Monday, 23 January 2017

Beyond the Doughnuts by Nicholas John Frith (Guest Blogger)

Published in the UK
by Alison Green Books, 2016
Welcome to our guest at the Picture Book Den: author and illustrator Nicholas John Frith. His first book, Hector and the Hummingbird, had us grinning and won the Klaus Flugge Prize for most exciting newcomer to picture book illustration in 2016. Now Nicholas muses (or in his words, ‘brain spews’!) on his second book, Hello Mr Dodo!

I’m not entirely sure where the idea, for my latest picture book, Hello, Mr Dodo!, came from. But it was all in there somewhere, when I was reading a newspaper article about the discovery of a flightless bird, in New Zealand, that had previously been considered ’extinct’; watching 'The Hunter', the Willem Defoe movie, about the rumour of the last Tasmanian Tiger and the planned exploitation of it; growing my interest in birds and the natural world; and reflecting on my own childhood summers.

Hello, Mr Dodo! is pretty new to the shelves, but I am pleased when I hear people are noting the underlying themes of the story, beyond the bright doughnuts and advertised ‘friendship’ tale. Many of those themes were influenced by my thoughts on the material listed above and are what really drove the project forward within me.

“Martha was cuckoo about birds.”

That’s how the story begins. And from the very first draft, that’s how it always began. I love a bit of word play. At one point there were a good handful of bird-related puns in the text. Although they didn’t all make it past my editor (Alison Green), it was a still bit of a lark!

The story didn’t change much during the process of making the book. It always began and ended pretty much the same way as it does. With only the timings of when Martha realises the bird is actually a dodo, and the where-and-when of the secret being let slip, shifting in the narrative.

As I dug deeper into the history of the dodo, I realised just how little was known about them. How much of it was vague, and how almost mythical they were. And therefore, how interesting liberties could be t
aken with the dodo, without stretching the truth too far.

They didn’t have to be living in Mauritius – as they had been put on boats by the Dutch. They could love eating doughnuts – as no one can disprove that they’d love these sweet fried treats! 

One thing about the dodo ‘character’ that was paramount to me though, even within his friendship with Martha, was that ‘Mr Dodo’ remained a bird, an animal. Despite Martha’s engagement.

With the artwork, I wanted to embrace the opportunity to use bright spot (pantone) colours again, as I had with my debut, Hector and Hummingbird. And the summer setting was perfect for this. The dodo was a joy to draw too and I’m particularly pleased with his partially vacant demeanour.

When I start imagining the artwork for a book, I start imagining the entire book. The endpapers, the size, the paper type, the layout, the title page, the typography, and the extras. Extras that add another dimension to the book (and the story), like the KNOW YOUR BIRDS page at the back of Hello, Mr Dodo! or the SPOT THE JUNGLE ANIMALS in Hector and Hummingbird.

And I try to think of the feeling I’d have if I were holding the final book in my hands. 

Endpapers: Hello, Mr Dodo!
I strive to put across this importance, of the book as a whole. About how it makes us feel, as well as the story in the words.

If it were up to me I’d love it if the ‘lead’ edition of my books were always hardbacks.

Talking of hardbacks… Hello, Mr Dodo! will be published (in hardback) in the USA later this month, by Arthur A. Levine Books. Which I’m excited about.


Thanks to Picture Book Den for the opportunity to brain spew (my words, not theirs) on their blog. It’s really just been snippets of reflection on my latest book.

One last thing… A good friend of mine recently mentioned that, since reading Dodo, his young son now starts on, incessantly, about wanting doughnuts each time he sees an image of a dodo! So, I’m sorry, if this happens to you too. But the fact is, dodos love doughnuts! Ask Martha, she’ll tell you the same.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Why I hope the 10th Children’s Laureate will champion non-fiction • Jonathan Emmett

If past years are anything to go by, BookTrust will soon be encouraging people to suggest candidates for the next Children’s Laureate.

The current laureate Chris Riddell has worked wonders in the role, energetically waving the banner for children’s literature with one hand while deftly drawing an endless stream of characterful illustrations with the other. When Riddell first took on the Laureateship he announced that his focus would be to “use the immediacy and universality of illustration to bring people together and lead them all into the wonderful world of books and reading, whilst championing creativity in schools and beyond”.

Illustration was also the focus of Quentin Blake and Anthony Browne’s laureateships, while other laureates chose to focus on other areas that play a key role in engaging young readers including poetry, storytelling, performance, the importance of libraries, daily reading and parents reading aloud. However one key area of children's literature that has yet to be championed by a laureate is children’s non-fiction. So I’d like to suggest that the tenth Children’s Laureate should be a non-fiction author or illustrator.

Some of the non-fiction books that helped turn me into a lifelong reader.

