Peg366's Blog

Here is something from Mem Fox.

Posted on: June 11, 2009

As I struggle to perfect my craft, I am always on the search for good solid advice from those authors who have what it takes. Mem Fox is one of those picture book writer for me. She conveys the knowledge that she has acquired in a way that beginning writers as well as more experienced writers will enjoy reading as they learn and grow as a writer.
Here is a portion of her advice on writing a picture books. To read the rest, go to”
 Mem Fox’s Article.
So you want to write a picture book…

Quick-and-snappy advice, in case you’re in a hurry…

Okay: so you’ve already written a picture book without reading the pages and pages of advice on my website. Tut, tut! May I kindly and warmly suggest that you do read the hints I’ve posted below, after this ‘quick-and-snappy’ section. I made many bungles in my attempts to be published and I’d hate you to waste time by making the same silly mistakes.

In order to write, first you have to have lived. Only in the rarest of circumstances will young writers be published. So if you’re still at school, or even under 23, think hard about doing something else for a while until you’ve experienced many more people, events, situations and emotions than you will have at, say, 18.

In particular, you need to readandreadandreadandread to learn as many different ways of using language as possible. You also need to read in order to build inside your head a massive bank of lusciously different words that you can choose from at any time.

Remember that a picture book is 32 pages. Half of those pages are pictures, so try keep the word-count under 500. When you’re drafting a picture book it’s useful to make your own mock-book, copying from a real book all the features like endpapers, the title page, dedication and publishing information page and so on. It also helps to put the text on each page to see how is pans out.

While you’re writing, your best friends will be the ‘cut’ and ‘delete’ keys on your computer. At any one time you can probably cut most of what you have written. The biggest fault of wannabe picture book writers is to write too much.

Unless you’re an art-school trained illustrator don’t even think about doing the pictures yourself.

It’s pointless finding your own artist. Don’t do it. The publisher chooses the illustrator. The publisher will probably reject the art done by your friend, but may love the story. And then who rewards the artist for the time he or she has wasted doing your book?

Don’t, under any circumstances, think of self-publishing, unless it’s only a few copies for your immediate family. You’ll end up with a terrifying debt and a shed full of un-sold books. Self-publishing provides no market-research, no distribution, no publicity, no marketing, no warehousing, no advertising, and very few buyers since bookshops won’t buy books that established publishers haven’t endorsed. I know of sad souls who have lost their houses as a result of self-publishing. It’s heart-breaking.

In whatever country you live, read as many books as possible of the same kind as you have written yourself. Look at who published them. Research those publishers on the net. Try to find the names of their children’s editors. Send your manuscript—it shouldn’t be more than three pages of typing in 12 font, double spaced—to one editor at a time.

Don’t be cute in your covering letter. Just say that you have enclosed a story for consideration, with the date, your name and your address. You may have to wait up to three months for a reply. If you want the manuscript back be sure to enclose a stamped return envelope.

It may be necessary to find a literary agent first: look up agents in your part of the world, on the net. Some publishers will accept books only via an agent. You might call the publisher first and ask whether they accept manuscripts directly.

Don’t be too discouraged by rejections. Many a famous author has been turned down over and over again before becoming an ‘overnight’ success. But do remember the dreadful statistic that 97% of the books written by eager writers are never published. Perhaps that’s because they they didn’t read my hints first!

So, get to it. And best of luck!

Mem Fox

Books for young children are usually short. Young children themselves are usually short. This leads to an assumption that children have small brains and that writing for them is easy. The reverse it true. Young children have large, active brains, and writing for them is enormously difficult. It is even more difficult than writing for adults since only the best is good enough for children—the best words in the best places, and the best characters in the best stories. Where do we begin?

We need to read children’s books ourselves
Before we begin it is useful to familiarise ourselves with books which are on sale and are currently adored by children. If we do not, we might find ourselves writing books similar to those we ourselves read long ago when we were children, most of which are now out-dated, out-moded and entirely forgotten. It is also extremely useful to read and re-read the books which have passed the test of time—books which remain popular today, fifty, twenty, ten and even five years after they were published. These are classics and they have much to teach us. It is also useful to recall the stories and folktales we listened to and loved as children, the stories which we have remembered into adulthood. What do these classic stories have which other books lack?

