PICTURE BOOK FOCUS Five ways to generate ideas


Picture book editor Natascha Biebow shares five ways to generate unexpected 
and fun child-centred picture book story ideas.

The summer break is coming up and some of you might be taking a bit of time away from your desk for a break with friends or family, or just to be outdoors.

There is something about changing up the pace of the everyday routine and regarding the world with wonder, like children do. During the warm summer days, why not try out some of these great idea generators that our facilitators shared with us at the SCBWI-BI Picture Book Retreat?

They are based on three main principles: 
  •  First, allow yourself to PLAY — see what happens!
  •  RANDOM COMBINATIONS can sometimes spark great ideas
  •  Working within CONSTRAINTS can lead to creativity

1. Clare Helen Welsh’s magazine collage idea-generating activity: Take a pile of random magazines and cut out any pictures or words that take your fancy. Don’t overthink. Make a collage and see what you can create. Look for the story – perhaps a character or a theme?

Here is the collage of words & pictures that I created

Garry Parson's collage is so creative! You can definitely see the story possibilities right away  

Collage by Tita Berredo - a new twist on the frog prince story?

2. Garry Parson’s Landscape Consequence Game (for this one, you will need at least one friend, child, or family member to play along – or be very good at role play with yourself): Fold up a piece of paper into five sections. Draw in each section (see below), then fold it backwards out of sight, and pass to the next person. They should draw the next section and fold out of sight, and so on, until all five sections have been completed.

  1. At the top, draw a sky. 
  2. Next, draw the horizon of your scene. 
  3. Here, draw the mid-ground.
  4. Draw the foreground (you can include a hint of action, characters, etc, here).
  5. Draw a character in the near-ground.

The completed drawing has five random mini scenes that tell a story. 


Pippa Goodhart shares one of the landscape consequences results. (Photo by Tita Berredo)

Other examples of the consequences landscape game
by PB retreat attendees (photo courtesy of Tita Berredo)

3. Pippa Goodhart's Fun with Flaps activity: Flaps are like a birthday present surprise for young readers. When readers open them, they are rewarded with a pay-off. It can be funny, scary or even unlikely. Sometimes, working with this kind of constraint can free you up to create something surprising, ‘outside of the box’.

The traditional (glued-on or integral) flap, as in books like Where's Spot? by Eric Hill and Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell, can be expensive to produce because it requires die-cut flaps that are manually glued-on. You can experiment with other types of flaps too. Fold over a piece of paper to work out your ‘reveal’.


Where's Spot? by Eric Hill is a classic lift-the-flap book 

The flap reveal is the running joke - Spot isn't under the rug, a TURTLE is!
From Where's Spot? by Eric Hill.

Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell

The search for a perfect pet in Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell unfolds in a series of integral flaps.
Note how the author adds visual clues for the youngest readers to
find that hint at the surprise under the flaps.

Different Sorts of Flaps

Pippa challenged us to think about different sorts of flaps and what might be possible:

  • Shaped flaps 

Peek-a-Boo! illustrated by Jane Massey

The shaped flap is die-cut, and hints at the reveal. The book is the game.

Over the page, the flap reveals the bunny!

  • Folded corner
  • Folded edge of the book

What if we fold over the edge of the page? (photo by Tita Berredo)


Here are some other examples of what came out of this activity at the PB Retreat:

Monster flap by Tita Berredo


Garry Parson's magician trick flap has a surprising reveal. What's the story there?

Paul Morton's flap surprise — is it a snake, or . . . ?

  • Paper wastage (a relatively inexpensive option because the 32-page book block remains the same, but the paper is cut off and 'thrown away').

No Bath Tonight! by Harriet Ziefert & Emily Bolam

This book is made up of a series of flaps that make the book grow and shrink
as you turn the pages, revealing the animals who hop into the bath with the boy.

Over the page, the whole dog is revealed.

A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton

In this clever three image sequence from Chris Haughton's A Bit Lost, the shorter page
in the middle  acts as a flap, creating movement and the impression that the little owl
is tumbling out of his nest as he falls asleep.

4. Create a random character, place, action drawing: this is an activity that Garry Parsons does with school visits. It requires the children to collaborate by challenging him to draw the most difficult thing they can think of. In this case, the group at the retreat suggested:

  • an armadillo—driving a tractor—in space!

WHY or WHAT is the armadillo doing in Space?
Image courtesy of Garry Parsons

The picture was a fantastic jumping-off point for writing a story about why the armadillo was in space and what was going on in the picture.

For The Crayon Man, I’ve used a similar idea, where we use the first eight Crayola crayon colours (red, blue, black, purple, yellow, orange, brown and green) to create a drawing that is the springboard to a story.

We used the constraint of eight primary Crayola crayon colours
to create this fantastical picture — random elements together
are a great starting-off point for story creations.

5. Do the Doodle: draw a line, a squiggle, a doodle on a piece of paper. Turn it around lots of different ways to see what shapes, characters or story possibilities you can see. Now join up the lines, add elements or create new ones to develop the visual story you see.

This picture started with the blue squiggle, then someone suggested
it could be a ski piste . . . and the chicken was added as
the main character. Image courtesy of Garry Parsons.
Sometimes, our creative endeavours are censored before we even create them—we are so focused on making things that an editor or agent might like or that we think will sell in the current marketplace. As adults, we are alos often self-critical, shutting down ideas before they germinate because we’re worried they aren’t good enough.

It was very freeing and fun to allow ourselves time to play with ideas and see what happened.



Natascha Biebow is an experienced children's book editor, coach and mentor and founder of Blue Elephant Storyshaping. She loves to help authors and illustrators at all levels to shape their stories and fine-tune their work pre-submission. She is the author of the award-winning nonfiction picture book The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons.

* Logo of animals cooking: by kind permission of Lizzie Finlay

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