by Evelyn Bookless

Thank you, Tara, for hosting the cover reveal for CAPTAIN GREEN AND THE TREE MACHINE!


Captain Green is back and this time he’s creating a gadget to help save the planet. As he fine-tunes his invention, disaster strikes. Hornbill’s tree has been chopped down and there’s tree trouble for Elephant and Orangutan, too. Captain Green scrambles to finish his invention—a TREE MACHINE—and speeds to the rescue! ZAP! ZOOP! ZINK! Trees pop up all around until…BANG! Oh no! How will Captain Green save the animals now?

This is the second story in a series, following on from Captain Green’s adventures in CAPTAIN GREEN AND THE PLASTIC SCENE. Both books are illustrated by the phenomenal Danny Deeptown and published by Marshall Cavendish.

CAPTAIN GREEN AND THE TREE MACHINE releases on Earth Day 2021 (April 22nd), but the cover is here today!

Evelyn and Danny asked one another tree—I mean three—questions about creating the book.

Evelyn: As you know Danny, I adore the cover for CAPTAIN GREEN AND THE TREE MACHINE. What were your main goals when creating it?

I wanted it to look fun and vibrant whilst revealing a side to the terrible truth about deforestation. Not easy combining the two, but I feel the uplifting expression of Captain Green is reassuring and will encourage children to look beyond the cover. It was also important to keep certain elements of the first cover as this book is the second in the series, e.g. with the title, background beams and a similar composition overall.

Danny: What surprised you with the end result?

I am always blown away by your work and am usually left in a bit of an emotional state upon seeing it for the first time, but once I mopped up my happy tears, I surprised at how well you told the essence of the story in only one image. We don’t see the tree machine on the cover, it’s left as a surprise for the reader because Captain Green still has to finish inventing it. We do see Captain Green working his little socks (and boots) off saving a desperate Orangutan, and the loggers leaving a path of destruction. I am delighted that the cover has tons of kid appeal, despite it portraying a very real scenario in our world today (sadly minus the superhero part!).

Evelyn: Did you sketch out different possibilities for the cover or had you a clear idea in your mind from the start?

I had the idea from the start, but it took a few sketches until I was happy. For me it was vital the Orangutan featured on the cover, as it’s sadly the one animal people most relate with deforestation.

Danny: What was your favorite part of the writing process for this story?

I enjoyed playing with superhero vocabulary and sounds to make Captain Green’s world come to life for readers and make the read-aloud experience as fun as possible. Even though this story is based on the real issue of deforestation, the story of Captain Green’s efforts to create a gadget to assist in his earth protecting endeavors, was where I had most fun as a writer.

Evelyn: How did the illustrations for the first story affect the design for this book?

In regards to drawing Captain Green, it was easier as I had drawn him a thousand times before, therefore I didn’t have to worry about character design for this book. However, I wanted to improve him and the illustrations overall. There are a few illustrations that are purposely similar in layout to some in the first book. However, with a lot of spreads I had to be braver in terms of setting a scene of deforestation. To achieve this, I had to pan out so I could show as much deserted landscape as possible to get the message across. These are some of my favorite illustrations in the book.

Danny: What made you decide on deforestation as the theme for Captain Green’s second adventure?

In in my travels throughout South East Asia (where the story is set), I saw huge areas of land that had been stripped of ancient rainforest for timber and to make way for agriculture and expanding populations. We know that a loss of trees leads to a rise carbon dioxide levels, soil erosion as well as the destruction of forest habitat and the loss of biological diversity of both plants and animals. As with CAPTAIN GREEN AND THE PLASTIC SCENE, I wanted to shine a light on an important issue in a way that is fun and engaging for children. I added some back matter that includes ways for young superhumans to help.

Set EARTH DAY off with a bang by pre-ordering a copy of CAPTAIN GREEN AND THE TREE MACHINE online today or through your local independent book store.

Evelyn and Danny will give away one copy of CAPTAIN GREEN AND THE TREE MACHINE to a lucky commenter (to be sent your way when it releases in April 2021)!

Leave one comment below.

A random winner will be selected next month.

Good luck!

Evelyn Bookless grew up on a farm in the west of Ireland where she loved to make forts and play in the trees with her siblings. She is a nature lover, mum, teacher and writer. Evelyn spent ten wonderful years living in Asia but was saddened to see beautiful rainforests cut down during her travels around the region. She recently moved to the Netherlands, where she enjoys cycling her blue bike, Betty. Evelyn and Danny’s debut picture book, CAPTAIN GREEN AND THE PLASTIC SCENE, won a Northern Lights Book Award for Children’s Environmental Fiction. Visit her online at, on Instagram @evelynbookless and on Twitter @evelynbookless.

