One Writer’s Journey

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

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:44 am
Tags: , , ,

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

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:11 am
Tags: , ,

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.


November 16, 2017

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.



November 14, 2017

Stories Based on Real Life: Reality with a Twist

“That would make a great story.  You should write it.” If your family and friends are anything like mine, they love pointing out when some event would make a great story.  And in all reality life is a great place to find inspiration.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I read the picture book Robinson by Peter Sis (Scholastic Press, 2017).  In this book, the narrator and his friends love pirates.  They play pirates all the time.  But when the time comes for the school costume party, the main character, encouraged by his mother, decides to dress as his favorite character – Robinson Crusoe.  His friends are not amused.  Back at home, he dreams of great adventures and when he awakens his friends have come to check on him.  Soon they are all playing castaway.

The story was inspired by an event that Sis experienced as a child but it differed in several key ways.  Why then did he not duplicate his experience in the story?  Because reality very seldom arranges itself as a perfect picture book manuscript.  Here are just a few of the things you may need to change:

Motivation. Your characters have to have a motivation for their actions.  In life, you may not always know what that motivation is.  In picture books it is a necessity.  But that’s okay.  Fiction picture books don’t have to duplicate what inspired them.

Satisfying Ending.  Not all real-life situations have a satisfying conclusion. You may never find the missing object, but in a picture book your ending must satisfy.  If the main goal is not achieved, it still has to resonate and be something that readers will want to revisit. To make the story work, it may not duplicate reality but that’s okay.

Solution.  In the best picture books, the young character solves their own story.  They may have some help but the motivation and the actual effort must the their own.  In reality, picture book aged people have much less autonomy. But that’s okay.

Time.  You may need to expand or contract the timeline to make your story work.  A story that takes weeks and weeks to resolve, especially if it is weeks and weeks of the same old same old, may not work in picture book form.  But that’s okay.

Why?  Why is it okay?

Fiction picture books don’t have to duplicate what inspired them.



November 10, 2017

The Dummy: Another Way to Test Drive Your Picture Book

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:14 am
Tags: , , ,

Yesterday, I blogged about creating a storyboard to test your picture book idea.  But there’s another tool that let’s you test your manuscript before you send it to the editor.  The dummy.

Since I use the dummy to revise, that means I must have a solid draft in hand.  Some people may use it earlier in the process but I prefer to use it toward the end.  Why?  Because I use a dummy to look at the details.

If you’ve never made a dummy, it is easy peasy. First, staple together 16 pieces of paper so that you have 32 pages front and back.  Then mark off one page for the title page and other front matter.  There are generally about three pages at the beginning of a picture book that contain the title and other material but no story.  Once you have this, you are ready to print out your text and lay it out in the dummy.

Yes, this means that you will have to decide how much goes on each spread.  Most often it will be one scene.  And you have to decide if it should be a one page spread or a two page spread.  But this will make you think.

  • If I have a two-page spread, does the scene demand this panoramic scope?
  • If I have a one-page spread, is there the detail it demands?
  • Does this spread differ in some way from the surrounding spreads? This difference can be a change in setting, which characters are present, emotion or action.
  • Does this spread have a specific action for the illustrator to depict?
  • Do I avoid dialog with no accompanying action?  Talking heads make for boring illustrations.
  • Does my text take advantage of page turns?  Page turns are great for hiding surprises.


Really think about these questions.  A dummy is a great way to tell if you’ve written a picture book.  If your story doesn’t take advantage of the picture book format, if it is too short or too long, or has too many talking heads?  Then it might not be a picture book.

And that’s okay.  Better to find that out yourself than to have an editor tell you the same thing.


November 6, 2017

Win Picture Books

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 7:50 am
Tags: , , ,


I hope that you’re taking some time during the month of November to check out some of the Picture Book Month offerings. Over the weekend, I spotted the #Thankful4PBs giveaway. Organized by Tracy Marchini, all of these books are part of the giveaway:



To win, visit this link and find the the Rafflecopter form when you scroll down the page.  There are entries for tweeting, for visiting Facebook pages and more.  The grand prize winner will receive a copy of every participating book, including a limited edition of Jannie Ho’s Bear and Chicken! Three runners up will receive a smaller prize pack of four participating books.

This is a great way to get your hands on some books to study to help perfect your own picture book craft.  And, you might want to share a few of them with the young readers on your Christmas list.

And take the time to check out Tracy’s site.  She is an agent, freelance editor and writer.  Quite a talented lady and you’ll learn a lot.



Next Page »

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: