Natascha Biebow, THE CRAYON MAN

Natascha Biebow, THE CRAYON MAN

Zibby Owens: Natascha Biebow was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and grew up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she went to an American school. She studied developmental psychology at Smith College and completed a degree in early childhood education and an International Diploma in Montessori Pedagogy in 2013. She wrote, as an editor, Is this My Nose?, illustrated by Georgie Birkett, which won the Booktrust Best Book for Babes. She’s also written many other books including the recent story The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, which is really fantastic. I’ve now read it like fifty times to my kids. You should too.


Natascha Biebow: Hello.

Zibby: How are you?

Natascha: I’m good. Thanks. It’s so fun to see you live.

Zibby: Thanks. I’m really excited to talk to you. I’ve read The Crayon Man now like five times to my kids in the last week or so. They love it. I’m really excited to talk to you.

Natascha: How old are your kids?

Zibby: I have four kids, but I read it to my five-and-a-half-year-old and almost-seven-year-old. I have twins that are about to be thirteen. They are kind of past this, but I love reading children’s books. What inspired you to write this story? Tell me more about The Crayon Man.

Natascha: I was looking for a topic to write for a nonfiction picture book course that I was taking. I needed a topic really fast and was watching an episode of Sesame Street with my son who was four then. We saw this great video about how the Crayola crayons are made in the factory. I remembered how much I liked them from my childhood. I hadn’t really thought about Crayola crayons in a little while. I saw the collating machine that has all the colors stacked up. When you see them, they’re this amazing rainbow of colors. It’s just such a vivid picture. Then I started thinking, maybe that would make a good topic. The more I started looking into it, the more a really cool story emerged. I discovered that no one had told this story quite the way I wanted to tell it, which was about Edwin Binney the man as opposed to just the historical, very old-fashioned, dry nonfiction approaches that were out there about just Crayola and a very liner history, shall we say, of how the crayons had been made and invented which talked about Edwin Binney and his company. I just got digging. The more I dug, the more interesting things that I found.

Zibby: What brought you to take that class in the first place?

Natascha: I’ve been writing picture books for a really long time. I’m also a picture book and young fiction editor. When I needed to make some money, I was focusing more on my editing, and when my son came along, on parenting and so on. Then I just got to a point where I thought, I need a new direction. I need some deadlines. I need someone to get me unstuck from the balancing act that is trying to cram too many things in your life. I decided to take this class. It would be eight weeks. By the end of it, you’d have written a book. I just thought, that’s what I need. I need to be accountable in some way. It worked.

Zibby: Was it an online or actual-person class?

Natascha: It was an online class with Kristin Fulton who unfortunately isn’t offering the class anymore. It was really great. She talked us through the whole genre of nonfiction picture books and the different aspects of writing in that particular area. It was an area that I’d explored a little bit but hadn’t focused as much on. I started remembering how much I like true stories because sometimes the true stories are quirkier than stuff that you can imagine. I like that about it. Through the course, we had weekly meetings and assignments. Kristin talked us through different aspects of the craft and different parts of writing a nonfiction book. We got some feedback from her as well, which was really great, and also from our classmates.

Zibby: That’s so neat. It’s so funny how you can get something done in such a finite period of time when you have goals and regular accountability and all of that as opposed to having a goal that’s just so vague and maybe you’ll get it done, maybe you won’t. I feel like I’m the type of person who needs that level of structure to get stuff done regularly, or at least a self-imposed structure, if not in class.

Natascha: Absolutely. Kristin was like, by this week, you need to have started your research. By this week, you need your ten key facts about whatever topic so that we can see if it’s going to make a book or if you need to go and look into stuff. By this point, you’ve got to collect enough information, but stop. One of the things about researching is you could go on. You find interesting things. You go down a little rabbit hole here. You realize, oh, I’m way off topic. You have to know when you’ve got enough to write the book. Then once you write the first draft, you can go back and ask further questions and find further verification for certain things that are still not clear, but at least you’ve got something that’s starting to look like a story with a beginning, middle, and an end kind of thing.

Zibby: My son was wondering, though, why they got so many different colors all over their faces and their clothing every time.

Natascha: Someone asked me that in a recent school visit. I said if you imagine it’s like you’re making a cake and you are baking and the flour goes everywhere and you mix it with a lot of vigor. I think part of that is slightly artistic license from the illustrator’s point of view to convey the point. I do imagine they were in this lab with all kinds of materials and it got messy.

Zibby: I answered something similar to that, but your answer was better. Tell me about some of your other books. What’s the first picture book you worked on?

