A shout-out to the HEROES: Inclusivity in Children's Publishing PART 2

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The Reflecting Realities report published by the CLPE earlier this week paints a bleak picture of inclusivity in UK children's publishing. I had my restrained rant when it came out but today what I want to focus on is celebrating the amazing work that is already happening to help effect positive change in this area. The champions of inclusivity, the changemakers. Please read, share, and add any projects I've missed. 

Finding and nurturing underrepresented voices

Publishers

The FAB Prize: Faber & Faber (Faber Children's) joint initiative with Andlyn Agency to discover and celebrate children's writers and illustrators of BAME origins. The winners receive a year of mentoring. (Another Faber Children's commitment: 40% of all children's book covers from picture books through to YA to feature underrepresented characters in order to reflect the reality of our society. It's something the team is really passionate about.)  

Little Tiger Press Illustrator Callout: have put out a specific call for illustrators from underrepresented backgrounds to submit illustrations for their Our Town series of books set in an inclusive town with a diverse population. In their callout, they mention the fact that underrepresented illustrators may not have the means or knowhow to put together a formal portfolio - this approach, like other programmes mentioned here, helps cast the net that little bit wider. 

The Penguin Random House (PRH) UK WriteNow Programme: a one-year mentoring opportunity for underrepresented writers and illustrators (not just children's). Siena Parker who runs the scheme at PRH puts a lot of energy into getting her team on the ground across the UK to actively seek out undiscovered writers and illustrators. Applications are still open for illustrators - deadline 23rd July 2018. I've been fortunate enough to be on this life-changing programme this year and have blogged about it here.

Knights Of: a new independent publisher with inclusivity at its heart. They publish books for ages 5 through to 15. Their hiring practices are diverse, their books are "windows into as many worlds as possible" and their most unique contribution to the industry is being supremely accessible - if you want to write for them, you use their Live Chat system to pitch your idea. It's a CHAT. Doesn't get more straightforward than that. I think that's a real barrier breaker right there. They also run the #BooksMadeBetter project to get fantastic diverse books into the hands of children around the country. 

Lantana Publishing: another young independent publisher focused on inclusivity. ALL their books are by BAME authors and illustrators. 

Agents 

Many literary agents have specifically reached out to underrepresented communities to welcome their submissions and offer support whether that's in the form of highlighting a submission (and perhaps bumping it up in the queue) or offering scholarships to attend writing festivals or courses, mentoring/support and advice re navigating the industry. I won't catch all of them (please tell me if you have more to add!) but here are a few that have particularly vocal in this respect. 

Alice Williams Literary 

Alice Sutherland-Hawes at Madeleine Milburn 

Andlyn  

The Bent Agency 

The Darley Anderson Children's Book Agency 

David Higham Associates

The Good Literary Agency 

The Lindsay Literary Agency

Other organisations and initiatives

Commonword: an Arts Council funded, Manchester-based writer development programme. Commonword runs the Commonword Diversity Young Adult Fiction Prize for unpublished MG and YA novelists whose writing embraces ethnic diversity. 

Inclusive Minds: a collaboration of consultants and campaigners around the themes of inclusivity, equality and accessibility in children's literature. They offer consulting, sensitivity readers and have brought a whole host of industry professionals together through their A Place at the Table event. A full report from the event can be found here

Megaphone: an Arts Council funded writer development programme to nurture new BAME voices in publishing.  The 2016-17 scheme was a great success - mentees have found agents and had short and long fiction accepted for publication and broadcasting. The scheme is due to be repeated in the near future. 

Quarto Translations/Golden Egg Academy Award for the Golden Egg Academy children's fiction programme (application deadline 31st July 2018) 

Tiny Owl: an independent publisher worth mentioning because their beautiful books all feature BAME characters and stories.  

Behind the scenes: changing the demographics in publishing

A number of publishing houses have made pledges around diverse hiring practices to make sure their internal demographics make them more reflective of society. 

Penguin Random House, for example, has pledged that its new hires and books acquired will reflect UK society by 2025. 

Hachette has recently hired its first Diversity and Inclusion Manager

There have also been a number of paid internships and publishing positions on offer with a specific callout to underrepresented communities. That the internships are paid is significant as income-related issues have historically been a huge barrier in this industry. Again, there are many more instances here that I've missed so please flag them and I'll update the list. 

Why stop to celebrate when there's work to be done? 

I know it's important to stay ambitious and focused and it's important we don't start thinking enough is being done because it's not enough. Still, sometimes it's also worth pausing to tip your hat to the heroes, the people who are already out there making a difference. Maybe there's somewhere we can fit in too. Maybe there's a gap that needs filling. Ideas spark ideas and action sparks action...

 

See here for Representation not Diversity: Inclusivity in Children's Publishing PART 1

Representation not Diversity - Inclusivity in Children's Publishing PART 1

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Today, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) published Reflecting Realities, its 2017 report on ethnic representation in UK children's literature and I can't stop thinking about it. 

  • Only 1% of the 9115 children's books published in the UK in 2017 featured a BAME main character despite Department for Education (DofE) stats for the same year indicating that 32.1% of compulsory school age children were of minority ethnic origins. 
  • Only 4% featured BAME characters. 
  • Only ONE book featuring a BAME character was defined as a 'comedy'. ONE. 
  • 10% of BAME books submitted involved social justice themes. 

This isn't a surprise to anyone in publishing but it's a sobering read all the same. 

If books are mirrors to reflect our own lives and windows into the world around us, these statistics show that we've failed children across the board. Children need to be able to see themselves and, more importantly, the people around them, in the books they read and not just in culture-driven or issues-based narratives. We need to move from ‘diversity’ to ‘representation’, from ‘niche’ to ‘normal’. 

It’s not just about bunging in a brown child to tick a box. It’s about accurately reflecting the world we live in. The reality is that Caucasians account for a tiny proportion of the world population. And that world is changing rapidly. The future of Britain – sorry, Farage – probably isn’t ‘white’. In fact, a 2014 Policy Exchange report suggests non-white people will make up 20-30% of the population by 2051 (14% in 2014). The 2017 DofE figures show that 32.1% of school-age children are of minority ethnic origins. Let that sink in. That's almost a third. Now have a quick glance at the children's section in those big, shiny bookstores. We’re talking about diversity as if it’s a fluffy, cuddly nice-to-have for children when in so many instances, this is what their classroom, their community and their future place of work will actually look like. And if it isn’t now, chances are it will be as they get older. Riz Ahmed hits the nail on the head when he says: 

We're talking about representation, not diversity. Representation is not an added extra. It's not a frill. Representation is absolutely fundamental to what people expect from culture and from politics.’

Moving from niche to normal

Diverse stories shouldn’t have to be 'niche' and underrepresented writers shouldn’t feel obliged to write about social justice issues. Of course, they should be able to - those stories are important - but they should be equally empowered to write a bonkers book without a moral angle. BAME, LGBTQ+, differently abled and low-income people have rich internal lives that don’t revolve around the elements that put them into those categories*.

In picture books, for instance, the presence of such characters can be even more powerful when it’s incidental rather than integral to the plot. A book about a zebra in space that just happens to feature a child in a wheelchair as opposed to a whole story around a boy whose life-issue is that he can’t walk normalises diversity. After all, why can’t a little brown girl have a normal dinosaur experience? Why do we need to ask the question, is this essential to the plot? Does it drive the plot forward? Who cares? We’re talking about reflecting society. How about we flip the question and ask if the erasure of diverse characters is really justified? 

Who can write diverse characters? 

Surely with sensitivity and quality research, anyone can. I often hear that fears around cultural appropriation, misrepresentation and tokenism can hold writers back - I'm going to save that one for a separate post but there are ways of dealing with this. It doesn't need to be a full-on roadblock. 

AND WHERE ARE ALL THE DIVERSE CHILDREN'S WRITERS, ANYWAY?

I for one am keenly awaiting the results of the CLPE author/illustrator study to be released in September this year. I've been going out of my mind trying to understand where the issue is. Is it top of the funnel? Underrepresented people not thinking of writing as a career? Not feeling like they belong on the bookshelves? Malorie Blackman often says 'if you can't see it, you can't be it'. Is it further down? Not enough underrepresented writers signing with agents? Or is it the publishers? Are the manuscripts too niche? Not enough of a social justice spin on them? Is it about the demographic makeup of the industry? Or the commercial viability of books by underrepresented writers? The answer is almost certainly a mix of these. The 'why' matters because it shapes what good solutions should look like. And what 'success' looks like too. 

