There are many routes to publication and Debut Journeys aims to celebrate them all. This month Mario Ambrosi talks to Polly Owen, whose Darwin's Super-Pooping Worm Spectacular, illustrated by Gwen Millward, is out now.


Hi Polly, where are you now and where did you write your book?

I live in Hertfordshire, in a little cottage with my husband, two children and the occasional mouse. I write in my bedroom where I overlook the garden and watch the birds. I usually brainstorm ideas on paper before typing up the first draft on the PC and editing it.


What’s it about?


My book is all about Charles Darwin's amazing study of earthworms. He spent 40 years studying these little creatures before publishing his groundbreaking findings.


The idea was inspired by my daughter's love of bugs. Her gran bought her membership to the Earthworm Society and told me about Darwin's worm book. At first I thought it would be a difficult read but once I started, I was hooked! Darwin was a great writer and his experiments were so much fun. I looked for a children's version of the book and, when I couldn't find one, I decided to write it. I'm thrilled to bring Darwin's great love of worms to a new generation and promote how wonderful these little creatures are.


I'm hoping children will learn something educational while enjoying the silliness of the scientific experiments (and also making their parents say "Poo!")



Tell us about your route to publication.


My route to publication has been a slow but enjoyable journey. Around 10 years ago I was reading lots of stories to my two-year-old daughter, when I realised she had developed a fear of stepmothers! I realised how influential the fairy stories had been and I wanted to write something nice about stepmothers instead. That was my first story, which was probably terrible, but I quickly developed an enjoyment for writing and found a critique group through SCBWI. It was great to find like-minded people to share stories with, gain experience and share the highs and lows of our journey. I started submitting to agents with stories, that (in retrospect) weren't strong enough, and received my fair share of rejections.


Four years into writing I started getting listed in writing competitions, such as the Winchester Writers' Festival and Susannah Leonard Hill's 'Halloweensie'. I also had some positive 1:2:1s with editors at writers' festivals, and even had a meeting arranged with a BIG publisher! Everything was going well but then... illness struck. I spent five months in hospital and everything went on pause. One of the nicest things that happened while I was in hospital was receiving a book from my critique group with poems they had written. It was very overwhelming and testament to the close relationships you can form when sharing your writing with others.


Once out of hospital I subbed to agents and was picked out of the slush pile surprisingly quickly! I couldn't believe it. I had a wonderful agent, and it had only taken six years! However, over the course of the next two years I didn't sell any texts. Some went to acquisitions but would fall at the final hurdle. My rhyming texts were proving tricky to sell. Was it due to international markets? Or something else?


I carried on subbing texts to my agent and taking any other opportunities that came my way. One writers' resource I used was a company called 'I Am In Print', which gave me the opportunity to meet an editor for a 1:2:1 Zoom call. I had a text I thought would suit the publisher's style, which was one of my few non-fiction, prose stories. When the editor liked my story, I was thrilled! She asked for some edits and my poor critique group saw many versions! I wrote more than 50 edits, and my agent helped fine-tune the final version. The book went to acquisitions and, for the first time, it actually got through! The process from the first draft to seeing my book on the shelves was around three and a half years! Broken down as follows: First draft: June 2019 - One to one with editor: Nov 2020 - Contract signed: Oct 2021 - Viewed illustrations: July 2022 - Published: Jan 2023. Every step of the way I expected something to go wrong. But Darwin's Super-Pooping Worm Spectacular arrived in shops in Jan 2023 and I'm still not over the shock!


So my road to publication was a long process of joy, excitement, disappointment and ultimately contentment that I've now created something that has a life of its own.



What do you do when you’re not writing?


I draw and paint and I'd love to be an illustrator one day. I love puzzles, comedy and watching TV with my family. Until recently I was home educating my two children and running a home education group, so time was tight but inspiration was plentiful!


What was the biggest bump in the road when it came to getting your book out into the world and how did you overcome it?


My biggest bump in the road was when I became ill. I had had ME and neurological issues for 17 years but nothing prepared me for GBS (Guillain-Barré syndrome) which slowly paralysed me over a few days and left me unable to walk, talk or swallow. It was a scary time and also coincided with my first publisher meeting. I was completely devastated to miss it but my health and family were my priority. After five months in hospital and rehab I went from wheelchair to zimmerframe to walking stick and was then allowed home. It was an experience that influenced my writing and gave me a valuable insight into disabilities (my own and other patients’). When I started to feel better I messaged the editor who had given me such confidence in my writing with a hope of rescheduling our meeting, but I was told it was difficult to "regalvanise people". I understood that ship had sailed, but ultimately, was just happy to be home. It was a real bump in the road but there were lots of positives to take away and I was lucky to have time to write while I recovered.



Any tips for budding writers hoping to follow in your footsteps?


I'd say, write because you love it. Write what you love and what entertains you. Join a critique group to hone your skills and have a support network. Keep plugging away, attending every event you can (especially 1:2:1s). Enter competitions, and don't stop. If you have the desire, you will get there, but it might take a while! I am writing this today after hearing the news that a member of my crit group got placed in a competition and was in the Bookseller after years of writing - Hi Krys! These moments are really special, so celebrate every one you get and frame the certificates!


Oh, and when you're due to be published, join a debut group too. You can all support each other through the excitement of publication, and it's much easier to big-up each other's work rather than your own!



What’s next for you?


I have been busy promoting the launch of Darwin's Super-Pooping Worm Spectacular and organising a few school visits and book signings. But I am also starting a follow up to Darwin. I've also written something due out in 2024 that I can't talk about. And I will always keep writing silly rhymes! Even if it's just for myself!


*Header illustration by Imogen Foxell




Polly Owen is an author from Hertfordshire. With a degree in mathematics and statistics, she loves STEM subjects and incorporating serious science into silly picture books. Nature and history play a big part in her non-fiction books but she also loves to write in rhyme. Twitter @pollypoem Instagram @pollypoem Website:




Mario Ambrosi is Words & Pictures's Debut Journeys Editor. He’d love to hear from SCBWI debut writers happy to feature in the Debut Journeys section of Words & Pictures. Follow him on Twitter.

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