michaelgarlandby Michael Garland

Thank you Tara, for inviting me to participate in PiBoldMo.

Picture book ideas…I never seem to have a problem coming up with ideas for picture books. The problem is finding a home for even some of them, in an ever-contracting marketplace. I don’t really expect to find a place for everything I write. I have folders upon folders stuffed with picture book concepts in varying forms of completion, from a title only, to a brief outline, to complete texts, to fully sketched out dummies.

When it comes to developing a concept, I always go with my heart instead of my head. By that I mean, I rarely try and calculate what the marketplace is looking for at the moment, I just begin by developing a concept for a book that I would love to illustrate and love to read if I were a child.


My mind is flooded with ideas for stories. However, I know not all of them are worthy of further consideration. Real creativity comes from keeping an open mind. Perhaps I should, but I never say “Oh no, they won’t like that.” After the first spark of inspiration, I write down in a brief outline of my new story concept. Sometimes, that’s as far as that idea ever gets. Other times the story just flows out in a rough first draft, beginning, middle and end in thirty-two pages. More often than not, the first concept is like a seed that gets planted and slowly grows. I use this metaphor in my school author visits and lectures to aspiring professionals when I’m asked, ”Where do get your ideas?”

Disappointment is part of the publishing game. I’m fortunate to have written thirty published picture books, but for every one that makes it to the bookstore, there are more than a few others imprisoned in those reject folders forever. I try and analyze my rejection letters for clues to my proposal’s shortcomings. I listen carefully to the advice, but in the end I still believe most of them would have made good books. I never take one editor’s rejection as the final word. A number of my books were published after being previously rejected. Editors and publishers are guided by their own experience. If they were all-knowing, every one of their books would be a best seller. In today’s world of publishing, a committee made up of the publisher, sales people, editors, art directors and even interns manages the proposal acceptance process. This “don’t rock the boat” climate makes an offbeat, more creative concept, harder to sell; it’s easier to publish sequels than a new idea. Yes, I’m guilty as charged.

Back to where my ideas come from. They come from anywhere and everywhere. I try not to have a severe critical filter initially, but a good idea will reoccur to me until I feel compelled to write it down.

I have two new picture books coming out next year: TUGBOAT from Holiday House and WHERE’S MY HOMEWORK? from Scholastic. The idea for TUGBOAT struck me like a thunderbolt while I was driving north along Manhattan’s FDR drive. It was late in the afternoon and a tugboat was chugging south. I felt like I could reach out of the car touch the bright red vessel as it sailed south, bathed in the warm glow of the setting sun. I realized how much I had loved tugboats since the days of my childhood growing up in Manhattan and Staten Island. The story became a reality-based book about all the different jobs a tugboat can do around New York Harbor. It should fit the “Core Curriculum”, but best of all, the pictures are illustrations that I loved creating.


tugboat endpapers

The other new book came about in a different way. Two years ago I was invited by two local colleges (Marist and Mount Saint Mary) to teach graphic design. I enjoy teaching, but not every student is as dedicated as I was in art school. I give pretty easy homework assignments, but there are always a number of students who contrive inventive reasons why they were unable to complete their given tasks. I started mentally filing their lame excuses in the “The Dog Ate My Homework” draw. The title continued to rattle around in my head until I came up with a story where the dog really does eat a little boy’s homework. The pressure builds because he has to leave for school. He begins to speculate in a series of outlandish fantasies about what really happened to his homework. He never suspects the dog that is present in every illustration, until the very end, when he discovers his beloved pet gobbling up the last bit of his homework. There’s more to the story, but when I had a coherent beginning, middle and end plot in a sketch dummy, I sent it off to my editor at Scholastic. He loved it, but suggested we think of a new title “The Dog Ate My Homework” gives away the surprise ending. He was right, of course, so I came up with “Where’s My Homework?”


A bizarre postscript to this story: my students are supposed to archive their assignments on flash-drives. At the mid-term, one student handed me a dysfunctional flash drive covered in dog teeth marks, explaining that her work on the drive was lost, because the dog ate her homework (I’m paraphrasing).

After so many picture books, a new challenge has inspired me. I am currently writing my first YA novel. I’m about three quarters done and happily enjoying the process.

Open your mind to inspiration and it will come.


Award-winning author and illustrator Michael Garland has been out on the New York Times Best Seller list four times.

Michael Garland’s greatest success has been for writing and illustrating children’s picture books. Garland’s Miss Smith’s Incredible Storybook recently won the California and Delaware State Reading Awards. He is currently working on his thirtieth book as author and illustrator.

Michael Garland has illustrated for celebrity authors like James Patterson and Gloria Estefan. His illustrations for Patterson’s SantaKid were the inspiration for Sak’s Fifth’s Avenue’s Christmas holiday window display in New York City. Garland’s Christmas Magic has become a season classic and is currently being developed for a for a TV special.

His work has won many honors and is frequently included in the Society of Illustrators and the Original Art of Children’s book show as well annuals from Print, Graphis and Communications Arts magazines. Recently, Michael Garland was included on the list of the top one hundred Irish Americans by Irish American Magazine.

Michael Garland is frequently asked to speak at schools, literary conferences and festivals across the country.

Visit him at GarlandPictureBooks.com.


misssmithMichael is generously giving away signed copies of his MISS SMITH books.

These prizes will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for these prizes if:

  1. You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  2. You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  3. You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)

Good luck, everyone!