A glimmer of hope

Since the news broke this morning, I've seen a number of posts from agents, publishers, and authors looking to effect positive change. I've had a few conversations with people in the industry about what we can do and there are things in the pipeline, which I can't talk about just yet but they fill me with hope. In their Huffington Post article, Aimée Felone, Co-Founder of publisher Knights Of, and Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series, also have some wonderful suggestions as to what we can all do to make a difference. 

Finally, there's some great work being done already, which I will share in Part 2 to this post. Yes, there's a lot to do but change is afoot.

 

*The CLPE report focused on ethnic minority representation but the same principles apply to other underrepresented groups. 

 

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My WriteNow Journey: So far so wonderful

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WriteNow is a Penguin Random House (PRH) mentoring programme focused on discovering and nurturing underrepresented voices in publishing. I'm very fortunate to have been selected as one of 11 writers in this year's cohort. You can read about the others here - fantastic people working on some amazing and important stories. This post is a long overdue snapshot into my journey so far. 

Where it all started

I've been in love with writing all my life but took the scenic route to get here (law, the MBA, two babies and a business). Things got serious when I took a Writers' Workshop (now Jericho Writers) picture book course with the lovely Pippa Goodhart in Spring 2017 and went to the Winchester Writers' Festival for a jaw-droppingly brilliant workshop with my picture book hero Tracey Corderoy and Louise Bolongaro, Head of Picture Books at Nosy Crow. Story ideas were forming but the confidence was missing. When I saw WriteNow advertised on Twitter, I almost didn't apply. I didn't think I was good enough. Thankfully, in a moment of madness, I hit SEND on the application form. 

When I got through to the Insight Day, I had to submit a second picture book. I wrote it on the evening of the deadline in one sitting. Crazy wave of inspiration. This isn't my usual style but it resulted in my very best work to date and this is the book I'm now working on as part of the WriteNow programme. 

The Insight Day - Newcastle 2017

The Insight Day was a trek and a half to get to but it was an incredible experience. This is going to sound ridiculously cheesy but it was all about the vibe for me. Being in a room with all these writers from all kinds of backgrounds. Knowing that PRH believes in us and believes in our stories was just WOW. There was useful practical information about writing, editing and finding an agent and a really insightful 1:1 with an amazing editor who ended up being my mentor but what stood out for me was the energy and the hope in that room. It sent a shiver down my spine. 

Getting through to the programme

My knees were shaking during the Round 2 call but it was the same editor again and we had a really useful discussion around my manuscript. In fact, one single edit from that call has completely transformed the story (blog post to follow on the magic that editors bring to the table!). When I found out I had made it through to the final list, I almost cried into my Lemsip. I had a yucky cold at the time and was generally feeling sorry for myself so thank goodness the news came by email or I would have cried on the phone. I'm a great big softie, really. 

The mentoring

This deserves a post of its own but for now what I will say is MY GOODNESS, what a difference this has made to my writing. My editor-mentor, Anna Barnes, is an absolute legend. She gets what I'm trying to do, she believes in me 100% and I'm learning SO much from her. She's my champion at PRH and I'm very lucky to have had her look at my work right from the Insight Day. She's a great editor and she's all about shaping the programme to my needs. I couldn't have wished for a better mentor. 

The confidence-boost

Confession: I DID feel like the token brown picture book person on the list of mentees. Have you SEEN the other mentees? They are amazing! And then there's me. But WriteNow has been a huge confidence boost. PRH is not a charity. It's a business. This isn't some box-ticking exercise for the Annual Report. They've bought a number of WriteNow books already. The programme is about breaking through some of the barriers to discovering underrepresented writers. The mentors and Siena Parker who heads up the project are so passionate about this. My mentor has given up so much of her time because she believes in me. Now, when I look in the mirror, I see a writer. Not an aspiring writer. A writer. That subtle shift has been a gamechanger. 

WHAT NEXT? 

Well, that'd be telling. 

Watch this space. 

What are you waiting for? APPLY HERE! Applications are open until 9 July 2018 for writers and 23 July 2018 for illustrators! 