I’m principally a fiction author but, like many children of my generation, non-fiction played a critical role in establishing my reading habit and turning me into a lifelong reader. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s the children’s sections of bookshops and libraries were as well stocked with non-fiction titles as they were with storybooks. Mainstream publishers like Ladybird excelled at publishing books that reflected the most obscure childhood interests and enthusiasms, from crochet to car mechanics. By responding to the breadth and diversity of children’s interests in this way, non-fiction books were often able to engage the reluctant readers that fiction could not reach.

From crochet to car mechanics, publishers like Ladybird excelled at reflecting the breadth and diversity of childhood interests.

The children’s book market has changed a lot since then. It’s now far bigger, and far less balanced in terms of fiction and non-fiction. While children’s books about crochet and car mechanics are still being published, a child interested in either – or any other non-mainstream non-fiction topic – is far less likely to discover them in a landscape dominated by children's fiction. Non-fiction has become the Cinderella of children’s publishing and many children who might otherwise have become readers are turning their backs on books because of this.

There is a growing acceptance of the need to redress the balance and promote children’s non-fiction more effectively. Campaigns like FCBG’s Non-Fiction November are already helping to do this, but there is still a long, long way to go. Appointing a non-fiction author or illustrator as the next Children’s Laureate would provide an invaluable boost to the profile of children's non-fiction and represent a huge step in the right direction. And many children that are initially hooked into reading by non-fiction go on to become avid fiction readers, so appointing a non-fiction Laureate could benefit children's fiction too.

I’ve been asking around for the names of non-fiction authors and illustrators who might make a good Laureate and some of the suggestions I received are shown below. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive list and I don't know if any of these people would be willing to take on the role, but I'm hoping it will help to set the ball rolling on a debate about who might fit the bill.

Catherine Chambers enjoys writing about history, cultures and religions, and reckons that sport can satisfy all three. Her books include Stickmen's Guide To The Sky - Uncovered and Goal! How Football Conquered the World 

Nicola Davies is a zoologist and one of the original presenters of the BBC children's wildlife programme The Really Wild Show. Her books include A First Book of Nature, illustrated by Mark Herald and Poo: A Natural History of the Unmentionable, illustrated by Neal Layton. 

Anita Ganeri is the author of the award-winning Horrible Geography series including Planet in Peril which won the Blue Peter Book Award - Best Book with Facts 2009. Her other books include The Explorer’s Handbook: How to Be the Best Around the World. 

Richard Platt is the author of Pirate Diary, illustrated by Chris Riddell, which won the Blue Peter Book Award - Best Book with Facts 2003Incredible Cross Sections, illustrated by Stephen Biesty, was selected by the Guardian as one of the three greatest children's books of the 90s.

Tony Robinson came to fame playing the role of Baldrick in Blackadder. He has won the Blue Peter Book Award - Best Book with Facts award twice, for The Worst Children's Jobs in History, illustrated by Mike Phillips in 2007 and for Weird World of Wonders: World War II, illustrated by Del Thorpe in 2014. 

Andy Seed is the author of The Silly Book of Side-Splitting Stuff, illustrated by Scott Garret, which won the Blue Peter Book Award - Best Book with Facts 2015. His other non-fiction books include The Anti_Boredom Book of Brilliant things To Do, also illustrated by Scott Garret.

If you have any more suggestions, I’d love to hear them in the comments box below. You might find some names you'd like to suggest on the NIBWEB children's non-fiction website. If you’re on Twitter or Facebook, you could also tweet your suggestion for a possible non-fiction laureate using the #NonFictLaureate hashtag. With a bit of luck, we might just persuade the Laureate selection panel to appoint a much-needed Fairy Godmother to this Cinderella of children’s books.

UPDATE 20/1/17: The suggestion that the next Children's Laureate be a non-fiction author or illustrator has had a good reception on social media. You can read some of the responses in the Twitter collection here. And here are some more non-fiction authors and illustrators that have been suggested (either on social media or in the comments below) in response to this post:

Although Jonathan Emmett has written a few non-fiction books, he is very lazy and so tends to write books where he can get away with making things up. His latest picture book Prince Ribbit, illustrated by Poly Bernateneis the entirely fictitious story of a non-fiction-loving princess and a very cunning frog.

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, 9 January 2017

Celebrating Birthdays from Many Cultures • Chitra Soundar

I was born and raised in Chennai, a coastal city in South East India, in a very traditional family. We did not have TV until we were 14 and other than the BBC World Service and a bunch of Enid Blyton books that sounded magical, we were largely untouched by western influences until the late 1980s.

My birthdays were always celebrated in a traditional way. That was nice because I was able to celebrate twice – once on the lunar calendar based on the original lunar month and birth star in a Hindu calendar and once in the Western calendar 9th January (Yes it is today! Happy Birthday to me!).