A good picture book for the young child has most of these qualities:

  • Trouble
  • One of two themes: ‘the stranger comes to town’ or: ‘the quest.’
  • Characters whom readers care about deeply
  • A universal theme that speaks to any child, anywhere in the world
  • Perfect words in perfect places
  • The delight of happiness
  • No preaching
  • Subtle signposts to living in a social world
  • An impact that affects the heart of the reader or listener
  • Strange, original, or unexpected use of language
  • A complex story that requires the mind to be attentive to detail, to be active in problem-solving, to roll through tunnels of prediction and meaning-making, and to tumble down hills of emotion and up again
  • Or for very young children, an original pattern created by rhyme, rhythm or repetition
  • Children saying: ‘Read it again! Read it again!’ when the book is finished.

Where do the ideas come from?
The above list is all very well, but the question most often asked of writers, as if it were a deep secret to be dug up and displayed for all to see, is: ‘Where do the ideas come from?’ The best ideas, in my experience, do not come from our heads. They come from our immediate lives, or from memory, and then they are molded by our imaginations into grand stories that affect the hearts and minds of others. Stories created solely from the imagination have a flatness about them. They are usually about things that don’t matter much. They are here today and gone tomorrow. No one remembers them into adulthood.

However, when we read the classic stories that make us laugh aloud or cry, or shrivel with fright or hug ourselves with happiness, it is my hunch that we could, if we tried, track the main idea down to a pivotal moment in the writer’s life—or several pivotal moments. These classic stories have the quality of ‘difference.’ They are here today, and here tomorrow, and here the day after, since children’s books and folktales which are loved and remembered do more than entertain for a while: they move children profoundly, and having done so they take up residence in their hearts and stay there. They are remembered affectionately, sometimes word for word, into adulthood.

To find an event that could be a good basis for a story it might be useful to write down, or tell a friend, or other people in a writing group, about a strong emotional experience remembered from childhood, and start writing with that event in mind. This way, the first draft will not be drawn entirely from the imagination, which will mean getting off to a good, heart-felt beginning.

For instance, here’s an anecdote from Tanzania. It’s a true story which was later given more shape and definition to make it a story suitable for publication. Both examples appear below:


When I was a little kid my parents went away to the city to work and I stayed with my grandparents in their village. One day we went off to visit my auntie who lived in a village about three kilometres away. The path to my aunt’s village was very sandy and the grass was so high it curved over the path.

My grandfather led the way, then came my grandmother, then me. We set off.

After a while I smelt something. I thought the smell would go away as we walked past—whatever it was, but it didn’t. I didn’t like it. It made me scared. I told my grandfather I could smell something that was scaring me and I asked him if I could walk between him and grandma.
“Of course,” he said.
So I moved into the middle and we went on. But I could still smell whatever it was and I was still scared. I tried to be calm but in the end I told my grandfather that I was really scared.
“What are you so scared of?” he said.
“I think there’s a lion following us,” I said.
We all turned round and sure enough on the narrow path behind my grandmother was a lion.

My grandfather stood in front of the lion and looked into his eyes and gestured with his arms said quite firmly: “Go away! You’re frightening my grand-daughter. Be off with you!” And the lion turned and walked away. It was incredible! I’ll never forget it.

Story for publication:

Rosie was a little girl who lived in a village with her grandmother and her grandfather because her parents had to work far away in the city. Rosie loved her grandmother very much but she loved her grandfather even more.

One day her grandparents decided to visit Rosie’s auntie who lived in a village about an hour’s walk away. They set off. The track to the auntie’s village was soft, and sandy, and narrow. On either side of the path the grass was so high it curled over, like a cool green roof.

Grandfather led the way, next came Grandmother, and last of all, little Rosie. As they walked no sound could be heard. The sun shone. The air was calm. The world was full of peace.

After a while Rosie thought she could smell something she didn’t like. She hoped it would go away. Her heart beat fast. She was scared.

But on they walked. They walked, and they walked, and they walked. As they walked no sound could be heard. The sun shone. The air seemed calm. The world seemed full of peace.

But still the smell remained. Rosie’s heart beat faster. She was scared. Really scared.

“Grandfather,” she said, “I’m scared. Please can I walk in the middle, between you and Grandmother?”

“Of course,” he said.

So Rosie moved into the middle between her grandmother and her grandfather and they walked, and they walked, and they walked. As they walked no sound could be heard. The sun shone. The air seemed calm. The world seemed full of peace.

