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.


January 7, 2019

Picture Books: Sending a Message without Preaching

Every now and again I find a book, flip to the publishing information and see the date and think, “Where has this book been for so long? Why did I take so long to find it?”  That was my reaction to Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt.

If you haven’t read this book, my post is pretty much one great big spoiler.  So if you read on, no fussing.  Seriously.

Sofia discovers that Maddi’s mom can’t afford groceries but she has promised not to tell.  How do you write a picture book that deals with hunger without being preachy?  Here are five things that Brandt did that make this picture book work.

  1.  Make it about something else. On one level, this is in fact a book about hunger.  But it is primarily a book about friendship. Sofia can’t stand that her friend is hungry.  Because of this, she works to feed Maddi which leads us to #2.
  2. Have the young character struggle to solve the problem. Sofia tries.  She takes Maddi left over fish from her own family dinner.  Hint – fish does not travel well in a backpack.  Next she tries eggs.  Again, yuck.  But she is trying and that is #3.
  3. Show the struggle.  Again and again Sofia tries to solve the problem.  But she is also faced with a moral struggle.  She has promised not to tell and this again takes us to #4.
  4. Make it real.  Sofia wants to be a good friend.  That means she has to keep her word.  But would a good friend let someone go hungry?  Eventually she decides that the answer is “no, she would not”  and that takes us to #5.
  5. Weave it into a Story. Brandt does more than send the message – we need to do something about hunger.  She weaves the theme surrounding hunger into a story about two very likeable girls.  It is Maddi’s fridge.  It is Sofia and Maddi’s story.

Ultimately, that is what makes it work.



November 16, 2018

Graphic Novels: Why Schools Like Them and Using Theme to Make a Retread Newly Relevant

Working my way through the LibraryCon Live! sessions, I’ve been finding out about a variety of new-to-me graphic novels. (You can register and log in to view sessions  here.)

Victor LaValle’s Destroyer is a Frankenstein’s monster story.  Some of the themes are true to the original (evil’s of science and environmental themes) while others are much more contemporary.  In LaValle’s version, police shootings of young African American’s also come into play.

Olivia Twist by Darin Strauss and Adam Dalva is, as you may have guessed, an Oliver Twist retelling.  It takes place in a dark future London complete with internment camps.

Various authors and editors that I’ve heard speak have discussed theme.  One of the reasons that theme is so important especially in these retellings is that it makes them relevent today.  Trying to interest a publisher in a Frankenstein retelling is probably going to earn you a yawn.  “Oh, another one.”  The trick is to bring in a theme that makes it current.

The beauty is that is not only current, it makes graphic novels useful for classroom discussion.  Where a discussion on police shootings may quickly get emotional when discussing it as a current event, discussing it as literature gives young readers a bit of distance. It is less personal. They are discussing a book vs discussing what is going on in their own neighborhoods and country.

This was an “aha moment” for me but it shouldn’t have been. When I was a newish writer, I remember hearing people talk about why so many picture books features animal characters.  We’re talking fiction stories where the animal characters stand-in for real children.  What we were told, and it still makes sense, is that by making the characters talking bears or whatever, you give young readers just a bit of distance.  A story that might be too scary becomes much less so when the characters are a bit less realistic.

Now I find myself thinking about classic stories.  How could you reboot Dorian Gray or the Hunchback?  What themes would help make these stories current and relatable for today’s young readers?


August 30, 2018

Theme: Tying It All Together

Today I read two really good posts on theme.  The first, written by Becca Puglisi, reviewed a session on theme that she attended at a conference.  In her post, Puglisi discusses the difference between the theme statement and the theme topic.  Using the play Hamilton as an example, the theme statement was “You have no control over who lives, who dies and who tells your story.”  The theme topic is much broader and expressed by fewer words.  Again, for Hamilton, it would be legacy.

Puglisi goes on to explain that every character relates to this theme in some way but not in the same way.  This is what creates the tension between characters and the tension in the plot although plot events may include wars, death, and more.  The factor that ties it all together is legacy.

The second post, by Sacha Black, is all about using theme as a golden thread that ties everything in the story together.  Her examples come from Hunger Games. Although she uses different terms, I’m going to use Puglisi’s terms to simplify things here.  The theme statement is “sacrificing yourself can lead to a greater good.”  The theme topic is sacrifice.

Again, she discusses positioning the protagonist and antagonist on opposite sides of this theme.  Katniss sees the good that can be done by making personal sacrifices.  President Snow only sees the good that can be done by sacrificing others.  Instant tension.

This has me thinking about a book I just read – The Bookshop at Water’s End by Patty Callahan Henry.  Very few books generate the discussion that this did at book club and a big part of that was the theme.  Everyone is doing the best that they can at the time.  I’ve yet to come up with a single word to summarize this – persevere?  There was no protagonist vs antagonist play here largely because when someone had a problem it was more likely to be internal and self-created than with someone else.

