Picture Book Mash-Ups: Putting Two Things Together to Create Something New

Yesterday, I was on the treadmill scanning the publishing blogs.  That’s when I spotted Little Red RuthieA Hanukkah Tale by Gloria Koster.

Koster is an elementary school librarian.  In the course of her job, she’s seen how popular folk tales are.  She’s also seen the demands for fall and winter holiday books.  So she combined the two.

Not surprisingly, this got me thinking about a variety of possibilities.

What would happen if Little Red Riding Hood set out to visit Grandma on the Day of the Dead?  Or Goldilocks dropped in on the Three Bears on Christmas Eve?  What if the Three Billy Goats Gruff were caroling when they traipsed over the trolls bridge?

Obviously, not every mash-up is going to work.  Having Little Red Riding Hood determined to make the trip on Grandparent’s Day might create some fun possibilities but how big would the market be?  I’d want to look at numbers before taking on this story idea.  Christmas would probably have more appeal.

It might also help to look for natural connections.  Thanksgiving is pretty food based so what about a Three Bears Thanksgiving Dinner.  Blessedly the porridge would have to go.  Maybe to be replaced by everyone’s various takes on stuffing/dressing or cranberries.

You would also have to take the time to see what is out there.  I’d be absolutely shocked if no one has done the Gingerbread Man as a Christmas cookie.  But I should check before I make assumptions.  Speaking of assumptions, before trying a new twist on for size, it would be a good idea to see how many Christmas Three Bear books are out there or how many Three Bear Books in general.

Wait . . . what about Thanksgiving Three Little Pigs.  Thanksgiving as we celebrate it has nothing to do with building, but we do tend to make pigs of ourselves . . .

Pardon me.  I need to go look into a few things before starting a new draft.



Scary Picture Books

Scary picture books?  Are those a thing?  Not in the sense that you and I think of scary because for the picture book crowd they also have to be safe.  For great examples of how this is done, check out Creepy Carrots and Creepy Pair of Underwear by Aaron Reynolds.

In Creepy Carrots, carrot loving Jasper is stalked everywhere he goes by carrots.  He sees them reflected in mirrors.  He seems them in shadows there is just no escaping them.

In Creepy Pair of Underwear, Jasper who is now a big bunny is stalked by a pair of glow-in-the-dark green underwear.  Taking them off doesn’t work.  When he wakes up he is once again wearing them!   Cutting them up doesn’t work because they somehow reassemble themselves.

The key to a scary picture book is to make it just a touch ridiculous.  Carrots?  Carrots are not scary. Not only is underwear not terrifying, if you want a preschooler to laugh, just say underwear.  Now act like it is really scary.  Have all of the scary story elements happen.  This could include:

  • Following someone
  • Reappearing
  • Shadows
  • Reflections
  • Floors squeaking
  • Bump in the night
  • Buried but then it reappears
  • Scary footsteps
  • Mysterious phone calls
  • Voices in the night

Once you write it scary, you will have to trust the illustrate to back you up.  Peter Brown does that in these two books by creating a film noir black and white vibe.  Add just a touch of color with the scary things, carrots and underwear, and these elements pop.

These books also have elements just for the adults.  What do I mean?  Underwear creeping up on you.  Any one who has ever had a pair that crawls knows exactly what I mean.  Then there is the fact that Jasper is a Big Rabbit now.  Get it.  Big boy underwear.

These books are a silly scary experience for the youngest readers that give a gift in the form of humor to the adult reader who has to read them again and again and again.


Jólabókaflóð: Christmas Book Flood

I know, I know.  For some of you it is just too early to talk about Christmas.  But Thanksgiving weekend is when we draw names in my husband’s family.  It is also the time I start planning my Christmas book buying.

That’s why I love this Icelandic tradition.  The rough translation for Jólabókaflóð is Christmas Book Flood. On Christmas Eve, people in Iceland exchange books.  Then they spend a cozy evening reading.  Wow.  Just wow.

