop.  On that course, I take students back to thinking about what life was like when they were of the 2-5 year old core picture book audience age themselves. What mattered to them?  What did they find funny?  I tell them a bit about the often international market for picture books.  We think about what a story is, and how best to play it between words and pictures and page turns.  We think about writing style, how the text must read out loud pleasingly, the potential pitfalls of writing in rhyme, how dialogue can bring pictures to life, and so on. 
I asked the participants on the recent course what they thought about that course, and perhaps the most telling comment was this –
‘I learned a lot through doing (making mistakes, your comments, having another shot at it).’
It’s that having a go, actually doing, and then discussing the results, that develop writing skills far more than teaching 'rules' ever could.  It’s what I get from group of writing friends I belong to where we meet regularly, bounce ideas around, read out work and critique it, but the course provides that supportive yet critical community virtually.  I love it.
Still no guarantee that it will result in a publishing contract and book sales, though! 

            Do any of you have experiences of courses in picture book writing?  
            Can you think of any other books that clearly disobey the sorts of rules that might be thought to apply to the writing of picture books?

Monday, 10 July 2017

This post has no pictures by Juliet Clare Bell

I'm trying a new way of writing. Without writing.

I have a temporary problem with my arms and hands which makes writing and typing very difficult. Fortunately it is only temporary, and I am trying to learn what I can from this enforced difference in the way that I try to write.

As anyone who knows me can testify, I talk a lot. My answer phone messages are always too long and I can take a lot longer to say something than I need. Which is why writing picture books has been a really interesting challenge for me over the years.  

I'm a really messy thinker. So for me, I always need to start by brainstorming ideas messily onto a piece of paper. And when I start structuring my picture book, I leave out the vast majority of the original thoughts that I had. But I do need to get them down on paper before I start refining my thoughts. I think best by writing things or typing things down. 

Soon I'll be able to write and type things again properly. By the end of the summer, things should be back to normal. And I will be very happy when that happens. But in spite of the frustration of not being able to do what I want to do, it has also been an interesting learning experience.

Here are some things I have learnt.

So much of my thought processes are crystallised by writing things down. I discover what I'm really trying to say by writing it down. Voice recognition software on the phone has been brilliant, but even making to do lists by speaking rather than writing is massively less efficient for me. It's not just that it's slower, it's that I still haven't learnt to think that way. So I miss out loads of things I should be doing. 

Writing helps me remember what I'm trying to remember in a way that speaking does not.

Someone told me the other day how my text messages now are like my old answer phone messages! But in fact, text messages and emails are the easiest things to do with voice recognition software if they're just about something practical. And actually, when everything is completely better again soon, I will still use voice recognition software for those kinds of texts and emails- because it is really quick.

Some people are very quick writers. They can say what they want to say really concisely from the start. I, on the other hand, am very slow. And without being able to brainstorm first so I can see what my ideas are in order to structure what I write, I am going to be slower than ever over the next few months...

Brought to you by voice recognition softer with minimal editing and no brainstorming so no structuring. 

If you've ever tried new ways of writing, physically, because of an injury or condition, how much has it actually affected what you write?

And has anyone come up with a way of brainstorming without having to use your hands?

Monday, 3 July 2017

Ask a Question, Write a Story! • Natascha Biebow

From Curious George Visits the Library by H.A. Ray

Children often think grown-ups know everything. But I like to think grown-ups know a lot, but still have a lot to learn . . .

Like the eponymous children's book character, Curious George, children are full of wonder and bursting with curiosity. Their enquiring minds are a seemingly bottomless pit of questions that lead to new knowledge and discoveries about the world. Importantly, children are often coming fresh to things so they question WHY things are the way they are. But most adults accept the world as a matter of course. I wonder: do we sometimes get so wrapped up in the business of everyday life, doing stuff, that we pass up the opportunity to STOP, look and learn?

Do we forget to ask questions and stay ahead of the ever-changing world? Are we missing out on the fun of the ‘WHAT IF?’ game, taking a leaf out of the book of children’s curiosity?

From Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
I like to think that I learn something new every day. My seven year-old says, “Really, Mommy?”

YES, really! The world is so big and full of the unknown, surely it is possible to learn something new – even if it's just a small thing – every day?!

So, for instance, yesterday I learned that the new self-driving cars being developed by Volvo can detect a whole range of wildlife hazards, but bouncy kangaroos are eluding them. Hmmm. Random. But a story is forming. What if . . . ? 

And did you know that we are born to lie, that lying is innately part of human development, like walking and talking? 

Or that there is a tomato fight in Spain every year?

Or that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were best friends?
Of course, living with a young person in your house helps. Children are always asking “WHY?” and “HOW COME?” and “WHAT IF?” and saying, “DID YOU KNOW . . .?” 

"Oooh a worm - what does it do?"