I got to put on a new dress, my Granny would make an Indian sweet (whatever I asked for the previous night), I would be blessed by everyone in the family (we were a joint family – so uncles, aunts, cousins) and my Dad would give me a small extra allowance which I would cherish and save so I could buy stationery. (You can take the girl out of the stationery shop, but…)
That's me on the far right kneeling in front of my Granny
If the English birthday (ie, the one on the western calendar) happens to fall on a school day – I would be allowed to ditch the uniform and wear my new dress to school and I was expected to take a bag of sweets into school for the children and teachers.

First birthdays are celebrated with ceremonies, prayers, a big feast and the entire clan turning up. Here is an invitation from 1972 inviting our family and extended family to my first birthday celebrations.

And here is a photo of my sister's first birthday in the traditional way with priests, ceremonies and a lot of smoke.

Sorry Sis!

My nephews who are of mixed-race, have a bit of both worlds. We travelled to India and celebrated their first lunar birthdays in the traditional way with invitation and all. And they got their cake and party here in the UK with friends and family in the UK.

That's cake with my nephew's favourite car in the world - Lightning McQueen

What has all this got to do with picture books you wonder? Well, I’ve been trying to get a picture book for my nephews (who are 4 ½ and 2 and are of mixed-race) that shows them what birthdays are for Indian families – not just the cake, the presents, the party with balloons and hats, but the quiet wisdom of elders, the whisper of a blessing, the touch of grandfather’s hand on his head wishing him every joy in the world forever and ever!

Unfortunately there are very few picture books currently in print, published in the UK that have another culture represented. Thanks to Frances Lincoln (and Janetta Otter-Barry) we have one from the amazing South African writer and illustrator Niki Daly.
Niki Daly (Author and Illustrator) Published by Frances Lincoln in the UK
Tamarind Books published Kay's Birthday Numbers written by the wonderful Verna Wilkins (illustrated by Elaine Mills) in 1987 and I hope Verna brings it back as part of FireTree Books.
Verna Wilkins (Author) Elaine Mills (Illustrator) Published by Tamarind Books in 1987

Another out of print birthday book is Gail's Birthday written by Katie Teague published by Magi Publications in 1995.

It is sad that there is so much choice on birthday books overall but so little that are diverse. The US fared a bit better. They do have a handful of Asian and Spanish birthday celebrations in picture books for children that grow up in those cultures.

Monica Brown  (Author), Sara Palacios (Illustrator) Published by Children's Book Press
Pat Mora  (Author), Cecily Lang (Author) Published by Prentice Hall &IBD

Shan-Shan Chen (Author) Heidi Goodman (Illustrator) Published by Tuttle Publishing

The Latin press Arte Publico has a children's imprint called Pinata Books for Children. It has published two birthday books in Latin families.

Spelile Rivas  (Author), Valeria Cervantes (Illustrator) Gabriela Baeza Ventura (Translator)

by Diane Gonzales Bertrand (Author), Robert Trujillo (Illustrator)

Then I found a non-fiction one from a long time ago, that celebrates birthdays around the world. Sadly I think it is out of print.

Mary D. Lankford  (Author), Karen Dugan (Illustrator) published by Harpercollins

And finally here is a very new one from  Nigeria, which I was happy to find and hope many more books come out of countries and communities with an inspiration to reach children of all backgrounds.
Mylo Freeman (Author) Published by Cassava Republic Press

So I had accidentally stumbled into a gap which I had hoped would not exist. What should I do? What would any writer do? Fill it, of course. I've started dreaming up stories that are set in mixed-race families (that are part-Indian) that celebrates birthdays in a unique way - in a way that celebrates the customs and traditions of both the cultures these children straddle.

However I'm worried, I might have missed wonderful books that might have been published or translated into English. I'm not infallible, neither is my God - Google. So if you find any that I might have missed, please do share below.

I solemnly promise to create a list that I will share with librarians, schools and parents so that all children can read about birthday celebrations of their neighbours, friends and children across the world. 

If like me, you're inspired to write a story of your own, that resonates with your extended family, a student in your school, a new neighbour from another country, here's something to start you off - a link that lists traditions across the world -
(Be cautious, do verify them, it is after all "The Internet" where dubious trumps hang around!)

And here is one from the definitely-not-dubious but very amazing John Green on his Mental Floss channel.

And now please join me in singing Happy Birthday (in 7 different languages) to everyone celebrating their birthday on 9th January -  Kate Middleton (you know her, right?), Morris Gleitzman (Australian children's author), Farah Khan, the Bollywood choreographer extraordinaire and of course me.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Agonising for Authors - by Michelle Robinson

Has anyone else been indulging in a bit of Agatha Christie over Christmas? Crikey, that lady could plot. She wrote close to one hundred books and she made it look so easy. It's not. In her autobiography, Christie said, 

Agatha, hard at it.