That sounds amazing to me.

I love giving books as Christmas gifts.  Granted, they don’t make good gifts for absolutely everyone.  But for most people?  Oh, yeah.  We’ve got 5 kids in my family who will be receiving quite a collection between my sister and I.  And my son.  And my husband.

Not sure about selecting books?  I generally start with the books I’ve read this year and loved.  You can find many of these books on The Bookshelf, my review blog. Then I compile a list for the parents of each child.  My cousins are also book lovers and we need to make sure that these kiddos are getting books that are new to them.  But I also ask about twice as many books as I plan to buy.  That way we have alternates if something isn’t available.  My husband is a lot easier since there aren’t four or five people buying books for him.

If I can’t come up with enough ideas on my own, I look at the New York Times recommendations.  I also look at Betsy Bird’s blog.  And the annual SCBWI Reading List.

There are so many great books out there.  Help support reading and writing by celebrating it this holiday season. Let’s create a US Jólabókaflóð!


Leaving Room for the Illustrations: Picture Book Writing

One of the hardest aspects of picture book writing to grasp is leaving room for the illustrations.

In part, this means that you can leave visual details up to the illustrator. What color is Becca’s dress?  Not your problem.  What type of shoes does she wear?  Not your problem.  Back pack?  Not your (can you fill in the blank?).  Unless these details impact the story, they are up to the illustrator.

But it also means that you don’t need to turn every action or goal into a step by step process.  Instead of writing that your character climbed a tree, waded across a stream (instead of taking the bridge) and swung from wild grape vines all on the way to Grandma’s, you could say that she took a more-or-less direct route. Instead of detailing every step of her morning routine, say that getting ready for school went smoother than usual.  Leave it up to the illustrator to show her searching for her shoe under her bed and in the dog house only to discover that her little brother is using it for a doll’s bed.

When you leave room for the illustrator, you leave room for the picture book reader as well.


Don’t tell us that Krista got a red balloon for her birthday.  Tell us about how the sun glinted off the shiny surface.  Tell us how the string felt in her hand.  Tell us about the bump-bump-bump sound it made as she carried it down the hall to her room.

Tell us that the balloon was the best part of Krista’s birthday.  But don’t say that.  Tell us it was shaped like love.  Tell us she took it to school with her the next day.  Tell us she cried when the wind carried it away.

You’ve left room for the illustrator and the reader to picture the balloon with their eyes and in their hearts.



Happy Thanksgiving

For those of you who celebrate, I’d like to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.  Take the time to recharge your creative battery.

I don’t know if this is just a MidWest thing but our Thanksgiving day tends to stretch into Thanksgiving Weekend.  Thursday, we have dessert with my Dad and dinner with my sister and her family.

Friday (don’t tell anyone), we have no plans.  Or if we do no one has shared them with me yet.  We will be cooking our own Thanksgiving dinner.  This is how you deal with it when you are the only people in the larger family who like the traditional dishes.

Saturday we have a wedding and reception to attend.

Sunday?  Church, hopefully this is my last week teaching, choir, church and then Thanksgiving with my husband’s turkey-despising family.

I will eat.  I will crochet.  I may have to get some rewriting done because the manuscript is due next Wednesday. Writing is a career that I love but you definitely need to take a break every now and again so that you have the energy to create.


The Surprise Ending: On Way to End Your Picture Book

I’ve been thinking about Dragon’s Love Tacos today because the play is being performed at our local theater.  It grabs your attention when 300 school children traipse past the gym where you are taking yoga.

I remember that one of the things that grabbed my attention about this picture book was the surprise ending. In Adam Rubin’s story, the narrator tells the child character all about dragons and their love for tacos.  He discusses toppings dragons love and toppings dragons hate.  He even goes into what will happen if you mistakenly give a dragon one of these forbidden toppings and just how dangerous this can be.  Spicy toppings make smoke come out of dragon ears and they snort sparks.