Being obsessed with wildlife from a young age, Danny Deeptown found his love of drawing through hours of copying scientific illustrations from books of animals and dinosaurs. His artistic talent later led him to study Illustration in South Wales, UK. It was here he found a love for classic book illustration and the use of pen and ink. Today, Danny creates art for children and adults alike. He has illustrated numerous books that mostly involve characterised animals. When not in his studio, Danny likes to spend his time adventuring and seeking out new places in nature that are relatively remote. He is happiest in a secret place surrounded by trees with passing water. Visit Danny online at, on Instagram @dannydeeptown and on Twitter @dannydeeptown.


“The way I see it…Charlie would answer and Jack would  listen.”

~ THIS WAY, CHARLIE by Caron Levis, with art by Charles Santoso

Guest post by Caron Levis

I have always been an eavesdropper and collector of things kids say and do. I’ve had a lot of opportunity to gather kid language through both my personal and professional life. I fill notebooks and index cards with verbatim quotes and observations; I re-tell my favorite anecdotes and kid moments over and over to adults or other kids; I’ve kept every anthology of student writing I’ve worked on. In the apartment I lived in during one of my first education jobs, I had the hallway plastered with quotes and writing from the students I was working with. I literally surrounded myself with their words and now, their words help me write books!

Notebook of kids’ words

I have always loved listening to kids and also the challenge of talking with them about their Big Questions and Big Feelings, so this—plus ye ole reading of plenty of wonderful kid’s books—has been where I’ve developed my writing ear and voice.

  • LISTENING to kids has given me an internal sense of rhythm, vocabulary, phrase structures of many different children. As I draft, I’m reading aloud constantly to mostly imaginary (sometimes real-life) kids in order to feel how the words land.
  • TALKING with real kids has given me practice in finding words that will meet their curiosity honestly while also being mindful of their feelings. These experiences help me imagine potential reader questions and reactions so I can try (it is so hard!) to be accountable to them.
  • RECORDING things kids say and do has helped me remember ways kids have answered their own questions or made meaning out of challenging times. Most of my books have specific moments or quotes from children that guided the story in some way. Inspiration for STUCK THE BLOOZ came directly from a conversation with a kindergartener about being sad; IDA, ALWAYS got emotional direction from watching kids enact a funeral for a bug and a quote from a six year old who was grieving a close relative. THIS WAY, CHARLIE has many moments of kid inspiration that guided my writing choices.

THIS WAY, CHARLIE is about a horse named Charlie who is adjusting to going blind and a wary distrustful goat named Jack who meet at an animal sanctuary. After getting off to a bumpy start, the two navigate their own and each other’s challenges to become the best of buddies.

In one spread, Charlie urges Jack to hang out with some of the other animals but Jack is not ready. Overwhelmed by fear and frustration, Jack snaps something very mean to his beloved best friend.

This moment with Jack was guided by many moments I’ve seen with kids (and adults!). I wanted to reflect, validate, and honor that these moments happen and that kids have the ability to unpack them. I found a quote in my notebook from a kindergartener who had had a fight with his best buddy. Like Jack, the goat, this child didn’t usually verbalize his thoughts and feelings, but rather communicated primarily through behaviors. So, when we sat down to unpack the fight with him, I admit I fully expected to have to give him language for his behavior—but instead, he explained it clearly to us. I have already heard young readers explaining Jack’s behavior in a similar way.

“I think part of it was a misunderstanding…then I said things, just because I was so mad, that were mean. But, like, I didn’t really want to say them.”

~ a kindergartener, after a fight with a good frien (2004)

The animals in THIS WAY, CHARLIE come to depend on one another: Charlie depends on Jack for physical guidance to the field, and Jack relies on Charlie for emotional guidance as he begins to take chances on socializing. How do kids (or any of us) decide what makes someone dependable? Honestly, if you asked me in an interview to explain what being dependable means—I’d likely have some long garbled answer with a lot of ums in it. Luckily, my notebook has this gem in it from another kindergarten student who once told her class,

“Depending on someone means you really think they’ll help you.”

~ a kindergarten student

Now did I read these quotes in my book before I wrote THIS WAY, CHARLIE and consciously use them? Nope! But I had read through my blue-notebook a bazillion times and when I found these quotes after the book had gone to print, I recognized the influence. HOW I choose my words doesn’t come from my conscious Thinking brain so much as it comes from all I’ve absorbed from children over many years—and soooooo much nit-picking revision work.

Whenever I am stuck, or in need of inspiration, I turn to my collection of quotes for help—because I’ve learned I can always depend on the kids.

How have kids have inspired you?

Many thanks to Caron for guest blogging today…and for offering a copy of this lovely book.

