One Writer’s Journey

August 3, 2017


Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:09 am
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Connect with young readers even outdoors.

Have any of you ever been fortunate enough to encounter a StoryWalk®?  I only learned that they existed earlier this week when someone asked about them on a community forum.

StoryWalk® is an innovative way for readers of all ages to enjoy reading in the outdoors. Laminated picture book pages are attached to wooden stakes positioned along a trail. As the reader strolls along, they can pause to read before moving on to the next page in the story.

StoryWalks® can be found in 50 states and 11 countries.  The original walk was created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, VT. She put it together with help from Rachel Senechal, Kellogg-Hubbard Library.

The costs for each installation include 3 copies of the book (2 for laminating and one as ‘replacement parts) and lamination costs.  Stakes are a one time cost and can be reused for subsequent books.  Because the book is purchased and the owner of a book can do pretty much whatever with it, copyright problems do not come into play.

I have to admit that I wasn’t initially thrilled with the idea of cutting a book apart.  But pulling young readers into a story?  Making them want to read more?  Perhaps get their own copy of the book?  That is very attractive.

Does your community have a StoryWalk®?  Do you have an outdoor oriented picture book?  Or a picture book that has something to do with exercise or an outdoor activity?  This would be an excellent way to help young readers connect with your book.

Click here and here for more on StoryWalks®.  The second piece has some great tips and words of advice.  And here are a variety of Youtube videos on StoryWalks®.





July 17, 2017

Picture Book: Rewriting is like Home Improvement

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:39 am
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While I was working on several work for hire projects, I roughed out two picture books.  While I’m pretty happy with the astronaut book, it needs work.  The yoga book?  If it was a house, I’d say it was a fixer upper.  It’s that bad.  But that’s okay.  I’m going to rewrite.

I don’t mean fix typos and punctuation.  This is a chance to revision the story.  Did I get it down as planned?  If yes, does it function well or is it time to knock out a few walls?

To work as a picture book, there has to be enough to the story to keep the reader coming back.  Your picture book will cost $15 – $20.  No one will pay that if it won’t hold up to repeated readings.

A story has a beginning, a middle and an end.  Your character has a problem to solve.  In a picture book, it can help to have a twist or surprise at the end.

Have you addressed your full audience?  Yes, your picture book has to appeal to the young “reader.” But picture books are usually read by an adult to a child.  There has to be something that will make the adult willing to read it 297 times in a row.

Small things to contemplate — this is like painting or refinishing hard wood floors.  It may take time, but it isn’t structural.

Do you have too much dialogue?  Dialogue cannot carry a picture book.  Talking heads make boring illustrations.  You want to give your illustrator something to work with.  This means …

Hone that action!  Something has to happen on every spread and use specific verbs to paint a picture. Why does your character walk when he can leap, lope or stride?

As you look at your draft, make sure you haven’t used up your word count describing what can be illustrated.  Leave the illustrator room to play rather than describing what can be seen.  Instead describe what can be smelled, heard or tasted.

Last but not least, read your story out loud.  Your manuscript needs that picture book word play. If it doesn’t have it, look for ways to repeat sounds and words as well as use rhythm and rhyme.  A picture book is meant to be read aloud. Help your readers, young and old, enjoy the experience.

Hmm.  Looking at all of this, I think I have a lot to do!  Happy writing, all!


January 6, 2017

Books with Chapters vs Chapter Books: Why You Need to Know The Difference

writing-termsLast night we had someone new at critique group. I don’t just mean new to our critique group.  I mean new to any professional critique group.  I realized this when I noticed that she called anything and everything that has chapters a chapter book. This really drove home why it is so important to know the terminology before you start to submit your work.  Use a term wrong and editors will realize you don’t know the industry.  Here are a few of the book related terms you need to know.

Board Book: This is a book for toddlers.  It is made out of cardboard and is meant to hold up to small people who don’t have the finesse not to damage a picture book.

Picture Books:  These fully illustrated books are written for children preschool-aged through grade school although most of the audience is preschool through about 8.  The text and illustrations work together to tell the story, each telling slightly different parts of the story.  Because of how they are printed, they are most often 32 pages.  The text may feel advanced since it is read to the child.

Early/Beginning Readers:  These books have a smaller trim size than a picture book.  This gives them the appearance of a “big kid’s” novel.   Many are fully illustrated but instead of expanding on the story the illustrations are there to help the reader decipher the text.  The text is easier than that of a picture book.

Chapter books:  These are for readers who are reading independently.  They aren’t ready for the longer books that middle graders read but they want the chapters.  The still enjoy illustrations but most if not all illustrations are black and white. Think Magic Tree House.  No subplots.