 

 

 

7 things I learnt from Storystorm 2018: How to come up with new ideas

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Storystorm is a brilliant initiative by picture book writer Tara Lazar. It's PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) reborn, revamped and significantly easier to pronounce. The focus is on ideation or idea generation - 31+ ideas in the month of January and a blog post a day to help you on your way. This was my first time participating and I'm very glad I did. It's a wonderful, supportive community and a great way to knuckle down and churn out some potential material to work on for the rest of the year.

Here's what I learnt from the process:

1) IDEAS ARE EVERYWHERE: Something you see, something you read, something your child says or does, something you oh-so-casually hear when totally not desperately trying to eavesdrop at the local cafe. There's Pinterest, the cinema, and bookstores - existing titles and storylines that trigger new ones.  There's science, there's history, there's politics - now that's bursting with material (and don't get me started on picture books and politics - the way I see it, all writing is political). And dreams, of course (although, I have to say those "moments of genius" are often a lot less amazing and a lot more bizarre/scary on paper than they are in my head in the middle of the night). 

2) DISCIPLINE IS NOT A DIRTY WORD: In fact, carving out "ideation" time every day can work wonders. It's like eating or meditating at the same time every day. Your body and mind are primed to feel hungry or feel relaxed. Or to open the floodgates to new ideas. 

3) SOMETIMES THE BEST THING YOU CAN DO IS TO DO NOTHING: So, despite what I said in #2, there may be times when you need to step away from the notebook. I love mindfulness and meditation but even a bog-standard walk, a stint at the gym, cooking or doing the laundry can trigger the flow of ideas. Or ordering a takeaway, whatever works for you.

4) IT'S WORTH CASTING A WIDE NET (TO BEGIN WITH): Let your ideas do their thing. If you disqualify them before they even hit the page, you'll never really know how they feel and what they taste like. Crazy ideas can sprout less crazy ideas. And some crazy ideas are worth pursuing in their own right. At this delicate stage, it's best to shut down your inner critic and give them the day (or month) off. A Storystorm blog post by Jeanette Bradley had this fabulous quote from the Frog and Toad books:

“Toad put his head very close to the ground and shouted. ‘NOW SEEDS, START GROWING!’
Frog came running up the path.
‘What’s all this noise?’ he asked.
‘My seeds will not grow,’ said Toad.
‘You are shouting too much,’ said Frog. ‘These poor seeds are afraid to grow.'”

~ Arnold Lobel, FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER

You can show up, ready and willing. You can chase after ideas. But you can't drag them out of the mud, in seed form, scream at them and expect them to grow. Some need a little more time than others. There's a time and place for purging no-gos based on questions like "does this really excite me?" and "is this a marketable idea?". This is not that stage.  

5) MORNING PAGES + STORYSTORMING = A POWERFUL COCKTAIL: I've only recently started doing Morning Pages (more on that soon!) but I can already feel the difference in my writing. Combining this practice with storystorming has been transformational. It's a simple concept, courtesy of Julia Cameron - 3 pages of long-hand stream-of-consciousness writing first thing in the morning. It clears the head of all the gunk and goo and to-dos and makes space for new ideas (and old ones). 

6) MATERIALS DO MATTER: Well, to me at least. I admire the screenwriter who plots out a masterpiece on the back of a napkin at a restaurant, I really do. But I need my Moleskines. Always softcover, always large or extra-large and always PLAIN (I've recently been converted). I cannot imagine writing on lined paper anymore. I need the freedom and world of possibility that only PLAIN paper can provide. And a biro - deep black. Find what works best for you. Some people love scraps of paper and patchwork notebooks - they fill them with joy. Find something you feel like coming back to. 

7): THERE'S A MAGIC TO COMMUNITY SPIRIT: There's something about working alongside a group of people with their eye on the same goal. It's inspiring. It's also a comfort on days when your well runs dry and what you really need is to know that you're not alone. They say writing is a lonely occupation. I think that's crazy. There is a difference between loneliness and solitude. I love my alone-time with my manuscripts and when I need a sign of life, I dip back into the amazing writing communities I'm very lucky to be a part of e.g. Storystorm, SCBWI, The Golden Egg Academy, and Kritikme.  

I've wrapped up the month with 42 picture book ideas (fiction and non-fiction) - some very nascent but very much there - plus a number of ideas for flash fiction pieces, early readers and young fiction!

