Saturday, March 3, 2012

HIGH FIVE #14: Juliet Clare Bell Doesn't Panic About Writing

That’s me at the Mass Book Launch, 
SCBWI - British Isles 
Annual Writers and Illustrators Conference 
(with an iced version of Annika and Moose, 
stolen from the amazing cake that was made for us).

Today, I have with me Juliet Clare Bell, author of Don't Panic, Annika! a fabulous story about staying calm. Heres a big HIGH FIVE congratulations to you!

Title:  Don't Panic, Annika!
Author:  Juliet Clare Bell
Illustrator:  Jennifer E. Morris
Age:  2-5
Word count:  544
Summary:  Annika is a panicker. When she can't find her toy Moose or when her zipper gets stuck, her first response is to panic. But when she gets locked in the house with no one but her toy Moose, with the only keys out of reach and her family stuck outside in a panic, it's Annika who manages to solve the problem all by herself.

Question ONE: What are five of your favorite picture books? Just five mind you…

Charlie is My Darling (Malachy Doyle and Stephen Lambert; Orchard, 2009). This is a story about a boy, a dog and an old woman and the beginning of a very special friendship. What I love about it is the rhythm of the story. It reads like a non-rhyming poem and it’s a complete joy to read aloud.

Not Now Bernard (David McKee; Red Fox, 1984). This is a story about a child who is ignored by his parents –with drastic consequences. There is little text and the story only makes sense when you also read the illustrations. This makes it particularly fun to read with children who know better than the adults in the story. Unusually for a picture book, this doesn’t have an obvious happy ending, but it’s funny enough to get away with it.

Rosie’s Walk (Pat Hutchins; Red Fox, 1971). I love this for the same reasons I love Not Now Bernard. The text is simple but the illustrations tell a different story, which gives children a real sense of power when they read it. And it’s great to laugh at the fox who is always thwarted in his (unwritten) attempts to catch an unsuspecting Rosie on her before-dinner walk around the farm.

Someone Bigger (Jonathan Emmett and Adrian Reynolds; OUP, 2003). I love the rhyme and rhythm of this story about a boy called Sam who thinks he’s big enough to hold his new kite, but no one believes him. The story is very silly, but funny, and the rhyme is fresh and great to read aloud. Within a few readings, children will be joining in the refrain: This kite needs someone bigger! Of course, the kite doesn’t need someone bigger; it needs Sam.

Library Lion (Michelle Knudsen and Kevin Hawkes; Candlewick Press, 2006). This is the story of a lion who turns up at a library and becomes a regular visitor, until something goes badly wrong and he’s forced to break the library rules. It’s longer than most picture books and has the feeling of a more traditional story, where words are allowed to stay in the story even when they’re not necessary, just because it sounds good. It’s a lovely book –understated and moving.

What a wide range of books (from 1971 to 2009). Library Lion is a good one! Thanks for the snippets.
Question TWO: What is your bedtime routine like; how do books play a part in that?

I have three small children: 4, 5 and 8. They share a room (in fact, they share a double bed) which makes bedtime easier. After we’ve brushed teeth, we go up into the attic and the children get dressed for bed and they each choose a book. It used to be all picture books but now they’re older, it’s often a mix of picture books and chapter books (and the older girls often like to read some or all of the story). Sometimes, my youngest chooses three really short picture books and he looks so cute that we all agree he can have them. When their dad is home, we’ll sometimes both read a story at the same time (to different children, not the same), so it can be a little noisy. We snuggle up and read the books with lots of joining in from the children –unless it’s a chapter book and they’re very tired, in which case they just sit or lie and listen. At the moment, my eldest is really into poetry books by Michael Rosen so we often have a selection of poems –but they’re long poems, like stories. And the others love them, too.

Tonight, we had The Cat in the Hat; The Boy Who Cried Ninja, and an information book on asthma –for a daughter who loves all things medical.

When we’ve read our books, the light goes out and I lie in bed with one child on me and one on either side (they rotate every night) and everyone gets to choose a song. When I or we (depending on how tired they are) have finished the songs, I lie there for a few more minutes (unless I fall asleep in which case it can be many more minutes…) curled up ‘in a big piggy heap’ (a line from one of the children’s picture books). It’s a very special time.

Sounds sweet and fun. I love reading and singing to my little ones (5 and 7) too.
Question THREE: How might teachers use your book in the classroom?