Leave one comment below to enter the giveaway.

A THIS WAY, CHARLIE winner will be randomly selected in about two weeks.

Good luck!

Caron Levis (MFA; LMSW) is the author of the award winning children’s picture book, IDA, ALWAYS (Atheneum) illustrated by Charles Santosos, which the New York Times Book Review calls, “an example of children’s books at their best.” Caron’s other picture book titles include: THIS WAY, CHARLIE (Abrams 2020, STOP THAT YAWN! (Atheneum); MAY I HAVE A WORD? (FSG), and MAMA’S WORK SHOES (Abrams.) Her stories for teens and adults have been published in magazines and anthologies; plays have been selected for the Estrogenius Festival and the Samuel French OOB Festival’s Final Forty; the film adaptation of Attendant won Best Short in Sunscreen Film Festival West (2018) and selected for the Garden State Film Festival. Caron is a professor at NYU and The New School’s Creative Writing MFA program where she is the advisor for the Children/YA concentration. Visit her at

It’s exciting to see new picture book covers since I can’t view them in the bookstore or library. (I know we all miss that!)

So today it’s time for Milly to make her entrance. She’s a donkey with dreams of attending the prestigious unicorn school. But when she’s accepted, she must make it through without anyone realizing what she really is: a donkey in a party hat. (Ha!!!)

Jess, how did you get the idea for FIRST DAY OF UNICORN SCHOOL?

On one level, the idea for this book came from watching my kids fight over a cardboard tube. Each of them wanted to use it as a unicorn horn. My daughter grabbed the tube and told my son, “You’re not a unicorn! You’re just a horse!” Boom. Instant story.

On another level, this book came from conversations I’ve had with other grown-ups. It seems like no matter where we are in our lives or careers, most of us feel like we’re totally faking it and live in fear of the day someone notices we aren’t special, we aren’t unicorns—we’re just donkeys in party hats. It made me realize that everyone feels like that sometimes. Normalizing imposter syndrome makes it feel less scary when it happens, and I think that’s a message both kids and adults could benefit from.

Absolutely! Every writer has suffered from feeling like a poser. 

What hurdles, besides your own imposter syndrome, did you have to leap over while making this book?

This book almost didn’t happen! By December of 2018, I’d been working toward publication for six very long years and had racked up HUNDREDS of rejections from agents, writing contests, editors, mentoring contests, etc. If they were in publishing and could tell me no, they probably had. (In fact, my agent Rena Rossner rejected me twice on different projects before offering on UNICORN SCHOOL.) The night before a big Twitter pitch event, #PitMad, I decided enough was enough. It wasn’t going to happen for me. I scheduled some pitch tweets and if nobody liked them, I was done.

The next day, my pitch for UNICORN SCHOOL got over a dozen agent likes, more than 300 retweets, and a ton of comments offering encouragement. I didn’t get an agent from the experience, but it made me see that what I was doing had market appeal and was worth pursuing. The dream wasn’t dead yet!

It took another six months and joining an awesome critique group to get my “yes” from Rena, but even then, it was still touch and go with UNICORN SCHOOL. In the 18 months I spent querying the book, the market was flooded with unicorn stories. Every rejection we got from editors was some version of “nice, but we’ve already got one.” I was content to shelve it until unicorns stopped being the picture book version of YA vampire novels, but Rena was convinced it was different enough to sell. And thank heavens, she was right.

And here’s the cover! The book releases January 1, 2021 from Capstone:

The cover is total happy-making, with eager Milly and a bright palette. Can you tell us about the illustrations?

When I was a kid, I read a lot of the classic picture books—Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle, Leo Lionni, H. A. Rey—and while they were great, the artwork didn’t really blow me away.

Then, as a teenager, I came across RED RANGER CAME CALLING by Berkeley Breathed. And I fell in love. The art was dynamic, hilarious, and felt almost three dimensional. So when my editor at Capstone asked me if I had any kind of vision for the illustrations, I knew exactly what style I wanted. And wow, did Mariano Epelbaum deliver. His work is fresh, fun, and full of life. I can’t wait for you all to see the interior, too!

Ooh, can we get a sneak peek?

So cute! Love the family portraits.

Now let’s hear from Illustrator Mariano Epelbaum..,.

The cover is a bright and colorful invitation to a cute magical world where anything can happen.

Milly—the new student—wishes to be part of this ideal place, to be someone else.

Jess Hernandez invented a funny story full of messages about beauty, appearance, prejudice, and diversity—all human concepts but with imaginative wildlife characters where I feel so comfortable to show children that a better world is possible.

Thanks for stopping by, Jess and Mariano!

The creative duo behind Milly are giving away an ARC (F&G) of the book before it’s released! 