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Massive thank you to Tara Lazar for bringing us all together and for organising so many amazing guest posts! 

I'm now going to attempt something crazy for February. I'm going to draft a manuscript a day. A complete draft: beginning, middle, end - that sort of thing. I'm going to get out of my own way, show up every day and write. There may be a lot of chopping and changing on the road ahead but I'm a firm believer in the tyranny of the blank page. This is my way of getting past that. Wish me luck! 

3 amazing multicultural non-fiction picture books for children

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A mouthful of a title but the best I could do to describe my 3 top picks in honour of Multicultural Children's Book Day 2018. I often talk about picture books being windows into the world and these books are exactly that. In no particular order as these are all firm favourites with my 3-year-old and will be loved and adored by older children too:

1) HERE WE ARE - Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers

Disclaimer: we are die-hard Oliver Jeffers fans in this household so I'm very biased but this is another level of beautiful. He wrote this for his son and you can sense that. It captures that feeling so many parents have - that desire to share all the need-to-know stuff with this little person in your life. It speaks straight to the heart but it's more than I-love-you. It's a subtle, complex hey, this is the world you've been born into...this is how it works, these are the incredible things around you...this is how precious it is and this is why you need to look after it. There's also a gorgeous spread where Jeffers describes how "People come in many shapes, sizes and colours" and adds that we "all look different, act different and sound different...but don't be fooled, we are all people." You have to see this spread - it's a beautiful conversation-starter for children. 

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2) LOTS by Marc Martin

This BOOK! It's an absolute treasure trove of information. The illustrations are stunning and so detailed and every page is jam-packed with juicy little facts and local quirks. It takes you everywhere from Tokyo with its vending machines (5.6 million of them in Japan!) selling everything from neck-ties to books to Ulaanbaatar, Moscow, Cairo, the Amazon Rainforest and New Delhi with the signature Indian head wobble and clay chai cups. I'd challenge any adult to flick through this one without wanting to stop and have a proper read.

3) THIS IS HOW WE DO IT by Matt Lamothe

This book follows a day in the lives of seven children from around the world - Italy, Japan, Uganda, Russia, India, Peru and Iran. We learn who they are, what kind of place and house they live in, who they live with, what they eat, how they go to school, what they wear and how they write, learn and play. It's a fascinating mix of cultures and seeing these lives laid out alongside each other offers a chance to celebrate differences while appreciating that there's a common thread running through each of these stories - something that binds us, something that means we're not so different after all. 

There are many more books in this vein - a happy reality because children love discovering other cultures. They drink this stuff. I just wanted to share 3 I thought were particularly special. If there are others that you've come across, please do share in the comments. I'd love to hear about them! 

 

The Anti-Resolution Revolution: Successes of 2017

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Children's author Julie Hedlund, challenged participants of her 12 Days of Christmas for Writers series to post SUCCESSES (rather than resolutions) on our blogs this year. She believes the way New Year's resolutions are traditionally made come from a place of negativity - what DIDN'T get done or achieved in the previous year.  Instead, she suggests we set goals for the New Year that BUILD on our achievements from the previous one. I decided to participate in this Anti-Resolution Revolution! Here is my list for 2017.

1) Fell in love with writing picture books. Discovered a real sense of purpose.

2) Restarted my Miracle Morning. Sun salutations, meditation, Morning Pages, reading, visualisation and intention/goal-setting to bring energy, depth and focus to my life and work. 

3) Decided to put an end to the struggle with Imposter Syndrome and call myself a writer. It's not a hobby - it's who I am, it's what I do. That subtle shift in intention has made a world of difference to my writing. 

4) Started writing EVERY SINGLE DAY after the Kritikme Novel in 90 course

5) Read LOTS of books. I mean LOTS even for a serial bookmuncher. 

6) Got accepted into the Golden Egg Academy Picture Book Programme. Had a wonderful, inspiring and encouraging 1:1 with my editor, Jo Collins, met a lovely group of truly brilliant writers and set up a new online critique group. 

7) Attended 3 writing festivals in my first 6 months of writing - Winchester, York and the SCBWI British Isles conference. Had some fantastic 1:1s with agents and editors who said they loved the pacing and voice in my stories and offered some fabulous suggestions for refining my manuscripts. Means the world to me as a new writer. 

