SPECIAL FEATURE Choosing a Mentee

Being a mentor to other writers is about sharing your knowledge and experience with your mentee. But as Jon Cox found out, the mentees aren't the only ones learning.

Wow. What an experience that was. I have just emerged from an intensive couple of weeks reading picture book texts for the WriteMentor mentoring scheme.

This annual summer mentoring programme pairs up unagented/unpublished writers with an agented and or published writer for four months with a view to polishing texts and offering support, culminating in an ‘Agents’ Showcase’ at the beginning of September.

Would-be mentees can submit a text to up to three mentors. I was incredibly flattered (and only slightly overwhelmed) to be chosen by 123 writers as a potential picture book mentor.

What I learned

I thought it might be interesting to share what I learned in reading all these texts, in terms of what types of picture book stories are being written and submitted. (Around a half of the texts came from the UK, with the other half largely made up of stories from the US, plus a handful from elsewhere in the world.)

All that talent!

The main thing I learned was just how many fabulous writers there are out there. I could, with confidence, have chosen any of perhaps 30 writers as mentees based on the quality of their submissions. (Indeed, some were so polished and on-the-mark that I didn’t feel there was any value I would have been able to add!) It was hideously difficult to whittle them down.

So that’s how an agent/publisher feels!

I think I now have some idea how it feels to be an agent or publisher, coping with dozens of weekly submissions. It brought home to me how key it is to make your text stand out.

The originality of your story is vital to getting noticed. It’s pretty much impossible to come up with a genuinely new theme for a story, but if you can come up with a new angle, then you are at least going to catch an eye.

The long and the short of it

The great majority of texts were in the 450-750-word bracket. The shortest was 179 words (tricky to create a big enough impression with so few words as a writer – particularly if this is the only text submitted), and a few strayed north of 1000 words (which is likely to be a turn-off from an unknown writer).

To rhyme or not to rhyme?

There are so many keen rhymers out there! Upwards of 40 of my 123 texts were in rhyme.

Despite the fact that rhyming books have always been popular, and continue to be published in numbers, would-be PB writers tend to be warned off rhyme by the industry – too difficult to translate, too difficult to write well. And it’s certainly true that texts with bang-on rhymes and scansion AND a compelling, well-constructed story are rare.

Having said that, there are some AMAZING rhymers out there. I read around ten beautifully constructed rhyming texts (and one of the two mentees I have taken on rhymes quite brilliantly).

Main characters

As picture book writers, we’re frequently advised to make sure our main characters are children or ‘child-like’ (ie ‘childish’ adults or animals that behave in a child-like manner). The reason is obvious – to help the young reader relate to the character.
How relatable is Alice? (source: commons.wikipedia.org)

So, it was interesting to see that eight stories I read had adult main characters. Even more surprising, perhaps, was that there were 13 stories with inanimate objects as main characters. This is usually deemed even higher-risk in a story. It can be done well, but can be an immediate turn-off for some agents/publishers.

Of the other main characters, there were 15 boys, 14 girls and 1 ‘you’ (ie in the 2nd person – a bold move!)

There was a huge range of animal characters. Dog (5) was the most popular, followed by bear and fox (3), then cat, wolf, crab, polar bear and sheep (2), with one each for cuttlefish, seagull, porcupine, elephant, sloth, raccoon, rat, turtle, meerkat, octopus, crocodile, stork, flamingo, woodlouse, bee, chicken, ant, squirrel, quokka, flea, dung beetle and seahorse.

Of the other characters, there were seven assorted fairytale characters, four witches, three aliens, three dragons, two pirates, two monsters plus single examples of vampire, mermaid, ghost, fairy, robot and even baked beans.


It was also interesting to see the range of themes that writers are tackling. Here are all those taken up by more than one writer:
following own dream/being true to oneself/finding who you are

‘fun’, without any deep message

wonder of nature

family/sibling relationships

grandparent/grandchild relationships



family heritage

the joy of dancing

(credit: Dawn Hudson via publicdomainpictures.net)

gender stereotyping/inclusivity


bodily functions


the power of imagination



Many stories had no one clear ‘theme’, which can be a problem when trying to pitch a text. A couple of the stories that stood out for me did so because their writers did manage to find a theme that I hadn’t come across before – namely, the importance to a child of their own name, and what it is like to be in a low-income family.

What’s your USP?

The one big thing that this process has brought home for me is just how competitive the market is for picture book writers. There are a LOT of us out there, and a LOT of us are good. It’s true that not every picture book being published is stunningly original or beautiful written, but, if you want to get noticed, a killer idea and a lyrical pen are going to take you a long way. Always think: What’s my USP?

And now?

So, I did finally cut those 123 down to just two, and I couldn’t be more excited to be working with the incredibly talented Lauren Pippa  and Becky Wilson over the summer. It’ll be as valuable a learning journey for me as I hope it will be for them. And a huge privilege.

Header image: Jon Cox

Jon Cox has been a journalist and travel guide editor, and still is part-time teacher. He has written seven picture books for the thinkequal.org charity, and signed with Lucy Irvine at Peters, Fraser and Dunlop just a month ago. website: joncoxwriter.co.uk twitter: @JonCox17

1 comment:

  1. Jon, that was so interesting to read and to see all the subjects and themes broken down. It is a brilliant programme and even though I didn't get through I am so pleased for those Picture book writers you did pick. Thank you for your time and a small incite to the process.


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