by Dev Petty

Ideas are funny things. They hang around. They nag. They sit silent and unused, waiting for their moment like that sassy, sequin sweater tank top I got (for a steal!) about eight years ago and look absolutely divine in, which has never, ever been worn. I think about wearing it. I even try it on for special occasions now and again. But I can’t pull the trigger…back into the closet it goes.

We all have a drawer of ideas, some that we’ve worn, at least a little, by writing them into stories which may not have worked out. Others are impossible to even try on, too bright, too weird, too…much. But once in a great while, you get up the nerve and the stars align and you put that sequin sweater on everyone compliments you about it and you feel like a million bucks and now it’s your favorite thing in the world.

So I’ve maybe taken this metaphor too far. So let me tell you about shopping in my own idea closet.

Back in high school, a pal of mine relayed something a pal of his had said (honestly, it was pretty inappropriate) and I thought it was really, deeply funny. It was really just ONE WORD said with spot-on timing. It crept into my general banter over the years. I never forgot it. Over these last years of writing picture books I tried no less than four times to wrap a whole story around just that line, it delighted me so. Nope. Nothing.

I put it aside. For years. But then I was working on my next book: DON’T EAT BEES (Life Lessons From Chip the Dog) which will be out from PRH in May, and I realized that it was the perfect setup for this line, this single word, which teases through the book and creates just the perfect ending (you’ll have to read it to find out what it is). The book nearly wrote itself after that and I couldn’t be more excited about it—Mike Boldt and I are back together again, this time with a dog (not a frog).

Sometimes a story idea is just a line. It’s not a title or a character. It’s not about friendship or bravery or anything specific. It’s a line, a word, a mechanism, a perfect pause in response to a visual gag. It’s a monster at the end of the book, a fish who most definitely didn’t take a hat that he totally, absolutely took, a seagull who was carrying a bucket of paint, though “no one knows why”. Forget plot-ty superhero movies, we’re talking Newhart, Buster Keaton, The Far Side, Jack Handey here. Small, might-be-insignificant-to-others-but-you-write-picture-books, idiosyncratic oddities which shine a light on the human experience.

Sometimes the biggest ideas aren’t elaborate, they’re simple—because those simple things can reflect bigger ideas about how we process the world, our inclinations, our conflicts. They cut down to the core that we all share and remove themselves from more specific experiences like family or school or doctor’s offices. Sometimes these little idea fragments can have whole stories wrapped around them, or become just twists, endings, or story structures. My most successful stories have come from things just like this. Truth? This can take a little more time, or at least “different” time than a more traditional approach. You may not know who your character is, or what their problem is, or any of the usual stuff. But I’m a big believer that boundaries and edges create the best work, and if you DO have a concept you’re trying to work in, you let that lead and you follow.

Now, how do you find these odd little conceptual thingamiggies? Surely, the best ones will come from your own life. They will come from your own vernacular, stories told over dinner about funny happenings, misunderstandings, mistakes. They come from your childhood, your family and your friends. They come from television shows and films, I’m a particular fan of lines from songs and I might be able to retire on my former coworkers’ quirks alone! When you stop looking for whole stories and just start seeing the world as concepts and twists, surprise endings, odd moments, you can turn those things into rich, layered stories with wide appeal because they aren’t so specific to one person or their experience. Even if you have NO idea what to do with one of these little fellas, just write em down. They may even nag you until you try them on.

So go dig around in your life-drawer. You may find your sequin sweater in a forgotten, half-written manuscript, or a childhood story your kids have heard you tell so many times they can tell it themselves. Try it on and look in the mirror. It might just turn into one hell of an outfit!

Dev Petty writes books for kids. Hopefully ones which make you laugh a lot and think a little. She lives in Berkeley with her husband, daughters, two dogs, one mean cat, and a snake named Boots. You can read Dev’s work in two upcoming books this spring, DON’T EAT BEES, Life Lessons From Chip the Dog, illustrated by Mike Boldt (PRH) and HOW OLD IS MR. TORTOISE?, illustrated by Ruth Chan (Abrams). Visit her at and follow on Twitter @devpetty and Instagram @devpetty.

Dev is giving away a half-hour zoom to talk about PBs, plus 3 copies of her new book DON’T EAT BEES (when released).

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.