All Stories, a free mentorship programme for underrepresented children's book writers was launched on 30th March 2021. Here, the third in a series of interviews with All Stories mentees, Deputy Editor, A. M. Dassu speaks to Jo Dearden to find out more about her writing and experience as a mentee.


1. What made you want to write for children?


Writing for children means you can write about big, important things in an honest, straightforward way. Adults are a bit rubbish really – they usually make things more complicated than they need to be.


2. So true! How long have you been writing for?


I wrote my first children’s story 14 years ago (for my daughter when she was two) but I’ve been writing with a view to getting published for nearly ten years.


3. Can you tell us a bit about the book(s) you’re writing? (Age range, genre and anything else you’d like to tell us.)


I mainly write humorous rhyming picture books but I’m working on some non-fiction ideas for slightly older kids too.


4. Oh I love humorous picture books! What has your writing journey been like up to this point?


‘Close but no cigar’ probably sums it up best. For the past five years or so I’ve been entering competitions. I’ve been longlisted, shortlisted, honorably mentioned, placed second and placed third, but I’ve never actually won anything. When I submit to agents, it’s usually tumbleweed and crickets all round.


5. I know the feeling, but remember it only takes one YES! What made you apply for a mentorship? Was there anything specific you needed help with?


I feel that my writing is ‘stuck’; I’m going round in circles and I want to know why. Is it something I’m doing wrong that I have the ability to change? Or is it just a matter of persevering until I get a lucky break? Or is it that my writing is good but will never be good enough? I hope that receiving advice from a professional editor will help me find the answers. Then I can decide whether I should carry on or not.


6. How are you finding the mentorship so far?


Really great! I’m being mentored by Helen Catherine Mortimer who has many years’ experience as an editor for OUP. We’ve only had a couple of Zoom meetings so far but she’s already given me some sound advice about how to improve a story I’ve been struggling with and I’ve just sent her a first draft of a brand new story I’ve written. As a group we access online talks with industry professionals, plus all 14 mentees are linked via a chat-room so we’ve been able to introduce ourselves and get to know each other a little too. Hopefully the All Stories initiative will run and run and help other writers in future.


7. It sounds brilliant! What are your thoughts on representation in children’s literature?


Depends what you mean by representation. In terms of representation in actual BOOKS (the characters in them and the creatives who write and illustrate them) things do seem to be improving. There’s still a way to go of course but, certainly when it comes race, gender and sexuality, awareness is being raised and progress is being made; less so when it comes to disability and class but hey-ho. 

However, when it comes to representation in the actual INDUSTRY itself, I’d say things are still pretty poor. Not in terms of sex/gender or LGBT (from my experience of it anyway, children’s publishing seems welcoming to women and non-straight people) but when it comes to race, disability and especially class it’s very unrepresentative. This is mainly because the industry is heavily concentrated in London. 

To put it bluntly, poor people can’t afford to live and work in London, especially when entry level jobs pay less than minimum wage or even expect you to give up your time for free. There are many, many talented people for whom working in publishing is a complete non-starter. Initiatives, schemes and awareness raising are great but, until publishing decentralises itself, and agents and publishing houses relocate to other geographical locations (Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff etc.) it will always be overwhelmingly middle-class, white and Southern. 

On a positive note, Hachette seem to be real trail blazers when it comes to this issue – they’re actually opening regional offices, with Picture Book Director Emma Layfield heading up Hachette Children’s Group North in Manchester. (HarperCollins have also opened an office in Manchester but it doesn’t deal with children’s publishing as far as I know). Hopefully other publishers are watching and will follow suit. It’s the only way publishing can become truly representative.


8. What is your favourite book and why?


That’s like asking me to pick a favourite child! I’ll have to cheat and choose two. My Big Shouting Day by Rebecca Patterson because she totally nails what it’s like to be an over-tired toddler (and what it’s like to parent one). Black Dog by Levi Pinfold is a stunning picture book – part modern fairy tale, part dream – where illustrations and text work perfectly to convey an important message.

*Feature image courtesy of All Stories and profile image courtesy of Jo Dearden




Jo Dearden is a working class mum-of-two based in North West England. She’s been writing picture books for 14 years. The main reason she writes for this age is because it’s a stage of life where anything is (or should be) possible. Jo particularly enjoys writing about themes of unfairness and powerlessness in a quirky, surreal and/or humorous way.


Jo can be found on Twitter @its_Jo_Dearden

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