"There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off."

Tell it like it is, Aggie. Every word that makes it into a book has been carefully considered, handpicked and polished to perfection. Choosing the right words isn't the only part of writing that involves decision making. Here are just a few of the many things we writers will most likely be agonising over in 2017.


  1. Is my opening sentence strong enough?
  2. How is my story arc?
  3. What is a story arc?
  4. Is my latest idea even slightly original or have I inadvertently rehashed an episode of SpongeBob?
  5. Which publisher should I target?
  6. How many months until I get a rejection?
  7. What’s the elevator pitch?
  8. How many elevators do I need to take before I find myself riding with someone even remotely involved in publishing?
  9. Should I write my next book in the first or third person?
  10. Should I invent a completely new narrative form instead?
  11. If I do, will I win a prize?
  12. Did that last sentence really need a comma?
  13. Why are the voices in my head all telling each other to shut up?
  14. What are the rules of my new fictional world?
  15. Is my email even working? *refresh, refresh, refresh*
  16. Where does the action take place - do I need to draw a map?
  17. Why didn't I pay more attention in geography?
  18. Do I own an eraser?
  19. Do cats die if they swallow erasers?
  20. Am I showing or telling - and which is the good one, again?
  21. Surely there’s an app that writes bestselling novels?
  22. If I invent the app will I win a prize?
  23. Where did I leave my glasses/pen/notebook/laptop/valium?
  24. Does Googling my own name go toward my word count?
  25. Admin, research, reading or Netflix?
  26. Why does the doorbell only ring when I'm in my pyjamas?
  27. Why are my deliveries always for the neighbours?
  28. Which cardigan is my lucky cardigan? 
  29. Can I afford to go to my publisher’s summer party?
  30. Can I afford to put the heating on?
  31. Are Tesco’s recruiting?
  32. Tea or coffee?
  33. Toast or ice cream?
  34. Scrape the mould off the bread or walk to the shop?
  35. Are cardigans tax deductible?
  36. May I punch the next person who assumes I want to be ‘the next JK Rowling’?
  37. May I punch the next person who tells me they have a great idea for a children’s book?
  38. May I punch the next person who says must be nice, having a hobby that pays’?
  39. May I send a computer virus to the next person who emails me expecting a free professional critique?
  40. Which chat show do I most want to appear on when I win the Carnegie?
  41. When will I have my own dedicated shelf/department in WHSmith?
  42. If Blue Peter knew about me would they give me a badge?
  43. If I nominated myself for children’s laureate would my mum vote for me?
  44. Will my next book be the one?
  45. Which window is best for staring out of?
  46. Does JK Rowling still stare out of windows or does she pay someone to do it for her?
  47. If I bump into JK Rowling at my publisher’s summer party might we become pals?
  48. Is it too early to go back to bed?
  49. Are there prizes for that?
  50. Am I a figment of my own imagination?
Michelle Robinson has 13 picture books due for publication in 2017. Naturally she took a while deciding which one to tell you about. She eventually picked 'Monkey's Sandwich', illustrated by Emily Fox, publishing with HarperCollins in January 2017. Michelle wrote this in her pyjamas. 

Read more from Michelle at 

Quote: 1977, Agatha Christie: An Autobiography by Agatha Christie, Part 9: Life with Max, Quote Page 458, Dodd, Mead, & Company, New York.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Warmest Winter Wishes from the Picture Book Den!

Season's greetings to all our readers!

It's hard to choose just one book each, but these are our favourite picture books for this time of year. We hope you'll love them too, and add your favourite to our list in the comments.

Jane Clarke

A lot of people will know Mog’s Christmas, by the wonderful Judith Kerr, from the new edition last year. It was first published in 1976, but this is the 1978 Picture Lions edition I read to my (then) small sons. We especially enjoyed it because my mum and dad’s cat never knew quite what to make of a Christmas tree. Now I’m the Grandma, It gives me enormous pleasure to read the same copy to my granddaughters - and granddog!

Jonathan Emmett

My family and I are big Dr. Seuss fans and Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a longstanding festive favourite in the Emmett household. I think that many, if not most, of the readers to this blog will already be familiar with it. Just in case you aren’t – it tells the story of a magnificently misanthropic creature who hates Christmas so much that he steals every last trace of it (gifts, decorations, food) in a brilliantly orchestrated Christmas Eve raid on his local town. You’ll have to read the book yourselves if you want to know if it has a happy ending.
Like all of Seuss’s books, the story is told in a funny, beautifully-crafted rhyme that reads perfectly aloud. However Seuss does cheat a little with the following couplet:
“And he stuffed them in bags. Then the Grinch, very nimbly,
Stuffed all the bags, one by one, up the chimbley!”
But you’d have to be a Grinch yourself not to smile at this!