Just leave one comment below to enter.

A random winner will be selected in a couple weeks!

Good luck!

Mariano Epelbaum is an illustrator and character designer from Buenos Aires. He enjoys trying different styles of illustration, as he is inspired by each project he works on. Mariano worked as art director and character designer on the animated movie Underdogs. He has published books in the US, UK, Spain, Argentina, and Puerto Rico. When he´s not working, he likes playing with his two daughters, watching movies, and going for outdoor walks. Visit him online at, and follow him on Instagram @mariano.epelbaum!

Jess Hernandez has spent her grown-up life working with kids and books—as a teacher, a children’s librarian, a mother, and a picture book author. Her debut book, FIRST DAY OF UNICORN SCHOOL, illustrated by Mariano Epelbaum, comes out January 1, 2021 from Capstone. Jess lives in a very small, very LOUD house in Washington with her husband, their three children, a blind Labrador, and seven chickens. Find her on Twitter at @FinkHernandez, on Instagram @JessHernandezWrites, or at her website


Charlotte Offsay is celebrating her picture book debut with a cover reveal of THE BIG BEACH CLEANUP, illustrated by Katie Rewse, publishing in March 2021 with Albert Whitman. This book also happens to be a Storystorm Success Story!

THE BIG BEACH CLEANUP is about Cora, a young girl who joins hands with her local community to clean up plastic litter along the seashore and save the local sandcastle competition.

Congratulations on your debut picture book, Charlotte! Do you have a fun story about the making of the book you’d like to share?

THE BIG BEACH CLEANUP was the result of a few Storystorm ideas colliding. (As many of you reading this already know, for the month of January Tara Lazar runs Storystorm, where a number of kidlit creators help the writing community get their creative juices flowing and develop picture book ideas, which many of us then use to fuel our picture book writing for the rest of the year.)

During Storystorm I write down anything and everything that inspires me. My three-year-old son had just begun his superhero phase (which two years later is still going strong—maybe not a phase?) and I wanted him to clean up his toys before school. I attempted to motivate him by pretending we were superheroes who needed to clean up to save the world (whatever works right?!). Unfortunately, he saw right through my plot and responded with “I don’t feel like being a superhero today.” My first thought was “yea, I don’t feel much like a superhero today, either.” This thought stuck with me as I had to jog with the stroller uphill to get him and his five-year-old sister to pre-school on time. I added “I don’t feel like a superhero today” to my Storystorm list.

Later that month on one of our walks back from pre-school (which were always more leisurely that our walks to pre-school), as we paused to inspect whatever flower/leaf/bug my kids had spotted, I casually picked up a piece of trash and tossed it into a nearby garbage can. My kids immediately wanted to know what I was doing. Why was there trash outside? Who had put it there? Why was it important to throw it away? Their inquisitive nature lead to a series of environmental discussions, which resulted in their relentlessly pointing out garbage everywhere we went and “doing our part” eventually made its way onto my list.

Stay with me—this is the final puzzle piece, I promise. As part of my Storystorm process, I also look back to my lists from previous years for ideas that I still wanted to pursue. For a couple of years in a row I had written “how many hands.” This stemmed from my passionate belief that if we can convince enough hands to join together, we can change the world. I hadn’t found a path forward for this idea so I added it to my 2019 list.

These three Storystorm ideas…

  • not feeling like a superhero
  • doing our part to clean up after ourselves
  • and small hands joining together to change the world

…collided and I wrote what will be my debut picture book: THE BIG BEACH CLEANUP.

Tell us more about the story!

THE BIG BEACH CLEANUP is about Cora, a young girl who plans to be a sandcastle-building champion. When the contest is canceled due to litter at the beach, Cora’s plans come to a halt. Cora and her Mama pull on gloves and get to work, but soon Cora realizes it will take more than two pairs of hands to solve a big problem.

THE BIG BEACH CLEANUP introduces young readers to the impact of human trash on the environment. With practical solutions for tackling the plastic problem, this heartfelt story demonstrates that a person doesn’t have to be a superhero to make big change. By joining hands with those around them and doing their part, they can change the world.

A portion of the book’s proceeds will be donated to Heal the Bay.

How did you find your publisher?

THE BIG BEACH CLEANUP is being published by Albert Whitman. I was fortunate to connect with my editor, Christina Pulles, during an Inked Voices workshop. My agent, the wonderful Nicole Geiger at Full Circle Literary then submitted THE BIG BEACH CLEANUP to Christina when it went out on submission last summer.

Do you have any words of advice for aspiring PB authors?

The journey to publication is a rollercoaster—don’t get off the ride before you get your yes!

Charlotte is giving back to the PB community by offering a critique to one lucky blog commenter.

