Monthly Archives: November 2020

An interview with… Natascha Biebow

In March 2017, Natascha Biebow talked to me about how her passion for children’s books inspired her to set up the Blue Elephant Storyshaping literary consultancy. The interview appeared in my Writing 4 Children slot in the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum.

Natascha has had over 20 years’ experience commissioning and editing picture books, novelties, young fiction and non-fiction at ABC, Dorling Kindersley and Random House Children’s Books. She has worked with award-winning authors and illustrators, such as Jane Clarke, Kes Gray, Garry Parsons, Lizzie Finlay and Kate Petty. I am the editor for the newly-established Five Quills Press and longtime editor of Kes Gray’s Daisy series. Natascha is also the author of The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, Elephants Never Forget and Is this My Nose?, winner of the Bookstart Best Book for Babies, and have served as the Regional Advisor (Chair) of the SCBWI British Isles since 1998. 

When Natascha had her son, she decided she wanted to work more flexibly. She realised she spent an inordinate amount of time as an editor at Random House attending in-house meetings and project managing and she wanted to go back to what she loved – editing. So, in 2010, she launched Blue Elephant Storyshaping, a coaching, editing and mentoring service aimed at empowering children’s authors and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission.

“I edit everything from fiction to non-fiction, up to middle grade, though I specialize in picture books.”

Natascha Biebow

Natascha explained publishing is changing. In the current tough marketplace, publishing houses have limited in-house resources and are aiming to reduce their overheads by acquiring more finished, high-quality books that don’t require as much polishing. Agents are also increasingly pressed for time and their job is much easier when they are sent fully-developed projects to place with publishers. For picture books, agents and publishers are looking for a body of work. This is where she can help you to create the strongest possible work for submission and get out of the slush pile.

Authors Natascha has worked with have gone on to get an agent and a publishing deal. Illustrators have pulled together a well-crafted story dummy that their agent has gone on to market. I have also worked with author/illustrators to fine-tune an untitled contracted book for a publisher. You can find lots of testimonials on the Blue Elephant Storyshaping website.

“I get a buzz out of meeting like-minded people who share my love children’s books and story. I get a lot of satisfaction knowing I help to create books that will bring joy and maybe even change the lives of young readers.”

Natascha Biebow

Natascha revealed five of the most common mistakes new writers make when writing picture books include:

  • creating an episodic plot, which reads like a long list of things that happen sequentially with no tension, no clear climax, no story.
  • writing rhyming books that don’t have a strong story at their centre, so that the rhyme dictates the plot and not vice-versa
  • sending work off too early, thinking that writing picture books are short and therefore ‘easy’ to create
  • creating picture books that have no real hook or unique selling point, leaving readers saying, “So what?”
  • not exploring the characters’ true motivation

Natascha is passionate about storyshaping and empowering authors and illustrators to tell the stories they love.

“I work with people at all levels, including published. I am a writer and an editor, so I understand both sides of the business. I love working with illustrators who want to write, illustrators who want to develop a portfolio, as well as authors who are looking to fine-tune their work. I offer courses and 1-1 coaching, creative brainstorming sessions, as well as reviews on manuscripts and honing your pitch for submission.”

Natascha Biebow

For more information about Blue Elephant Storyshaping visit: Natascha also blogs regularly at Picture Book Den and has a monthly Ask a Picture Book Editor column on Words & Pictures

Book Review: Merve the Forgetful Mouse

Title: Merve the Forgetful Mouse

Written by: June Linscott

Illustrated by: Rosie Perkins

Published by: Matador

Merve the Forgetful Mouse

This book is a fun and easy read for young pre-school and nursery children. It is written largely in rhyming couplets this book uses colourful text and different sized fonts to its advantage to create a memorable and heart-warming tale of Merve the Forgetful Mouse and how he forgets his way home. The illustrations are simple black and white drawings with a minimal colour palette that is fun and grabs the reader’s attention.

Merve may be forgetful but he is determined and inventive. It may have been more interesting a plot if Merve did not simply curl into a ball each time to avoid the predators it would have been nice to see other ways of escape.

But on the whole a good use of repetition and contains useful sight words that will encourage emerging readers.

An interview with… Simon Beckett

For my Research Secrets feature in the January 2010 issue of Writers’ Forum I interviewed crime writer, Simon Beckett, about how he was inspired to write fiction by a visit to the outdoor Anthropology Research Facility in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Simon Beckett

Simon has written a series of novels about the fictitious forensic anthropologist, David Hunter. Before writing novels, he wrote for the Daily Telegraph Magazine. In 2002, he went to Knoxville, Tennessee to write an article on the outdoor Anthropology Research Facility, more commonly known as the Body Farm. They run a National Forensic Academy there, offering intensive – and exceptionally realistic – forensic training for US police officers and crime scene investigators.

