Finding one heart and mind for 10 Stories to Make a Difference

Last summer, an intriguing and beautifully designed collection of picturebooks was published to mark the tenth birthday of Pop Up, the UK-based non-profit children’s literature agency. 

Designed to make a difference by bringing more diversity of voice and outlook to our children's bookshelves, Pop Up’s stories address universally important themes (making your own choicescelebrating differences) with humour, originality, and style.

But it isn’t just words and pictures that make this collection special. The consensus that such books matter in the first place, and the creative thinking and teamwork that led to their publication are also well worth celebrating, and generosity, vision and commitment are evident in every aspect of the project.

True to its spirit, eleven new authors and illustrators from diverse backgrounds were invited to create stories and artwork for the collection. Four of these authors were discovered via Pop Up’s international writing competition for young people, and three illustrators are currently participating in Pathways into Children’s Publishing, a training and mentoring programme for artists from under-represented groups which is co-hosted by Pop Up and the House of Illustration.

Pop Up's newcomers were joined by nine well-known authors and illustrators who donated their work to the project, and a team of design and editing professionals from eight different companies worked together to prepare the books for publication. Crowdsourced donations totalling £42,000 from supporters worldwide enabled top quality editions, and the resulting collection is engaging, eclectic and significant.

An introduction to all ten titles follows, together with insights from some of the writers and illustrators involved.

My thanks to Jane Ray, Sita Brahmachari, Alexis Deacon, David Roberts, Jamila Gavin, Philip Ardagh, Ria Dastidar, Eleanor Cullen, Jacinta Read, Sahar Haghgoo, Jamie Beard, Jay Hulme and Avital Balwit for their time and comments.

And if you’d like more information about Pop Up Projects or Pathways into Children’s Publishing, you’ll find it at the end of this post.  


A Match for a Mermaid by Eleanor Cullen, illustrated by David Roberts

In this thought-provoking story about finding your own path, a mermaid princess rejects her suitors and chooses instead to marry her best friend. 

Stunning illustrations by David Roberts depict Malu’s underwater world as a place in which differences are welcomed and everyone feels able to be exactly who they are. It’s a “wonderful Queer community”, as David put it at Pop Up’s launch event, and Malu’s gradual discovery of herself is reflective of the journey many LGBTQ+ people make. 

“We often default to the relationships we see around us, but many Queer people don’t really see Queer relationships represented,” said David, and Eleanor agreed. Stories about choosing what kind of family to create were not available to her when she was growing up. “It would have been eye-opening for me to see this was an option, and that I didn’t need to search for the perfect guy,” she observed. 

As one of the winners of Pop Up’s writing competition, this was Eleanor’s first experience of having her words illustrated, and she was delighted by the way David’s pictures added so much to a story that she already thought of as inclusive.  

“He’s made it a hundred times more inclusive and accepting of so many more gender identities,” she said. “Every time you read the book you notice something new!”

A Match for a Mermaid was edited by Libby Hamilton at Andersen Press and art directed by Jane Buckley at Simon and Schuster. For readers age 5+

Here Be Monsters by Jay Hulme, illustrated by Sahar Haghgoo


“For though we all must one day pass from life, to death, to myth,
There are things that do not die, and one of them is this:
The joyousness of knowing exactly who you are,
Of knowing you were made to shine as bright as any star….”

When a huge sea dragon hatches into a world that treats her as a monster, that’s what she becomes. Forced to live on the margins, she sings “songs of loss and fear and shame” and believes that she will always be alone. 

One day, a voice finally answers her, but it doesn’t come from the water, it comes from the sky. The dragon’s mother has found her long-lost child, and shows her how to unbind her wings and take to the air where she belongs.

Written as a ‘mini epic poem,’ this entertaining and intriguing allegory reflects Jay Hulme’s lived experience as a trans rights and inclusion activist.

“Dragons and monsters are great, because they help us tell the stories we find difficult to tell,” said Hulme, at Pop Up’s launch event. There’s nothing wrong with the ocean, it’s just not where the dragon is supposed to be - and the sky isn’t better, it’s just the dragon’s natural home.

