Helping to Shape Understanding and Tolerance – Accepting Diversity & New Friendships

Part One: The Evolution of Elephant 

‘The Making of a Children’s Picture Book is paved with many surprises’

– Debbie Smith

During the years I worked as the coordinator, Primary Extension Specialist teacher, of Writers Circle, an extension writing program for gifted and talented students ranging from Year 1 to Year 6 in a large independent Christian College, I felt very blessed to work with students who were enthusiastic and engaged writers. They showed up and we did the work. There were the odd occasions when students, as they grew older and developed new interests, dwindled in their excitement over writing, but generally, the students of Writers Circle thrived, and I was in my element. I got to play with words, share my passion and hang out with students who wanted to show up and learn more and importantly, have FUN! Yes, with an exclamation mark.


At the end of every year, I’d write something dedicated to the students who’d attended their writing sessions, be it a short story where I could include every student in the story, or a meaningful poem.

One year I decided to write a poem to my students called Elephants. I love to rhyme and though I’d never considered myself an expert writer of rhyme, it’s such a fun thing to do and the kids love it! So, a line or two plopped into my head …

You had better take care

If there are elephants about …

And, that started the ball rolling for my new poem for my students.

Now, after several drafts, I felt relatively happy with it and because it was an accessory to my end of year gifts to my students, I was happy with the end result … full stop.  Back then, I was a busy teacher with loads of end of year reports and comments to write, so I just didn’t have the time to make it as perfect as it could be. It was as polished as the time I could afford it. I have high standards, so without the expertise of a professional editor, I presented the poem on a circus tent background with stars and banner.

What did the kids think? Well … they actually loved it! Their reactions were fabulous.

What did they like and enjoy about it? The fact that it rhymed and that it was funny, and a little dark, but not scary. Children are your best critics when you want honesty. My students may have liked me as their teacher, but they weren’t afraid to tell me what worked and what didn’t work. Their critiques were to be expected because that’s exactly what we’d do every week during our writing sessions. We’d share our writing. I taught my students to be respectful towards their peers when critiquing others’ work. Each critique was never to be given in a way that the writer felt it was personal. The students learnt that to give a good critique they must listen carefully, read carefully and give honest and thoughtful feedback. They were taught to be careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings. They were taught that to become better writers, they would also need to be able to listen to their peers’ constructive criticism and suggestions. Writers Circle was a safe environment to deliver and receive feedback. So, it was only natural they all felt comfortable giving their teacher the same respect when giving feedback. It was beautiful to watch the exchanges between students. I felt very proud of my students.

Once I’d given Elephants to my students, I thought that was the end of that … but little did I know, I’d planted a seed. The seed grew and niggled me and I gave it a little attention, like water and sunshine to a real plant, and the seed grew some more.

I began playing around with some ideas and massaging the lines into a different format. The rhythm got under my skin and wouldn’t leave me alone. At the same time, I was working on several short stories and picture book texts. But Elephant keep nudging me.

Some more time passed until, one day, I found out I was going to be an Oma (Grandma). When I found this out, something inside me changed. Getting published was never really on my radar. I just loved to write. But the news that I was going to be an Oma made something click inside me and a thought formed. Wouldn’t it be lovely to write a real picture book for my grandchild? Writing a picture book can’t be that hard, surely.

And, with that thought, I decided that’s what I would do. Little did I know just how hard writing a picture book is. When I look back, I realise I did exactly the same thing when I decided I wanted to learn the technique of painting with watercolour. Child’s play! And, of course, I learned quite quickly painting with watercolour is difficult and takes loads of time and patience and it is fickle and unforgiving…oops!

Slow and Steady … well, you know what they say.

Debbie Smith

But I am someone who perseveres. I love learning and will continue to be a lifelong learner for as long as my brain and physical ability will allow me. So, I set about researching and learning both techniques…


Uh oh! Suddenly I realised I’d opened Pandora’s Box. Suddenly I realised the more I researched the more I didn’t know.

 It is while I did my research, attended courses, signed up to online courses, chaired a picture book critique group and read up as much as I could, one thing dawned on me … I knew I wanted to somehow use Elephant’s text, or at least parts of it, to be the text for my first ever children’s picture book. Its bones were already set. I just had to somehow come up with the muscles, sinew, and shape that would suit a younger market. That can’t be too difficult, now can it? Too easy! Not at all. Little did I know I was on a steep learning curve up a mountain I had no idea I needed to climb.


Ignorance is bliss. I totally believe this statement, for it I’d known, all at once, just how much I’d need to do and what lay ahead, it may have overwhelmed me and scared me off. Needless to say, I jumped in with both feet and began to paddle, and then I began to swim, like my life depended on it. The best way to push on through the hard bits is to tell someone your plan. Once you tell someone, they will keep you accountable…and let’s face it, we all need that!


The journey of Elephant is too much to write in one instalment. I plan to break it down into bite sized pieces … long enough that you could grab a coffee while you read.