I’m currently writing teacher resources for Don’t Panic, Annika! They’ll be on my website by the first week in March. Below are some examples of how the book can be used in the classroom, but please see for the full teaching resources:
  1. A lesson on panicking. (Copy Annika’s panicky face on the cover. What does panic mean? What makes you panic? What helps? Get them to breathe, count and close eyes. What makes Annika panic? What helped? What did she do to help when other people panicked? How might they help you calm down if you were panicking? Do you think they could help you? Role play.)
  2. Emotions. (Identify different emotions in the book. Copy faces from the book. Make faces to convey emotions; work on happy, sad, angry and panicky/afraid. Get the children to identify the emotions on faces cut out of magazines and sort or match them.)
  3. Playing with words and names. (Don’t Panic, Annika! came about as a result of a game I was playing with my children in bed one night where we had to come up with a sentence for each of our names: Esther is a jester; Mark went to the park; Otto lives in a grotto; Clare has funny hair. When we got to Annika, I suggested Annika was a panicker. I liked the sound of it and four days later, it became the first line of my story –which I wrote really quickly just from that sentence.) Teachers and children can have lots of fun coming up with sentences and rhymes for their own names. If someone’s name really doesn’t lend itself to rhyme, you can encourage them to make up a rhyme with their name elsewhere in a rhyming sentence (e.g., George ate off a plate). Depending on the age of the children, they could take this further and see if they could come up with a story from that one sentence.

Great ideas! What fun! This would be perfect for K-3rd grades.
Question FOUR: What was your road to publication like?

I wrote the first draft of Don’t Panic, Annika! quicker than any other book I’d written. I had an e-mail that day from an agent and she asked me to send another couple of manuscripts as she really liked two (of the five) that I’d already sent her, but she wanted at least three before taking me on. I was incredibly excited but I hadn’t got any that I thought were suitable. That night, I came up with the first line, Annika was a panicker (which the daughter in question would like me to point out isn’t actually the case. But who’d let the truth stand in the way of a good story?). I played around with it in my head for a few days until I actually had a story –if it was going to be about a panicker, she’d have to have changed by the end, so what kind of panicking incident would be scary enough to help her turn things around and sort out her problem but at the same time be safe enough that she wasn’t in real danger? For this story, I didn’t actually write anything down until I sat down to write it, four days later. In fact I’ve got the notes for it (my notes are almost always spider diagrams with loads of scribbles and lots of ideas, most of which don’t make it into the book, but this time)- it’s just a linear two-page first draft.

I then typed it onto computer, printed it out, had a bath (it always helps me think), reworded bits of it and then sent it to my face-to-face SCBWI critique group. (Sending it out so quickly is NOT how I normally work.) I got really useful feedback from my group and made more changes and sent it to a couple of other writers from an online SCBWI picture book critique group, who gave me more feedback. Meanwhile, I was trying the same thing with another story –writing it really quickly from nothing so I could send them both off to the agent. I wrote that one out quickly, and got feedback quickly, too. This one needed more work but when I’d done it I sent them to the agent. Don’t Panic, Annika! was on about draft five –which is very few drafts for me and it was still quite close to my very first notes on it. The agent decided against taking me on, but she was very helpful and suggested I try another agent for whom my manuscripts might be just right. And she was right. I was taken on by Celia (and now also James) Catchpole. When I met them, they read Don’t Panic, Annika (and about five other manuscripts of mine) out loud to me before discussing them. I then went away and did another rewrite, before it went out to publishers. A number of publishers showed interest and one asked for a big rewrite, which I did. She eventually turned it down and then another publisher offered me an option fee (not to show it elsewhere whilst they tried to sort out taking it on). When this other publisher (Piccadilly) eventually took it on and sent me the roughs, I was surprised to see that they’d taken on the earlier version and hadn’t made any changes.

Wow! What an amazing whirlwind story! What kind of illustrator notes did you use, if any?  Did your book get to keep the same title you had chosen for it?

When I sent this to Celia, my agent, it had quite a lot of illustration notes on it in order for it to make sense. However, I removed many of them in the end after requests and feedback from publishers. I still kept some in, though as they were really important to the telling of the story. I’ve found that different publishers have very different views on illustration notes, with some being really happy to have them in, but most, not. (In The Kite Princess, my second picture book to be published, I was also asked to remove all the illustration notes and resend it to them before they sent it to the illustrator. I still think it was worth having them in there for the editor so that she could see better what the story was doing.

Don’t Panic, Annika! was always called that. When I met my agent for the first time and we discussed the book, he did ask whether the story would stand up if I changed the character’s name and the title (and refrain) no longer rhymed. She wanted to be sure that it was strong enough –and that it wouldn’t matter for co-editions that the refrain and title were unlikely to rhyme. She was happy that it was strong enough, and it’s been translated into languages where it doesn’t rhyme. (However, my next book out, was not originally called The Kite Princess. I had called it Cinnamon Stitch, the name of the heroine. It was the publisher that chose the title as they knew it would sell better with the word princess in it. I really like it now, but originally, I felt it was a bit too much of a spoiler –although that only matters on the first reading and picture books need to be read hundreds of times.)

