Picture Book Insight: Writer Meredith Costain

Every now and then I will post an in-depth Q&A with a writer. The aim of this is to investigate the writing process and hopefully provide insights that are both inspiring and helpful. Meredith Costain is first, and gives us some great responses.

MyFirstDayAtSchool_Cover_HR1. Where do your best picture book ideas come from? How do you develop them into texts (and how do you know when it’s not working)?

Ideas present themselves all the time. A snatch of conversation. A funny thing a child or pet does. Words and rhythms that jump unbidden into my head when I’m out walking with the dogs. I know that an idea is worth developing into a text when it digs its heels in and won’t let go. When shreds of dialogue or narrative rise to the surface when you’re washing the dishes or taking a shower. When you wake up in the middle of the night and have to scribble down the words that are clamouring for attention inside your head.

When it feels ‘solid’ enough I start trying to get the full text down on paper. This involves lots of false starts and faffing about. Weeks and weeks of it, usually. I try to think in double-page spreads as I write, wondering about page falls and whether there’s enough ‘meat’ in the story to illustrate. I cut and prune and rephrase and rewrite, then cut and rephrase again, sometimes only changing one word each time. In a picture book, every word has to count. This is my favourite part – crafting the language – after the scary part of coming up with an idea that is fresh and original and solid enough to last the distance.

I know something’s not working when the voice in my head stops, or I can’t think of a satisfying way to finish the story. Or when the sum of the amount of scribbled-on pieces of paper in the bin is greater than the bits that make it onto my desk, ready to be typed up.

2. You write in rhyme a lot. What’s your best advice for those who want to write rhyming texts?

Someone once asked me if I could recommend a book that would help explain rhyme and meter to them, as they wanted to write a picture book with rhyming text. I said I couldn’t – firstly because I don’t know the titles of any, though I’m sure there are lots that exist! – but mostly because I’m not sure this is the best way to go about it. You’re much better off reading – and reciting! – lots and lots of rhyming poems so that you ‘fix’ the way they sound in your head. Try the classic poetry of AA Milne, CJ Dennis, Alfred Noyes or Hilaire Belloc. Or more recently, Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo.

‘Good’ rhyme is never forced, it flows naturally and effortlessly, without those little extra ‘padding words’ you sometimes see that have been added in to stretch out the line e.g. ‘that he did see’. Above all, the text needs to make sense, and tell a story, not just be a collection of nonsensical lines with words that have been chosen for their rhyming qualities rather than their meaning.

The best way to tell if your rhyming text is working is to read it out aloud. Count out the beats by tapping your fingers on your desk or a table top as you read each line. If there are too many or too few beats, you need to rethink the words you’ve chosen – or even the whole plot of your story. If it’s really not working, perhaps consider writing it in prose instead.

3. How did you go about writing “My First Day at School”? What was your initial process?

A few years ago I noticed how verse novels were becoming increasingly popular. I liked the idea of writing a collection of poems that build up to tell a story, and wondered if this could be achieved using a picture book format, for much younger readers than was usual for verse novels. I thought it might also be a good way to introduce young readers to the ‘bones’ of poetry – poetic devices such as alliteration and assonance, imagery and onomatopoeia – because the illustrations could help to carry some of the meaning.

I chose the first day at school as a topic because it is an event which can inspire many different reactions and emotions, from anxiety to excitement. To gather material, I visited a few different schools on the day of their prep intake and sat quietly in a corner, scribbling notes as I observed the kids’ and teachers’ – and parents’! – behaviour. Some of these notes were simply descriptions of events and objects in the room. Others, however, took on a life of their own – I could feel different ‘voices’ developing as I wrote. It’s really interesting to look back at these rough notes now and see which ones developed into the poems that made it into the book.

4. What happened in the revision process? What did you discover? Did the text alter when you got to the stage of working with the editor and illustrator?

Once I had this goldmine of material, I set about shaping it into a set of poems (from the point of view of different characters) that formed a narrative, beginning with the children arriving at school, and ending with them leaving. In the ‘middle’ came the experiences (and problems!) that make up their day: meeting their teacher, making friends, learning new ways of doing things – and making it to the toilet in time!

I realised fairly quickly that I had too many ‘voices’ at play – particularly for such a young audience. I narrowed them down to four characters, each with a different personality and approach to the day’s events: Zach, who is eager to ‘shake off’ his parents and escape into a new, exciting world; shy Amira whose friends help her join the class; nervy Ari who finds all the new rules and activities hard to follow; and livewire Zoe who has trouble keeping still. I was careful to resolve all their issues within the storyline so that readers are left with a positive view of school.

I had fun adding in poetic devices – a simile here, a metaphor there – but always things that younger readers could relate to: a boy with ‘frog hands’, a girl whose mat is ‘an island in a huge ocean’, another who is ‘as hungry as a lion!’, schoolbags that hung on pegs ‘like washing on a line’.

But, with a few exceptions, most poems were way too long for a picture book text! I had to slash and burn, remembering that I had a brilliant illustrator (who also designed the book) in Michelle Mackintosh to reinforce the imagery and bring it to life with her marvellous illustrations. I had a great meeting with Michelle and my publisher/editor, the insightful Helen Chamberlin, where we talked about how this could be achieved. And, of course, once the illustrations were in place, it became even more obvious where more text could be cut, or lines rephrased to fit the space.

5. Any good advice for picture book writers in Australia right now? Are there any trends, topics to avoid, gaps in the market?M+dogs300dpi

I thought I’d found a gap in the market when I first started thinking about My First Day at School, back in 2007. There didn’t seem to be much around on this theme back then. But this year alone there have been at least five new books on the same topic – all from Australian publishers – and they’re just the ones that I know about! There seem to be plenty of perennially favourite topics for picture books for the very young: family life, dogs and cats, fears (and monsters) to be vanquished. It’s a matter of finding a fresh, unique way to tell your story – something that will make it stand out from the pack. And written in your very best way, with the strongest voice and the largest amount of passion for language that you can summon up. Good luck!

You can see all of Meredith’s books at www.meredithcostain.com.

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  1. Thanks so much Meredith and Sherryl for this outstanding interview. Very generous of you Meredith to share such detailed information, which I just love.

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