Leave a comment below to enter.

A random winner will be chosen next month.

Good luck!

When Charlotte Offsay isn’t busy building sandcastles with her husband and two small children, she can be found dreaming up and writing picture book manuscripts at home in Los Angeles, California. She passionately believes in the power of small hands joining together to make big change and wrote this book with the hopes of empowering young readers to follow in Cora’s footsteps. Her second picture book HOW TO RETURN A MONSTER is publishing in Fall 2021 with Beaming Books. Read more about Charlotte and her books at or follow her on Twitter @COffsay and Instagram @picturebookrecommendations. Her debut picture book THE BIG BEACH CLEANUP from Albert Whitman can be pre-ordered at BAM.


Author Chana Stiefel is here today to release the cover of her upcoming nonfiction book, illustrated by Chuck Groenink: LET LIBERTY RISE! HOW AMERICA’S SCHOOLCHILDREN HELPED SAVE THE STATUE OF LIBERTY. This book will be released on March 2, 2021 with Scholastic…

But first, Chana shares a few things she’s learned in the process of creating this nonfiction book:

1. Listen to your friends for book ideas!
A few years ago, when humans still ate meals together, I invited my author friends Sue Macy and Jackie Glasthal over to my house for Friday night dinner. Jackie mentioned that she had published a middle grade novel based on the true story of the building of the Statue of Liberty.* Many of us know that the French sent the statue to America as a symbol of friendship. But did you know that America didn’t want it? And New York’s richest millionaires refused to contribute $100,000 to build the pedestal! Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the World newspaper, was outraged. He insisted that the statue stand in New York harbor, the gateway to America. Pulitzer said he would print the name of every person who donated to the pedestal fund—no matter how small the sum or how small the person. Guess who donated their pennies to America’s first crowd-sourcing campaign? KIDS, of course! Right then and there, I knew this story had to become a picture book! Jackie gave me her blessing and offered to help.

2. Do the research!
Researching this book took years. Back when humans could take ferries and visit libraries, Jackie and I met at the Bob Hope Memorial Library on Ellis Island. We pored over archives and took pictures. I also time traveled in the map room of the New York Public Library, scrolling through microfilm of the World newspaper from the 1870s. I read through stacks of books and shared every exciting fact with my family. (You’re welcome, kids!)

3. Practice patience!
Even after you’ve received multiple critiques and edited your manuscript a bazillion times, publishing takes time—enough time to turn copper green. But waiting for a great book deal and the perfect illustrator is worth it! Illustrator Chuck Groenink captured 1870s America oh-so-beautifully, down to the adorable knickers on the newspaper boy. My editor at Scholastic Dianne Hess and I fact checked every single word. (Fab facts: How many stars were on the U.S. flag in 1876? In how many pieces was Liberty shipped to America? Answers below**!)

4. Take nothing for granted.
Publishing a book is an incredible gift and for that I will always be grateful. I hold my torch high for Dianne, Chuck, my family, my critique partners, the kidlit community (thank you Tara!), and my former agent John Cusick. Most of all, I am grateful to Jackie for giving me the gift of this story. Sadly, Jackie passed away three years ago. She stood for liberty, freedom, and friendship and this book is dedicated to her memory. On that bittersweet note, presenting the cover of LET LIBERTY RISE!

*Liberty on 23rd Street by Jacqueline Glasthal, illus. by Alan Reingold, Silver Moon Press, 2006.
**Answers: 38 stars; 350 pieces

Chana Stiefel is the author of more than 25 books for kids. In addition to LET LIBERTY RISE! (Scholastic, 3-2-21), Chana’s books include MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH, illustrated by Mary Sullivan (HMH), ANIMAL ZOMBIES…& OTHER REAL-LIFE MONSTERS (NatGeoKids), and DADDY DEPOT, illustrated by Andy Snair (Feiwel & Friends). She is represented by Miranda Paul at Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Learn more at Follow @ChanaStiefel on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Let’s face it, we’re all cranky right now. We’ve been sequestered at home for months without any clear end. Plus my regular bookstore “date with myself” to browse and discover new books has taken a serious hiatus.

I know we’re all in the same boat, so my pledge to you, dear blog reader, is to help kidlit writers feel less alone at sea by introducing you to fun new books.

Cristina Ergunay just released this adorable bedtime read…

Cristina, any author releasing a book in 2020 has every right to be cranky—it’s difficult to get the word out when everyone is hunkered down at home. But Cranky Crab, living under the shimmering sea, what’s his excuse? 

Like any small, strong-willed child, Cranky Crab has no interest in settling down for the night—and is testing the boundaries of bedtime. There are too many other things to do! But Crab needs a good night’s sleep and grows crankier with every page turn, almost to the brink of an underwater meltdown. Thankfully, Mama Crab knows just how to change the dynamic and calm her little crustacean.