8) Was selected as one of 11 writers on the Penguin Random House WriteNow mentoring programme to nurture diverse voices in publishing and, in 2018, will be working with a Penguin editor on my first picture book. Amazing to be chosen alongside these truly wonderful writers - their stories are incredible and very much needed. All the more amazing because I very nearly didn't apply - I didn't think I was diverse enough or strong enough. So glad I did! 

9) Wrote 7 picture books in 2017 and filled many, many pages of my picture book Moleskine with ideas. Signed up for the 12x12 12 Days of Christmas for Writers and got ready to join Storystorm 2018 to generate 30 picture book ideas in January. 

So grateful for the writing-related successes of 2017 and excited to see what 2018 has in store. I can't control the outcomes but I can control my own intention and my commitment. And as this crazy year comes to an end, those two things couldn't be stronger. 

 

 

 

How to write a novel in 90 days

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Confession: picture books are my true love but, like many people, I had a novel I desperately needed to get out of my system. I had just submitted a series of picture book manuscripts to the Golden Egg Academy and a Penguin Random House competition. I was on a roll writing-wise. That’s when I saw The Novelry and Louise Dean’s Ninety Day Novel Plan on Twitter. Here’s what happened next:  

Day 1: Ooh that sounds tempting.  Will pop it on the list for next year. 

Day 2: This Louise lady seems supercool too. Wait, she’s actually written a novel in 90 days and there are real live people out there who have done it too. What would that feel like?

Could I? 

SHOULD I? 

Day 3: Signed on the dotted line and haven’t looked back since. 

I know some people work on that first draft over 5 years but I loved the idea of an end-date. It’s not an “I-thrive-under-pressure” thing - I handed my university dissertation in 2 months early. It’s because there’s a magic to finishing. There’s a magic to getting past that blank page. Something to hold, something to edit. This will come out all wrong but I needed to know I could do it. I wanted that finished draft in my hands this side of Christmas and I got it - 30 October 2017. It had all the rugged charm of a first draft, which is code for “it was a complete embarrassment”, but it was a complete draft. I actually did it. And I can do it again. 

I won’t lie. I wasn’t the best of students. I didn’t write for the longest time. At first, I missed days here and there - life took over. But I’d missed the point. There is a genius to this 90 day business. Louise is right - it’s about forming habits. Once I resolved to be faithful, to put the novel first and to write EVERY SINGLE DAY, there was an incredible transformation in my writing. I wrote 75% of the draft within 3 weeks. Towards the end, I was living and dreaming my characters. I had an amazing aerial view of the story with all the paths leading to that final climax - all the missing pieces and all the things I needed to revisit, revamp or create in draft 2. Heavy, I know, but it was a kind of enlightenment. 

Gosh, this is all so self-involved. And that’s unfair because the KritikMe community at The Novelry has been a huge part of this. I have no idea how Louise has brought such an incredible group of people together. Is it self-selection? Whatever it is, it works. That community has been and continues to be my rock, my inspiration, my much-needed giggle on a slow or disastrous day. You see, there’s more to this plan than self-discipline, Moleskines, hero texts, an expertly crafted curriculum and a wonderful coach and mentor. 

And yes, I’m an evangelist. If you have a novel you need to get out of your system, you can take 5 years over that first draft if that floats your boat. You can flirt with the idea of writing it. Or you can join the Ninety Day Novel plan and get the thing done. 

Letter to my 10 year old self

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You’re 10 years old. So full of life, so full of fire. Your eyes light up with wonder and enthusiasm when you discover things for the first time. You’re always on the move. You just can’t wait to grow up.

Stop. SLOW. DOWN. 

You won't believe it right now but there will come a time when you wish you could get these days back. Live in the moment. Climb trees. Crunch leaves. Play, paint, sing loudly and smile widely. Read. Read LOTS. Meditate. Do yoga. Make things. Hold hands with someone you love - someone who loves you - and run as fast as you can with a belly full of laughter. Feel the grass beneath your feet, the sand between your toes, the feeling of the rain pouring down on your skin and streaming down your face. Notice the raindrops balancing on your eyelashes and nose. The way your eyes close in the light of the sun. 

