by Ellen Tarlow

Storystorm 2021 is coming to end.  We have been prompted to look in all directions for story inspiration.

illustration by Lauren Stringer

Today I want to focus on looking inside (a little like Bear from my new book, LOOKING FOR SMILE, is doing in panel three) and also looking back in time. Specifically I wanted to look back at our own childhood selves. And more specifically at a moment when we needed a “story” to help us.

LOOKING FOR SMILE, illustrated by Lauren Stringer (Beach Lane Books, 2020), tells the story of Bear and Smile who are always together—they wake up together, they splash in waterfalls together, they eat honey together, they look at the stars together. Then one morning Smile doesn’t come. And without his Smile, Bear feels alone for the first time.

The roots of the story go back to a day when I was five years old and just like Bear, I woke up and found my smile gone. And while the particulars are (obviously) very different, the feeling of confusion about being in a world that looked and felt different than it ever did before is very much the same.  Lauren Stringer, the illustrator of Looking for Smile, captured it perfectly. That day my relationship to the world went from this:

illustration by Lauren Stringer

To this:

illustration by Lauren Stringer

LOOKING FOR SMILE is a story I have been trying to write for many years.  And while I had no idea that it was going to be about Bear and Smile (who would be personified) or any other details, I knew that in some way it would come into existence. The fact that it comes from such a deeply rooted experience, I think helped me to keep on trying.  So today, I wanted to offer a prompt to help you reach this source of inspiration, which, like Smile, can be elusive.

Writing a Letter to Little You

Several years ago, I was a student at Vermont College. One of the most memorable experiences in my time there was a lecture by Marion Dane Bauer on how we as writers could mine and transform our deepest and most vulnerable childhood memories into books for children. At the beginning of the lecture, she gave us a writing prompt.

“Pick a time when you were young and felt like you needed help or guidance.
It could be any time in your childhood or even teenage years.
Write a letter to the child you were at that point.
Say what you wish someone had said to you
at the time to help you feel or understand better.”

Don’t worry about how old you are in this memory or think about making it into a picture book. Just capture yourself at this vulnerable point in your life and help yourself feel better using the perspective you have gained as an adult.

There were about 75 grown-ups in the room at Vermont College that day. Within minutes you could hear sniffs as each scribbled away. Soon almost everyone was crying. It was very memorable!

[Note: There is an interesting “party trick” aspect to this prompt so don’t read the following until you have written your letter.]

Spoiler Alert

Marion brought the sobbing group together. Rather than asking us to share our letters, she asked us what ages the younger selves in our letters were.  She ran through the years, starting with 2 years old and ending at 18 and we all raised our hands when she said the age.  I think almost to a person, each of us had written a letter to ourselves at the exact age that we as writers for children and young adults were “typically” writing for.  (I wrote to my three-year old self which is definitely my sweet spot.]

End Spoiler Alert

There are of course many ways to access your earlier self.  Another favorite is to get your hands on a book you loved as a child that you haven’t seen ideally for a (a very) long time.  Sometimes even seeing a single picture will bring back that feeling of wonder or connection or point you to something you want to share in your own way with your future readers.

I hope you enjoy your trip inwards and backwards and that ideas will begin to percolate, knowing that someday you will find “the” way (much as Bear finds Smile) to transform it into a special story for a child like the one you were.

illustration by Lauren Stringer

Ellen Tarlow writes stories for very young children. Her published children’s books include PINWHEEL DAYS, MOLE CATCHES THE SKY, and most recently, LOOKING FOR SMILE, illustrated by Lauren Stringer and published by Beach Lane Books. It was recently named one of Kirkus’s Best Books of 2020. For many years, she worked as an editor of early childhood classroom materials. In that job, she got to write hundreds of stories for young children. Now that she is working less, she is excited to focus on her own stories. After spending her entire adult life in New York City, she just moved to the Hudson Valley with her husband David, a painter. She has three new picture books and an early reader series coming out with Beach Lane Books over the next few years. You can learn more about her at and follow her on Twitter @TarlowEllen.


Ellen is giving away a signed copy of LOOKING FOR SMILE.

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