EVENTS A perfect picture book day out


A whole day to revel in picture books! SCBWI South West hosted their first in-person event since the pandemic, on 19th March 2022. Amarantha Pike shares her experience. 

Stepping off the train in Clifton, clutching my collaging materials (cobbled together from a neighbours’ recycling bin) and a handful of picture books, I was feeling excited and nervous about the day ahead. I dawdled, fearing I’d be early and then scurried, anxious I’d be late. I worried about how little, as a middle-grade writer, I knew about picture books.


I was en route to the first in-person SCBWI South West event in over two years: a day-long workshop with Clare Helen Welsh, organised and hosted by Regional Organiser Lydia Massiah. Clare, a highly regarded and much-awarded author, has published many picture books: some funny and wacky, others that help children to deal with big feelings and difficult issues.


Clare Helen Welsh

By the time I sat down with some writing friends, most of my nerves washed away. A few of us tried to work out how long it had been since we'd last seen each other, all struggling with the odd elasticity of time during the pandemic. 


In turn, we introduced ourselves, showing the picture books we’d brought. Their variety - current and old, funny and dark - reflected the diversity of the background and experience of those in the room. Some were new to picture books but had lots of experience writing MG or YA. Others were from artistic backgrounds and were relatively new to writing. All were there to learn.


Scissorella (Anderson Press)

Clare proved to be warm, friendly and brimming with knowledge. She gave an overview of the different types of picture books - high concept, social issue and educational - but suggested that these days, one hook is no longer enough. Clare showed us numerous books as she talked, bringing alive what she was saying and illustrating her points. She spoke, for example, about her own (extremely beautiful) picture book Scissorella: the Paper Princess – a high concept book that, as a feminist retelling of a fairy tale, is also social issue and, with listed facts at the back, manages to be educational too. 


We learnt about the many different types of hook. For example, it could be the character who is a bit different, such as the eponymous hero in King of the Swamp by Catherine Emmett or the subject (unicorns or dinosaurs?) or the setting (space or under the sea?). Or it might be the angle that it takes, with a new approach to a perennial issue: those themes that publishers are always interested in - such as siblings or kindness or facing fears - if they’re done a bit differently (‘80% the same, 20% different’).


King of the Swamp (Simon & Schuster)

For the first of several exercises through the day, Clare had us working on the pitch line for a picture book idea that we had. She asked us to identify the hooks and how we could develop the story so that it could work on more levels. Brevity was paramount: three lines max.


We were taken through plotting. We talked about the old dichotomy of pantsers vs plotters and how, by knowing certain key things before we start writing, we could move further towards the plotting end of the scale. Clare told us that she needed to know character, theme, conflict and ending before she began.


We learnt about pacing; the building, building and then the climactic spread nine. We learnt about conflict and the many places that it can come from, but crucially how (in all but a very few cases) it must be there. Without struggle, she asked, then why would I keep reading?


Every Bunny is a Yoga Bunny (Nosy Crow) 

We looked at the different shapes of picture book stories. We learnt that The Troll by Julia Donaldson is an example of a parallel story; Every Bunny is a Yoga Bunny by Emily Ann Davison is a mirror story; Clare’s very lovely and moving book The Tide, is a circular story and Dr Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham or Stuck by Oliver Jeffers, are brilliant examples of cumulative stories.

The Tide (Tiger Tales)

Clare took us through the structure of picture books in detail, talking about what needs to happen in the different spreads, to help take the character towards their goal. She told us that debuts should write 12 spreads, showing they understand pace.


Then, of course, there was character. Giving them their flaw and their want or need; creating those high stakes that keep the reader turning the page. We’re usually willing our protagonist to succeed. Sometimes, however, we read on to see if a less likeable character will learn their lesson in the end. Clare gave Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz as a powerful example of a character not getting what they want. And in Solomon Crocodile, by Catherine Rayner, our hero never learns anything!


Town is by the Sea (Walker Books)

After a stimulating morning we broke for lunch. We relaxed and chatted in the sunshine of Lydia’s garden and played with her gorgeous red collies, Poppy and Buddy. We sought new ideas by working on collages or browsing the numerous picture books brought by Clare. Several participants had individual critique sessions with Clare, hearing her thoughts about work they had sent in ahead.


Solomon Crocodile (Macmillan Children's Books)

After lunch we returned to share some of our new ideas and for a Q&A session during which Clare gave many more hints and tips.


Heading back on the train, I felt uplifted and inspired. Thoughts from the day began to coalesce. Of the 25 books Clare writes a year, three or four are picked up. Absolutely everything can be mined for children. Writing from the heart shows, it helps you stand out.


I felt ready to dig, ready to throw up ideas, from my dreams, from my childhood, from the multiple funny and strange experiences of my life. Ready to play, to shape and to hone. Here was a chance to return to a notebook - and to that wonderfully weird place that can sometimes be my head.


As I reached home, I realised one more thing. I had known far more about picture books than I’d thought. After all, there’s a universalism to story - and story is what we all do.

 * Header image: Everything Changes by Clare Helen Welsh and Asa Gillan. 
(to be published by Little Tiger Press. August 2022)



Amarantha Pike writes MG magical realism adventure and is a member of the Rogue Critters SW critique group. When she was seven, an ancient lady in a floor-length fur coat told her that if she wished to be an author, she must start a diary. Her diaries since, taking in childhood pets (wild rabbits and crows), journeys across Africa and India (alone and with her small daughter), plus plenty of mundane stuff in between, now clog up the little home where she lives with her partner, her football crazy daughter and her somewhat dishevelled cockapoo. Her authorly quest continues. Twitter: @amarantha_pike


Anna Gamble is the Social Media Editor for Words & Pictures and a member of the editorial team.

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