One Writer’s Journey

January 9, 2019

Picture Books: Making It BIG and Personal

The other day, I heard someone comment that Where the Wild Things Are isn’t about the wild things or adventure. It’s about more than that. It’s about wanting to be loved.  In case you haven’t guessed, I read and listen to a lot when I’m on the treadmill.  I also have time to think as I’m step-step-stepping along.

Where the Wild Things Are is about both being wild/wild things and being loved.  One is the character’s outer journey (wild things).  One is the character’s inner journey (love).  One is the plot (wild things).  One is the theme (love).

But about some of the other picture books I’ve recently reviewed?

Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt is about a girl trying to figure out how to feed her friend’s family.  That’s the outer journey and plot.  But it’s also about friendship, the inner journey and theme.

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love is about a boy who loves mermaids (outer journey/plot).  But it is also about self-identity (inner journey/theme).

Life on Mars by Jon Agee is a humorous picture book about a boy who is searching for life on Mars (plot/outer journey).  It is also about finding something new (theme/inner journey).

Theme is going to help young readers connect with your book because the theme should be something they will identify with.  After all, what preschooler doesn’t want to be loved?  Be their own person?  Or find something new and fantastic?

The specific plot line is what makes each of these stories unique.  But it is also what you can’t duplicate when you write your own story.  Try to sell fictional picture book about looking for life on Mars to Dial and they’ll turn you down.  They’ve got Agee’s book.  But try to sell them an original, creative book about struggling to find something new and you may very well have a sale.

Inner journey vs outer journey.  Plot vs theme.  Your picture book needs both.


November 1, 2018

Picture Books: Three Act Structure

What are the best ways to structure a picture book?  In part, I’ve been wondering if you can apply the three act structure to picture books.  In short, it depends on the story but some do have this structure.  You can find it written up in Eve Hiedi Bine-Stock’s How to Write a Children’s Picture Book, Volume 1: Structure.

If you’re like me, this is easiest to see when paired with a favorite story so I’ll use Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It is one of the three-act picture books listed by Bine-Stock.

Act 1.  Beginning or Set Up.

This is about 20% of the story, 5-7 pages.  In Where the Wild Things Are, this is Max at home making mischief and getting in trouble.  There is a transition where the forest is growing – you can still see Max’s room until . . .

Plot Twist 1: Something happens that separates the beginning from the middle.

In Where the Wild Things Are, the forest grows and grows and then “the walls became the world all around.”

Act II: The Middle.

This is the core of the story, the main action.  About 60% of the story.  In Where the Wild Things Are, this is where Max has a wild rumpus as King of the Wild Things.


A before and after moment.  This can be hard to put your finger on or at least it is for me.  But I would define this as the moment the wild things fall asleep and leave Max time to ponder.  Before, Max was a wild thing.  After?  He is Max.

Plot Twist II: This one separates the Middle from the Ending.

In Where the Wild Things Are, Max smells delicious food and sails home.

Act III: The Ending.

Like the Beginning, this is about 20% of the story, 5-7 pages. This act is your resolution.

In Where the Wild Things Are, I would say this section is actually a bit shorter.  He sails home, much calmer, and finds dinner waiting for him and it is still hot.  He is at home.  He is where he is loved.

So there you have it.  A picture book in three acts.  Bine-Stock said that this structure can also be found in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Chicka-Chicka-Boom-Boom so why not get them out and see what you can see?


September 19, 2018

Picture Books: The Importance of the First Spread

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Do you regularly listen to podcasts?  I have to admit that I don’t.  Most of them are just too long to hold my attention, especially when they ramble on for 5+ minutes about things they want me to buy.  I have the attention span of my audience.

The exception to this podcast rule comes from SCBWI.  That’s the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for those of you who aren’t in the know.  Members can sign in and listen to a wide variety of interviews.  Non-members can sample a trailer.  Click here for the podcast page.

A while ago, I listened to an interview with editor Connie Hsu. She said something that really stuck with me.  If you want to write picture books, you have to be able to get voice, character and mood into one line.

Really?  That seems impossible.  But think about it.  A spread is roughly equivalent to a chapter.  And the first chapter of your novels needs to show voice, your character, and the mood/tone of the story.

I decided to look at some picture books to see how this works.

This is the first spread of I Don’t Want to be a Frog by Dev Petty, illustrated by Mike Boldt.

“I want to be a CAT.”
“You can’t be a Cat.”

The first speaker is Frog.  The second speaker is Dad.

What can you tell right away?  Frog wants what frog wants.  Does it make sense?  Nope.  But it is what Frog wants.  He reminded me very much of a typical preschooler.  We have the tone, the character and what he wants.  Not to be a frog.  And we got all of that in eleven words. Can you pull that off?  Me?  I’d love to say yes but the nonfiction examples below look more like my style.

This is the first spread of Rice from Heaven by Tina Cho, illustrated by Keum Jin Song.

Out in countryside, across a bridge, to an island blanketed with rice fields, Appa and I ride.
We reach a place where mountains become a wall. A wall so high, no one dares to climb.

What do we get from this?  We have a first person speaker who is off on some kind of mission or quest.  And things are a bit scary – the mountains form a wall that is so high no one has the nerve to climb it.  They are someplace beautiful but the situation they are dealing with?  Not beautiful.  And you get that from 35 words.