But still the smell remained. Rosie’s heart beat faster. She was scared. Really scared. Really, really scared.

Finally she said, “Grandfather, I’m really frightened.”

“What is it that frightens you, little one?” asked her grandfather kindly.
“I think there’s a lion following us,” she said.

They all turned around. It was true! Behind Grandmother was a lion, following after them along the narrow path.

Grandfather stood in front of the lion and looked into his eyes. He pointed down the path and said quite firmly: “Lion! Go away! You’re frightening my grand-daughter. Be off with you!”

And the lion turned tail and walked away.

Which only goes to show that lions, like men, understand Swahili!

Who are we writing for?
It must seem self-evident that we are writing for young children. Perhaps a better question is who are we not writing for?

We are not writing for ourselves, are we? Nor are we writing to impress critics. Nor are we writing for academics. Nor for teachers. Nor for parents. Nor for our adult friends. Nor are we writing for the children we once were—those children no longer exist: they have grown up and become us. We are writing for children who are young now, at the beginning of the 21st century. We are writing for young children the world over, who are seven years old or younger.

Let us be honest: why are we writing?
We need to be honest, right from the start, about why we want to writefor children. If we intend to moralise, teach a lesson, patronise, categorise, marginalise, or show off our own brilliance, we are doing it for the wrong reasons and we’ll need to reassess our motives. We are not writing academically de-constructible literature. Nor are we writing as therapy to eradicate our guilt about the world and what we have done to it.

We are writing instead to conjure young children into loving reading; to inform them; to entertain them; to enchant them; to comfort them; and to affect them. In our writing we are aiming to provide escapist delight but we will probably be able to rattle children’s values and assumptions a little at the same time. For example, we might say to them through a story: ‘You think you rule the world? Think again, sweetheart!’

Of course in the end we will always aim to provide children with universal ideals and possibilities, and make them feel good about themselves and their world—they are too young to be allowed to feel otherwise.

Writers of good books for children are always, simultaneously, good teachers of reading and writing, whether they are aware of it or not. Good books ‘teach’ reading more easily than the bad books. So it is important for us to write sentences that are not only gorgeous but easy to understand as well, and to use as much rhyme, rhythm and repetition as possible. We do not need to water down the level of individual words, however, since children need to hear as many different words as they can before they encounter them later, when they are reading by themselves.

When we picture an adult reading one of our books to a child, one of the aims of our writing should be to enhance the relationship between the reader and the child being read to, through the story we have written—to help them love each other even more than they do already.

And finally, to be brutally honest, let us not forget to admit that we are writing also to make money—it would be foolish to do it for nothing—and to leave our mark on the world, and raise our own self-esteem. If we admit all this, and know why we are writing, we can move along.

What should be taken into consideration?
If we want to write for young children it is essential to stay in touch with childhood, either through memory or through contact with the real live children in our communities. If we lose touch with children—or our own memories of childhood—we will not have in our hearts and minds all the information we need to write well.

For example, we need to understand the nature of children’s interests and their emotional needs. We need to know the difference between their literary needs and their literacy needs, and to be able to fulfil both those needs at the same time.

It is useful also to know what kinds of ideas might challenge their thinking, based on the society they live in at the start of the third millennium. It is polite to consider the ethnic group they belong to, which gender they are and which religion they adhere to, if any. When we write we will not necessarily be hide-bound by all this information since that might cause us to self-censor too much, which might in turn lead to write seriously bad, banal stories which bore kids to death. Having said that, we should be as open-minded as possible. We need to be able to share ideas across cultures, after all, to avoid indoctrination in one direction or the other. Access to different kinds of information is important to individual development and to our understanding of other communities.

So although we have to pay attention to religion, ethnic group and gender to target specific groups, we mustn’t let this destroy our artistic goals. Questions such as: ‘Will my reader be offended?’ should not constrain us, in the end, nor limit our creativity. We might wish to write about another religion, ethnic group, or gender in such a way as to provide enriching and surprising elements for our readers, allowing them to become open to new ideas and other people’s perceptions of the world.

For example, at the beginning of the 21st century we need to consider gender stereo-typing. Is it any longer appropriate to have the females in the story only in the house, the kitchen, and the garden, and caring for the family? Might it not be possible to make the main character a female—a bold, exciting, brave, decision-making female, who has adventures and wins through, in spite of adversity? This would provide excellent role-models for today’s girls.

