EVENTS From Idea to Bookshelf, Part 1


The Picture Book Weekend at the end of September 2021 brought together writers and illustrators via zoom to discuss the art and craft of picture booking. Gulfem Wormald reports.

I am an unpublished author of children’s picture books. There are a number of reasons why I am unpublished in this field. Let me share my thought process with you — and see if yours is any similar to mine. 

1. I get an idea!

2. I ponder a bit then start writing.
3. First draft done: idea now looks vaguely like a story.

4. I review, tweak, tear the page and start again and I keep going until the story looks not too bad.

5. I take it to the SCBWI critique group. Receive feedback, tweak more. Ah, I think it's there, actually!

6. I write a query letter, mostly in my head, and instantly feel overwhelmed. Never send the query letter, decide that my story is not good enough, wait for the next idea. 

7. I get another idea!

8. Repeat the steps above.

When I saw the emails about the Idea to Bookshelf Picture Book event, I thought it might help me to break the cycle of doom described above. Two days, eight informative sessions and a virtual social event (which I couldn’t attend) later, I feel somewhat ready to have a go at this properly!

Authors, trust your illustrator! 

For me the highlights were far too many to mention. I was wowed by the amazing work of James Mayhew, wonderful author/illustrator of many beautiful books. It was a pleasure to hear how he carries his work from an idea to a book. He told us that he draws by hand and that sometimes he draws the same character over and over for weeks until, in his own words, he becomes as familiar with the character as his own signature.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t fantasize about the characters in my books being brought to life by someone like James Mayhew or Dapo Adeola, another brilliant illustrator whose work no doubt made many children (and adults) fall in love with picture books. 

James Mayhew told us that he draws by hand and that sometimes he draws the same character over and over for weeks until he becomes as familiar with the character as his own signature

They talked about trusting and respecting the illustrator and sometimes letting go of your story as an author so that it can flourish in the hands of an illustrator. I cannot wait for the day when someone like James Mayhew or Dapo Adeola gives those invisible wings to my book characters, so they can fly to places that are beyond my imagination. Hearing them filled me with enthusiasm, excitement and a drive to shush my inner critique and go for it!

Illustrator Dapo Adeola

The complex thought process of agents and publishers

I found the sessions with agents, publishers and booksellers were very informative and helpful. I never appreciated the complex decisions and considerations they had to make in order to make a book a success. They have to think about things like creativity, finances, availability, trends, the choice of title, book cover design, promotion, social media, co-editions, important events such as book fairs and more. The plates they have to spin are endless and that explained why there are so many rejection letters being received by authors. Having insight into their thought process was eye-opening and very helpful indeed. 

Outside the box thinking

The lovely Mini Grey’s session was yet another feast for the eyes and ears. Mini took us on her own journey of how she develops her story and illustration ideas and how they end up as flawless stories with gorgeous illustrations. I was blown away with the 'crazy' design process Mini’s latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, has gone through. I cannot wait to have a copy as soon as it is released. Her unique, outside the box thinking is a gift to picture book lovers of all ages.

Mini Grey’s roughs for The Last Wolf.

Hearing the wonderful Chitra Soundar, author of over 50 books, talk about how not to lose your voice through the editing process gave me so many ideas. She creates a Pinterest board for each of her books so that the illustrators, who may not be familiar with the ethnic detail in her books, get it right first time. She shared many tips like using a spreadsheet of names she has used for her characters in order not to repeat them and choosing the words in her books carefully so that they are co-editionable (she had been asked to remove the word colour from her book once because it would have been too costly to print separately for the American market with the spelling color).

More nuggets than a fried chicken shop

It is not possible to cover every tip and hint here but here are some top tips I personally took away from the weekend:
  • If you are an author, connect with your illustrator and vice versa. With that connection, understanding and trust are born.
  • Trust your editor. Don’t take criticism personally, but stand your ground if you feel like the changes they want to make change the story to a point that it no longer feels like your story. 
  • Think globally when you are writing. Think about whether your story will lend itself to translation and consider the nuances between English and American spellings.
  • Have a strong portfolio (especially for illustrators), a unique concept, good characterisation, patience and a thick skin.
  • Think of your unique selling point/hook! Where does your idea fit in the market?
  • What are the trends of the time? Does your idea fit in?
  • Have you discovered your voice? Does it come across in your work?
  • Have at least one social media platform and support and celebrate others in the industry.
  • Is your idea easily understandable at a glance?
  • Will your readers (children) be interested in your idea? Think about your message.
  • If you could describe your idea in one sentence, what would it be?
  • What is the 'problem' that drives the narrative?
  • To rhyme or not to rhyme!? If the story comes first and the rhyme and rhythm are good then yes, you can give rhyme a go. Think twice if the whole story is based on rhyme (like Oi Frog!).
  • Arguably most importantly, believe in what you are saying and be passionate about it.


Author Chitra Soundar.

So, what changed for me? I realised that I can’t control everything that is involved in putting my book on the shelves. Once I accepted that, I decided to focus on my part, which is writing a good story! No wonder I feel overwhelmed. It is because I make poor attempts at doing others’ jobs. Authors write, illustrators illustrate, agents find publishers, publishers make your book sellable by deciding on its title, cover, methods of promotion etc. It is teamwork. Trust and respect the experts who are there to ensure your success. And trust SCBWI will be there every step of the way to give you great ideas and support through events like this.

 *Header image: draft illustrations by James Mayhew. All photos courtesy of Gulfem Wormald.


Gulfem Wormald has worked as a journalist for over 20 years. Her writing has been published in the Turkish editions of Cosmopolitan, ELLE and FHM magazines. She is currently managing a project for an Examination Board looking for ways of teaching GCSE and A-level qualifications with a wider Equality, Diversity and Inclusion focus. She is very much hoping to pluck up the courage to start sending query letters to agents for the picture books she has been writing for some time.


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


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