Middle grade novels.  These are for older grade school students.  Yes.  Older grade school.  Remember kids tend to read up.  Subplots are to be expected but these books aren’t nearly as edgy as young adult books.  There is a lot of diversity in terms of reading level and maturity of content.

Young Adult Novels.  These are novels for middle schoolers and high schoolers.  In spite of what some people think, all young adult novels are not super sexy but these kids are heading toward adulthood.

Using chapter book to describe true chapter books, middle grade books and young adult books is going to mark you as a newbie.  Don’t do this to yourself.  Read.  Learn the terminology.  Talk to other writers.  Then submit your work.  Otherwise the first impression you make on the editor will be one of confusion vs giving your work the opportunity it needs to shine.


September 29, 2016

Top Nonfiction Picture Books

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:14 am
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cup-1010916_1920Earlier this week, writing buddy Stephanie Bearce asked me for a list of the Top Nonfiction Picture Books in the last 5 years.  Where to start?  There are so many book lists out there — bestsellers, various ALA awards and more.  I decided to start with the top nonfiction as selected by School Library Journal.  Here’s the list I compiled based on their recommendations.  Note: These are not all of the picture books on their lists.  For example, I eliminated poetry because I’m a nonfiction author, not a poet. I also eliminated some of the ones I haven’t read or didn’t like. Yes.  I’m a fickle pickle.:

Don Brown’s Henry and the Cannons: An Extraordinary True Story of the American Revoluion. (Roaring Brook 2013)  Study this one if you want to write about a well-covered topic.

Jen Bryant’s The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus (Eerdman’s 2014).  The text, illustration and book design worked together really well on this one.

Jason Chin’s Island: A Story of the Galapagos (Roaring Brook 2012).

Lois Ehlert’s The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life (Beach Lane 2014).  An author/illustrator I adore but somehow missed this book.  I’ll have to pop by the library site.

David Elliot’s On the Wing (Candlewick 2014). Fantastic collection of “bird” poetry.

Bryan Floca’s Locomotive (Richard Jackson Book, 2013).

Gary Golio’s Bird and Diz (Candlewick 2015).  I love Golio’s books.  How did I miss this one? Popping over to the library to send in a request.

Steve Jenkin’s Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World (Houghton Harcout, 2014).  Love Jenkins books both for the illustrations and the fun animals I get to meet.

Angela Johnson’s All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom (S&S 2014).  This is illustrated by E.B. White.  After hearing him speak at a conference, I’m eager to see this book and how his illustrations demonstrate the points he made.

Sandra Markel’s The Long, Long Journey (Millbrook 2013).  This is about the godwit. The what?  Yep, study this one for how to write about a bird that isn’t a household name.

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Rhthym Ride: A Road Trip through Motown Sound (Roaring Brook 2015).  Another request.  I’m something like job security for the librarians.

Mara Rockliff’s  Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France (Candlewick, 2015).  Loved this book!  Loved it.  History and intrigue made a great combination.

Katherine Roy’s Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands (Roaring Brook 2014).

Duncan Tonatiuh’s Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (Abrams 2015).  Another great one.  Love the theme and the coverage is really thorough.

Duncan Tonatiuh’s Seperate is Never Equal: Syvlia Mendez and her Family’s Fight for Desegregation (Abrams 2014).  Powerful story but I especially loved his Maya-inspired illustrations.

I did notice that most of the books that made the list were from big name publishers.  That said there were a few that weren’t so that’s hopeful.  Remember that these are chosen by SLJ. These are books that are top notch for a the school market.  That means that there are doubtlessly a lot of books that are excellent but don’t meet that criteria.  Still, that’s the criteria I went with since I want to teach.  Yes, I want to do so in a fun way but I want my books in the schools.

Anyway, this is the list.  Ta-da!  Hope it is helpful and  Happy Reading!


July 1, 2016

Picture Books: Leaving Room for the Illustrations

illustrationFor those of us who write but don’t illustrate, part of the balance we need to achieve is writing a story that leaves space for the illustrations.  I knew better than to include specific character descriptions or clothing descriptions.  After all, unless the story depends on the character’s bright red hair, that’s the sort of detail that you can leave to the illustrator.

What I hadn’t considered was minimizing how much information I give about specific character actions and how my character gets from point A to point B.  Then I read Fred Koehler’s post, Writing Between the Lines.  Fred is the illustrator of One Day, The End by Rebecca Kai Dotlich which just one a Boston Globe Horn Book Award.

One spread has the words “One day I took a bath.”  Yes, the last illustration shows the character in the tub but before she gets there she uses her boot to shelter a flower, slips into a mud puddle, has wind-blown leaves stick to the mud and that’s why she needs the bath.  But the text doesn’t detail what led to the bath.  Koehler got to play.