Any stereo-typing should be avoided, such as making children who wear glasses into weaklings who are brainy but hate sport; or old people being made doddery and incapable of caring for themselves; or disabled people being pitied for what they can’t do, instead of being celebrated for what they can do; or people of a certain race or religion being mocked for who they are and what they believe.

Of course we need to consider the maintenance of the solid cultural values which underpin the society in which we live and write. Sensitivity and respect are essential. Acknowledging this sensitivity without falling into the trap of stereotyping is a difficult balancing act, to which much thought should be given.

Finally we have to keep in mind the fact that adults will do the buying and reading of the books we write. The words will be channelled through an adult reading aloud to a child. Pleasing the adult is certainly important and must not be forgotten, but the child is more important and must never be forgotten.

Children are so clever it is startling
Little kids are as bright as buttons and they are perceptive about being talked down to. They loathe being patronised. Their critical faculties are highly developed, much more so than most adults realise. In fact they are altogether smarter than most adults give them credit for.

They love the challenge of fascinating, ‘difficult’ words. They adore rhyme, rhythm and repetition. They like the thrill of a really riveting story. Because they are young, they do of course have a comparatively limited concentration span which we must take into account. And even though they are clever and confident they do need constant reassurance as to their safety in a turbulent world.

Here are some of the things that delight children which we might weave into our stories:

  • noise and laughter
  • fright and drama
  • food and friends
  • toys
  • pets and animals
  • being loved and feeling safe
  • grandparents
  • magic and fantasy

And here are some of the things children are ambivalent about, which we might also weave into our stories:

  • parents
  • siblings
  • school
  • older children
  • going to bed
  • the dark
  • settling in to a new place
  • learning new skills
  • not conforming/looking stupid
  • feeling left out

2 Responses to "Here is something from Mem Fox."


I don’t know how I missed this but I did. Thanks for the comment.


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I am an aspiring picturebook writer with some magazine credits just no picture book contract yet. I know it is coming and I am more than willing to work for it.

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July 2009

June 2009
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My Favorites:

I love the children's movies Wizard of Oz and the Neverending Story. Both movies make me feel the lesson that hope is alive and well. After seeing UP this past week, it just might have a chance at being added to this list.

I love the cool colors of blues and purples.Those colors are peaceful for me.

I love The Velveteen Rabbit. Even as an adult, I still feel the urge to cry when he becomes real. I know, silly, but a good book can make me laugh and cry as it takes me on a magical journey.

Authors and Illustrators:

Authors, Author/Illustrator, Illustrators that I know and/or Like.


C= Children

MG= Mid Grade

T= Teen

YA= Young Adult

A= Adult


Bonnie Adamson *

Kathi Appelt *

Tedd Arnold


Natalie Babbit

Molly Bang

Bonnie Becker

Jan and Stan Berenstain

Judy Blume

Tracey M. Cox

Linda Crotta Brennan *

Jan Brett

Janie Bynum *

Eric Carle

Pam Calvert

Nancy Carlson

Beverly Cleary

Kevin Scott Collier

Sharon Creech

Doreen Cronnin

Tomie dePaulo

Kate DiCamillo

Kathleen Duey *

Dotti Enderle

Jan Fields *

Denise Fleming

Mem Fox

Kelley Milner Hall

Amy Heist

Kevin Henkes

Ellen Jackson *

Jeff Kinney

Jackie French Koller

Ursula K. LeGuin

Leo Lionni

Lois Lowry

Mercer Mayer

Robert Munsch

Laura Numeroff

Linda Sue Parks

Dav Pilkey

Patricia Polacco

Peggy Rathmann

Bethany Roberts

David Shannon

Aaron Shepard

Donna J. Shepherd *

Cynthia Leitich Smith

Jerry Spinelli

Diane Stanley

Chris Van Allsburg

Rick Walton *

Lisa Wheeler

Mo Willems

Karma Wilson *

Audrey Woods

Jane Yolen *

Favorite Websites:

Favorite Blogs:

• ShelfTalker: A Children’s Bookseller’s Blog
• Alice’s CWIM Blog
• A Fuse #8 Production
• Cynsations
• Nathan Bransford – Literary Agent
• Editorial Anonymous
• Miss Snark’s First Victim
• Writing for children and teens

Favorite Quotes.

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