In fact, there is no other research facility in the world where you can excavate human remains. They have training courses with staged crime scenes using real bodies. The bodies are donated, either by the individuals themselves or their families. The training and research undertaken has revealed a lot about body decomposition, the time it takes for hair to slough off a body, the role of insects on decomposition, even the differing effects that light and shade will have on the process of decay. This information is has proved invaluable for determining the time of death.

The academy goes to extreme lengths to ensure that their reconstructions are realistic. The theory is that the more life-like the recreations are, the better prepared the students will be when they encounter the genuine thing. It was a great privileged to be allowed in and I was hugely impressed.

During the five days Simon spent there, he watched the students put through their paces with a variety of simulated crime scenes, all recreated as closely as possible using actual human remains.

“One day I was cheerfully told to put down my notepad and tape recorder and help with recovering the two bodies that the students were carefully unearthing from a woodland grave. Sweating in the heat and dirt as the skeletal remains slowly emerged was a sobering, yet fascinating experience.”

Simon Beckett

Back in the UK, he was inspired by the idea of a novel based around what he’d seen and experienced in Tennessee. Gradually, the concept for Dr David Hunter took shape: a British forensic anthropologist schooled in the techniques and science being developed at the Body Farm.

“The research is everything in my books as there is loads of scientific background behind the plot. I like to find out the general principles of the crime so I do not come across any pitfalls where it would not be able to work out like that. Each book works out differently. I enjoy talking to people and this often leads to a re-jiggle in terms of plot.” (Simon Beckett)

Simon revealed he has a growing collection of forensic textbooks for anthropology and botany. He keeps a record of conversations and a lot are done by email so can look up who has helped. Sometimes it is friends and not necessarily a complete stranger. Most people are glad to help.

Simon explains it is possible to get too bogged down in the research. Don’t let the research dominate the stories and characters. It can be tricky what you use and what you cut out. The last thing you want is an info dump. When reading through the manuscript if you come across anything that is there for the sake of it get rid of it. It has to be there for the sake of the story.

You can find out more about Simon Beckett, his research and his novels from his website:

Book Reviews: The Unadoptables

Title: The Unadoptables

Written by: Hana Tooke

Illustrated by: Ayesha L. Rubio

Published by: Puffin

The Unadoptables

The opening chapters of The Unadoptables is written in the style of Lemony Snickets. It draws you into this unique story, which follows the orphans Milou, Sem, Lotta, Egg and Fenna who were all left at the Little Tulip Orphanage in strange and unusual ways.

Even though they have been described as ‘unadoptable’ the matron Miss Gassbeck because they do not look cute with freckles and pleasant features, each of the children have their own set of special skills that helps them on their adventures. Milou is an amazing story-teller, Sem is brilliant at sewing, Lotta has a fantastic grasp of science, Egg is an expert cartographer and Fenna has a lovely touching way with animals. Hana Tooke creates believable and realistic characters who pull on your heart-strings and carry you away on their epic journey.

Milou believes her parents will return to the orphanage to claim her. Milou finds a beautiful pocket watch hidden inside the cat puppet that was left on the orphanage roof with her. The watch contains coordinates so when they discover Miss Gassbeck, plans to sell all five ‘unadoptables’ to the disreputable Mr R they decide to run away from the orphanage and go to the mysterious coordinates in the hope it may lead them to the truth of who Milou’s parents are and why she was left on the roof of the orphange.

Set in and around Amsterdam during 1886, the five brave and determined children set off through 19th century Amsterdam on an adventure packed with puppets, clock-makers, cruel villains and pirate ships. On the way they discover what it means to have a real home with a real family. There are underlying themes of love, truth and identity.

This is the ideal book for a child to read alone or to listen to in the book corner at story time. The ideal book for any book corner.

An interview with… Sarah O’Halloran

For my Writing 4 Children slot in Writers’ Forum, April 2017, children’s book literary scout, Sarah O’Halloran, explained to me the differences between a literary scout and a literary agent and the trends she has noticed in the children’s book market.

Sarah explained that although a literary scout and a literary agent have very similar job titles, the role of a literary agent and a literary scout are in fact very different. Literary agents represent authors, sell their books to editors and take a commission from any deals they make on their author’s behalf. Literary scouts don’t work with authors at all. Literary scouts work on behalf of foreign publishers, telling them what is happening in the UK market. They work with about a dozen clients around the world and it is their job to help them find titles that might work for them in translation.

