This month has been a brilliant crash course in Picture Book Ideas 101. Here it is day 27 and by now you have a myriad of ideas (or one) that you’re excited about. What’s next? How do you begin to flesh out these ideas and keep your enthusiasm up?

Taking classes and doing things like PiBoIdMo rearranges how I think about what I’m doing. A number of years ago, wanting to learn more about collage, I took a class. Adding collage to my art was fun, with the right amount of devil-may-care messiness. It felt like playing—pushing bits of torn paper, letting interesting juxtapositions happen. As the class was winding down, the students wondered how could we bring this same sense of ease back into our studio work. Being in the studio felt like I was supposed to accomplish something. Could something this easy count as “work”? Our teacher said to us, “If you’re in your studio, you’re working.” Whoa! Even when you’re sitting around drinking tea and looking at picture books? Yep. What a great concept! But was it true?

Soon after taking that class, my editor agreed on a picture book idea I had proposed to write and illustrate. My foray as an author was to rewrite Little Red Riding Hood, a story with a ready-made plot. I named my main character Carmine, after the purpley-red color.

The day came when (with a contract signed and dated), I had to begin. I sat at my desk and wrote: “Once upon a time a girl named Carmine…” Hmmm. What was Carmine going do? Who were the other characters? How would she get to Granny’s? I was stumped. A few more forgettable sentences followed. That was enough writing for one day.

Was I working? I was in my studio, so, yes. As I was doing it, it was impossible to know if each exercise would be useful, but it didn’t matter.

After playing, there was more to write about.

Months later, still moving at a glacial pace on Carmine, I made a list of 100 random words that I like: nincompoop, reckon and zillion and attempted to write the story using all 100 words–just as an exercise. It didn’t work at all, but I noticed I had the entire alphabet within that list. I plucked out those words and wrote the story as an alphabet book, (or an abecedarian–a subject told in alphabetical order).

Voila!, CARMINE: A LITTLE MORE RED came to life.

Later, when I was writing Balloons Over Broadway, I made toys and puppets to get to know Tony Sarg better.

More recently I gathered snippets of fabric to inspire the color palette of my next book making a Pinterest-esque wall, but in real time.

Pinned to that wall is this quote that gives me permission to do whatever I need to do when I begin to write or make art:

“I believe that the so-called ‘writing block’ is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance … one should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing.

It’s easy to write. You just shouldn’t have standards that inhibit you from writing …I can imagine a person beginning to feel he’s not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for him. But to me that’s surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I’m meeting right now … You should be more willing to forgive yourself. It doesn’t make any difference if you are good or bad today. The assessment of the product is something that happens after you’ve done it.”

—William Stafford, writer

What’s next for me is printing out the piboidmo posts and putting them in a notebook. I want to revisit them at my leisure far away from the black hole of my computer.

Then I’m headed to the studio where I’ll take my mom’s advice, as she told us a zillion times:

“Now, you kids go out and play!”


Melissa Sweet has illustrated many award-winning books. She wrote and illustrated CARMINE: A LITTLE MORE RED, a New York Times Best Illustrated, TUPELO RIDES THE RAILS and BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY which garnered the 2012 Sibert Medal. She illustrated A RIVER OF WORDS: The Story of William Carlos Williams, by Jen Bryant, a 2009 Caldecott Honor book. Jen and Melissa’s next book, A SPLASH OF RED: The Life and Art of Horace Pippen will be out January, 2013.

She collages up a storm in Rockport, Maine. See more at


Melissa is generously giving away a SWEET prize pack! You are eligible if you comment here *and* complete the 30-ideas-in-30-days challenge by taking the PiBo-Pledge in early December. You can win a signed copy of BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY, CARMINE: A LITTLE MORE RED, A Splash Of Red coloring pencils, plus whatever SWAG she can find. Remember, one comment per person. And good luck!