Natascha: My first picture book was called Eleonora or Elephants Never Forget. It was inspired by a trip to Africa with my parents. My parents lived in South Africa when I was very little. We went back a few times as I grew up. We were staying on a game reserve and talking about elephants. I learned that when an elephant dies, and often unfortunately through poaching, the other elephants from far and wide will come and pay their respects to the elephant that died. It just struck me as such a moving phenomenon. Elephants are almost like people in that respect. They seem to sense that somebody from their tribe had left. I wrote this book. It’s not a hundred percent nonfiction. It’s more an inspired story based on the story the game people had told me. I just love elephants. I think they’re such majestic creatures. I wrote that book. That was published quite a long time ago. In my work as an editor, I’ve done a lot of writing as well. I have written some nonfiction and fiction. The one that I really like a lot was called Is This My Nose? It’s a baby board book, very simple text about different parts of your face. It’s fun, illustrated by Georgie Birkett.

Zibby: Awesome. What’s coming next? Are you working on another book? Do you always have a lot of projects at once? How do you work?

Natascha: Authors always have lots of books in their bottom drawer, I’d say, or on submission in various stages. I’ve written a chapter book in a chapter book series proposal that’s out on submission. It’s inspired by teachers because I’m always fascinated by the hugely important role that teachers play in our lives. I’ve also written some other nonfiction books, picture books like The Crayon Man, that are at various stages. A couple are out on submission. Others, I’m researching more. Partly, it’s a question of having the right story at the right time because publishers’ lists are very busy. They’re always trying to find a balance between all the different topics they’re publishing and the different voices they want to hear from and what’s timely for kids right now. Part of it is also just having enough time to research everything and get the book written. Again, it comes back to the juggling of paid work versus trying to be a working author and live just off that.

Zibby: As an author and an editor, what do you think makes a great children’s book?

Natascha: For me, it’s got to be child centered. It’s got to be a book that speaks to kids. I think a great picture book has to have wonderful art that’s inspiring but also that isn’t too lofty, shall we say. We don’t want it to be the coffee table book that looks beautiful but is just too grown up for them to really access. I think the story has to be from the heart. It has to be a story that is relevant to children in their everyday lives. They’ve got to be able to find a way into the story that moves them or that speaks to them in terms of their experience and it sparks curiosity, perhaps. Also, I love a text that has a good rhythm to it. The parent has to read it hundreds of time. Maybe also some levels of jokes or humor to draw in the grown-ups. That always helps. It’s such a multilayered piece of art. Picture books are full of different aspects that draw in different readers. Ideally, one that endures is one that has a real sense of wonder, perhaps, or it speaks to you emotionally in some way. I’m sure as a parent you read loads of picture books, don’t you?

Zibby: I do. I do. I read picture books all the time. I really do love nonfiction picture books. I was going to say historical picture books. I think those are really great because then kids — I’m such a visual person. It really helps me to see the factory and the brothers and all of the stuff. Now I understand. I can look at the Crayon box and I’ll feel very differently from now on and have a different set of images going through my head. I love humor. I love when books use the book form in a different way. I love in the Elephant & Piggie books how sometimes they talk to the reader. We Are in a Book! by Mo Willems is probably my favorite picture book ever. We are in a book. The book ends? It’s so funny. It’s so self-referential. It’s so clever and brilliant. Picture books are great. They’re great to read as parents and such a bonding thing to do with your children and fostering that love of reading early. Having great options is super important, so thank you for contributing to the great options.

Natascha: Thank you. I was also going to say the interesting thing about the nonfiction that we’re seeing more recently is that there’s lots of different kinds of nonfiction. It’s drawing in those readers who really like facts but maybe haven’t accessed story in the same way. Maybe because they’re so drawn in by the facts, they’re now going to be compelled by the story to read different things, we hope. Or the other way around, the kids who really like the narrative, maybe they’ll start looking at nonfiction differently. It’s a nice genre that way too.

Zibby: Totally. Do you have final advice for aspiring picture book or children’s book authors?

Natascha: My advice is to persevere and bum on seat. You’ve got to have your butt in your chair. You got to put in the hours. You really have to be prepared for the journey that is being a writer. The many drafts, the whole process of getting published is not for the fainthearted. It requires a lot of perseverance. Also, just literally getting up and spending the time to write or illustrate and to further your craft and always be open to learning from other people, looking to inspiration, reading a lot of other books, and just to keep your mind open for new possibilities. You really need to be prepared to not give up because it’s a tough genre to get published in. It’s also a really wonderful community of people working in this area who are very supportive and open to sharing their advice and supporting you on your journey as a published or pre-published author or illustrator, as we like to call people on their journey.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for entertaining my kids and me for lots of bedtimes.

Natascha: That’s amazing. I’m so glad you liked The Crayon Man. It’s been really fun to connect with you. Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: You too. Thanks a lot. Buh-bye.

Natascha: Bye.

Natascha Biebow, THE CRAYON MAN