In order to do this, a literary scout will develop relationships with agents to discover what authors are submitting, and with editors who will inform a literary scout what they’re receiving from agents. At its most basic, a literary scout will read and report on these manuscripts for their clients, as well as providing them with more general information about the UK book market as a whole. 

“Scouting is a great job You get to develop relationships with agents, editors and rights people, to read a whole load of books and to work with creative, hard-working people who are passionate about books.”

Sarah O’Halloran

There are some similarities between the two jobs. Both jobs rely heavily on building relationships and developing your professional network, and both require you to have a keen editorial eye, a broad understanding of the market, and to read an awful lot.

To be a good literary scout it helps if you can read quickly. It’s also important that you read very broadly in order to develop as comprehensive an understanding of the market as possible. To be able to successfully evaluate a book’s potential, both in the UK and for translation, you need to be able to place it in the context of other similar, competing titles. As well as this, organisation and the ability to prioritise your time are both really important given the volume of material we receive. Finally, you need to be quite sociable and even a little bit nosey.

Sarah revealed her own personal area of interest is teen and YA, and these are some of her favourites:   

  • The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hithcock is the most beautiful literary YA novel about the lives of four teenagers in Alaska in the 1970s. It is visceral, powerful, poetic, raw and honest and I loved it! 
  • Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill is a biting satire about society’s obsession with beauty, and it is exactly the kind of book I love. There are lots of smart, funny, angry feminist voices in YA at the moment and this was one of my favourites.
  • We Were Liars by E.E. Lockhart is a dark, utterly gripping thriller about a family with a dark secret, and it has a shocking and unexpected twist. It was a massive bestseller so I wasn’t the only person who loved it! 

As a literary scout she doesn’t work on projects herself, when she is submitted material by agents or publishers she can often tell if she thinks a project has potential before she has even looked at the manuscript. There are a number of things we look out for in an agent’s submission letter – some of them are more obvious than others – and lots of them are the same kinds of things that agents look out for in the submission letters they receive from authors.   

Sarah told me:

“It may seem obvious but a great title always helps. And if the book can be pitched in a concise and intriguing way that is also very encouraging.  A one or two sentence tag-line is often the way that agents pitch to editors, editors pitch to their marketing and sales teams, sales teams pitch to booksellers, and ultimately the way booksellers pitch to readers, so it’s impossible to exaggerate its importance. For me, it’s all about the voice. Although a strong plot is essential, I think an editor can work with an author to tighten up a slightly messy plot, but if the voice doesn’t feel authentic it is very hard to make a book work.”

Sarah O’Halloran

An agent will often compare a book they are submitting to other books, and if a book is reminiscent of a bestselling author, that suggests that there is a receptive market for that kind of story.

Sarah’s tip to aspiring children’s book writers is that although it’s helpful for an author to keep an eye on the UK market and to know a little bit about where their work sits in relation to other books, don’t try to write to a certain trend. By the time you’ve identified a trend it’s probably already on its way out.

Sarah also revealed that book Fairs are an essential part of a literary scout’s job. Often agents will submit their biggest titles just in advance of the book fairs so there is always a lot of material to read and a lot of rights deals to keep on top of. In advance of the fair a book scout will create a report for our clients directing them towards the titles that are generating the most interest in the UK, as well as titles they think are the most interesting for their market. At the fair, they meet with their clients, as well as with agents and publishers from around the world.

Book Review: She Rex

Title: She Rex

Written by: Michelle Robinson

Illustrated by: Deborah Allwright

Published by: Bloomsbury Children’s Books

She Rex

This is an exciting picture book all children will want to read again and again, not only those fascinated by dinosaurs. Written mostly in rhyming couplets this dynamic picture book challenges gender stereotypes in a fun way with a hilarious twist at the end.

There is an underlying theme of sibling rivalry, as Maisy is fed up with her brother Ed as he won’t share his toys, claiming his toys are for boys and not for girls, so she conjures up her own female dinosaur the ‘She Rex’ that is just as fierce, strong and loud as any boy dinosaur. In true brother and sister style Ed makes fun of the ‘She Rex’ but Maisy is not going to be out done and proves her dinosaur may be a girl but in no way could it be described as ‘girlie’.

