EVENTS The Big Picture — creating a non-fiction book

Sue Rawlings reports on the last of this year's marvellous London Masterclasses, led by children's author Catherine Barr.

Setting the Scene

Sliding through the determined (but good-tempered) anti-Brexit crowds, I was thankful not to be travelling too far. Approximately 30 people arrived at the Theodore Bullfrog for the SCWBI Masterclass on non-fiction picture books. 

The tables were organised in small groups so that more people could be included and this seemed to work very well. 

One Author’s Journey

Catherine Barr was introduced and we learned about her awesome and informed background, working with Greenpeace and various charities. When she tried unsuccessfully to find a book about evolution, a discussion with a friend inspired her to write her own. Working with Brian Rosen from the Natural History Museum (yes, the brother of that one!), and Quarto she produced her first book, which led to a series and many more commissions.

Catherine’s career as a writer is flourishing but her tips and advice made it clear that she works hard at ensuring the success of her books.

Spend Time on Research

When I was writing articles for adult magazines, I always interviewed an expert for background research and quotes. Why hadn’t I thought to do this when writing non-fiction for children? When Catherine pointed this out as a good start, the lightbulb went on again! Catherine loves meeting experts and also visits places of interest as part of her research (a great reason to travel).

Catherine Barr talking to SCBWIs at the London Masterclass.
(Picture credit: Alison Donald)

New Angles on Old Ideas

She reassured us that it’s not necessarily the idea which has to be original, but the angle should be new. A series often gives added appeal, for example Catherine’s 10 Reasons To Love a …. series.

Pitch Perfect Proposals

Catherine tasked us with writing a proposal on a book about sport in which she gave the following pointers:

* When sending a proposal, a strong title is important, together with an intriguing overview which leads the reader to find out more.

* Mention why the book is relevant now and don’t forget to think two years ahead when looking at a topical subject, followed by the target age range, style and tone (text, story, humorous).

* Say where it fits into the current market; what books it can be compared with. A book plan is helpful, showing spreads or sections, possibly with examples of one or two spreads.

* Think globally as this will help the publisher to sell your book.

* Finally, don’t forget to explain why you are the best person to write the book. 

Engage Your Reader

Some of the group were already published and the next item gave ideas for finding readers. After all, the more books that sell…

Catherine provided  a number of tips for marketing your book, including:

  • Being active on Amazon, Good Reads and Social Media (Twitter, Instagram, using SOA etc)
  • Becoming a patron of reading at a local school
  • Attend literary events or hold your own
  • Book signings
  • School or library visits
  • Making YouTube films
  • Peters Books research, recommend and sell educational books. They appreciate worksheets and activities to support their recommendations.
  • Roving Books set up bookshops in schools and libraries offering a huge choice of titles.


Catherine set another task, to help develop skills in engaging children during school or library visits. We had to create a 45-minute activity for 5-10 year olds based on Catherine’s 10 Reasons to Love series.

We started with ideas for telling or reading the book to the children using visual aids, puppets, child volunteers etc. The activities were varied, from pattern work to technology and drama to wall displays. Most groups had enough ideas for many more hours, but as Catherine pointed out, that’s fine — teachers will always appreciate ideas to prepare for your visit and for follow-up work.

The Science of Luck

Catherine left us with some thoughts about what it takes to be lucky:

  • Resilience
  • Seeing opportunities
  • and crucially — taking them!

    To which a member of the group added:
The harder I work, the luckier I am.

A very enjoyable and inspiring final Author Masterclass of the season.

*Header image: united


Sue Rawlings is an aspiring author and a late starter. She has been a teacher and runs an art business, helping grown-ups to rediscover their inner child through painting workshops in her Hampshire studio. After a few health setbacks, including falling over her own feet in order to break a few bones, she is continuing a long held desire to write for children, and would love to find an agent who would help to promote her (now much shorter) picture books.

Fran Price is Events Editor for Words & Pictures magazine. Contact her at

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