Every character was fighting a different battle or, if they faced the same issues, dealt with them in very different ways.  And the readers?  We all have very strong opinions about this book.  And, interestingly enough, I don’t think there was a single point at which we all agreed.

I’m not sure if this is something you can bring out from the start or if it is something that you have to bring the forefront as you rework a piece.  Me?  I’m hoping its the latter as I near 6000 words on my novel.



August 15, 2018

Pitching Your Idea

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:26 am
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What is it that makes a pitch work?  Is it theme?  Or maybe you should show how action-packed your idea is?  I might have said either of those things a week ago before I saw this meme.

Note: I’ve blurred out the name of the movie.  If you’ve seen this meme and know the movie – patience, please.  But think about it.  Would you say that these themes work for preschoolers?  Given this pitch, I’d have to say no.  No way.  I don’t think so.

But then I saw what movie it was and I had to laugh.  This is Saving Nemo.  Really!  Reread the summary.

If Nemo had been pitched to Disney using that description, it never would have been made.  Nope.  Not that I have any clue how it was pitched, but I imagine that Nemo would have been front and center.  “It’s a story about a clown fish named Nemo who is taken from his father and has to find his way home.” Disney is, after all, focused on family.

And that’s a big part of making your pitch work.  Look at the publisher’s website.  What themes are present in book after book?  Are you looking at a publisher who is all about broadened perspectives or STEM? Then frame your pitch, where appropriate, in those terms.  If you can’t, maybe your piece isn’t right for them after all.

Your pitch is a sales tool and for it to work you have to know what the publisher or agency is buying.  Once you know that, you have an opportunity to make it work to your advantage.



July 26, 2018

Plot and subplots

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:30 am
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In my favorite books, plot and subplots mirror the same theme.

Now that I’ve started working on a novel, I’m finding myself paying close attention to plots and subplots in what I read.  My favorite form is when they all explore the same theme.  The main character has to find a way to accomplish a dishonorable task in an honorable way.  The main character has to get beyond the same she feels about her station in life (something she cannot control).  The main character has to learn to deal with Character X who treats her with honor – something that is, sadly, new to her.  The main character has to decide if she will dishonor another character who has dishonored her.  All of the strands are about honor.

Other books have a plot and subplots but while the same characters are involved, and the main character is always central, there is no common theme.  A murder has been committed and the main character has to catch the killer.  The main character has to reconcile her love of truth with her need to lie while undercover.  There may also be a romance subplot.

Some books feature a group of characters trying to solve a mystery with subplots that feature each individual character.  One may be trying to break away from dealing drugs.  Another is working to repair his relationship with his girlfriend.  One girl is coping with an eating disorder.

What version am I going to use?  I’m going for all of the plots and subplots mirroring the same theme. I’m exploring trust and honor.  But the book is a mystery so the strongest theme will be that crime doesn’t pay.  These are my hopes for the future.  The current draft?  If I can get my character through the mystery and the romance subplot I’ll be happy.


April 16, 2018

Theme: Telling a story to get your message across

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:52 am
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I love it when I’m sitting reading a stack of books from the library and I come across one that does something especially well.  Recently, I read Liz Wong’s Quackers.  It is all about a cat who loves life down at the pond with the other ducks.  Well, except for maybe the water.  And eating duck weed.  But other than that he loves being a duck.  Then along comes one of the barn cats who can’t believe that Quackers thinks he is a duck.  The other cat takes Quackers up to the barn.  Quackers loves life up at the barn.  He loves being a cat.  Except for having to lick himself clean.  But eventually he misses the ducks.  Soon he figures out that he can be both a duck and a cat.

Clearly this is a story about being different but still belonging.  But the really awesome part? Wong absolutely never says that.  Not one tine.  All Wong does is tell her story about Quackers the feline duck. It is brilliant.  Why?  Because she gets her message across without ever coming out and stating it.

Instead, she’s created a great character.  Quackers loves experiencing different things.  No matter where he is, he throws himself into life, enjoying the experience even when he doesn’t actually love every last thing about it.

She’s also created a great setting.  You have a pond full of ducks who are perfectly happy to accept and love Quackers.  And you have a barn full of cats who are also happy to let him take part in life cat-style.

Not once does she say:

  • Be who you are.
  • You can be different and still belong.
  • Your life can be filled with varied experiences.

All of those messages are in there but they would be preachy if Wong came out and said any of those things.  Instead she does what we all need to do – she tells a really great story.



June 23, 2017

Story First, Theme Second

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:28 am
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I’ve come across another example of a picture book that delivers a theme but does so without preaching.  If you are a picture book author, you need to read BunnyBear by Andrea J. Loney.