Michelle Robinson

Muesli rejects your glad tidings.

Muesli the cat couldn't be less bothered about Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs. She is totally unimpressed by all the illustrated details of his house at the North Pole. She isn't remotely curious about what he gives the Queen, or what he's wrapped up for his own pet cat at the end. If she could quote Raymond Briggs' Santa, she'd say,"Merry bloomin' Christmas." As it is, she can't even bring herself to meow.

Abie Longstaff

We love How Santa Really Works by the appropriately named Alan Snow. It's a lot of fun and includes answers to pressing questions such as 'how does Santa fit down the chimney?' and others. It also has a wonderful cross-section of Santa's sleigh (who doesn't love a cross-section?). The book is a messy, detailed, mechanical joy.

Pippa Goodhart

Five Silly Snowmen by Steve Lenton,
published by Little Tiger Press

Five Silly Snowmen is a Christmas book that I only discovered last year, long after my grown-up children gave an excuse for me to enjoy such things. This time I was buying a book to read, along with a whole lot more, to my local Home-Start group's party for pre-school children. I shared a range of books, but this was the one that got asked for again and again. Bright and simple and silly, this is a counting rhyme -
One silly snowman is splashing in the sea. Two speedy snowmen are racing round a tree,' etc. And it ends with them all five snowmen tucked up in bed.
I shall be reading stories at this year's Christmas party, and this book is top of the pile for it! Happy Christmas! PS The cat is called Dotsy.

Chitra Soundar

Stick Man by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
published by Scholastic Books

Stick Man has stood the test of time in my nephew’s Christmas routine. Other Christmas books have come and gone. But Stick Man is a staple. The rhymes, the rhythm, the muddles and the troubles – the situations are tense as much as they are funny.
However the biggest joy of the story is when Santa is introduced as Stuck Man. Like all good picture books and those especially by Julia Donaldson, the story has layers that you can experience each time you read. And you will read it many, many times.
If you come to our house for a Christmas party, the entertainment includes a demonstration of how Stick Man helped Stuck Man get out of the fireplace.

Paeony Lewis

Spud doesn't think the Three Wise Men in this story are very wise.
Don't they know bones make the best gift?

When the children were young we had huge fun sharing Jesus' Christmas Party by Nicholas Allan (published by Random House). Now my children are adults so I'm left with Spud the dog and he's unimpressed by the lack of bones in the story. Never mind, I appreciate the cheeky humour of a tired innkeeper growing more and more frustrated at the goings on in his stable - all the innkeeper wants is a good night's sleep! The story is a mischievous, animated delight to read aloud and it ends charmingly, proving that even a two-thousand-year-old nativity story can be retold in a fresh, new way.

Juliet Clare Bell

Melrose and Croc by Emma Chichester Clark

When they were young, my children loved Emma Chichester Clark's Blue Kangaroo. But Melrose and Croc is by far my favourite of her books. Melrose and Croc are both lonely at Christmas and it takes them a while to find each other, but when they do (and spoiler alert – it's in time for Christmas Day), it's just lovely.

Natascha Biebow

Our personal favourite is Olivia Helps with Christmas by Ian Flaconer. It is such a laugh! The author artfully captures all the joys of waiting for Santa, family traditions and spices it up with humour for children and grown-ups. We never tire of reading it over and over again. Is Santa here yet?!

Do let us know your old or new picture-book favourites for this festive time of year.
Our next blog post will be Monday 2 January, 2017 - a new year filled with new books!

Monday, 12 December 2016

An alternative way to fund picture books that tackle tricky subjects –and finding a new way of working at the same time. With thanks to the Arts Council England, by Juliet Clare Bell


Have you ever wanted to write a picture book (or any other book) about a subject that you believe there’s a genuine need for but that you also know would be really difficult to sell to a traditional publisher?

And what if the book would take time and resources to research in order to make it as authentic as possible?

I am currently working on a project for which I received funding from The Arts Council, England. The project involves writing a picture book about a subject that would have been very difficult to sell to a traditional publisher –namely, child bereavement.

I am not going down the route of every book I write using alternative routes to publication. I am still using the traditional method for the majority of the time. But I've had a big rethink about what I really want to be doing over the past couple of years. Previously, if there was a certain topic that I was really interested in writing about but I knew the resulting manuscript was highly unlikely to be picked up by a traditional publisher, then I decided against writing it. And then I decided that that wasn't going to work for me any more. I decided that I'd look for different ways to make those books happen. And that different way -in this instance, funding from the Arts Council- has worked. And it's something I definitely plan to do again. From now on, if what I most want to write about is going to be a really difficult sell and is going to take research to do it, then I’m going to look for funding to create that book. 