Warning in hand, the child then plans a taco party for the dragons.


There end up being hot peppers in the tacos.  Because of this, the dragons spark and shoot flames.  Because this is a picture book, I was expecting a silly surprise ending.  But that’s not what I got. The house burns to the ground.

Daniel Salmieri’s illustrations make the whole thing humorous, but it was still a surprise.  After all, my worst party experience was either my first migraine or getting my tooth pulled out (I was six, it was loose). Belched flame is outside my experience.

But burning down the house wasn’t so “out there” that I couldn’t buy into it as the ending. After all, Rubin dropped hints. The first time the young reader experiences the ending, they are shocked or at least surprised.  The second time through, she will enjoy being in the know as the adult reads out the warnings.

A surprise works as long as it leaves the reader feeling satisfied in some way.  They can be sad for the main character but left feeling a bit superior, as in Dragon’s Love Tacos, or they can be happy that the character got such a great surprise if it is something good.  You just need to make sure it works in the context of your story and with the clues that you’ve laid out for the reader to follow.


Mentor Texts: Guiding Yourself through Writing a Picture Book

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know I’m a fan of using mentor texts.  A mentor text is a book that you use as a guide in one particular aspect of your own writing.

You might use I am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness by Susan Verde as a mentor for writing about an abstract concept for young readers.


Patriotic but potentially controversial?  Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers.


Considering a quiet book?  I’d look at Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon. Your book may be very different but this is the quiet book that, in my experience, all others are compared to.

But sometimes you chose a mentor text and it just doen’t work.  That was the case when I looked at Home by Caron Ellis as an example of how to bring one of my picture book ending home.  Ellis makes her book on varied houses work by ending it at her own home.  Get it?  She brings it home.  I know.  It sounds corny but it really works.

I’d tried something similar with my prayer book.  But no one who read the new ending liked it.  It felt disjointed.  Compared to the rest of the book, it felt narrow.  And the really funny part?  After reading my manuscript, someone recommended that I read Home.  Been there.  Done that.  Have the draft to prove it.

Mentor texts are a great way of learning what can work in a story but sometimes they are just as valuable for teaching you  that what works for one manuscript may not work for another.  My advice, keep reading.  You never know when you will read the book that will bring everything together in your mind and on the page.


Picture Books: Writing Biography

Mahin is also the author of Muddy, one of the picture book biographies I checked out from the library.

Recently I read a Writer’s Digest blog post by Michael Mahin, Three Keys to Selling a Children’s Picture Book Biography.  Among the things he discussed was needing a great climax.

There are two types of picture book biographies.  Some of them detail a slice of the person’s life.  These are the kinds of biographies that Mahin writes.  Other picture book biographies are birth to grave.  That is the type of biography I was invited to write on Elijah McCoy.

McCoy is best known for inventing an oil cup used on steam locomotives.  Before it was invented, men had to walk along a moving locomotive and oil various strategic points.   If this wasn’t done, over-heated parts could fuse and freeze up various movements.  But this was also an incredibly dangerous job.  Men fell to their deaths.

McCoy invented a device that could be affixed to the locomotive and would dispense oil as needed.  Others tried to duplicate his invention but none were as well designed as his so owners would demand that their locomotives have “the real McCoy.”

This isn’t McCoy’s only invention but it is the one that would have earned him a tidy living if he hadn’t sold the patent. McCoy was an inventor, not a business man.  He would sell his patent so that he has the funds needed to finance his next invention right away.  Because of this, he never earned much money and died in poverty.

Yep. That’s a stinky ending.  But because the publisher only did birth to death biographies, they couldn’t find a way to have the strong ending a picture book biography needs.

When you write a slice of life biography, the key is to pick a high point and build toward it.  In his post, Mahin explained that his biography of Carlos Santana ends when Santana performs at Woodstock, the event that made his career.  By selecting this type of spectacular moment, Mahin could create the type of ending that will keep readers come back to reexperience an amazing story.

