As someone who has taught writing picture books and mentored many writers, I meet with aspiring writers – some are teachers, librarians and mums, others are interested in the words and pictures. One of the common queries I’m asked in assemblies by teachers or through DMs by aspiring writers is – Where do I start getting ideas for my picture book story?

Ideas come from everywhere isn’t always helpful. When you’re underpaid and overworked and hardly have time to write, when you actually sit down to write, you don’t want to twiddle thumbs and stare into space and look forlornly at the blank sheet of paper. 

The following ideas are what I share with those who ask me this question in private. this also works for beginning writers, who need to hone their craft. 

1. Pick a nursery rhyme you like and brainstorm ideas of how to change it. You could change the characters or the story, still keeping the rhyme sequence and the tune in-tact. 

This idea works great for teachers and storytellers whose repertoire of nursery rhymes is boundless. But there are places you can find lyrics for nursery rhymes on the internet and of course you can listen to the tune of nursery rhymes on YouTube endlessly. 

If you play every nursery rhyme video on YouTube consecutively I think the music will keep playing even after our universe will implode.  

2. Pick an Aesop fable or a story from your own heritage. It’s important to pick a popular folktale or fable, one that is easily recognisable by readers and twist it and turn it. 

Again, you can change the characters, where it is set, and who is telling the story. Make it your own. 

3. Adapt a fairy tale to share a message. Most fairy tales are gruesome and/or cautionary. 
a. Can we then adapt them to tell cautionary tales about today’s world – social and political. 

b. Can we flip these stories to be kind and lovely – will that work? What happens if the wolf in Red Riding Hood is actually a forest ranger? And Grandma is the poacher?

c.  Can you change the POV of the narrator?

4. Write new stories for characters from fairy tales, fables and history. As long as the characters are recognisable and you don’t have to explain who they are – it will be exciting to create new stories for them. 

5. Change the genre of the folklore you’re adapting. What happens if Red Riding Hood is a mystery story (and not horror as it is now) or what if it is romantic? What if the story of Cinderella is set in space?

But why are these wonderful starting points to practicing the craft of writing picture books?

1) The structure is already in-built into these timeless tales. So all you need to do is change the dressing of the set, spruce up the characters, add your personal magic, play with words. 

2) These are well-known and hence children would know the original and it’s a great way to engage them with a variation. 

3) It helps the beginning writer to focus on the words, the craft of the sentence,  how to handle description – without worrying about beginning, middle and end (not as much). 

Other than the above, I think it is a great exercise to develop your creativity. It is hard to retell an existing fable and make it your own because the original story is deeply embedded into your psyche. So, looking at it from a different angle will make different neurons fuse together to spark creativity. 

While the techniques I’ve listed above will solve – what should I write about? Or I don’t have an idea, it is no easy task. It will still be challenging to adapt a timeless tale and make it your own. Don’t believe me? Try it out. 

Tip: Google for twisted fairy tales!

Important Tip: Check out the books I've highlighted here and read them - see how they work. 

Advanced Tip: If you google for twisted fairy tales, and check out lists of retold fairy tales, you will see that most people have stuck to western tales. So here is an opportunity for writers of colour to retell and reimagine stories from your own culture and make them your own! 

Chitra Soundar is an internationally published, award-winning author of children’s books and an oral storyteller. Chitra regularly visits schools, libraries and presents at national and international literary festivals. She is also the creator of The Colourful Bookshelf, a curated place for books for children by British authors and illustrators.  

 Find out more at and follow her on twitter here and Instagram here.

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