by Abi Cushman

I’m always envious of other people’s sketchbooks. You know the ones I mean. The pages are brimming with beautiful figure drawings, gorgeous color studies, and without fail—cool-person handwriting. There’s always cool-person handwriting.

And then there’s my sketchbook:

I never did have cool-person handwriting. BUT—as much as those beautiful sketchbooks have value and have a place, so too do ugly sketchbooks. And that’s what I want to encourage you to try, whether you consider yourself an artist or not.

The beauty of ugly sketchbooks (see what I did there) is that they are just for you. To capture all your ideas or even just inklings of ideas in whatever form is easiest and quickest to mark down—a roughly-scribbled facial expression, a scene with stick people, a weird rhyme about a hippo’s butt. Get them all down on paper, however silly or embarrassing or unfunny or clichéd they are.

Once you do that, you will have a collection of truly terrible drawings and bad ideas all safely tucked away in one place, ready to be accidentally discovered by someone really good-looking that you were trying to impress. But you will also have a treasure trove of great stuff peppered in there that you can pick through and develop into future storylines, iconic scenes, or memorable characters.

In fact, this is how I developed the story that would become my debut picture book, SOAKED!, which will be published by Viking Children’s Books in July 2020.

Here’s a line I wrote in my sketchbook in the summer of 2017:

Getting caught in rain—first drops not nice but reach pt when so soaked it’s not bad—liberating—now can actually enjoy it.

And that remains the major theme in my book.

Above that, on the same page, I wrote:

Time when Pete accidentally weedwhacked tomato plant [I’d] lovingly grown from seed for months.

So… not all the ideas were winners that day. And unfortunately for Pete, the incident is now recorded in my sketchbook, keeping my memory of it alive and well.

But the rain idea did resonate with me, and soggy bear drawings started showing up regularly in my sketchbook.

I experimented with facial expressions and props.

I started capturing different scenes in the story. But I didn’t have to come up with a beginning, middle and end in order, or even all at once. I could fit them all together eventually.  My ugly sketchbook allowed me not only to think visually, but also in a non-linear way.

I continued adding snippets of text and little drawings as they came to me, until one day, the voice of the story popped into my head. That was the missing key. I brain-dumped all my thoughts onto a page that evening and set the story in motion.

I was able to do this because I wasn’t being held back by the need to draw something pretty or the fear of writing something stupid. In this space, I felt safe to try a kind of humor that might be considered weird. And being vulnerable allowed me to push my story further and in more interesting ways.

Like including a dancing moose in a dark cave with glow sticks.

Just kidding. Of course that part didn’t make it into the book.

See? The moose has glow-in-the dark Hula-Hoops, not glow sticks.

So whether you are a professional illustrator, a bit of a dabbler, or a stick figure aficionado, go ahead and scribble down those ugly drawings and write in your ugliest handwriting. That way, you too can let loose and discover that inkling of an idea that might just lead to your next great story.

And if you don’t, I’ll sic this vengeful sketchbook chipmunk on you.

Abi Cushman is a children’s book author-illustrator. Her debut picture book, SOAKED!, comes out in July 2020 from Viking Children’s Books, with a second book, ANIMALS GO VROOM!, to follow in 2021.

Abi has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years, creating websites for libraries, towns, and local businesses. She runs two popular websites of her own: My House Rabbit, a pet rabbit care resource, and Animal Fact Guide, which was named a Great Website for Kids by the American Library Association.

In her spare time, Abi enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.) She lives on the Connecticut shoreline with her husband and two kids.

For exclusive sneak peeks, wombats, and giveaways, join Abi’s email list. You can also find her on Twitter at @AbiCushman, on Instagram at @Abi.Cushman, or at her website at

Abi is giving away a signed copy of SOAKED! after its release in July.

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