Oh, a character named Cinnamon Stitch. How fun is that!
Question FIVE: What are some writing tips you can offer to writers seeking publication?

  • Join SCBWI. If you haven’t done so already, join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators –and do as much as you can with them, including meeting editors and agents –it’s a great way in.
  • Take it seriously. Learn the craft –read Writing with Pictures by Uri Shulevitz, and Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul. Copy picture books out with spreads so you can see how page turns are used and how drama can be created by the pacing of spreads, and so you can see the word count. Read lots and lots of picture books but don’t assume that something that was published ten years ago would be published today. The market has changed, so you need to know the market, and which publishers like which kind of books.
  • Think seriously about joining a critique group if you haven’t already, but make sure it’s one that you trust. It might take joining a few and leaving a few before you find the one that really works for you.
  • Don’t send your work out until it’s ready. It’s so tempting to do it, especially now you can e-mail submissions to publishers, but don’t. If you have a critique group or trusted writer friends, show them and really listen to any feedback. I know that everything I write is better for having been critiqued. Most agents and editors will say that most unpublished writers send their work in too early in the editing process. With so many unsolicited manuscripts to go through, they will be assuming that any particular manuscript is going to get discarded. Don’t give them any additional reasons for them to do it (like clunky writing that’s not been edited enough, or saying something that what would be illustrated in the pictures anyway). For your manuscript to be picked off the pile, it hasn’t just got to be a bit better than all the rest of them. It will have to be a lot better than the rest of them. Make sure it shines.
  • Don’t write in rhyme unless it’s really important for the story you want to tell.
  • Make each word count –picture books don’t have many words, so don’t use them up on something that could be ‘said’ in the pictures: trust your readers to be able to understand the story through the pictures. Most young children cannot read words but they’re very good at reading pictures –and it’s a really empowering thing for a child to understand a story through the pictures. So make the most of this and let the pictures do as much of the work as possible.
  • Don’t be downhearted by rejection. Think of the early part of your writing ‘career’ as an apprenticeship where you’re learning your craft. It’s possible one of your early manuscripts will get picked up but it’s unlikely. So make sure you listen really carefully to feedback from professionals or other writers (whose opinions you really respect) and keep writing. You’ll get quicker and better at it. Don’t Panic, Annika! was perhaps the tenth picture book manuscript that I’d written. The one I put my heart and soul into over many, many months called Scatterbrained Kate and the Party, is one that was never going to be picked up (although I didn’t think that at the time). Even so, I learnt an enormous amount by writing it and then revising it again and again.
  • You’ve got to be really stubborn to do this, so make sure you start something new as soon as you send your manuscript off to an agent or editor so you’re not sitting around twiddling your thumbs whilst you wait (and wait and wait) for a reply. It can happen. It happened to me. It can happen to you.
Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful experience with us today! It was lovely getting to know you and to hear your story. Congratulations again on you debut book! Be sure to visit other authors celebrating their debut books! 

Keep on keepin' on...


  1. Thank you for all the helpful advice Juliet. I'm bookmarking this post! Great interview Christie :)

    1. Thank you, Jennifer. I've made many mistakes along the way! Good luck with your journey, Clare.

  2. What a wealth of fun, inspiration and advice in this interview. Thank you both so much. I am working hard on "don't send out your work until it is ready'.... :-)

    1. Thanks, Joanna. That's always the hardest bit for me, too, as I get impatient at that point. But that's the beauty of a good critique group. You CAN send it out before it's ready so you get feedback way quicker than you would with an editor AND you can act on it before it has to be seen by the people who make decisions. I love my critique groups. Clare.

  3. What an informative interview! Thanks so much for all the advice, Juliet. And thanks to Christie for hosting!

    1. Thank you, Renee. Good luck with your stories, Clare.

  4. Wonderful interview! I am reading Ann Whitford Paul's book again right now, it is so good and not long ago I finished Writing with Pictures. So nice to hear your story Juliet.

  5. I like the image you have inspired in my head of the whole family on a bed in the attic reading stories! Your heartfelt advice comes across as having been well thought out! I'll be reading Ann Whitford Paul's book again too. I am working on a PB with only 177 words, and I will keep close in mind your thoughts on children 'reading' the pictures as I complete the dummy illustrations!

    1. Thank you, Julie. Reading stories at bedtime has to be one of the greatest all-time activities. Good luck with your 177 word book -I really love picture books with very little text.

  6. Great interview, Clare! And so interesting to read about how ANNIKA came about. I always love reading about the story behind the story!


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