In this post, I'm going to talk about hints for getting an Arts Council grant for writing/creating a book, but it's worth thinking about other charities that might support you instead (or as well as). And having been commissioned to write one picture book by Bournville Village Trust

It was fun... (with Jess Mikhail, who illustrated the book)

(and here's the front cover, by Jess)

 and another for Birmingham Children's Hospital in the past couple of years, 

Dave Gray (the illustrator) and me, with some of the children involved in the project -(L-R) Calum, Aaron, Charlie and Dan, and Jess Wilkes-Reading who coordinated the project. With Dave's amazing book bench

I'd also suggest thinking really creatively about who might fund the book you're itching to create. The questions I've outlined below are with Arts Council funding in mind but a lot of them would apply to any potential funder...

So, if you’re interested in the possibility of applying for funding from the Arts Council for writing a difficult to sell book, but you're about as sure of what to do as when you are confronted with your first ever candyfloss... 

(Genuinely first ever exposure to candyfloss...)

here are some questions that might be good to think about carefully…

  • [1] Do you have a great idea for a fictional book (the Arts Council is not as interested in nonfiction, I believe) that’s going to require research? Are you keen to get funded so you can afford to start the project in the first place and so you can do the subject justice? Can you say why it’s such a great idea?
  • [2] Is there a genuine gap in the market for the book you want to write? Can you really state your case for the need for this book?
  • [3] Is your great idea one that tackles a subject that would be really hard to get a traditional publisher interested in (or, given what it will take to do the research, will it be hard to get a publisher to commission you to write the book so that you can afford to write it)?
  • [4] Are you the right person to write it/illustrate it? Can you outline why you’re the right person to write/illustrate it?
  • [5] Can you come up with relevant creative work with individuals who might typically have less access to the arts that will add to the project and help you with coming up with the most authentic book you can write?
  • [6] Can you find organisations/charities/individuals that would agree with your answers above and want to champion the book, either during the research/writing process, or once it’s released?
  • [7] Can you articulate how this grant would help you as an artist in terms of your future as a writer or writer/illustrator?
  • [8] Can you articulate how this grant would help you as an artist in terms of your future as a writer or writer/illustrator?
  • [9] Can you come up with ways to promote your book so that it will have the widest (and most relevant) audience reasonably possible?

If your answer to all the above questions is yes, then you might be in a strong position to get Arts Council funding for your project –if you write your application well, and ask for the appropriate amount of money (grants fall into two categories –up to £15,000, and over; my guess is that for most projects including writing a picture book, you’d probably want to apply for the up to £15,000 grant as I did. And with these grants, you find out within six weeks if you’re successful, which is extremely helpful).

In case it is of use to people thinking about applying, I’ll answer the questions above, below, for our project which was successful.

[1] Do you have a great idea for a fictional book…  and you are keen to get funded so you can afford to start the project in the first place and so you can do the subject justice? Can you say why it’s such a great idea?

Acorns Children's Hospice -who first asked about the possibility of writing the book

I wanted to write a picture book about the death of a child (because I'd been approached about it by a charity who didn't have the funding for it and once I'd started thinking about it, the idea wouldn't go away). It would require spending time with bereaved families and young people with life-limiting conditions in order to make it as authentic as possible. I couldn’t afford to do the project (which would spend months of liaising with different charities and meeting families) if I wasn’t going to get funded, or if there was no guarantee that the book would go ahead.

[2] Is there a genuine gap in the market for the book you want to write? Can you really state your case for the need for this book?

I’d already written a manuscript about the death of a grandmother after the death of my own mother. It’s not a story about my mother (whose life and death was very different from the grandmother in the book) but the emotional truth of love and death in the story came straight from my own experience and my relationship with my mother. And although it’s one of my agent’s favourite things I’ve written and still remains my own, it’s been a very hard sell because it’s about death, and because it is sad (though hopeful).

In late 2015, I was contacted by someone from a children’s hospice who’d seen an early copy of The Unstoppable Maggie McGee (illustrated by Dave Gray, which I’d been commissioned to write for Birmingham Children’s Hospital). 

She asked if I’d consider writing a picture book about sibling bereavement. From the research I’d done for Maggie McGee, I already knew that there were very few picture books about death in children (far fewer than the relatively small number there are about death in adults) and it was clear that it would be an extremely hard book to sell to a traditional publisher. Also, and I think this is really important, in order to write a picture book about such a sensitive subject as child bereavement, I’d need to take my time and do some proper research. So I’d need to find funding.

And to make sure there was a genuine need for such a book, in addition to looking for other picture books about death, I spoke with a child bereavement counsellor from Edward's Trust (the local bereavement charity),

a palliative care consultant, someone from a children’s hospice and some librarians. They all confirmed that they felt there was a genuine need. (And I used some of their quotes about that need in the accompanying document that goes with the application.)

If you have a book in mind, do some basic research to make sure there really is a gap in the market and then think about the most relevant people in that area that you could ask in terms of whether there would be a genuine need for the book. 

An awesome picture of librarians from 1896. Librarians these days come in full techni-colour and generally know everything and are generous enough to share their knowledge. Hooray for librarians....

Hooray for librarians!

Librarians are brilliant for this, as are experts in the area, and most people are pretty nice about being contacted I have found...

[3] Is your great idea one that tackles a subject that would be really hard to get a traditional publisher interested in (or, given what it will take to do the research, will it be hard to get a publisher to commission you to write the book so that you can afford to write it)?

Yes, see above.

[4] Are you the right person to write it/illustrate it? Can you outline why you’re the right person to write/illustrate it?

In 2015, I was very lucky to be commissioned to write a picture book set in a children’s hospital (partly to raise money for Birmingham Children’s Hospital). The characters Dave Gray (the illustrator) and I created have major disabilities and some are extremely sick. In order to make the book as authentic as possible, I did creative sessions in the hospital school with inpatients and siblings of very sick children. I also spent time on the wards with children with chronic conditions, and then with children with long term disabilities or chronic conditions who use the hospital frequently.

I’ve also worked with other vulnerable people creating books, including teenagers from a pupil referral unit. Dave and I worked together on the hospital book and the structure for the project I was going to apply for funding for would be partly based on what worked really well from the hospital project, and Dave had also done creative work with vulnerable groups of young people. We could show that we had worked well as a team before –as we’d created a book that had sold over 8000 copies within nine months. And we had an excellent relationship with the printer (who was also the printer on another book I’d been commissioned to write, previously). I have also done lots of author visits and could put a series of launch/post launch events into the application.

Think carefully about what makes you the best person to write the book. If it's something that really interests you then there's probably a reason for that. Make sure you look like the best possibly contender to do the project you're applying for. Think about everything about you and what you've done previously -were you a teacher? Did you do research on X when you were younger? Do you have family who have been impacted by something you want to write about? 

[5] Can you come up with relevant creative work with individuals who might typically have less access to the arts that will add to the project and help you with coming up with the most authentic book you can write?

Working with the children or families that are most relevant to the book you want to write works really well in two ways –it helps you create the most authentic story/book that you can create, and it also means that children/young people who may have less access to the arts get to do some really interesting projects they might otherwise not get to do.

I’ve made lots of books with children in schools (after I’ve done author visits at the schools, usually) and with my own students where I teach for Writing West Midlands. I use lulu, the self-publishing print on demand company and it means that we can make the books and then the students can buy as many or as few copies as they like and they’re really cheap to buy. They’re usually collections of writing done by the children with some black and white pictures added, though with my own students, it’s more often their own short novels that they’ve written. And when I was doing the hospital project, one of the children asked that we create a picture book together. Because the quickly created picture book worked really well (even though I’d not planned on doing it at all in that project) and the children involved loved doing it, I wanted to do it again for the project I was applying for. 

Our first picture book made with the children at Birmingham Children's Hospital

Pictures from inside the book, The Hungry Skinny Hairy Lion

More pictures from inside the book

So I said that Dave (the illustrator) and I would help the children and young people to come up with stories and characters and then we’d turn them into simply put together picture books for the children/young people involved. And then later on in the project (during the months whilst Dave would be illustrating our picture book), I would also put together compilations of stories and other writings from the families involved in the project (again, using lulu). 

Here's one we made with the older children from Edward's Trust, in October 2016: George and the Vault of Bananas

And here's a spread from the book

And another...

And here's The Hungry Crocodile which we made with the younger children...

and one of the more gruesome pictures from inside (but not the most gruesome)... But fear not, the naughty crocodile ends up spitting out the shark and becoming a vegetarian (thanks to Superhero Guinea Pig)...

If you’re thinking about doing a project anything like this and don’t know how to put books together, they’re pretty straightforward. I wrote a blog post on how to do it, which you can read here, and for the picture books, it’s even simpler as I’ve just used the photo album template and uploaded our illustrations as if they’re photos. If I can do it, then pretty much anyone can as I’m not massively technical –if you can use cut and paste and word, and you know how to upload pictures then you should be fine.

[6] Can you find organisations/charities/individuals that would agree with your answers above and want to champion the book, either during the research/writing process, or once it’s released?

I spoke with a bereavement counsellor at Edward’s Trust, a local child bereavement charity about the potential project and they were really enthusiastic. I also remained in touch with the person from Acorns, the children’s hospice who’d brought up the idea originally. And then someone else connected us up with Child Bereavement UK. All the charities were really interested in the project as they believed that there was a real need for the book. Whilst only one of them could put up some money towards the project, they all said they’d support it in various ways which were extremely helpful –putting on events, inviting families to participate, helping arrange meetings with individuals, families and groups, hosting the meetings, etc. And, critically, they all wanted to support the book once it came out. In addition, I met with other health professionals and people doing research into palliative care who agreed to support me (and meet with me) and to support the application. And I got librarians to support the application, too. 