Deborah Allwright’s use of a limited background for the illustrations highlights the colourful dinosaurs and their antics and draws the eye to the characterisation that will capture even the most reluctant readers imagination. I particular like the use of the use of multi-colour for the female dinosaurs rather than one single block colour.

A great book to stimulate discussion at home, or in the classroom, about gender stereotypes and also family relationships. She Rex could also be used to compliment topic work on dinosaurs.

An interview with… Anna Fargher

In the November 2020 issue of Writers’ Forum, I interviewed the award winning author of the The Umbrella Mouse duology, Anna Fargher. She explained to me why she weaves true events into her children’s stories.

Anna was inspired when she read a series of statistics revealing how little young people and adults remembered about both world wars. Most alarmingly, she revealed some British adults didn’t know who Hitler was. She was also horrified by another poll showing that one in 20 Britons didn’t believe the Holocaust happened.

“If we forget these hideous moments in history and do not heed the lessons of the past, they could occur again.”

Anna Fargher

For Anna, real life stories have always been addictive (she was obsessed with Born Free and My Family and Other Animals as a child) and strongly believes there are a plethora of events and people from wartime that deserved to be remembered. She realised it was historical fiction, more than history textbooks that had most impacted her understanding of war, particularly Goodnight Mr Tom, Carrie’s War and War Horse and wanted to include some in a new story in the hope it might pique children’s interest and encourage them to learn more – then they could take that knowledge with them into adulthood.

The second book of the Umbrella Mouse duology, Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue, revolves around the Liberation of Paris that occurred in August 1944 , and the French Resistance group Noah’s Ark in their battle to stop the Nazis.

She weaved true events into Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue in a number of ways. Due to the numerous battles that were key in the lead up to the Liberation of Paris, she used dialogue to covey the sense of anxiety and urgency that was felt at the time. She ten visually used key moments from the uprising as part of the rising action.

She told me that the leader of Noah’s Arc, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade’s experiences had a huge impact on the story, thematically. The Gestapo hunted her and her two young children, who she put into hiding to keep safe, and that peril is what drives her in Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue. Betrayal was a constant threat to Noah’s Ark and many of their members were captured and killed due to traitors operating amongst them, and you’ll see it occur in both Umbrella Mouse books.

By giving them characters they care about, Kurt Vonnegut said:

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Kurt Vonnegut

Anna said, it’s important to give your hero flaws and a universal motivation – something we all want – so their struggles and their drive to succeed are relatable. In The Umbrella Mouse books, Pip is orphaned and alone. She’s grief-stricken and reckless at times. All she wants is to find her last surviving family and get to a place where she will be safe. If we were in her position, we would pursue the same things. Pip never witnesses anything too graphic, but she is placed in wartime environments, such as battles and a prisoner camp that could be too disturbing if she or her friends were human.

“By introducing these difficult emotional subjects, children have the opportunity to learn about tragic times in history, and then they can discuss their feelings with adults, such as parents, teachers or librarians.”

Anna Fargher

Anna’s tip on writing for children is to read as many children’s books you can in the genre you want to write about so you can grasp the conventions and any animal nuances, and you’ll also learn what makes a great narrative arc. But she reminds authors to be discerning. In the words of P.D. James:

“Bad writing is contagious.”

P.D. James

“Writing for children is a joy; some days are harder than others but that’s true in every endeavour. Above all, don’t give up. Discipline and dedication gets books written.”

Anna Fargher

You can discover more about anna and her books on her website: and follow her on Twitter: @AnnaFargher and Instagram: @AnnaFargher

Book Review: Sky Pirates: Echo Quickthorn and the Great Beyond 

Title: Sky Pirates: Echo Quickthorn and the Great Beyond

Written by: Alex English

Illustrated by: Mark Chambers

Published by: Simon & Schuster

Sky Pirates

An exciting, fast-paced action adventure starring a determined and feisty female main protagonist called Echo. Alex English weaves an enchanting tale with great characterisation and outstanding world-building skills. The immensely detailed descriptions of Lockhart, Port Tourbillion and the Violet Isles create vivid images of these wildly inventive places. The story had me gripped from the start.

Eleven year-old Echo has grown up believing that nothing exists outside the city walls of the Kingdom of Lockfort – there is only the barren and then the edge of the world. Echo is King Alfons ward as she was abandoned as a baby outside the palace doors. The only clue to her heritage is a small gold and emerald hairpin that was clipped to her baby blanket. To keep everyone safe King Alfons has locked the gates of Lockfort and they will only open when the prophecy has been fulfilled. Echo feels trapped and out of place and wishes there was more.