Did you think about character before you wrote the story….like, why a crab?

Actually, I didn’t think about character in the original version, and that story didn’t sell.  Lovely turns of phrase, dreamy creatures, and sweet rhyming with well-metered stanzas are all part of the recipe, but without a strong character, creating tension by swimming against the proverbial tide, the rest of the bedtime story fell flat.

So revisions later, I picked one of my sea creatures to be that character, and crab felt like a very natural choice because kids can easily relate to feeling grumpy when you don’t want to do something—and yet, I wanted crab to find reassurance in the end, that no matter how cranky you feel, you’re still loved.

Ah, character is so important to the success of a picture book! Your crabby guy is just ducky! And I love the other cute creatures who make cameos.

If you hadn’t picked a crab, what other kind of animal would make a good bedtime grump?

I think maybe a Black Rain Frog would make a great bedtime grump!  I don’t know much about them, but the mug on this frog is outstanding!  Maybe there’s a story in there?


Cristina, what other creative ways have you tried to promote your new book?

It’s been challenging to get creative in the time of COVID, and maintaining some kind of an online presence—social media, connecting with local libraries for virtual storytimes—has been essential. I made a fun promotional door hanger for kids to use at bedtime—I love Heather Gross’s illustrations, her crab makes me laugh! I hope it helps other families to take the tension away from cranky bedtimes!

Do you have any special before-bed rituals that help you settle in for a good night’s sleep?

I like to turn on my strings of twinkle lights, get into my pajamas, and read Treasure Island or Paddington to my daughter until she falls asleep. Or until I fall asleep. Whichever comes first.

Reading before bed is also my favorite way to wind down. But sometimes I’m cranky and refuse to put the book down. That’s why picture books at night are a smart idea—they’re short and yours is definitely sweet!

Cristina is giving away a copy of BEDTIME FOR CRANKY CRAB plus a door hanger so your bedtimes will be sweet, too.

Leave one comment below to enter.

A random winner will be selected next month.

Good luck!


Three attempts to solve a problem—you’ve been told thirty trillion times this is the way to build a picture book plot. I even covered it in an earlier post.

It’s a tried-and-true method for telling a story. But does an editor reviewing all these similarly-structured submissions feel like she’s been there and read that? Well…….maybe.

There are other ways to frame picture books by using different story structures, as Tammi Sauer once pointed out during Storystorm.

But if those formats aren’t right for your story and you choose a more traditional arc, when is it OK to abandon the “three attempts”? When is it reasonable to break free from this rule?

First, we have to look at the why.

Why do we employ the “three attempts” structure? TO BUILD TENSION.

The main character tries to solve their problem and fails, repeatedly. This tension invests the reader in the protagonist’s struggle. It compels you to turn the page.

However, I wrote a manuscript recently where the protagonist doesn’t even realize she has a problem. The reader sees the problem, but the character is oblivious. It doesn’t make sense for her to attempt multiple solutions because she doesn’t see anything wrong in the first place!

Remember, three attempts builds tension. But that’s not the only way to achieve “what happens next?” excitement and anticipation.

In my manuscript, the humor comes from the reader knowing more than the main character (that’s a kind of “superiority humor”). The humor builds because the protagonist keeps mistaking her surroundings for something else, something that’s familiar to her. That escalating humor adds to the tension—OH NO! DOESN’T SHE GET IT YET?!

There’s also a deadline, an end goal that the reader and the main character both know. But can she get there if she’s so confused? You don’t know. More tension.

Bottom line—if you’ve built tension into your story via another means, you don’t need the three attempts. It certainly didn’t make sense for my story. Who tries to get out of a jam they don’t know they’re in?

Let’s look at picture books that build tension in different ways.

[Meta Device]
THE PANDA PROBLEM by Deborah Underwood & Hannah Marks

In this meta tale, the narrator and Panda argue about who’s the main character. The narrator wants Panda to be the protagonist with a problem to solve. But Panda thinks the narrator is the main character because uncooperative Panda is the narrator’s problem. This story mocks our “problematic” picture book rule. It keeps the tension high as both characters wrestle to control the story.

[Versus Device]
FIRE TRUCK VS. DRAGON by Chris Barton & Shanda McCloskey

A follow-up to Barton’s popular SHARK vs. TRAIN of 10 years ago (wow, time flies!), this new “battle” features a stand off between the reader and the characters. The reader understands what the two friends excel at, but the fire-starter and fire-squelcher don’t ever mention THOSE skills. That’s “superiority humor” again, with the reader knowing more than the characters. The tension arises from wondering if fire truck and dragon will ever get to what’s downright obvious to everyone else.