Sometimes the questions are quite difficult to unpick:

WHO tells your brain what to do – who is the boss?
WHAT is the universe made of?
WHEN can we get a robot to do our chores?
WHY can’t we have cars that go on tram tracks? (Perfect for not using so much petrol!)
HOW COME cigarettes don't cost a million pounds each if they cause cancer?
WHY hasn't anyone invented a flying car yet?!
Cover of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again illus by Joe Berger

These day when you want to find out something, the first recourse is often to “Ask Google”. Oooh, look, quick answers, facts at the end of your fingertips. What wonder! Hmm, but though the internet may be ‘clever’, it is only as good as the person asking and thinking through the answer.

What does all this have to do with picture books, I hear you ask?

Well, the truth is often stranger than fiction. And this kind of curiosity is a great start for STORY and a fabulous resource for writers.

Non-fiction picture books are a fantastic launching point for our quest to learn about the world and pursue our questions, but facts can also be so much fun when you fictionalize them to knit the story in between. Like in this book:

Because story is one of the most powerful ways we can find out about the world, 

introducing us to ideas and facts that we had perhaps never even considered,

. . . and some stories are so delightfully complex or ambiguous that we just want to keep asking and delving deeper.



In fact, I'd wager that some of the best stories leave us with more questions than answers . . . 

If we all keep on asking WHY the world goes and WHAT makes it go – whether or not the answer can be found on Google or inside a picture book near you – oh, the wonder of the stories we can create!

What will you learn today?!


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 coursesNatascha is also the author of The Crayon Man (coming in 2019!), 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, 26 June 2017

The Picture Book World Cup • Jonathan Emmett

As well as being a picture book author, I'm a Patron of Reading. A Patron of Reading is a children's author, poet, storyteller or illustrator who partners with a school to encourage and develop a culture of reading for pleasure within that school. I thought I’d use this post to tell you about The Picture Book World Cup, a week-long reading for pleasure project I helped organise at my Patron of Reading school, Asfordby Captain’s Close Primary School in Leicestershire.

The inspiration for the project came from Texas elementary school teacher Dianne Fulton. Back in March, Dianne sent me the tweet below to tell me that The Princess and the Pig, one of my picture books with illustrator Poly Bernatene, was in competition with 15 other books in her school's Sweet Sixteen Book Challenge.

The challenge was a knockout contest, where books were played off in pairings with students voting to decide the winner of each pairing. Dianne kept me posted on The Princess and the Pig's progress via Twitter and I was delighted to see it get all the way to the final before its winning streak was finally interrupted by David Ezra Stein’s Interrupting Chicken.

It seemed like such a great idea that I decided to adapt it to use with my patron school.

Dianne's wall chart reminded me of the progress charts that newspapers and magazines give out at the beginning of a football World Cup.

Dianne’s Sweet Sixteen wall chart after the first round and a chart from the 2014 Football World Cup

So we called our version the Captain's Close Picture Book World Cup and I created this World Cup style progress chart to go with it.

Each class had a copy of this chart  to follow the contest's progress.

I firmly believe that picture books can be enjoyed by all ages – not just preschoolers and infants – and Captain's Close's Literacy Co-ordinator Lisa Gackowska and Headteacher Julia Hancock feel the same way. So we had the whole school vote in our contest, from Reception right the way up to Year 6. The initial groups were age-graded, so the Group 1 books, which were voted on by Reception class, were chosen to appeal to slightly younger readers than the Group 2 books which were voted on by Years 1 and 2. However, as the contest progressed, the age range voting on each match widened. So all of the Key Stage 1 students got to vote on the outcome of Semi-Final 1, while all of the Key Stage 2 Students voted on Semi-Final 2. And the whole school got to vote on the outcome of the final.

One of my aims as a Patron of Reading is to introduce reluctant readers to new books that they'll enjoy reading. Many reluctant readers prefer non-fiction to fiction, so the initial selection contained an equal number of non-fiction and fiction books, with each group starting out with both a non-fiction and a fiction match.

And – following the example of Dianne’s US version – each of the initial matches had a different theme.

Group 2's non-fiction books were both about the Natural World and their fiction books had an Animal Antics theme.

I wanted to encourage students to stray off the beaten path a little, so I tried to avoid books by big name authors like Julia Donaldson (as much as I admire her work). And – to ensure impartiality – I didn’t include any of my own picture books.

I introduced all sixteen books in a special assembly at the beginning of the week. Once the voting had begun, students could follow the progress of all four groups on one of the wall charts, which were updated after each round.

The School's World Cup corridor display with a wall chart showing the progress of the contest.

After fourteen qualifying matches, the two books that made it all the way to the final were Oi Frog! by Kes Gray and Jim Field and Nuts in Space by Elys Dolan. You can see the results of each qualifying match in the filled in version of the chart below.

Here's how the chart looked before the final.

At the end of the week we had another special assembly to finish the contest. I started off by asking students if they had any favourite books that hadn't made it to the final and was pleased to discover that all of the books in the contest had found some new fans.

I’d been tweeting updates on the contest throughout the week and I showed the students some of the responses I’d received from the authors and illustrators of the competing books. You can read some of these tweets in a collection here.

Finalists Jim Field and Elys Dolan engaged in some pre-match banter on Twitter.