Koehler’s recommendation is to imagine an omniscient narrator who tells the story in your head.  He also recommends that you imagine either the voice of Sean Connery or Morgan Freeman but I think Judy Dench would be a better match for my story.  Any who, imagine this voice narrating the heart of the story.

Yes, write the scene with all the words that you need to get it down and then rewrite it including only this heart.  This is something that I’m going to try with my fiction picture book in progress.  It isn’t going to be easy to give the illustrator so much room to play but it will be worth it if, by giving the illustrator space, I can entice an editor to pick up the project.


PS. A special thank you to Lee Wind who pointed Fred’s blog post out to SCBWI members.

January 26, 2016

What Are You Writing?

Colorful books on shelfWhenever a new writer comes to critique group, I ask, “What do you write?”

Can I say, without giving offense, that it is off-putting if they can’t tell me?  Too often the answer is “children’s stories” or “books for children.”  That’s too broad and it makes me think that you don’t know the answer in contemporary publishing jargon.

Hey, wait!  Aren’t writers supposed to think outside of the box?

You are, but if you don’t know what the heck you’re writing, you don’t know what box to avoid. If you are just starting to write for children and teens, here are some categories to know.

Fiction vs nonfiction.  It’s basic but I understand some of the confusion.  If you are writing a story about growing a garden and framing it as the experience of fictional Adam, what is it?  Fiction or nonfiction?  Without reading it, my guess would be fact based fiction.

Picture book.  A picture book is an illustrated book in which the text and the art equally tell the story.  These books give readers the info they need to learn about the world in general. The recent Newbery Last Stop on Market Street is a picture book.   Adults read these books to young readers.
Audience: Toddler to early grade school.
Length: Up to 3 manuscript pages.

Beginning or early reader.  The purpose behind these books is for new readers to be able to read them independently.  That meanst that vocabulary and sentence structure are simple.  Illustrations don’t expand on the story but provide contextual clues for the reader.  Look at beginning readers and you’ll see lables like “level 1.” Levels vary from publisher to publisher.  Elephant and Piggy.
Audience: 1st and 2nd grade.
Length: Up to 20 manuscript pages.

Chapter books.  These books may contains some illustrations but they are for confident readers who aren’t intimidated by a lack of pictures.  That said, these are still newish readers and the books tend to have a main plot line and no subplots.  Often published in series. Magic Tree House.
Audience: 1st to 3rd grade.
Length: 40 – 60 manuscript pages.

Middle grade novels.  These readers can handle at least one subplot.  Characters are discovering their place in the world so stories are frequently about family, friends,  and school.  It is rare for these books to include extreme violence, drug use or sex. Some romance, very light, is okay. Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Audience: 3rd to 6th grade.
Length: 100 – 250 manuscript pages.

Young adult novels.  Middle schoolers read some of these books and these are the books with less extreme content.  Books for high schoolers can include, but don’t have to focus on sex, drugs, etc. These are kids who are challenging the world although they may still be looking for their place in it. Graceling.
Audience: 7th grade and up.
Length: 200 – 350 manuscript pages.


November 12, 2015

How to use a story board

storyboardGiven that it is PiBoIdMo and so much thought it going into picture books, I thought this would be a good time to discuss how we write them.  One of my favorite tools is the story board.  A story board is an illustrators’ tool that allows you to plan out an entire picture book spread by spread.

How do you use it if you aren’t an illustrator?  Some writers make quick sketches.  Others jot down a few words that represent the scene.  A story board helps you see if you have enough “story” for an entire picture book.  Although the illustrator may not break it down the same way that you do, this will show you if you have only half what you need or half again too much.

Some people print out a story board worksheet.  You can download one here.

I find a single page a little too tight.  I also hate writing on the page and then erasing things as I shift bits and pieces of the story.

Other people use a template on their computer.  Since you can only fit about 6 spreads on most screens, this keeps me from seeing the whole thing at once.  Yeah, I know.  I’m picky.

So what I did was make my own template.  See that photo up there on the right hand side?  That giant storyboard started out its life as a piece of cardboard in a poster frame. I’ve marked off the pages I need to keep open and can see the entire book at once.  I write notes on post-it notes and lay it out on the board.  I can easily shift the notes as I add and delete scenes. Once I have everything worked out on the board, I rough out the story.

Because I’ve worked out many of the bugs on the story board, I can usually draft a picture book in an hour or two.  Do not fuss at me!  That’s a rough draft.  The language isn’t picture book language.  The characters still need work and everything else. That’s just a super messy rough draft.

