SLUSH PILE CHALLENGE January 2021 Winner Helen MacKenzie



Helen MacKenzie, winner of the January 2021 Slush Pile Challenge, tells us why she entered the competition and about her experience of discussing her submission with Emily Talbot, of United Agents.


Helen won this challenge by submitting the following:

A non-rhyming picture book text that incorporated a STEM theme or idea and did so in a fun, accessible and commercial way. It could have been realistic or fantastical and could feature human or animal characters so there was scope play around with it, but what Emily Talbot was mostly looking for was a way of presenting this tricky topic with originality, and a desire to make it feel aspirational. Text length was between 400-750 words approx. and paginated into 12 spreads.

Emily chose The Hole Story by Helen Mackenzie as it is “a tale of the power of friendship and the fact it can help us find our place in the world. I loved the simplicity of this text and the fact the message was strong but not overtold or didactic. The prose was tight and clear and it was a text I could visualise immediately, with illustrations perhaps having a paired-back, minimalist style to match the tone of the writing. Wilbur’s struggles and his fear of the outside felt real and relatable without needing to be over-explained, rather it was inferred from the action and I really enjoyed this.”


I love writing competitions, mostly because I’m a procrastinator and always work better to a deadline. But I don’t usually enter picture book competitions. In fact, I stopped writing picture books years ago, because I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere with them.
This all changed in January 2021, when the Slush Pile Challenge came out. I had just finished a draft of a middle grade story and the STEM theme of the competition sparked a memory of something I had written about a decade before. It was a picture book called The Hole Story, about a little monster who thought he didn’t fit in. I started to wonder if I could rewrite it about shapes instead.

I was so taken with the idea that I eventually dug out my old handwritten manuscript and started to play about with it. It needed an awful lot of work. Luckily, the challenge was for a non-rhyming story, so I didn’t need to worry about rhyme, and there were a couple of people in my crit group who knew about picture books. I took advice from them, polished frantically, and then emailed the story off.

I had forgotten how much fun it was to write a picture book. I really enjoyed the process and I liked the new version of the story, but didn’t expect it to get anywhere. I went back to editing my middle grade, and it was a total surprise to get the email telling me I’d won.

I can’t tell you how thrilled I was. It just goes to show that no writing is ever wasted, and I couldn’t stop smiling for at least a week.

Emily got in touch very quickly and, being mid-lockdown, we arranged a Zoom meeting for not long after. She also offered to take a look at other material I had written, which of course I didn’t have! There was only my middle grade story, which she had already seen, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate to send it anyway.

Emily was very understanding and we agreed to talk simply about The Hole Story and about writing and publishing in general. I was determined to get as much out of the meeting as I could, so I prepared a huge number of questions and nervously waited for it to begin.

In the end, I need not have been nervous at all. Emily was lovely and very generous with her time, highlighting the areas of the story I needed to improve (illustration notes, anyone?) and boosting my confidence by telling me the things she liked as well.

I usually write YA and upper middle grade, so I asked whether it was possible to combine this type of writing with picture books. It was great to hear that that they could co-exist. Yes, I should focus on the age range that is most important to me, but it is good to have different strings to my bow. There are trends in writing, and being able to write for different ages is one way of overcoming that.

For me, the meeting was a hugely positive experience. I learned a lot and I’m truly grateful to Emily for her time and advice. I’d also like to say a massive thank you to the SCBWI team for running the Slush Pile Challenge. It’s a fantastic opportunity for unagented writers and is definitely worth a go!

A special thanks to Emily Talbot, of United Agents for setting the competition, judging it and providing such valuable feedback to Helen.

*Photo credit: Helen MacKenzie



Elaine Cline has been a SCBWI member for over six years and loves to write picture books, middle grade and teen books. She lives by the sea and has one dog and one cat. Elaine is a member of the Words & Pictures editorial team, managing The Slush Pile Challenge.

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