Sahar Haghgoo’s dragon refuses to conform to Western stereotypes and pays homage to winged creatures of a very different kind. With their rich palette and attention to form and pattern, her illustrations are inspired by artistic traditions from India and Iran, but forge their own new path. 

Here Be Monsters
was edited by Alice Curry at Lantana and art directed by Andrew Biscomb at Scholastic. For readers age 5+

Magnificent! by Laura Dockrill, illustrated by Ria Dastidar


This exuberantly illustrated book about shyness and making friends reflects the rhythms and rhymes of spoken-word poetry and fizzes with ‘can-do’ energy.

Laura Dockrill’s “bold, bright shout-out for all those children who feel they don’t fit in” makes for a fun read that encourages the development of emotional literacy, and is perfect for children dealing with first days at school or change of any kind.

Brightly-coloured characters explode into action with an expressivity that younger readers will find rewarding.

Ria Dastidar is one of the Pathways into Illustration mentees, and spoke to Cast of Thousands about her experiences of working on Magnificent.

“I love the tone of voice in this book and how it celebrates the idea of how our own unique differences make us special,” she said. “It’s a powerful message for children to learn, and hopefully feel OK about not always fitting in.”

Her characters come in every size, shape and colour, and dance across the pages in a way that appears effortless. But very little is as easy as it looks, as Ria’s insights show.

Ria Dastidar, illustrator of Magnificent!

“After being given the initial text, I had free rein to come up with a creative concept and story to illustrate, which I researched and made initial sketches for. I had to do lots of research boards to help me conceptualise the illustrations, especially in terms of what I could achieve in the timeframe.”

“I had to draw the characters in different poses for the roughs, and used a working sketchbook to map out random situations and poses. After feedback, I picked a concept to work on, and started to create character designs and thumbnails outlining the basic mechanics of the story, to explore how it could work visually. This helped me to move to the first round of rough spread art for review, leading to full colour art.”

“The project took over my wall space,” she said. “I had to stick everything up at my desk to keep track of it!” 

Magnificent! was edited by Emily Ball and art directed by Lilly Gottwald at Flying Eye Books. For readers age 5+

Indigo Takes Flight by Krista M. Lambert, illustrated by Chris Riddell


Indigo has a shameful secret. He’s hiding an egg beneath his cloak, and he doesn’t want anyone to know.

When a baby dragon emerges, Indigo must work even harder to keep it hidden. He seeks refuge in the wilderness, unable to believe that anyone could accept his terrible secret. But they do, and with the support of his family and friends, Indigo is finally able to face his dragon and conquer it.

Told in verse, Krista M. Lambert’s allegorical tale explores feelings of anxiety and alienation, and shows how loving acceptance can transform our lives. 

Chris Riddell’s artwork captures Indigo’s symbiotic relationship with the dragon and illuminates his complex feelings towards it. The contrast between the oppressive atmosphere in the earlier spreads and the sudden rush of freedom as Indigo takes flight is keenly felt, and we are left to wonder how our own anxieties could be transformed. 

Indigo Takes Flight was edited and art directed by Holly Tonks at Lantana. For readers age 7+

Swallow’s Kiss by Sita Brahmachari, illustrated by Jane Ray


Blessing is living a new life with her Mama and baby brother in a big city, far from the place she used to call home. When she discovers a bag of paper wish-birds in the café where her mama works, she has to know more. Who made them? And why does someone called Hani want to see his Papa?

How Blessing rights a wrong and finds the owners of the birds takes this story about new beginnings, friendship and belonging to a surprising and heartwarming conclusion.  

This beautiful book emerged from Sita Brahmachari and Jane Ray’s partnership as Writer and Artist in Residence at the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, and reflects the reality of daily life for the families with whom they work. Joy and optimism are shadowed by a hint of sadness, but in acknowledging the longing for places and people left behind, this story allows the beauty of the city and the warmth of its community to shine even more brightly.   

Written in lyrical free verse and illustrated with Jane’s signature jewel-bright colours and decorative patterns, this book is a pleasure to read and share.