Her wish comes true when eccentric Professor Mangrove Daggerwing accidently crashes his airship into her bedroom window. He shows her a map full of magical places just waiting for her to explore. Together with her extremely intelligent pet lizard, Gilbert, and the introverted entomologist, Prince Horace who stowed away in the airship, Echo sets off on an incredible adventure to find out who her parents are. On their journey they encounter giant butterflies, mechanical dragons and of course… notorious sky pirates.

Horace and Echo have a brilliant prickly relationship that grows to real friendship. I particularly liked the way the reluctant adventurer Horace develops the courage to stand up for what he believes at the end of the book.

A great escapist book to read alone or to listen to in the book corner or at bedtime. A must read for fans of Peter Bunzl’s Cogheart series. I can’t wait to read what is next in store for Echo Quickthorn.

This book was previously reviewed for NetGalley.

An interview with… Kit Berry

This month I have interviewed Kit Berry about the research she did into pagan beliefs for her YA series, Stonewylde.

Stonewylde is a five book series set in Dorset, in an imaginary setting, inspired by the beauty of the landscape and Kit’s interest in folklore and earth-based spirituality.  Stonewylde is a pagan community, with a beautiful stone circle where ceremonies are held at the eight festivals. 

“I wrote the series several years ago, starting the first book back in 2003. This was after a magical close up encounter with a hare one evening in local woods. My mother had recently died, and the hare stared deep into my eyes, sitting only a couple of metres from me, and stayed like that for a couple of minutes. I felt so honoured.  I went home and researched hares on my computer – and discovered their links to witchcraft and paganism.”

Kit Berry

Kit explained she was quite naïve about paganism and got involved with an online group, where a woman took her under her wing and told her how to cast a circle in my sitting room at the full moon. She was a single mum with three teenage boys, and also a school-teacher – so this wasn’t quite as simple as it seemed. The woman had told her she needed to be ‘sky-clad’, (naked) and was very prescriptive about how to set up the ritual space.  Kit has never been one for following rules, but decided to follow her instructions to the letter.  She banned her boys from entering the sitting room and cast her first circle.  When she’d finished, she went to turn the lights on again and fused the entire house.

Back in 2004, the YA market was just opening up, and although most of the editors enjoyed the story, they weren’t sure it was suitable for youngsters.  Kit’s agent advised her to self-publish. After selling over 20,000 copies of each of the first three books she acquired a new agent who got her a six figure deal with Orion Books under the Gollancz imprint– for the first three Stonewylde novels and two more, which she was planning to write.

Kit told me that for her research she picked anyone’s brains that she felt knew about ancient pagean sites. However she discovered quite early on that a lot of so-called knowledge is in fact pure supposition.

“Pagan people seem particularly prone to this – presenting an idea as fact, when we have no way of truly knowing how and what ancient people worshipped, nor how they conducted their rituals. So I had to use my imagination, but used facts wherever possible. For example, we know Stonehenge and other ancient circles have stones that align with the summer solstice sunrise, so I used this fact to add authenticity. The first rays of light at dawn on the summer solstice shining on one of the stones is a significant moment in the Stonewylde series.”

Kit Berry

The estate of Stonewylde is based on the Charborough Estate, which Kit used to drive past regularly in the 1990s.  This was at a time when there was a lot in the news about secret cults, and places cut off from the world with powerful leaders.  She told me how she would look at the long stone walls and the magnificent gates to this estate and let her imagination roam freely. Unfortunately, the estate isn’t open to the public so she couldn’t visit, although since the books were published she has done a charity event there, giving a talk and signing books.

Kit Berry at a book signing

Kit told me her most unusual research had to be the Villagers’ toilets. She did a lot of research into long drop/pit latrine toilets, because there’s no running water in the Village so obviously they wouldn’t have flushing toilets. 

Her research tip is not to take everything at face value. She suggests writers should look for several sources to check the authenticity of what you’ve discovered and especially be wary of people telling you information – much of it may be brilliant, but a lot of people do make things up, or base facts on very flimsy evidence and hearsay, or what they’d like to believe. So always use more than one source of information if it’s important; nowadays with so many search engines online, this is comparatively easy to do.

Kit explained that doing the research for Stonewylde was fascinating, and shelearned a lot but it’s so easy to get bogged down with research and feel you don’t yet know enough to start writing the story. It’s also a procrastination technique of course. Remember you can find out a lot about a subject, but you don’t want to overload the reader with too much of it. So stick to a few salient and relevant facts, and leave it at that.

You can find out more about Kit Berry and her books on her websites: and