Picture book writing is tight.  You don’t have words to waste.  And your story?  You have to launch it on that first spread.  If this sound do-able to you, then picture book writing might be right for you.


July 25, 2018

The One Word Story

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If you haven’t seen ReFoReMo’s post today, check it out.  In it, they challenge writers to create a picture book written using only one word. Obviously the word will be used multiple times and will mean something different each time, but . . . Wow.  Just wow.  You have to pick something that can mean many things in many different contexts.

One of my favorites didn’t quite pull it off since No, David used two words.  But one?  The examples that they give are:

Dude! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Dan Santat

Moo by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Mike Rohnoutka

Ball by Mary Sullivan

Look! by Jeff Mack

I have to admit that when I first heard of this challenge I was pretty dismissive.  “Illustrators can pull it off.  But someone who only writes?  No way.”  And sure enough, there are two author/illustrators, Sullivan and Mack, on the list.  But there are two authors who needed an illustrator to fully bring the story to live as well.

So now I’m taking a close look at this list.  I don’t see anyone being able to pull it off with an animal noise since we already have MooBall is an object but Dude!, Moo, and Look! are all world of dialogue. So what else would work?

Some of the things that I’m thinking about now include:

Onomatopoeia.  Words that are sounds like Moo.  I’m thinking specifically about achoo and pitter patter.

Verbs or Actions.  Could an action verb work?  Specifically I’m considering dance.

Adjectives.  Could you write a board book exploring variations on tall or green?

Be sure to pop on over and read the original post on the ReFoReMo blog.  It includes a write-up by Shutta Crum that explains how she submitted, and sold, this type of single word book without illustrations since she is not an author/illustrator.

And, of course, I have two different ideas battling for space in my head which is totally distracting since I’m on deadline!



June 19, 2018

Picture Books: Writing a Biography

I’ve been reading picture book biographies lately in part because one of the women in my critique group at the retreat had written one.  It didn’t quite work, so I wanted to study what does.  Here are five things to keep in mind when writing a biography for young readers.

  • There are two types – a beginning to end biography or a slice of life. A slice of life biography covers an event – creating a sculpture or founding an organization.  Beginning to end is the person’s entire life, or at least that’s how I think of them because those I read were about people who are no longer living.  The author was able to state what the person’s ultimate legacy has been. 
  • No matter how interesting someone is, it is really hard to write a satisfying biography if they have not succeeded at something big. It’s that whole legacy.  That means that no matter how fascinated adults are with Bobby Kennedy a picture book biography would be tough.  You need to be able to summarize his legacy in one line – he created, he founded, he discovered.
  • Many picture book biographies use a chorus to state a theme.  In Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, the chorus is . . . can you guess it?  “He kept drawing.”  
  • The information in the text has to further the story.  In Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Erin McGuire, the author includes Harper Lee’s childhood friend Tru.  Harper Lee stood up for Tru when he was being bullied, which shows how important justice was even when she was a child.  They also wrote stories together.  But Tru was also Truman Capote who she reconnected with as an adult and a fledgling author. 

Writing a picture book biography requires sifting through all of the information you can find about an individual and finding that nonfiction story that will fascinate young readers.  It means choosing the details that support this story and crafting something with a beginning, middle and end even though it is still nonfiction.

It isn’t easy but a good biography?  It pulls the reader in and makes them want to know more.


May 2, 2018

Children’s Book Week: Adults and Children’s Books

I have to admit that I don’t remember it but my parents told the story, and recited the text, often enough that I believed them.  My favorite book was apparently Puffy the Puppy.  “Puffy the puppy is fat and well fed, Puffy the Puppy is asleep in his bed.”  You absolutely must recite those two lines while rolling your eyes every time to book is mentioned.  It was my favorite but I made my parents read it so often that they hated it.

Then there was my cousin Carol and Pinocchio.  My grandfather may have read it so often that he got a little punchy but he had fun with it.  By the time Bumpa was done, Pinocchio was fleeing Chicago-style gangsters complete with gangster accents.

Even before I started writing, I understood that adults are the gate keepers.  This is especially true at the picture book level.  That means you have to throw the adults a bone.  Some authors do this by making their books fun enough to read aloud that the adults don’t entirely mind reading it 87 times in one week.  Let’s  just say that my son may be a college freshman but my husband and I can still recite Sandra Boynton’s Barnyard Dance.  

Another way to offer something to the older reader is with humor.  Young readers will get it at one level but older readers will get something else.  Jeanie Ransom does this with her pun-filled What Really Happened to Humpty Dumpty.  The books of Dan Santat and Jon Scieszka are warped enough to amuse adult readers.  Well, certain adult readers.  The ones like me.

Nonfiction picture books that make use of sidebars also offer something to older readers. Younger readers can stick with the shorter text.  Older readers can build on the experience by also reading the sidebars.

What children’s books do you love that appeal to the adults who share the reading experience with pre-readers?


November 29, 2017

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

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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.



November 24, 2017

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.



November 21, 2017

Mentor Texts: Guiding Yourself through Writing a Picture Book

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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.


November 20, 2017

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.


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