There is a supporting document (that can be about five pages long) which you attach to your application and it can be anything you want it to be. I got quotes from librarians (about the need for such a book and about previous library events I’d done and saying that they’d like me to do launch events for this one) and bereavement professionals (talking about the need for the book and how they’d support it).

The Arts Council wants to fund projects that will reach a large audience –and which will actually happen. You need to convince them that you’re a good bet to make the project work, and that you can reach an audience who will really benefit from your work. Use all your contacts so that you can make the project reach as many (relevant) people as possible –which might include blogging on other writers’ sites, visiting people’s schools, libraries, etc.

[7] Can you articulate how this grant would help you as an artist in terms of your future as a writer or writer/illustrator?

After writing a book on a sensitive issue for the local children’s hospital and working with vulnerable people in and out of hospital, I was able to say that by doing another book tackling a sensitive issue and working with vulnerable people, Dave and I were creating a niche for ourselves as an author-illustrator team who were comfortable and keen to work in areas that some people would choose not to work in and create books that children who may feel they’re not reflected in books can really relate to. We have two other projects that we’re really keen to apply for funding after this one where there is a clear gap in the market but where traditional publishers are less likely to back financially. 

The Arts Council doesn’t want you to do a single project and then never work in the arts again. It wants to fund projects that will really help with your artistic career, so you need to show how gaining the grant and doing the project will help you.

[8] Can you frame the project in terms of art, even if the outcomes may well also be social ones? (The Arts Council is an arts organisation so you can’t just say ‘this project will improve mental health in this group of people’. It needs to address an artistic purpose, for example, providing a certain group of people with less access to the arts with relevant literature/art that they can engage in. Although the project may well have social benefits, the funding will be given where they see a genuine artistic purpose being met.)

If the book you want to write will be good art (as you would hope any book would be!) and can show that lots of people will get to read it, then you can frame that in terms of art. If you can show that the group of people who will benefit from it are people who may have less access to appropriate art, all the better. If you can also do some creative work with the people for whom your book is aimed (like a project making joint books with them where they get to create something that they can keep and you get to know them and are consequently better able to write your own authentic book as a result), then that is great, too. By spending time with young people who were bereaved or soon to be bereaved, or with young people with life limiting conditions, Dave and I are in a much stronger position to write and illustrate the most authentic book we can about child bereavement.   

[9] Can you come up with ways to promote your book so that it will have the widest (and most relevant) audience reasonably possible?

You are expected to put in a marketing budget for Arts Council projects, so work out from everyone you know what the best way to promote your book will be. I asked staff at bookshops where I’ve done events before if they’d be happy for me to do a launch there and they were. I arranged to do four or five different library events (and we discussed how we can target the advertising for the events so that the right people get access to the book). We will have a launch for each of the three charities involved in the project –and this is where charities are incredibly helpful because they will invite the people for whom the book will be most relevant. I’m going to do a blog tour of different blog sites –bereavement sites, teacher sites and writing sites to talk about the book and the subject. A lot of children’s writers, especially if you’re in organisations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) or the Society of Authors, will know lots of other writers with a collective wealth of knowledge about how to do events, blog, get your book seen by the most relevant people. Ask people questions. I asked loads of people loads of questions before sending off my application.

The application did require a lot of preparation since it was my first Arts Council application (it would be massively quicker to do another one now I’ve done one). I had to be pretty specific about what I’d do and when, but that’s been incredibly helpful now I’m actually managing the project. And it’s taught me a new way of working which I’ve found extremely helpful. Since part of the funding for a project like this is for project managing it, I had to break down where I was being an artist and where I was being a project manager for the application... 

...And I’ve found that it’s really affected how I work. Now, I am boss for about two hours a week where I work out what I need to get done the following week and write myself a weekly plan. And the rest of the week, I do as I am told (by boss me, on my plan), and I don’t have to make decisions. This might be really obvious to some writers/freelancers but it's taken me a long time to work out -an unexpected and happy consequence of writing the grant application

(my new way of working may be obvious to many, but to someone who struggles with organising her week, the realisation has been as joyful as finding an acorn when you weren't expecting one)

It frees up loads of thinking time for me to write in my head and to do what I really love to do –write books.

Have you ever applied for funding to write a book –either to the Arts Council or any other funding body? How have you found the process? Or do you have a book in mind that funding might be extremely useful for? It would be great to hear from you, below. And if you’re a writer in the States, are there equivalent bodies you can apply to? 

Thank you.