To find out more about this book and discover how it was created, read a Cast of Thousands interview with Jane and Sita HERE

Swallow’s Kiss
was edited by Dylan Calder at Pop Up and art directed by Elorine Grant at HarperCollins. For readers age 7+

Mistaken for a Bear by Philip Ardagh, illustrated by Jamie Beard

Like many of the best stories, this one is a mix of fact and fiction. It’s absolutely true that a tiger was once mistaken for a bear in the grimy streets of early Victorian London, and although Paddy is pure invention, his role as an outsider reflects the experiences of many young people at that time. 

And Paddy isn’t the only character who’s a long way from home. The tiger clearly doesn’t think much of the city or its welcome, and Paddy’s friend Ash could have shared many stories about distant shores (and tigers) but nobody thinks of asking him until it’s almost too late.

Jamie Beard is a Belfast-based artist whose passion for portrait and narrative illustration focuses on notions of identity, especially in the LGBTQ+ community. His vibrant tiger brings a dangerous splash of colour to Ardagh’s grimy Victorian streets, and inventive details enliven every spread.

As Paddy connects with another trapped and isolated creature, we think about where and with whom we belong. A lone tiger facing a mob isn’t well placed to start a discussion about overcoming prejudice, and this aspect of Philip Ardagh’s pacy and enjoyable story may resonate with older readers in particular. 

To discover more about this story, read our Cast of Thousands interview with Philip Ardagh HERE

Mistaken for a Bear was edited by Daisy Jellicoe and art directed by Chloe Tartinville at Walker Books. For readers age 9+

That Thing by Avital Balwit, illustrated by Alexis Deacon

A close encounter with an inventive octopus has a lasting impact in this thought-provoking story.

Jayla has never considered herself the kind of person who does an internship - they’re for wealthy students with the right kind of background. But this summer, Jayla has won the chance to study marine life at an aquarium, and she is full of enthusiasm. 

The only problem is her co-intern, Gerald, who seems bored by the work. Jayla’s resentment of him grows until an encounter with a giant octopus called Frazier forces both interns to rethink. In defending Frazier’s rights, Jayla makes a powerful statement about respecting other differences, too. But Gerald’s reaction is almost as surprising as Frazier’s. Trying to communicate clearly and honestly is never a waste of time, and Jayla finds she must reconsider her own prejudices. 

As well as being an award-winning illustrator, Alexis Deacon teaches aspiring artists, and the idea that Pop Up’s birthday project might give a young person their first experience in publishing was what initially attracted him. 

But the discovery that Avital’s story starred an octopus quickly became the main attraction. “I was lucky enough to see an octopus in an aquarium in Seattle as a child,” Alexis told Cast of Thousands, “and the experience really stuck with me. They are the most incredible creatures!”

The artwork for this book evokes the ‘otherness’ of Frazier’s intelligence, and every page is edged with marbled, water-drenched designs – the result of inventive experimentation by Alexis, who enjoys matching his techniques and approach to the story he’s illustrating, and is always on the lookout for unexpected results. Here, that meant finding a way to represent a meeting between two very separate worlds, and one that Alexis eventually symbolized in a blend of oil and water.

“I had very little time to complete the work, so that was a big challenge in itself, and I had to be very selective with which moments were going to be illustrated,” he explained. “ I also wanted to try and work with an oil and water blend and that proved to be very challenging.  It was, however, always a joy when a picture came together.  The technique allowed for accidents and surprises to be incorporated into the images.  The dappled texture of the octopus’s skin was an accident at first but I ended up using it wherever he appears.”

At its heart, this story is about challenging prejudice, and in that sense, is similar to other projects that Alexis has worked on. “I often deal with themes of the outsider in society, and of empathy and kindness. This story has all of those too,” he said. “There are so many incredible things still to be discovered in our world if only we have the patience and vision to look for them.

This story reminds us that things are not always what they seem, and if we take the time to look we may be surprised by what we find.”

That Thing was edited by Caroline Royds and art directed by Jacqui McDonough at Penguin Random House. For readers age 10+

In Her Element by Jamila Gavin, illustrated by Jacinta Read

Sophie is going to a residential school, and hopes that shared experiences of wheelchair-use will help her bond with her room-mate. But Amber’s response on meeting the non-verbal Sophie - “Oh! You’re one of those!” - shuts down any possibility of friendship. 