Then it was time to reveal the winner. The votes for the final had been collected by secret ballot and  – to string out the suspense – I announced the results a class at a time. It was a close run contest, with the lead shifting from one book to the other as the votes were counted in. Both books had enthusiastic supporters who broke out into excited cheering whenever their book pulled ahead. I've never had to ask a school audience to settle down so many times!

I'd ordered the results so that it wasn’t clear which book was going to win until the votes from the very last class were counted in.

Sparrows Class were the last to have their votes counted in.

But in the end, the winner, by 84 votes to 73 was …

Nuts In Space, by Elys Dolan!

Congratulations to Commander Moose and his crew for boldly going all the way to World Cup glory and to Elys Dolan for creating such a wonderful book!

My three year tenure as Captain Close’s Patron of Reading ends this term and the Picture Book World Cup wasa great way for me to sign off. So I’d like to give a big THANK YOU to Dianne Fulton for letting me steal her idea and another big THANK YOU to Literacy Co-ordinator Lisa Gackowska for doing such a great job of refereeing the project in school.


If you’d like to try running your own Picture Book World Cup I’ve created some PDF progress charts and logos that you can download. There are two sets, one that uses the same books as the Captain’s Close contest described above and a blank template set that you can fill in with your own choice of books.


Here's a timetable that can be used to run the contest over a week with students split into four groups and an equal number of fiction and non-fiction books. Each group has to read six books and take part in five votes. 

Introduce the contest and all 16 books in morning assembly.
Read the two non-fiction books in your group and vote on them. 

Read the two fiction books in your group and vote on them.
Have a quarter final vote between Monday’s non-fiction winner and today’s fiction winner. 

Semi-Finals: Read the quarter final book chosen by the other group on your half of the chart and then have a vote between that and Tuesday's quarter final winner from your own group. 

Final: Read the semi-final book chosen by the other half of the school and then have a vote between that and Wednesday's semi-final winner from your own half of the school. 

Reveal the winner in assembly!

You can find out more about the Patron of Reading scheme at

Jonathan Emmett's 'Sweet Sixteen' finalist book was The Princess and the Pig, 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 blogYou can also follow Jonathan on Facebook and Twitter @scribblestreet.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Responding to a Call to Action • Chitra Soundar

We’re living in strange times – where dystopia is no longer confined to the pages of a novel. Around us we find fear and insecurity, differences and intolerances turn into political ideology and public policy.

 How does a children’s book writer get involved? My readers are wee people who do not understand constitution or right to vote. Many are perhaps not even potty trained. What could I possibly do to bring about change?

Read an interesting discussion in the New York Times - that discusses this very topic.

Good picture books have multiple layers and meanings. While it deals with a child’s emotion in a child’s world from the point of view of a child, it also has an adult reader, often. Many picture books are read aloud by sleepy-eyed parents, novice aunts and uncles doing bedtime as a novelty or grandparents who are amazed at how much books have changed over the years.

Any topic being discussed – whether hidden inside a story or a narrative that explains a concept – space, dinosaurs, trucks need to appeal to the child first and foremost. Then it needs to engage the adult reader too. If it manages both, then of course reading it over and over again becomes less of a chore.

So as a writer in this complex political world, I have two voters for every read – a contemporary voter who hopefully would vote in the next election (by the looks of it, we might have it regularly like an annual summer event) and a child voter who is the future of this nation. This captive audience is looking for a story. A story that they can enjoy, laugh with, think about and perhaps learn from. A story that doesn’t beat the moral over the reader’s head but through its nuanced plot elements, leads us to the inevitable but surprising ending.

As I watched the election results trickle by, as the nation rejoiced of a hung parliament, I realised I have an obligation to stand up and tell stories that
a)     promote equality, diversity, empathy and compassion
b)    children of all colour, abilities and gender in a positive light
c)     give us hope instead of despair; joy in the face of adversity.

Many of us remember the books we read as kids. Many of us have learnt some crucial things about life from books. So what better way to equip the voters of tomorrow? What better way to prepare the minds of young readers than give them stories that they can apply in real life that will bring about a better society for everyone?

Children’s writers have an important role in these interesting times. Whether we are talking about underpants or wishing the rabbit good night, we need to make our characters stand up for something. They need to find their way in these murky times through stories we tell and stories we equip them to tell.

This is the time to bring out stories that empower our children with skills and sensitivity to live in an integrated society, where we do not fear “the other” and “the unknown.” And the good news is many writers are already doing this. There are books out there that show us “others” are not different. Like Siddhartha Mukherjee says in his book The Gene – An Intimate History, we are more similar than different as human beings.

On 13th June, Empathy Lab UK initiated a new celebration called EmpathyDay and on that day, we all tweeted our recommended reads. I’ve started collecting them all here. If you know of a book that inspires empathy, promotes togetherness and brings us together, then do post in the comments below or tweet it out with hashtag #ReadForEmpathy.

Let’s help raise better citizens for tomorrow.

Chitra Soundar is a closet clown, consummate liar, writer and storyteller. Find out more at or follow her on Twitter at @csoundar.