If you are interested in writing a picture book biography, take a look at the person’s life.  What events might make strong endings?  Answer this question and you are well on your way to structuring you picture book.


Querying Agents: Wait!

When is the best time to send out your agent queries?  In truth, I was just getting ready to send a few out.  Getting ready can take a while and that’s a good thing.  Wednesday I was reading the November 2017 Nelson Literary Agency Newsletter.  Kristin Nelson recommends waiting until January 2, 2018.  Why?  Because agents are clearing out their in-boxes.  Don’t worry!  Whether you are approaching an agent with a picture book or a young adult novel, this means that you have almost 2 months to do your homework.

  1.  Check out the listings on Manuscript Wish List, #MSWL tweets and agency submissions information.  This first step just involves finding people who might be a good match.
  2. Google their names.  Read every interview you can find.  Look for the names of books they love.  Look for the titles of books they’ve sold.  Keep an eye open for the things they are passionate about.
  3. Start requesting some of these books.
  4. Read, read and read!  Don’t just request the books.  Read them.  This is vital because you need to know that an agent who is looking for quirky middle grade humor will find your humor quirky vs frightening.
  5. Keep track of what makes this agent a good fit.  This list will fluctuate as you do more reading and find more information.  Agents will move up the list and down.  But that’s okay.  You really do want to submit to someone whose an excellent match.

Whether you go with a new agent or an established agent is a matter of personal choice.  There are pluses to submitting to a new agent.

  • New agents need to build a client list.  They need to find new clients.
  • New agents are often the ones granting interviews and going to conferences because of #1.  This means that it is easier to find out about them — whether they are editorial agents, what they like, etc.
  • New agents don’t have as many estaliblished clients taking up all their time.

An established agent has a client list and can be pickier about what new work they sign, but there are also pluses to established agents.

  • Established agents have more contacts.  They can get your manuscript read by editor you can’t approach.
  • They have a track record.  A google search will show you what an established agent has sold and often find comments (hopefully praise) from their authors.

Fortunately you’ve got some time.


Picture Books: Writing Funny

Whether you plan to write humorous fiction or work humor into your nonfiction, it pays to know what your audience finds funny.  Part of that is a matter of personal taste.  My son never got Sponge Bob or Captain Underpants, but Veggie Tales cracked us both up.

Still, humor is also a matter of developmental stage.  A younger child simply does not understand humor in the same way.

Here are the developmental stages of humor as defined by this article at Scholastic.

Infant responds/laughs along with physical play such as tickling or peek-a-boo.

A one year-old knows that it is funny to do unexpected things.  This can be as simple as playing keep-away by not letting someone take something.

By two, a toddler is stepping up this game and may run away when called.

Imitation is also funny.  If one toddler drops something, they all drop something.

Three year-olds want people to laugh with them.

By four, bathroom humor is a hoot.

Four year-olds also like to make up silly stories.  Note, they are silly but may not make a lot of sense to adults.

By five, it is funny to substitute one word for another to make a funny sentence.

Kindergartners are coordinated enough that it is now funny to pretend to be uncoordinated.

Sea Monkey and Bob by Aaron Reynolds is a preschool picture book.  From cover to cover, this is a silly story.  We have a puffer fish with a human name who is afraid he will float to the surface.  Sea Monkey is just a funny sound thing and he’s afraid he’s to heavy to float at all.  Questioning limits and outright silliness appeal to readers two to four.

In Dogosaurus Rex  by Anna Staniszewski the humor comes from the fact that Ben doesn’t get that you can’t adopt a T-Rex at a shelter, it is just so big.  The t-rex is imitating a dog and that’s just funny for 3 and 4 year olds.

This one contains a plot spoiler!  It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk by Josh Funk plays with this fairy tale with Jack arguing constantly with the narrator and making friends with the vegan giant. This is another silly story but it is older as one reality is substituted for another.

Humor is a great way to hook a young reader of any age but you have to know what works at what age to make the sale.