Life looks bleak for Sophie, until an ordinary day explodes into action at the swimming pool. Suddenly, the girls are just like any teenagers larking about and enjoying the risk, and lasting connections can be forged.

Stories told by characters with profound disabilities are rare, and In Her Element will rightly appeal to readers who recognize their own experiences in this book. But Jamila Gavin hopes it will not be thought of solely as a story about disability, and will gain a wider audience. “I hope people also realise that it’s a book about friendship,” she said, ‘and the possibility of transgressing all boundaries in pursuing it.” 

As the title suggests, Sophie feels most at home in water, and Jacinta Read’s artwork evokes the magic realism of Sophie's inner world, where she is free to float and dive.

As a Pathways into Illustration mentee, Jacinta was keen to find the right medium for her first picturebook, and once she’d read the text, the choice was obvious. “Because there was a lot of underwater imagery, I automatically thought of watercolours. And once those came out, and my palette was all set up, it was very easy to play. And I’ve found that playing is the best starting point for any project!” 

Choosing to work in such a challenging medium had the unexpected advantage of drawing Jacinta closer to Sophie, who tries hard to communicate within her limitations, too. 

Jacinta’s work is often influenced by dance and old musicals. “I love to draw the body and capture movement,” she said. Sophie’s inner world provided an opportunity for Jacinta to explore this interest in an unexpected context, and there’s an appropriate sense of release and freedom in the resulting artwork. 

Jacinta Read, illustrator of In Her Element

 In Her Element is edited by Liz Bankes and art directed by Tiffany Leeson at Farshore. For readers age 10+

Forbidden by Anjali Tiwari, illustrated by Danica Da Silva Pereira

Set in 1930’s India and illustrated in a vibrant, contemporary style by Goan-born artist Danica Da Silva Pereira, this stylish and absorbing story about cultural taboos and prejudice is told by Laksh-Lakshmi, a sweeper who forms a passionate friendship with the Sahib’s daughter, Ratna, at the Big House where she works. 

When Ratna’s mother discovers the friendship between her daughter and the lowest of her servants, she does everything she can to destroy their relationship - and although we’re hoping for a happy ending, this is real life, not a fairy tale.

Forbidden was inspired by the work of celebrated Indian writer Munshi Premchand, who frequently addressed social issues including poverty, oppression and the caste system, and was written when Anjali Tiwari was 16 and still studying at High School. 

Forbidden was edited by Clare Whitston and art directed by Holly Fulbrook at Oxford University Press. For readers age 11+

Together We Win by Marcus Sedgwick, illustrated by Daniel Ido

It’s easy to think that, as individuals, there is little we can do about the biggest problems in the world. But as Marcus Sedgwick shows in this light-touch story for older readers, turning points occur when a single person decides to act.

Told in the first person by a mysterious narrator, this book relates three change-making moments of rebellion and revolution when history pivots around the actions of ordinary people. A young woman and her baby face armed soldiers on a Russian bridge. A border guard must decide whether to close a gate in the Berlin Wall. And another person – you? – is thinking about taking action, too…

Are we listening to an angel? Our conscience? Or something else? Although Sedgwick’s text is easy to read and immediately engaging, it doesn’t avoid the big questions, and our sense of unease on reading it is echoed and amplified by Daniel Ido’s bold graphics. What needs changing in our world? And who will take action, if not us?  

Together We Win was edited by Ruth Knowles and art directed by Sean Williams at Penguin Random House. For readers age 11+

To find out more about Pop Up Projects and Pathways into Children's Publishing

Pop Up’s founder and director is Dylan Calder, and his passion for children’s reading and commitment to create positive change is inspirational. Read a Cast of Thousands interview with Dylan HERE

Find out more about Pop Up’s mission to ‘transform lives through literature, especially by working with people in deprived places and challenging circumstances’ by visiting their website at HERE 

To find out more about Pathways into Children’s Publishing, visit their website at HERE

The publishers who supported Ten Books to Make a Difference

Andersen Press

Simon and Schuster



Flying Eye Books


Walker Books


Penguin Random House

Oxford University Press

Copyright: Cast of Thousands 2024 All rights reserved.
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