DEBUT JOURNEYS Natascha Biebow

Welcome to this virtual landscape where SCBWI-BI members share their debut journeys with us. This month, Helen Simmons steps out with author Natascha Biebow.

Natascha's non-fiction storybook, The Crayon Man is out in March 2019. Although this is not Natascha’s first book, it is her first non-fiction book. Let’s begin our journey…

There’s nothing like a good walk to fuel creative ideas and give us inspiration in our writing. Natascha, where are you taking us on our walk today? 

My favourite place to go hiking is the Swiss Alps. I just love the majesty of being surrounded by mountains. Most mornings, I walk my Jack Russell terrier in the local park in SE London. It isn’t majestic in any way, but it does have some tall trees. Being out in nature is important. It helps us to reconnect with ourselves. Walking is also a great way to unpick writing conundrums.

What about the landscape you have created in The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons?

The Crayon Man is the story of inventor Edwin Binney, a man who loved nature and colour. The book starts out in his carbon black factory, where everything is black – black tar, black ink, black shoe polish – and progresses to his inspiration for inventing the colourful Crayola crayons – his home by the sea, where he had a beautiful garden, filled with colour. This is the context for the man who had a knack for listening and making what people needed, and who persevered to invent one of the world’s best-loved toys.

As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand steps starts with one. Tell us about your inspiration for your book.

I was inspired to write the book when I saw a Sesame Street video of the Crayola crayons being made in the factory. I wondered: how were they invented? What’s the story behind them? At the time, I was taking an online non-fiction writing course and so I chose it for my topic. In the 1900s, children didn’t have access to crayons like we do now. What was it like?

Now we have got into our stride, can you tell us what you loved most about writing this book?

I have always loved facts – it’s my mission to learn at least one new thing each day. When you write creative non-fiction, you are writing a true story, and the challenge is to find a new angle that will speak to young readers and a voice for it. I really enjoyed digging for the story – later, it led me to travel to all kinds of interesting places, including the Smithsonian Museum archives in Washington, DC, and the Crayola factory in Easton, PA. Once I’d done the research, it was fun finding the rhythm for this story about colour. It felt great to be writing something new. Because of the online course, I had a deadline, and it gave me a focus to complete the book.

We seem to be lost in the woods now, Natascha. Can you describe your most difficult moments when you were writing The Crayon Man, and how you got back onto the right path? 

Once I’d written a draft of the book, it needed to be watertight – which meant a lot of fact-checking. Sometimes, it can be hard to track down sources and missing information. I reached out to a lot of really helpful librarians! Submitting the story was challenging too – I needed someone to share my vision. Often, it feels like your manuscript goes into a black hole. It can be dispiriting. But I kept faith in my book, because I knew children would like the story. Fortuitously, I met my now agent at an SCBWI conference. I pitched it to her by email afterwards, and she replied almost immediately.

 The hardest part of creating a picture book is that you have a vision when you set out and you have to let go somewhat as it will evolve with the input of the team creating it: the illustrator, the editor, the designer, the sales & marketing team. All these people are working with you to create the strongest possible book. Once the book sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, there was still a lot of work to do!

First, we had to agree on the right illustrator for the story. My editor also suggested some changes to improve the manuscript. ‘Could there be more tension in the middle – in the section where Binney is inventing the crayons?’ she asked. I struggled, because I couldn't find enough facts to substantiate this. I re-wrote the back matter, integrating it as fact boxes, and re-considered the ending. It was really exciting when Steven Salerno’s initial drawings came in. I double-checked the historical details. We discussed the best compositions, the cover imagery – every detail about the book. Some days, it felt like it would never be finished! I have also worked hard to put in place a marketing plan for The Crayon Man, but shouting about my work doesn’t come naturally to me – I would much rather hide under a rock (and write!). The SCBWI Debut Author Bootcamp run by Sara Grant, Mo O’Hara, Candy Gourlay was invaluable. I created a trailer for the book, which you can see here.

As we reach the summit, can you tell us how it feels to be an author? 

It is super-exciting when the printed copy arrives after such a long journey – two years in actual production, almost four since I wrote the book. But there is more work to do – marketing, marketing, marketing – not to mention carving out time to write the next book(s). Edwin Binney was an inventor and entrepreneur, and a very generous person. The Crayon Man is dedicated to my parents – my dad was a businessman and entrepreneur, too, who inspired me to take courage to do my own thing, even if it scared the pants off me. My mum always got that I loved books and writing, and helped carve out opportunities for me to pursue my dreams.

We’ve finished our walk and now so I think we deserve to celebrate with tea in a cosy inn. As we warm our feet by the blazing fire, tell me where you think your writing will take you in the future?

I’ve written a couple of other picture books, both fiction and non-fiction, that are out on submission, as well as a young fiction novel. I’ve had the idea for that for a long time, but couldn’t figure out a way into the story. Plus I never seemed to have time to write it. Then, last year, my son went on a two-night school trip and I decided to have a mini writing retreat at home. Boy, was it tempting to procrastinate! But I did it. Bum on seat. I wrote the first draft of the first novel.

Finally, I have really enjoyed walking and talking with you today. Can you give us one take away tip for yet-to-be-published writers? 

As I said – bum on seat. Show up to write and do it. And don’t give up. Sometimes, something isn’t ready, but when it is, it will shine.

Natascha Biebow is an experienced editor, mentor, author and coach who loves working with authors and illustrators at all levels to help them shape their stories. She has been awarded an MBE for her services to children's book writers and illustrators as Regional Advisor of SCBWI British Isles. Follow Natascha:
Blogging at The Picture Den.

Helen Victoria is a writer of YA fiction, a full time drama teacher and a reader of anything and everything. When she is not putting on shows, reading or writing, Helen loves to walk in wild places, or hang out with her family and friends in London, France and Cornwall.

Follow Helen:

Imogen Foxell is an illustrator with a particular interest in creating intricate imaginary worlds. She illustrates English literature revision cards for, and interesting words for Her website is Follow her on Twitter and Instagram


 Debut Journeys is edited by Julia Tuffs.

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