Be kind. It’s the little things people will remember forever. Be the child that sits with children who don’t have anyone to sit with. Make a new friend every day. Appreciate your family - once in a while, tell them you love them. For no reason whatsoever. Yes, it all gets a bit too much sometimes but one day, I promise you, you’ll miss them if they’re not around. Love yourself. That might sound funny to you now but it’ll make sense someday.

And now, the hard stuff. Things won’t always go to plan. There will be good days and not-so-good days. There will be challenges. Some little ones and some big ones too. But don’t worry too much - you’re stronger than you know. Be brave. But most of all, BE YOURSELF. No one does it better than you.

 

*Originally written for Cheeky Yogi, a business we're very sadly in the process of closing down. More on that adventure later!

How to Write Picture Books: 5 Takeaways from Winchester Writers' Festival 2017

WHAT an experience! 

I squeezed into the full-day picture book masterclass at the last minute and despite the 5 hours of solid travelling it entailed, I am so very glad I did. The workshop was led by the lovely Tracey Corderoy, an absolute master of scansion and a wonderful storyteller. We also had a jam-packed and supremely juicy hour with Louise Bolongaro, Head of Picture Books at Nosy Crow. I don't think I've scribbled so hard and so fast since my political philosophy final. Made me wish I'd fixed that terrible crow-grip back in primary school.

We went through all the usual discussions around plot structure, pacing, page turns and showing vs. telling but here are 5 of my biggest takeaways:

(1) Character matters. A lot. 

This is one of those things that you hear all the time. You know it matters but you still find yourself obsessed with the plot and the spreads and baking in your character's motivation retrospectively, stuffing it in wherever you find space. Or maybe that's just me! Well, Tracey's exercise of starting with the character has opened my eyes. Thinking about who they are and what makes them tick. What would really challenge them? How would they react? How would they change as a result?  Cue lightbulb moment. So this is what "character-driven" really means. No wonder Tracey's characters - the likes of Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam - have carried so well across a series of picture books and over into young fiction. 

 (2) Plot matters too. 

You can have a beautiful piece of prose or rhyme but it needs what Louise Bolongaro calls "lovely, meaty narrative substance." It needs to pass her "Finnish Prose translation test". Does it lose all its value when you strip away the rhyme and this particular selection of words? Or is it still a pacy, punchy read with plenty of charm? And a top tip from Tracey Corderoy - don't lose sight of the core of your story, the heart of it, the thing that made you want to write it in the first place. A great story speaks "from the heart of human experience". It makes you feel something. 

(3) If you want to rhyme, do it well. 

3 mini-points here:

  1. It's more than just syllable counts. It's about mastering scansion - how it scans. The stressed and unstressed syllables. For a brilliant example of this, read Tracey Corderoy's Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam! Rhyme with brilliant scansion is effortless to read and compels you to perform. 
  2. It's also about good, strong, story-driven rhyme as opposed to lazy, predictable rhyming that takes the writer in all sorts of strange directions.
  3. No inversions, apparently. Not for Nosy Crow, anyway. Julia Donaldson may get away with it but she is the Queen of Picture Books. It's different. 

(4) Pull the listener into the story.

Not just by way of a hook but make sure that they are invested in it. Repetition is a special invitation for children to join in. It's empowering. So is leaving something of the story for children to wonder at, to fill in the blanks. They become so much more than passive listeners. It becomes their story. 

(5) Never give in 

I had to include this because I still can't get that "Never give in" Churchill quote out of my head but also because it's a big bad world out there. In the words of Tracey Corderoy, you need to "be tenacious, thick-skinned, never give up." Get over that scary blank page and start writing. Experiment, be flexible. Don't be afraid to be wrong. Persevere. It can take time to get published. Tracey found an agent in no time at all but took 3 years to get published. She now has 50+ books to her name. It takes courage to be a writer. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I'm new to the picture book writing journey but this workshop has made me feel so excited, so energised. Picture books are so important. Louise Bolongaro put it beautifully: they're a child's first encounter with reading, they help them find their place in the world. They have a dual consumer - the reader and the listener - so there's a unique challenge in that they need to appeal to both. They need characters we care about, perfect pacing and plenty of story. They'll also be read aloud over and over and over so they need a powerful visual and auditory magic that never feels old, never fails to delight.

No pressure :)