[Chronology Device]
THE END by David LaRochelle & Richard Egielski

This story is a fairytale told backwards. There’s a surprise each page turn as you discover what happened immediately prior to the current sticky situation. Does that create tension? You bet, as each spread also displays a new predicament.

[Parallel Structure]
OPERATION RESCUE DOG by Maria Gianferrari & Luisa Uribe

The parallel picture book tells two tales which eventually converge. The tension is kept high by a back-and-forth narrative between the two main characters. In this book, Alma misses her military mama. She and Abuela decide to adopt a rescue dog as a surprise for mama’s return. The rescue dog, Lulu, is lonely and afraid, without a family. Both characters face delays in their journey to the dog rescue rendezvous. But at the end, Alma and Lulu finally meet and it’s destiny!

Some of these stories also employ the classic “ticking clock” or deadline to achieve tension. THE END ends at the beginning. OPERATION RESCUE DOG has two ticking clocks—Alma wants to adopt a dog in time for her mother’s return…plus, the Dog Rescue Truck is only open for a limited window. Will they make it there on time?

For the “ticking clock” device, think of Cinderella’s carriage turning back into a pumpkin at midnight!

So while you’re reading new picture books, pay attention to the building of tension. Did the author use three attempts to solve the problem, or a different device? Were you still riveted? Compelled to turn the page? Invested in the main character’s plight? Then take note and try to break free in your own writing!


Guess what? I’m giving away an hour-long kidlit career consultation via video chat.

Leave one comment below to enter.

A random winner will be selected next month.

Good luck!

There are many clever picture books being released, but I don’t want you to miss the cleverest:

This non-fiction story looks at a horse who made scientific history. It’s a fun ride for all ages (just look at the cute illustration of Hans by Mike Lowery)! 

Like OLD ROCK a few weeks ago, I learned about CLEVER HANS via SCBWI’s free webinars, and I felt compelled to reach out to author Kerri Kokias about this equine wunderkind.

Kerri, how did you first learn about Clever Hans?

I learned about Clever Hans in an Introduction to Psychology class I took in college.

Oh wow, back in college! So you held onto the idea for a long time before writing it. What was the spark that made you say—hmm, maybe this is a picture book?

When I began writing for children and brainstorming ideas for writing a narrative non-fiction picture book, Hans immediately came to mind. Since Hans had stayed on my mind for the twenty-some years since college, I knew there was a strong hook to his story. And the idea of a horse that could count, tell-time, solve math problems,  read, spell, and more has obvious kid appeal. I also knew how Hans’ story ended and that he had a lasting scientific impact. It felt almost like the story could write itself! Although, of course, it’s never that easy.

It never is!

Did the story go through several rewrites? Did you have to change tack (pun intended) anywhere in the process?

Ha! Good joke, Tara. No, it’s that the research proved to be more involved than I originally anticipated.

Before I spent a lot of time digging up sources, I did a quick survey of what was more widely known about Hans in popular culture. It didn’t take long for me to notice the discrepancies that I’d have to sort out. I ordered a copy of the original research report on Clever Hans, which was written in 1911 and translated from German. I spent a lot of time reading, rereading, and generally slogging through those 275 pages. The language used in that time period (and in research reports in general) can be long-winded and dry, and the fact that the text was translated, so I wasn’t even reading what was originally written, meant I needed to slow down to make sense of everything.

Luckily, my education and professional background in social science research had acclimated me to parsing through research reports, which helped. I also tracked down as many original newspaper reports as I could find, which was super fun—especially when they included old photographs!

Mike Lowery incorporated wonderful details of the time period including the style of dress and architecture.

Mike, can you tell us about your preparation for CLEVER HANS?

I was especially excited about this book because it takes a look at Germany in the early 1900s. My wife is from Germany so for the past decade, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to go and explore the country when we visit our family and friends there. I did a LOT of research into what Berlin looked like around that time and even worked in a few real hotels, cafes, restaurants, and even a newspaper stand. The drawings in the book are simple, but I wanted to also get the clothing just right. Luckily my wife was able to help by finding books about clothing from that period, too.

It looks very authentic, Mike!

Kerri, do you have any funny behind-the-scenes story about “the making of” this book?

It was always a happy surprise to see Mike’s illustrations through his process. When I was writing the book I kept wondering how an illustrator would handle the story since the setting doesn’t change much and the characters are more or less limited to Hans and a variety of old, white men. But oh my gosh, Mike added so much personality and humor in the illustrations!  I’ve laughed out loud at several discoveries and continue to notice new details with each reading.

OK, you have to give me an example of a LOL moment!