BunnyBear is a bear.  He can roar.  He can stomp.  He’s big and strong and furry.  But when he’s alone he likes to hop and eat strawberries. The other bears give him a hard time so he sets off to find someplace to be BunnyBear. When he sees a bunny, he follows it and scootches his way down into the warren.  It isn’t a flawless procedure and he is asked to leave by an older bunny.  But he is followed out by . . . she may look like a bunny but she is big and ferocious and has quite a roar.  She calls herself Grizzlybun.  Just to cement the lesson, BunnyBear has this to say to Grizzlybun. “You just look one way on the outside and feel another way on the inside. That’s okay.”

I don’t think you need banners and protests to know this is a book about gender fluidity but the cool thing?  It never says it.  Not once.

That makes it a great book for any kid who has ever felt like he or she did not fit in.  “What’s so great about that?” you ask.

That makes the book more marketable which, in the end, makes the book easier to sell.  If an editor or publisher doesn’t predict a strong enough interest level or see the possibility for a large enough market share, they are going to pass on your manuscript.  No matter how well written it is.

Something else that works in this books favor is the humor.  This may be a book about inclusion and being true to yourself, both serious topics, but it is also funny.  The images of BunnyBear squeezing through the runs into the warren are a hoot!  And then you have Grizzlybun looking oh so fierce as she stomps around BunnyBear.

This book puts the story before the theme of inclusion and does so in such a way that it becomes much more salable.  It is definitely a title we all need to study.


June 19, 2017

Plot and Subplot: Using One to Strengthen the Other

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:28 am
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Okay, this entire post is going to be littered with plot spoilers so if you haven’t read David Baldacci’s The Fix you may just want to come back later.  Although I normally listen to his work on audiobook, I took the opportunity to read this one and found a novel that uses the subplot to strengthen various points in the plot.

Let the plot spoilers begin!   You were warned.  No, seriously.  I did warn you.

Amos Decker is walking up toward the entrance to FBI headquarters when he sees a man shoot a woman in the back of the head.  Before Decker can reach the man, he shoots himself committing suicide.  From this point to the end of the book Decker and his cohorts are trying to figure out what happened.  Why did this FBI contractor kill a woman he seemingly had no connection to?  Why do it outside FBI headquarters?  Could this man have been a spy, unbeknownst to his wife and daughters?

As they gather information they come up with more and more questions.  Eventually the realize that a family member was in trouble and this gave the bad guys the leverage they needed to turn the contractor into a killer.

But the FBI makes some mistakes as they gather the information.  They make assumptions concerning the roles of men vs the roles of women.  Because of these mistakes, not everything makes sense and it takes them time to fill in the blanks.  But the mistakes that they make in the subplot (how did the bad guys get him involved) are mirrored by the mistakes that they make in the main plot (was there a connection between the murderer and his victim.

Because the same mistakes are made at both levels, it strengthens the themes and the plot points surrounding the assumptions we as a society make regarding gender roles.

Everything is layered and nuanced if you can use your plot and subplot to mirror plot points, errors, and themes.  Try it and see if your story doesn’t feel tighter and more cohesive.



March 7, 2017

Theme: The Opposite of Preaching

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:08 am
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Throughout March, I am taking part in ReFoReMo or Read for Research Month.  In this picture book writing challenge, you read a wide variety of books and then read blog posts by  various authors on how to use the mentor texts to improve your work.

One of the books for last week was Jacob Grant’s Cat Knit.  Personally, as a knitter, I was immediately hooked.  That said, I do suspect that Grant has been the recipient of an unwanted sweater or three.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, it tells the story of Cat and his friendship with Girl.  One day, Girl brings home a colorful new friend, Yarn. Cat quickly bonds with Yarn and their friendship grows.  But then the unthinkable happens.  Yarn becomes a snug, itchy sweater.  Cat abandons his friend outside and only then notices just how awfully cold it is.  Fortunately, Cat and Yarn are reunited although one suspects that there might be more knitting to come.

On the surface, it all looks pretty simple.  You have a story about a cat, a girl and yarn.  It is a book about knitting.  And that’s true enough but if you go a bit deeper and you’ll find the theme.

Cat Knit is also a book about friendship  and change.  One friend changes and the other friend is initially resistant and just can’t deal with it.  Fortunately, before it is too late, Cat realizes that “Warming up to something new takes time.”

Except for that last bit in parenthesis, Grant doesn’t say it.  He implies it.  He writes about it.  He hides it in a story about a cat, a girl and yarn.  Because he makes this part of the lesson covert, it is one of the themes of the book and teaches without preaching.

Don’t preach.  We hear that bit of advice all the time.  Fortunately we have Cat Knit and Jacob Grant to show us how to do it right.


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