by Chana Stiefel

Hello Storystormers! By now, you are either sloshing through puddles of ideas, or maybe you’re stuck in the mud. That’s ok! Here’s a method to jumpstart your story idea machine…

Recently, I came across an article by Fancy Nancy author Jane O’Connor announcing that she is hanging up her boa. O’Connor’s idea for her blockbuster series came from her habit of dressing up when she was a kid and urging her mom to be fancy, too.

I love that O’Connor’s spark came not only from exploring her inner child but from her ACTUAL childhood. So here’s your new assignment: Take a walk down memory lane and dig deep into your childhood. (You may have blocked it, but you had one!)

What stories pop into your head? What made your childhood unique? Think about your relationships with parents, siblings, teachers, friends, camp counselors, baby sitters, coaches, neighbors, pets….you get the idea! What conflicts or challenges did you face? Did you resolve them? If so, how? What were your talents, hobbies, dreams, likes and dislikes?

Now here’s the TWIST. Unless you are uber-famous, most kids (or editors) may not want to read your autobiography. So take your idea and give it a twist. Exaggerate, add humor, turn yourself into an animal or robot, take your idea and go bigger!

O’Connor didn’t copy her own childhood; she took it to another level and created a character that uses French terms and flowery language to express her “fancy” nature. Voila!

When I started writing my upcoming picture book, MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH!, a Storystorm (then PiBoIdMo) 2014 idea that will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on August 27 (woohoo!), my first drafts were about a girl named Chana (ahem) who wanted to change her unpronounceable name. In those older versions, Chana’s grandmother explained that Chana got her name from her namesake, her resilient great grandmother. My critique partners thought my story was okay but Chana needed to solve her own problem. I was stuck in the muck for a long time. Then I read a blog post by my agent John Cusick suggesting that I drop my character into a new setting. That’s how my cave girl Wakawakaloch was born.

Soon a whole new world opened up and my manuscript took off. (Check out my full “success story” on Tara’s blog.) Basically, I started with my own childhood struggle of dealing with a hard-to-pronounce name, gave it a neolithic twist, and ended up with cave girl with a funny and relatable problem. The takeaway: It’s those real, relatable childhood experiences that touch the hearts of kids.

I asked some writer friends if their own childhoods sparked book ideas. OF COURSE they did! Here are some more examples for inspiration:

  • Army brat journeys

Gretchen McLellan wrote, “Many of my books, published and soon-to-be, are based on my nomadic army-brat childhood. MRS. McBEE LEAVES ROOM 3 (Peachtree, 2017) is grounded in my extensive experience with the bittersweet of saying goodbye. BUTTON AND BUNDLE (Knopf 2/19/19) is based on leaving my first best friend and the world of play we created. My experience of having a father at war is deeply woven into WHEN YOUR DADDY’S A SOLDIER (Beach Lane, 2020).”

  • Family traditions

Patricia Toht said, “I mined our family’s holiday traditions for PICK A PUMPKIN (Candlewick, July 9, 2019) and PICK A PINE TREE (Candlewick 2017).”

  • Childhood fears

Gaia Cornwall added, “Being scared of jumping off the diving board, while wanting to sooo badly, is a very clear memory from childhood.” Results: The beautiful JABARI JUMPS (Candlewick, 2017).

  • Family photos

Ariel Bernstein shared this gem: “I saw an old photo of me on a camping trip with my family–in a canoe with my mom and sister where they were smiling and I was scowling. I thought it was funny and came up with the idea for my upcoming PB, WE LOVE FISHING, which is about four woodland friends who go fishing–three love fishing, one (the squirrel, based on me), does not. (S & S, Paula Wiseman, 2020).” See how Ariel drew from her childhood and added a twist?

  • Size matters

From Gina Perry: “I wrote SMALL (Little Bee, 2017) because I was always the smallest kid in my class, all the way through middle school. I never forgot how it felt and wanted to show ways that kids could feel big regardless of size.” True that!

  • Collectibles

Michelle Schaub shared: “Two of the poems In my upcoming PB poetry collection, FINDING TREASURE (about things people collect), coming from Charlesbridge in September 2019, are based off of childhood memories of my grandma collecting teapots and my grandpa collecting license plates.”

So get out of the muck and give it a try: Tap into your unique childhood. Add a twist. Create fresh new stories for years to come!

Check out Jane O’Connor’s article here:
“Au Revoir, Nancy! A Children’s Book Author Kisses Her Character Goodbye”

Chana Stiefel grew up in South Florida, fishing for tadpoles and going on swamp tromps in the Everglades. Her childhood love of creepy critters was her inspiration for writing ANIMAL ZOMBIES!…& OTHER REAL-LIFE MONSTERS (NatGeoKids, 2019). Growing up with a hard-to-pronounce name gave Chana the spark to write MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH! (illus. by Mary Sullivan; HMH, 8-27-19) about a cave girl who wants to change her unpronounceable name. Chana is also the author of DADDY DEPOT (Feiwel & Friends, 2017) and the upcoming LET LIBERTY RISE (Scholastic, 2021). She is represented by John M. Cusick at Folio Literary. Follow @chanastiefel on FB, Twitter, and Instagram and visit her at

Chana is giving away a signed copy of MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH! after its release in August. (U.S. only, please!)

Simply leave ONE COMMENT below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!