Of course! Several examples come to mind…

There’s a scene where Hans is tired of answering questions and he has the best grumpy expression I can possibly imagine on a horse.

There’s a scene where a confused chicken is watching Hans be questioned…

…and another where there is a bird on a scientist’s head and a snake peeking out of his pocket.

At one point scientists wondered if Hans could be psychic and Mike drew a hilarious spread of his interpretation of Hans as a psychic mind reader.

And I think my all-time-favorite is of when a scientist tried to imitate Hans answering a question by getting on his hands and knees and tapping out his answer like Hans did.

Those are all hilarious, especially grumpy Hans. I did feel his frustration with being constantly questioned and trotted out for entertainment. His contribution to science and scientific study proved to be crucial, though, and I’m glad kids today can learn about him through this fascinating and fun book!

Congratulations to you and Mike. I’m giving CLEVER HANS four hoofs up! 

CLEVER HANS is available now from Putnam/PRH!

Kerri is also giving away a copy, so just comment once below to enter.

A random winner will be selected in two weeks.

Good luck!

Author Bridget Heos interviews illustrator Mike Ciccotello…

Here it is! The cover of our upcoming picture book, TREEMENDOUS: DIARY OF A NOT YET MIGHTY OAK. It’s due out March 9, 2021 from Crown.

Mike, I love the image of TREE (as acorn) falling and his hopeful expression! It made me think of a leap of faith that changes everything. How did you think of that cover image?

Thanks so much, Bridget. This idea felt good right from the start. It showed our main character taking that leap of faith you mentioned while the backdrop of her mother is hinting at what the acorn’s future could bring. We knew our acorn was going to be the focus. It was just a question of what point during her journey we were going to show. The combination of the vantage point and her falling made this such an exciting part to showcase.

Were there other covers that the Crown team was considering?

Yes, this was one of three designs. I tried a version with our acorn hanging from a branch, dreaming of all of life’s possibilities. Then I did a much different version that showed our acorn in front of a flat backdrop of her mother’s bark. Both of these options tell a story, just not as exciting as the more dynamic perspective that was selected.

You did such an amazing job bringing warmth and life to TREE. Any sketches that show the evolution of ACORN or TREE?

Of course!

Thank you, Bridget and Mike, for showing us a glimpse of your seedling!

TREEMENDOUS hits bookstore (and virtual) shelves on March 9, 2021!


Shannon Hitchcock has published four middle-grade novels, but today she’s celebrating her picture book debut with a cover reveal of SAVING GRANDDADDY’S STORIES. Actually, it’s a DOUBLE cover reveal because she’s sharing both the jacket cover and the inside cover…

You’re pretty lucky to have TWO covers, Shannon!

That’s my favorite thing about the illustrations! The more kid-friendly image of Ray as a little boy is on the jacket, but when you remove the jacket, there is an image of Ray with his wife, Rosa, on their front porch.

That makes sense since your story features Ray in both stages of life. Can you tell us a little about the book and why the subject is special to you?

SAVING GRANDDADDY’S STORIES is a picture book biography about oral storyteller Ray Hicks. It starts when he’s a little boy listening to his grandfather tell stories and follows his journey to becoming a champion storyteller who was known as the “Voice of Appalachia.”

I grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near where Ray lived, and like Ray’s family, mine loved to tell stories, too.

How did you find your publisher?

I read a Publishers Weekly article about a new publisher called Reycraft, and since one of the editors quoted was from West Virginia, I thought my story set in Appalachia might appeal to him.

I love the 3D quality of the title lettering and the sculpture of young Ray. Who’s the illustrator?

Sophie Page is a mixed-media illustrator originally from Conway, Massachusetts, and a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. She crafts images in two and three dimensions. Her illustrations for SAVING GRANDDADDY’S STORIES are made from clay, paper, fabric, wire…and a handful of Jack’s magic beans.

It looks like your book has a lot of STEM…haha! But seriously, what about this story makes it a good choice for school libraries and classrooms?

Teachers and librarians can use SAVING GRANDDADDY’S STORIES as a tool for teaching figurative language, for analyzing how Jack and the Beanstalk has been retold by different cultures, and for exploring the Appalachian Region and its traditions.

Shannon, congrats on your debut picture book. Do you have any advice for aspiring PB authors?

Write what you’re passionate about and never give up!

Shannon Hitchcock was born in North Carolina and grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She is the author of four middle grade novels, Flying Over Water, One True Way, Ruby Lee & Me, and The Ballad of Jessie Pearl. Her books have been featured on many state award lists and have received acclaimed reviews. Saving Granddaddy’s Stories is Shannon’s debut picture book, releasing October 22, 2020. She recently moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where she can see the mountains every day. For more about Shannon and her books, visit her at

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