But it comes together as quick as it does because I’ve already taken a hard look at the big picture.  Try it out when you write your next picture book and see if it helps.



October 5, 2015

Picture Books: Inanimate Objects

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:58 am
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Writing a story about a heroic cup of coffee? Inanimate objects can work as characters. Photo by Karolina Grabowska.STAFFAGE.

At the Mo. SCBWI conference on 9/26, someone asked Brianne Johnson (Writer’s House) about creating picture books with inanimate objects as characters.  Her short answer?  Don’t do it.

Then she went on to explain the difficulties of this type of story using The Day the Crayons Quit as an example. In this story, the crayons are not inanimate.  They run around.  They have adventures.  They want things.  They do things.  They may look like crayons but they are stand-ins for children.

This means that whether your character is a cookie or a toaster, animate it.  Make it three-dimensional.  Make what it wants matter so that the reader will care about your character.  A truly inanimate object, be it a balloon, a baloney sandwich or a back scratcher is going to be really, really dull as would any other flat, lifeless character.

It doesn’t matter what picture book rule you are trying to break – no inanimate objects as characters, no animal characters, no rhyme — if you do it well, editors won’t mention it.  If, on the other hand, you fail at your attempt, expend the editor or agent readng your work to tell you not to break this rule.  Not that it is carved in stone but because you tried and failed in your attempt.  Your story just doesn’t work.

If you want to write a story featuring inanimate objects as characters, study recently published books that do it well.  Your list should include The Day the Crayons Quit, The Day the Crayons Came Home, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.  The last one is a chapter book but this character is as layered and nuanced as any child character.  And that is what you need to do, create an animated inanimate object that truly walks and talks and lives.



September 30, 2015

Picture Books: What does it mean to be character driven?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:32 am
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Copyright London Scout

What story would you write for a couple of curly girls?  Photo: Copyright London Scout

At Saturday’s conference, Brianne Johnson, senior agent at Writer’s House, gave an absolutely amazing session on character driven picture books.  Yeah, yeah.  We all know what it mean — the character’s personality drives the plot.  On one level, I’m sure you get it.  I know that I did before this session.

The character’s personality somehow puts the plot into action.  This same personality effects every decision that the character makes and every action that she takes.  And it all comes down to some character trait.  Fancy Nancy snazzes things up.  David is a whirlwind force of destruction and things fly apart in his wake. The pigeon?  He wheedles and argues like a three-year-old.

We know this and we use this knowledge when we write.  Every now and again we’re pretty sure that we’ve been successful.

Want to test it out?  Take your amazing character out of the story and substitute Adorable Precocious Child #1.  Adorable Precocious Child is any generic cut, smart, nosey kid.  Put this character in place of your character.

Now look at how your story changes.

What do you mean it doesn’t change?  If your story is character driven, it has to change.  After all, the original story was drven by a character who is no longer in it.  If it is character driven, it has to change when you swap out your character for another.  If it doesn’t, either your story wasn’t character driven or your character was too typical. It’s time to go back to the drawing board and either jazz up your character or rework your plot.

Me?  I’ve got some work to do, but I’d rather figure that out myself than have Bri tell me when I send her my manuscript.



September 29, 2015

Picture Books: The Quiet Manuscript

At Saturday’s conference, Roaring Brook’s Connie Hsu (pronounced Shoe) discussed quiet picture books — what they aren’t, what they are, and what it means.  This wasn’t a session topic but we have just seen a preview of The Night Gardener by Terry and Eric Fan.  It will be published this spring by Simon and Schuster.  This book grabs you by the heart but it is not a rolicking good time.  When a conference participant called it quiet, Connie objected.

She explained that neither The Night Gardener or Polar Express are quiet although they certainly are not rowdy.  Instead, the words that she used to describe both books included evocative, classic and cinematic.

She explained that to fully understand what a “quiet” manuscript is you have to put aside your traditional definition of quiet.  After all, both book are quiet in the way that outsiders use the word.  When an editor calls a book quiet, Hsu explained, what she means is that she won’t be able to get the sales department “loud.”  It is a book for which they would have no enthusiasm. It won’t excite them.  That might mean that they’ve seen it before.  It might mean that it simply fails to engage them.

Just a little something to think about.  What books seem quiet, in the traditional usage of the word, yet people connect with the book and recommend it to others?  Owl Moon. Goodnight, Moon. Dream Snow.  All three of these books are “quiet” in the way that we traditionally use the word but they are clearly loud in publishing terms.  People love them to this day.

What is it that these books have?  Depth and emotion.

The next time an editor tells you that your manuscript is too quiet, take another look.  Don’t look for rowdiness but do see if you can spot depth and emotion.



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