EVENTS An industry point of view

Before heading back home to Australia, Elizabeth Cummings attended possibly one of the last face-to-face SCBWI-BI events for a while, a London Masterclass with Rachel Hickman, Deputy Managing Director of Chicken House Books, on 7th March 2020.

To start with, Rachel told us about her own pathway to publication after an illustrious career on the ‘other side’, in children’s book publishing. She shared the qualities that Chicken House were looking for in an author, including:

  • An authentic voice
  • Not writing to trends
  • Having a ‘point of difference’

She spoke of the challenges of being a writer, including the importance of connecting with readers; not getting sucked into the vortex of your personal literary intention; and not comparing yourself to others and their writing journeys.

Many beautiful shells will come and go with the tide ... furthermore a good book might not get published and a bad book will

Listening to her, I realised I shouldn’t worry too much about fine-polishing my manuscript. Rather, I should be prepared to work as part of a team to improve and further hone it, if and when a contract is offered. Rachel’s ideas on how to convey a unique voice, including developing a strong grasp of descriptive language that really strikes a chord with young readers, is something I am looking forward to examining in my own work-in-progress when I get back to my desk.

Masterclass attendees at the Theodore Bullfrog pub in London.
(Picture credit: Elizabeth Cummings)

It was heartening to hear that trends should not be your primary concern. So, for example, the current dip in the YA market does not mean that a writer should avoid that genre if it is what they are drawn to write. The room enjoyed her humorous portrayal of the publishing business being like a tide that comes in and out with some of its treasures found, and others lost.

Rachel said: ‘Many beautiful shells will come and go with the tide ... furthermore a good book might not get published and a bad book will.’

With a brain full of new ideas, a generous dose of self-belief, and a willingness to perform being important aspects of a budding children’s author’s portfolio, it would be easy to feel that what publishers are looking for is some sort of magical unicorn.

But listening to Rachel, one really got the sense that not only did she have a clear vision of what made a ‘good author’, but that she truly enjoyed the business of finding and working with them. With the caution, ‘It is a great way to dream but not necessarily the dream career – not always financially rewarding,’ we broke for lunch.

Rachel Hickman. (Picture credit: @hickman_rachel)

Having heard Rachel talk, I feel that Chicken House are clearly keen to hear from new authors, and we were encouraged to submit to their open-for submission days. In particular, I loved the little anecdote she shared with us about the student who told Barry Cunningham, Managing Director of Chicken House, that the reason she liked to read was that: ‘If you can see how the characters in a book can change their lives, then maybe you can too.’ I must admit it made me a little dewy-eyed as I reflected that this is why we write!

The second half of the workshop was spent writing blurbs and experimenting with titles for our manuscripts. This I found challenging, but it was much needed as I soon discovered, when I stumbled around on my page trying to develop titles that reflected the essence of my narrative, as well as develop a blurb to engage my potential reader.

Who would have thought a hundred words would take over an hour to get down? My biggest takeaways? To ensure my blurb and title are working together, and that my characters’ voices remain true throughout the story so that the reader’s expectations for a compelling story are met.

*Header image of Rachel Hickman by Elizabeth Cummings.


Elizabeth Mary Cummings has qualifications in psychology and a Masters of Education. She has had a number of successful picture books and junior fiction titles published, as well as award winning poetry. Her stories often take a child’s perspective to explain the world and reflect on important life experiences including themes of resilience, grief, empowerment, anti-bullying and mental health. She is a sought-after speaker on childhood wellbeing.


Fran Price is Events Editor for Words & Pictures, the online magazine for SCBWI-BI. Contact her at

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